The following article by Jude Woodward, about the crisis the US has whipped up about North Korea, was originally published by New Cold War.org.
Trump’s dramatic escalation of sabre-rattling over North Korea from mid-April was not triggered by any new provocative action by North Korea nor any notable advance in its nuclear or missile programme, although in the din of overwrought rhetoric emanating from Mar-a-lago it appeared that the US and North Korea’s neighbours faced an imminent threat. But this crisis was conveniently timed to influence the outcome of the South Korean presidential elections due on 9th May.
The sudden heightening of US rhetoric on North Korea, with unnerving suggestions that the US might imminently launch a pre-emptive strike, did not relate to any specific actions by the North. The DPRK had indeed run several missile tests on 6th March, which led to protests, especially by Japan, but there were no threats of imminent action by the US. It was not until five weeks later, on 12th April – shortly after Xi’s visit to the US – that the crisis was kicked off by Trump’s boastful claim that he had despatched a US ‘armada’ to the peninsula. The following day the tensions escalated when a White House representative was quoted as saying the US was considering retaliatory action against the North, which was given additional weight when set against the dropping of the so-called ‘Mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan on the same day. It is true that two days after this, on 16th April, the North did make a further missile test – which ignominiously failed. But this was after the crisis had broken out and anyway showed the opposite to the White House contention that the North Korean programme was now dangerously advanced.
However, what this furore did create were great fears in the region that war might be on the horizon, pushing national security issues right up the agenda in South Korea. Until this crisis began to unfold, the clear front-runner in the presidential race, was Moon Jai-in, the left-leaning Democratic Party candidate. Moon was opposed to the US stationing of the THAAD missile defence system, and is strongly oriented to China and seen as more distant from the US.[i] The sudden increase in tension with the North allowed the US to insist upon the speeding up the deployment of THAAD, so that it will be sufficiently advanced by the elections that it is hard to roll it back. Moon himself also backed off from outright opposition to THAAD as the sabre-rattling and fears of war boosted the poll ratings of the more centrist and pro-American candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, who is now running neck-and-neck with Moon. Both of these outcomes clearly suit the US.
Not only this crisis, but the whole ongoing crisis in relations with North Korea and the very existence of its nuclear weapons programme, are problems entirely of the US’s own making. For 67 years, since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the US has refused to enter into diplomatic relations with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), while maintaining a continuous sanctions regime against it – the longest by any state against another. It has repeatedly sabotaged attempts by China and South Korea to facilitate international talks that could bring the North in from the cold and persuade it to close down its nuclear weapons programme in return for security guarantees, trade and normalisation of relations. Instead the US has demonised the North as an irrational rogue state, which it refuses to deal with, accompanied by frequent direct threats of military action.
This US inflexibility on the DPRK and its constant sabotage of talks for nearly 70 years have not been driven by the actions of Pyongyang, but by US concerns to maintain local support for it military presence in South Korea – which has never been universally popular – and latterly to provide an internationally acceptable cover for the extensive and growing US military deployments in North-east Asia. The original Cold War case for its huge presence in the region had ceased looking so reasonable after the fall of the USSR, especially with China increasingly on very good terms with its neighbours and beyond. Thus caricaturing North Korea as a dangerous, unpredictable, failed state, and exaggerating the threat from its still rather primitive nuclear arms programme have served to justify an on-going US presence in South Korea and Japan, the real target of which is to ensure ongoing US military dominance in the region, particularly in the context of the rise of China.
It is true that some of the actions of Kim Jong-un, who came to power in North Korea in 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, have indeed played into this US agenda, such as the provocative timing of missile launches, the use of belligerent and threatening language and overblown claims for its nuclear weapons capacity.
But this is a recent development. Although North Korea has always had a bad press in the West, in reality under its two previous leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, its actions could be well understood by anyone who bothered to give it sufficient attention to get beyond the media caricatures. But this requires understanding Korea’s unresolved post-1945 history.
In 1945, with Germany defeated in the west, the USSR joined the Allied effort against the Japanese. To the enthusiastic welcome of the local population, it subsequently swept through the Korean peninsula liberating it from Japanese colonial occupation. However the USSR halted its advance at the 38th parallel, as it had previously agreed with the Allies, and allowed the US time to move its own army into the remainder of the country. This temporarily divided Korea between the areas under USSR and US administration, north and south of the 38th parallel.
In the northern part of partitioned Korea the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) then led a thoroughgoing revolution to overturn the old elites. With backing from the USSR, first the lands of Japanese collaborators were seized, then of all large landlords; their lands were redistributed to the peasants. This was immensely popular and made Kim Il-sung, already well known for his role in the resistance to Japan, into a national hero. The land reform was followed by nationalisations, the introduction of extensive social, welfare and workers’ rights and, on the model of the USSR, the attempt to embark upon building ‘socialism in one country’.
In the South, by contrast, the US occupying force was forced to rely on the landlords and ruling elites – many of whom were hated collaborators with the Japanese – in order to prevent the widespread mobilisation of the southern population linking up with developments in the North and extending the revolution to the whole peninsula. Amid riots and rising popular opposition to the US occupation force, which was widely viewed as just another colonial army replacing the Japanese, the US staged rigged elections which installed pro-US strongman Syngman Rhee at the head of a de facto military government of the ‘Republic of Korea’ (ROK) in the South. The US then withdrew from Korea (as did the USSR), having ensured it had left a puppet government in the South that would resist the extension of the revolution in the North to the rest of the country.
The North’s 1950 attempt to overcome the division of the peninsula arose directly from these developments in the South. Repression of popular movements, failure to address the post-war devastation of the economy, and the continuing role of known collaborators in his government soon made Syngman Rhee even more unpopular in the South than he had been to start with. With Rhee’s regime looking extremely shaky Kim Il-sung, almost certainly with the backing of the USSR, invaded the South, meeting little resistance and much support from the local population. But as Rhee’s army disintegrated the US gained approval from the newly established UN for an intervention (the USSR was boycotting the Security Council at the time) and soon drove Kim’s army back. Only China’s intervention in support of the North prevented the ‘reunification’ of the peninsula by the US army. Instead the status quo ante was re-established when war ended in 1953, with a demilitarised border between pro-communist North and effectively US-occupied South along the 38th parallel.
For the next three decades the DPRK openly nursed the aim of at some point driving into the South, to reunify the country and expel the US from the peninsula. But it never again had Soviet (or Chinese) backing for such an attempt, and at the same time the relationship of forces with the South progressively deteriorated. First, the US army established permanent bases in the ROK, backed by the US Navy Seventh Fleet. Second, the North progressively fell behind South Korea economically, as the South became the premier post-colonial economic success story.
However, the South’s economic success took time to appear, and initially it was not at all clear that it wasn’t the North that would be the economic success story. When Korea was partitioned, the North was home to most of Korea’s pre-war heavy industry and mineral resources, and had been spared the Japanese sabotage that had reduced 1948 production in the South to 20% of 1940 levels. Using centralised control and Soviet aid to get the economy going again, for the two decades after the war it grew somewhat faster than the South overall. From 1950-70 the DPRK’s economy grew from $7bn to $27bn, while with slightly more than double the population South Korea grew from $16bn to $63bn.[ii] GDP per head was roughly similar, but social provision and workers’ conditions in the North were generally much better.
However from the mid-1970s the DPRK’s growth rate slowed sharply, reflecting underlying problems in its ultra-centralised, self-enclosed economic model. This coincided with South Korea’s take-off, with its high investment and export led growth making it the quintessential Asian ‘tiger’. By 1990 the DPRK’s GDP was only $57bn compared to the ROK’s stunning $373bn.
Thus from the mid-1970s the North understood was neither militarily nor economically in a position to lead a reunification of the peninsula and its attempts to recruit China or the Soviet Union to that cause also ended. But Kim Il-sung did not abandon the hope of turning this relationship of forces around again. However with few resources to achieve this, the DPRK began to sponsor sabotage aimed at undermining stability in the South. This DPRK ‘terrorism’ of the 1980s included hijackings of civilian aircraft, the attempted assassination of ROK president Chun Doo-hwan in 1983 and the downing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. This strategy did not work, made relations with the South exceedingly tense and handed the US a perfect excuse for its continuing campaign of isolation.
Additionally, as the North fell behind economically, becoming more internationally isolated and with Soviet support declining as a result of its own 1980s reforms, an increasingly vulnerable DPRK decided to shore up its position by speeding up its nuclear programme through investing in uranium enrichment technologies.
After 1989-91 with the end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR, the US turned its attention to the surviving ‘communist’ countries, applying carrot and stick pressure to ‘aid’ their progress towards ‘reform’. But North Korea was only offered the stick. The US stepped up the campaign against its nuclear programme, particularly through deeper sanctions, and jacked up the direct military threat to the North, increasing the US forces stationed in the South and holding more aggressively framed joint military exercises on land and sea.
The impact of this international pressure combined with the end of economic support from the USSR and a series of natural disasters resulted in a devastating economic crash in the DPRK. Annual GDP growth between 1990-97 averaged -4.6%, and GDP fell by more than half to $25bn leading to widespread famine.
The US believed that North Korea was on the point of collapse and only needed a final push. In June 1994, Clinton despatched former president Carter on a ‘private’ visit to the North to try to negotiate a face-saving climb down for the DPRK. However the agreement Carter negotiated with the aging Kim Il-sung, although perfectly reasonable, was not the complete capitulation that Clinton had been looking for; in return for the DPRK’s nuclear disarmament the US would lift some sanctions, help the North build light water reactors and supply it with domestic fuel oil. Clinton’s administration had little choice but to sign up to this ‘Agreed Framework’ in December of that year. But it was never implemented: Congress openly opposed it; and the Clinton administration did not take it seriously still believing the famine-struck state would collapse before the US had to implement it. The North however did suspend its nuclear weapons programme and sign up to the NPT.
The DPRK only returned to developing a nuclear weapons programme in 2003. This was provoked first by Bush’s post 9/11 State of the Union address, which labelled the DPRK part of an ‘axis of evil’ and a legitimate target of his war on terror; and secondly by the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom which overthrew Saddam Hussein in a display of military and technological might. The next targets of the US war machine appeared to be Iran and the DPRK.
Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT and relaunched its nuclear weapons programme. Which, of course, in turn became the basis on which the US launched a new round of threats against the DPRK and persuaded South Korea to agree to an expanded US presence on the peninsula.
However, while relations between the US and the North deteriorated, the end of the Cold War had had the opposite impact on South Korea itself, which, following the end of military rule in 1988, adopted a new spirit of engagement with the DPRK. This trend dominated the politics of South Korea’s first democratically elected governments from the elections in 1988 right through until 2008, during which period – despite the DPRK’s resumption of its nuclear programme in 2003 and first nuclear test in 2006 – relations on the peninsula remained calm and the US found little leverage to whip up an international campaign against the North. In 2003 South Korea and China worked together to launch the Six-Party talks, which forced the US to grudgingly come to a multilateral table with the DPRK.[iii]
This policy changed with the election of the right-wing Grand National Party’s presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak in 2008 on a pledge to take a hard line on the North against its nuclear programme and reprioritise relations with the US. The Six Party talks were de facto suspended. As relations deteriorated under Lee the North began to more seriously step up its nuclear arms programme with missile and nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013. Other signs of rising tension included the 2010 incident when the DPRK shelled a South Korean held island during US-South Korea naval exercises in disputed waters. Also in 2010 the South Korean ship Cheonan sank during exercises, allegedly due to a North Korean torpedo – a story that is strongly disputed.[iv]
Lee’s successor in 2012, Park Geun-hye, came from the same right wing political tradition and quickly pledged to pursue reunification of the peninsula on a ‘democratic’ i.e. capitalist, basis, but her actual course was more conciliatory than Lee as she particularly sought good relations with China, which demanded stability with the North. However, Park’s generally weak presidency achieved little; she took no substantive initiatives to alleviate international pressure on the North. The Six Party talks were flagged to restart in 2012 and in 2014 but did not actually happen.
Park’s election had also coincided with a change of leadership in the North. Since Kim Jong-un’s accession to the leadership of the DPRK above all its rhetoric, but also its tactics, have become less reasonable – although still far from providing justification for the US campaign of threats and intimidation.
Despite being highly dependent upon China economically – 76% of all North Korea’s trade is with China – which has also extended substantial direct aid and investment and has defended it internationally, Kim Jong-un has tested relations with his country’s only real international friend to breaking point. The arrest and execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek in 2013 may have been triggered by more personal power struggles, but Jang was also particularly well connected in Beijing. He was a key advocate of the line that the DPRK should prioritise economic development, using China’s support to pursue a Chinese style development model, while playing down its ambitions in missile and nuclear weapons technology. Instead a hardline political faction that is anti-reform, pro-nuclear and somewhat antagonistic to China seems to have taken control.
Many of the actions Kim Jong-un has pursued, particularly regarding nuclear and missile tests, have been directly in the face of counter-advice from China. Kim has clearly bargained on the fact that China has little choice but to defend North Korea, whatever his provocative actions, as it is only the DPRK that stands between China and the US bases in South Korea, which could be moved to the border of China if the DPRK fell.
Kim is also directly calling the US’s bluff – a particularly dangerous course when facing an unknown quantity like Donald Trump. Kim’s hubris could run into the braggadocio of Trump to unleash a disastrous confrontation. But outside that, Kim is reckoning that the risk of nuclear war with China is enough to mean that threats from the US will remain angry words rather than missile strikes. Moreover he understands that the US’s chief target is not really the DPRK but an excuse to accelerate its regional military build-up for which the real target is China. Some of China’s anger with North Korea is precisely that Kim’s tactics aid this US agenda against China.
Nonetheless, for the moment, however ill advised, Kim’s wager appears to be correct, particularly as it has emerged that the ‘armada’ that Trump claimed was on its way to Korea was in fact heading in the opposite direction to exercises in the Indian Ocean!
But what Kim’s brinkmanship has actually achieved is to aid the US in gaining the agreement of South Korea to speed up the stationing of the THAAD missile defence system. The Pentagon has been warning for nearly a decade that China’s land to sea missile systems are now sufficiently comprehensive that China is close to being capable of repelling a putative US invasion force. Although the US claims that the THAAD system is necessary to repel the threat from the North, it is widely acknowledged that it is in fact primarily aimed at restoring the US capacity to knock out China defences. Hence why China’s objections to the stationing of THAAD are so strong, and why it is particularly furious with North Korea for having de facto facilitated the US in winning agreement to this in South Korea.
The US’s key lever in seeing off opposition within South Korea to the US’s extensive military presence has always been to play up the alleged threat emanating from the DPRK. The old film is just being rerun by Trump, this time de facto aided by belligerent language from North Korea.
Despite Kim Jong-un’s confrontational tactics, the situation could still be settled if it was clear that the US was willing to offer a reasonable peace deal with security guarantees, underwritten by China and South Korea, in return for Pyongyang ending its nuclear weapons programme. This is exactly what North Korea agreed to in 1994 when former US president Carter negotiated precisely such a deal, and which foundered on US bad faith not the DPRK’s. As Carter himself has continued to argue, an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme ‘could be worked out… in half a day’, if the US was prepared to lift its state of siege on this small and relatively weak country.[v]
Originally published on Jude Woodward’s blog New Cold War here.
[ii] A. Maddison, The world economy: a millennial perspective, Vol. 2: Historical statistics, OECD, Paris, 2006. Figures expressed in 1990 Geary-Khamis dollars.
[iii] The six parties are US, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia
[iv] See Beal, T. 2014, Crisis in Korea: America, China and the risk of war, Pluto Press, London
[v] Beal, T. 2014, Crisis in Korea. p.71