The election of Donald Trump as US President has seen the ramping up of US rhetoric about North Korea. Trump recently demanded that China should use its influence with the North Koreans and if China did not intervene, then, according to an interview Trump gave to the UK Financial Times, the “US would act alone.”
US Vice President Mike Pence, currently on a visit to Australia where he will undoubtedly seek Australian support for the US position, said that his country’s “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was over.
Trump also claimed to have dispatched “an armada”, by which he was presumably referring to the aircraft carrier the USS Vinson and its support vessels, to Korean waters. Perhaps typical of Trump’s loose association with the truth, the Vinson was at that very time steaming in the opposite direction.
Quite what is to be made of this fresh rhetorical belligerence is not clear. One thing however has been abundantly clear for nearly the whole of North Korea’s short existence and that is US antipathy and refusal to take meaningful steps to resolve what has become a festering problem for East Asia.
Korea was only divided into two parts following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. The dividing line was the 38thparallel of latitude, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern part and the US the southern portion.
Stalin withdrew Soviet troops in 1948 and there was a similar withdrawal of American troops from the south. The big difference is that the Americans returned in force in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War and have never left. Today, there are more than 40,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, with multiple military bases.
South Korea is an important component of the US strategy of “containing China”, i.e. preventing the rise of an alternative element that might threaten the US’s hegemonic unipolar view of the world.
The US felt able to leave South Korea in 1948 because they had installed the US educated Syngman Rhee as dictator. He ruled as dictators do, killing, jailing or driving into exile tens of thousands of his political opponents.
Rhee was finally overthrown in a popular revolution in 1960. In scenes later to be replicated in Saigon in 1975, he was plucked from his palace by a CIA helicopter who ferried him to safety while the crowds converged on the palace.
Rhee also had ambitions to forcefully bring about the reunification of the two parts of Korea. Thanks to the scholarship revealed in Professor Bruce Cumings’ two volume history of the Korean War we now know that the standard western line about the Korean War starting with an invasion of the South by troops from the North is at best an approximation of the true history of the conflict. The truth is considerably more complicated.
For years preceding the Northern troops crossing the border in July 1950, Rhee had been staging incursions into the north, carrying out killings, sabotage and other forms of asymmetrical warfare. On the island of Cheju-do for example, as many as 60,000 people were murdered by Rhee’s military forces.
What is scarcely acknowledged in the west was the devastation the Korean War wrought upon the North. The US led UN Command dropped more bombs on the north than the US had dropped in the whole Pacific theatre in World War 2. This included the dropping of 20,000 tonnes of napalm, a particularly gruesome way of killing people. This method was later used to equally horrific effect in Vietnam.
We now also know that the US waged bacteriological warfare, building upon Japanese expertise garnered in their war on China and further developed by US scientists at Fort Detrick.
An estimated two million people, or 20% of the total population, were killed. The bombing flattened every city in the country. In addition, the bombing targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River. The intention was to destroy the rice crop and thereby starve the population into submission. Only emergency assistance from, among others, the Soviet Union and China prevented widespread famine and death.
The Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The war is still technically not concluded, and it is the failure to address the multiple issues left unresolved by the armistice that are the direct antecedents of the present confrontational style adopted by both sides of the argument.
Although one will struggle to find it in any contemporary western news outlet, the North Korean leadership does have considerable justification for its current stance and policies.
North Korea signed the nuclear treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) in December 1985. A further non-proliferation agreement came into force in May 1992, at which time IAEA inspections of North Korea’s compliance with the NPT began.
There were disputes about North Korea’s actual compliance with the NPT, but the significant point is that the North Koreans agreed to the IAEA’s inspection demands. In exchange, the US suspended its joint military exercises with the South Koreans and agreed to face to face negotiations to resolve outstanding issues.
These talks resulted in a wide-ranging agreement in October 1994, popularly referred to as the “Agreed Framework”. Shortly after the Framework was signed however, the Republican Party took control of Congress. Implementation of the Agreed Framework ceased almost immediately because of US Congressional hostility. The North Koreans repeatedly warned from that point that they would have no option other than to resume their nuclear program.
A further preliminary agreement was reached in September 2005 following the so-called six party talks (South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US). No progress has been made since then, although the North Koreans reiterated as recently as November 2010 that they were willing to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear program, place the program under IAEA inspection, and conclude a permanent treaty to replace the 1953 armistice. In short, to implement what had been agreed (along with a number of other points) in October 1994.
It is the US that has refused to sit down with North Korea and negotiate such a settlement. Instead, the US has installed the THAAD missile system in South Korea, which the Chinese, as well as the North Koreans, correctly claim is a direct threat to their security.
The US continues to conduct joint military exercises off the Korean coast, the maritime boundaries of which are themselves in violation of international maritime law. Further, as noted above, the making of threats of unilateral (and illegal) military action are hardly conducive to the resolution of any dispute. Neither is unhelpfully labeling the other party a member of an “axis of evil” likely to do anything to improve relations.
Latterly, the western media have been full of alarmist threats about North Korea’s alleged capacity to fire a nuclear missile able to reach the west coast of the United States (and Australia). The lack of evidence of any technical ability to actually do so is not welcomed as part of the debate.
More significantly, given that any such attack would lead to an immediate and massive retaliation reducing North Korea to a radioactive wasteland, it is difficult to discern any rational basis for such an alleged threat. Rationality however, is not part of the equation.
It suits US foreign policy very well indeed to be able to paint Kim Jong-Un as a dangerous and unpredictable madman. It helps justify the massive continued US military (and nuclear armed) presence in the region, including in South Korea, and maintaining 400 military bases to “contain China” and any other enemy du jour in the region.
In that sense, Kim is very much Washington’s ‘useful idiot.’ The greater danger to peace and stability in the region comes from an even more dangerous and unpredictable egoist in the White House. That really is a worry.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.