Media depictions of official enemies are expected to be fabricated, exaggerated and, often, blatantly false. This is standard. Yet sometimes this norm develops into something more insidious and threatening, an atmosphere that can only be called hysterical. Such is the case in US coverage of the current events in North Korea. North Korean president Kim Jong-un has issued threats to carry out nuclear strikes against the US and its military bases in Guam and Japan. The US responded to these threats by flying nuclear-capable B52 stealth bombers in South Korean airspace. The press described these flyovers as a response to North Korean “provocations” (as distinct from the non-”provocative” actions of the US). Another reporter described this latest iteration of North Korean power as a sign of Jong-un’s “measured madness” while the White House attributed the statements to his “youth and inexperience”. Conspicuously absent from these reports are explanations of the historical backdrop of the US-DPRK relationship and what it tells us about how North Korea got to the place it is today. The details are instructive. Take for example the verifiable fact that North Korea’s nuclear program would not exist without US complicity in Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation network which provided vital support to the country’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, the US provided indirect support for North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in 2002. In this year intelligence reports appeared detailing North Korean enrichment of uranium to build nuclear weapons. The Bush administration not only ignored these reports but shielded it from the Arms Control Disarmament Agency, the chief government organ of non-proliferation. The rationale for this was that this intelligence would derail the administration in their pursuit of a higher objective, namely waging an aggressive war against Iraq.
In addition to these indirect forms of support for North Korean nuclear weapons, there was also direct support. In the same year that the Bush administration received this intelligence report on North Korea’s enrichment program, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “advised that the [Bush] administration would continue to provide North Korea with shipments of heavy fuel oil and nuclear technology, even though Pyongyang had, by starting uranium enrichment, broken the terms of the Agreed Framework and hence forfeited its right to any US assistance.” This is but one of the innumerable insights featured in Adrien Levy and Katherine-Scott Clark’s authoritative study on nuclear proliferation in the Asia-Pacific Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. Interestingly, this stunning episode of organized irresponsibility does not enter into circles of “serious” commentary about “unscrupuous”and “militant” regimes that threaten world order in sporadic fits of “measured madness”.
The Bush administration’s responsibility in the growth of North Korea’s nuclear program is also conceded by the California-based Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. In an article titled Tactically Smart, Strategically Stupid: Simulated B52 Nuclear Bombings in Korea Peter Haye’s remarks that the Bush administration’s demand that the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization “suspend heavy fuel oil shipments to North Korea until it took ‘concrete and credible actions to dismantle completely its highly enriched uranium program ‘. . . put pressure on North Korea to fast track its nuclear weapons program rather than to bring it in compliance with its NPT and IAEA safeguards obligations.” He went on to note that this decision “accelerated North Korean proliferation propensity and activity.” As with Rice, Bush’s behavior evades the category of “measured madness” as well. This is to say nothing of the uncontroversial reality that the India-Pakistan conflict is just as, if not more dire, than the North Korea-South Korea conflict due to the fact that in addition to both countries being non-signatories of the NPT, both India and Pakistan have considerably larger nuclear stockpiles. India and Pakistan are also US allies, another fact it “wouldn’t do to say,” to borrow Orwell’s phrase.
In lockstep with these largely ignored misdeeds of the Bush government, the Obama administration has continued down this path of infinite madness. Obama administration National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon recently gave a talk at the New York based Asia Society on the topic of the US “rebalancing” of military, economic, and political forces in the Asia-Pacific, benignly termed the US “pivot” in similar circles. In this speech Donilon adds some substance to why North Korea has chosen to engage in the “provocations” we are now witnessing. Speaking on “What Rebalancing Is, and What It Isn’t” he stated the following:
“… A higher proportion of our military assets will be in the Pacific. Sixty percent of our naval fleet will be based in the Pacific by 2020. Our Air Force is also shifting its weight to the Pacific over the next five years. We are aiding capacity from both the Army and the Marines. The Pentagon is working to prioritize the Pacific Command for our most modern capabilities – including submarines, Fifth-Generation Fighters such as F-22s and F-35s, and reconnaissance platforms. And we are working with our allies to make rapid progress in expanding radar and missile defense systems to protect against the most immediate threat facing our allies and the entire region: the dangerous, destabilizing behavior of North Korea.”
Here we have the world’s largest and most violent military superpower “rebalancing” its military so that 60% of its naval fleet is stationed in the Asia-Pacific along with next generation bomber planes and reconnaissance technology and its called a “pivot”. Meanwhile, North Korea issues verbal threats to bomb the United States and its called a “provocation”. The level of discipline required on the part of the western intellectual classes not to see these North Korean “provocations” as rational responses to much graver provocations by the US and its allies tests the boundaries of anything deserving to be called a “free press”, at least if that “freedom” is supposed to apply to the thoughts of journalists as much as it applies to the organizations they inhabit.
It’s worth noting that this acknowledgement of North Korean threats as a rational response to US provocation is not an excuse for the threats themselves. Doubtless, they are criminal and violate the UN Charter. We should know this more than anyone else as we have become experts in this practice in our regular dealings with Iran. This is perhaps the supreme irony of the US reaction to North Korean threats, namely they are, in essence, milder versions of what we routinely do to Iran with total impunity. Imagine if, in addition to the current threats, Kim Jong-un informed the US that “all options were on the table,” if President Obama continued to approach his “red line” and complimented these threats with surveillance flights over Texas, car bomb assassinations of nuclear scientists working at Sandia Labs, military training facilities for anti-American terrorists in Pyongyang (call them the Anti-American Mujahideen-e-Khalq), and unleashed an arsenal of sophisticated cyberweapons to destroy US nuclear infrastructure. North Korea, as a geographic entity, would be lucky to make it to 2014. Instead of committing themselves to this morally honest task, the US press would much rather publish headlines like Why North Korea Gets Away With It. In the words of the standard paternalistic phrase: North Korea must not “do as we do,” but “do as we say”.
This North Korean obligation to “do as we say,” is not only reflected in the media silence about this recent history but also about the more distant history. Though it may be hard for imperial countries to understand, the Korean Peninsula was the victim of heinous war crimes during Korean War, the large share of which killed civilians. Pulitzer Prize-winning Asia specialist John Dower writes in his lengthy study on US atrocities in the Asia-Pacific Cultures of War “the Korean War probably saw the deaths of more than a million South Koreans, some 85 percent of them civilians, and a like number of North Koreans (over 10 percent of the population of the north) ” (my emphasis ). These atrocities are given a certain degree of clarity in Gabriel Kolko’s Century of War. Kolko recounts the observations of US General William Dean upon witnessing the destruction of the North Korean city of Huichon: “I think no important bridge between Pyongyang and Kanggye had been missed and most of the towns were just rubble or snowy open spaces where buildings had been . . . The little towns, once full of people, were unoccupied shells. The villagers lived in entirely new temporary villages hidden in canyons . .” This included the destruction of “over 90% of North Korea’s power capacity at a time when the war’s ravages had already ruined its social and health infrastructure and both typhus and smallpox were epidemic.” US forces also destroyed the Toksan irrigation dams, a blatant war crime (crimes for which Nazis were hanged). Altogether, these crimes forced Kolko to conclude that the US crimes in the Korean War represented “a fundamental dilemma in military technology that has inexorably moved it increasingly to make war against civilians and suck them into the vortex of destruction.”
This “vortex of destruction” is at risk of being regenerated if the Obama administration continues to escalate the threat of war through massive military drills with South Korea, drills that compelled the American Friends Service Committee to call for “the suspension of war games and military exercises on all sides,” and an end to the Obama administration’s “provocative simulated nuclear attacks which are more likely to reinforce the DPRK’s commitment to its incipient nuclear arsenal, rather than to open a constructive dialogue.” The likelihood that this reasonable request will influence policy is doubtful if the prevailing mindset in Congress is of any importance. Speaking on the difference between bombing Iran and North Korea Democratic Senator Carl Levin remarked “Iran has this patina, at least, of this super-religious extreme folks that might actually not care if they were wiped out in response to one of their attacks. There are some folks in Iran who … might actually care less … than the North Koreans do, because the North Koreans care only about regime-serving.” We might ask what our reaction would be if Kim Jong-un predicted that a “patina” of “super-religious extreme folks,” in America’s Bible Belt would “care less” if they were “wiped out” in a nuclear holocaust. Surely we’d call him mad, but not in the infinite sense. Leave this distinction to the “regime-serving” citizens in Washington who aren’t afraid to remind the world that they dominate in this psychological domain.Sources: http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/north-korea/nuclear/ http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/india/nuclear/ http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/nautilus-institute-policy-forum-online-tactically-smart-strategically-stupid-the-kedo-decision-to-suspend-heavy-fuel-oil-shipments-to-the-dprk/#sect1 http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/why-do-we-laugh-at-north-korea-but-fear-iran/274680/ http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html http://afsc.org/story/statement-response-us-simulated-nuclear-attacks-north-korea-and-cyber-attacks-north-and-south- http://bigstory.ap.org/article/nkorea-refuses-let-skoreans-enter-joint-factory Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914 by Gabriel Kolko Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John Dower Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons by Adrien Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark http://www.fair.org/blog/2013/04/03/north-korea-rattles-sabres-meanwhile-u-s-pretends-to-drop-nuclear-bombs-on-them/ http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-us-korea-tension-20130330,0,1370627.story http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/21/gerard-butler-olympus-has-fallen-makes-north-korea/ http://thinkprogress.org/security/2013/03/29/1794031/why-you-should-be-more-concerned-about-war-with-north-korea-this-time/?mobile=nc http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137399/jennifer-lind/why-north-korea-gets-away-with-it