Who’s the Real Aggressor in Korea?
As the demonization of North Korea gains a wider hearing, it’s all the more important to remember the biggest source of violence around the world.
The mainstream media portrayal of the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea follows a predictable pattern.
North Korea is the “problem child,” always throwing a “tantrum.” This tactic, according to USA Today columnist Louise Branson, “has always gotten this communist dynasty the same four things it craves: attention, food, money and power.”
Meanwhile, the U.S., like any good parent, shows “restraint,” while still reassuring its ally South Korea that it will be defended from the North’s aggression. Some commentators–like Jeremi Suri in a New York Times op-ed article–may call on Barack Obama to “bomb North Korea before it’s too late.” But even then, U.S. military intervention is described as nothing more than a “limited defensive strike” against “explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon,” in Suri’s words.
The biggest danger, according to Suri, is that if North Korea “is left to continue its threatening behavior, it will jeopardize the fragile economies of the region and…encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit.”
While we don’t know how an attack by North Korea would play out, we don’t need to wonder what a “limited war” on the Korean peninsula would look like. That was how Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia, characterized U.S. strategy during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Democratic President Harry Truman relieved MacArthur of his duties for refusing to relent in his criticisms of the “limited war.”
During the “limited war” in Korea, U.S. warplanes dropped more bombs and napalm than during the entire Pacific campaign of the Second World War. In his book Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, Bruce Cumings cites the observations of Hungarian war correspondent Tibor Meray, who said the “destruction and horrible things committed by the Americans” overshadowed whatever brutality Koreans on both sides may have committed:
Everything which moved in North Korea was a military target, peasants in the fields often were machine-gunned by pilots who I, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot the targets which moved…[I saw] a complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital [Pyongyang]…[E]very city was a collection of chimneys. I don’t know why houses collapsed and chimney did not, but I went through a city of 200,000 inhabitants and I saw thousands of chimneys and that–that was all.
New York Times correspondent George Barrett described “a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war” in a village north of Anyang:
The inhabitants throughout the village and in the fields were caught and killed, and kept the exact postures they held when the napalm struck–a man about to get on his bicycle, 50 boys and girls playing in an orphanage, a housewife strangely unmarked, holding in her hand a page torn from a Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
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TODAY, ACCORDING to the argument from the U.S. political establishment, North Korea represents a special kind of threat.
But does the U.S. motivation for war against North Korea differ markedly from its case for war in Iraq 10 years ago?
The U.S. imposed suffocating sanctions on Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, mobilized after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The sanctions had a devastating impact on Iraq’s civilian infrastructure. Confronted with the fact that these sanctions cost the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children, Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state under Bill Clinton, had no problem saying, “[W]e think the price is worth it.”
Likewise, the U.S. has imposed harsh sanctions against North Korea for decades, leaving it teetering on the brink of starvation. Like in Iraq, the hardship imposed on North Koreans has not convinced the population to herald the U.S. as their saviors.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq to carry out “regime change,” predicting that its troops would be greeted as liberators, even as the violence unleashed by the U.S. in Iraq added to the death toll caused by sanctions–and later created a massive refugee crisis that persists to this day.
Today, the U.S. military has carried out aggressive war maneuvers with the South Korean military–which, incidentally, has the 12th largest military budget in the world, and its forces are backed up 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there–including flying two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea. Given that the U.S. remains the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons, such actions can’t be taken lightly.
The North Korean dictatorship is a repressive dictatorship, and the very opposite of its absurd claims to be “socialist.”
Nevertheless, its leaders are quite capable of figuring out what its enemies in Washington are up to. Confronted with a deliberate policy of provocation in recent months, the posturing of Kim Jong-un seems less like a tantrum, and more like an effort to back the U.S. off with any means available. And it may in fact be working.
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THERE’S A good reason that governments invariably lie about their reasons for going to war: If they were to tell the truth, they would fail miserably at convincing the public to support them.
If George W. Bush had advertised the fact that regime change in Iraq was necessary for the U.S. plan to gain access to Iraq’s massive oil reserves and to dominate the Middle East, it might have made the neoconservatives happy, but it would have created disgust among people in the U.S. and around the world.
So Saddam Hussein was demonized. “He gassed his own people,” we were told–never mind that he was a U.S. ally when he did so, supplied with chemical weaponry by the U.S. government and its allies. The 2003 invasion was celebrated as a liberation of Iraqis living under dictatorship.
This helps to explain why the Obama administration sought to provoke North Korea–in order to generate broader support, both domestically and internationally, for the “pivot to Asia,” through which the U.S. hopes to project its military and political power in this crucial area of the world.
Renovating old military bases throughout the region, shifting naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and constructing secret drone sites in Asia are far easier to justify as a “response to North Korean aggression” than what it really is: namely, the reorientation of the U.S. military toward a strategy of containing China, which U.S. officials see as the main strategic rival to the U.S. in the 21st century.
That doesn’t mean North Korea isn’t a Stalinist dictatorship that rules with ruthless authoritarianism. This fact just makes it easier for the U.S. to demonize the North.
But as that demonization gets a wider hearing, it is all the all the more important to remember Martin Luther King’s condemnation of the U.S. war in Vietnam–a country that was also demonized as a “communist menace” and subjected to the threat of war for generations.
As I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now…They must see Americans as strange liberators.
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