John Buell

Trump, North Korea and Historical Amnesia

How do political leaders so often manage to drag our nation to the brink of, or into, war without so much as a peep from most members of Congress? In matters of national security the rule that politics stops at the water’s edge has become almost sacred even in this era of fierce partisanship. The media also buys into that consensus and has largely done so even under Trump. His greatest approval from the media came when he bombed Syria. The media become almost PR arms of the Pentagon.

The policy toward North Korea reflects long standing desire to maintain US influence “around the clock, around the world n defense of all we hold dear” as the Navy commercial so blatantly asserts. That policy is based on a conviction of our moral superiority as well as the desire to find new markets and maintain access to key raw materials.

North Korea’s real sin is the desire to maintain protection against our nation’s hardly disguised ambition to impose regime change, and it has learned the lesson about what happens to controversial states that fail to maintain their nuclear programs. North Korea’s own history properly makes it suspicious of US intents. Patrick Lacey, writing recently in The Nation, points out the ahistorical nature of so much of the commentary on North Korea: “This is why all we read, hear, and see in the media has this odd, flat surface—two-dimensional accounts, wherein nothing happened before yesterday … The case is not at all hard to grasp. What is so easily cast as totalitarian paranoia is well, well grounded in the Korean experience of America’s merciless brutalities during the Korean War.”

As for the paranoia of North Korean leadership our media might take a closer look at the commentary on the recent missile test. Sensationalist concerns about an imminent threat neglect the technological challenges Korea still faces. In a recent paper published in the journal Korea Observer, weapons experts Markus Schiller and Theodore Postol wrote that the potential for North Korea to repurpose a space rocket to deliver an ICBM “does not mean that North Korea has the ability, or is likely to have the ability, to use this postulated ICBM to materially threaten the United States with a nuclear attack. It is unlikely that North Korea now has a nuclear weapon that weighs as little as 1,000 kg (2,200 pounds). It is also unlikely that such a first-generation nuclear weapon would be capable of surviving the unavoidable 50 G deceleration during warhead reentry from a range of nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles),”

That sense of American exceptionalism makes it hard for us to see our actions and policies through the eyes of the other. President Obama conducted protracted cybernetic war on Korea’s nuclear program. Would we not regard this as an act of war? And how would we feel if North Korea were staging war games in the Gulf of Mexico?

The case for giving diplomacy a chance is far stronger than the arguments on behalf of sanctions and especially any preemptive strike. Bruce Cummings, University of Chicago historian, comments: ”Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium — and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other. The Bush administration promptly ignored both agreements and set out to destroy the 1994 freeze. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is rightly seen as a world-historical catastrophe, but next in line would be placing North Korea in his “axis of evil” and, in September 2002, announcing his “preemptive” doctrine directed at Iraq and North Korea, among others. The simple fact is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton’s agreements had been sustained. “

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation have always been deeply intertwined. Conjuring up a threat even when such threats were implausible helps buttress our sense of moral righteousness. In addition, the Cold War mentality helps shroud the entire US nuclear program in secrecy, thereby denying our own citizens important information about the risks of the production, storage, and transport of nuclear weapons here on our soil.

US policy on Korea’s nukes is just one of many instances of the basic hypocrisy of US nuclear doctrine. The US must have these weapons for deterrence, but others cannot. And talk of deterrence is a historical lie. The US has led every step of the nuclear arms race , is the only nation to have used these in war. Plans to modernize these weapons, as proposed by Obama and Secretary Clinton would represent one more dangerous escalation of the arms race, not to mention squandering resources better committed to our other grave threat, climate change.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2017

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