Who is begging for war? We have such a poor understanding of the conflict with North Korea

Unless the United States downgrades threats against North Korea, there will be no possibility of peace

Published September 16, 2017 11:59AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that North Korea was ‘begging for war.’ She said this in reference to the test of a thermonuclear — hydrogen — bomb by the North Korean military. ‘Enough is enough,’ said Ambassador Haley. ‘We have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked.’

Ambassador Haley made these comments at the UN Security Council, where there are five permanent members and ten rotating members. These five permanents members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) are all nuclear weapon powers. They are not on the Council permanently (with veto power) because they have nuclear weapons. There are declared nuclear weapon states (India, Israel and Pakistan) that do not have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is an accident of history that gives these five countries the right to be the judges of the planet.

Each of these five permanent members of the UN Security Council is already in possession of a thermonuclear bomb. The United States tested its hydrogen bomb in 1952; the Soviets followed the next year. The British tested their bomb in 1958, with the Chinese following in 1967 and the French in 1968. That means that almost fifty years ago, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council already had a thermonuclear — namely hydrogen — bomb.

The US bomb tested in the Bikini Atoll in 1954 was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima. The North Korean bomb is similar to the hydrogen bombs that are held by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is a bomb that could destroy New York City, Seoul or even Pyongyang.

There is something unseemly about the fact that we — humans — have accepted the presence of thermonuclear bombs in the arsenals of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The hyperventilation of these five hydrogen bomb powers to the North Korean test would bewilder a normal person, a person who sees world affairs with an element of rationality. What makes it morally impossible for North Korea to have a dangerous weapon of this magnitude, while it is seen as perfectly acceptable for the quivering finger of Donald Trump to rest on the button of a US inter-continental ballistic missile that carries a hydrogen bomb?

The View from Pyongyang

Why is North Korea, this country with great economic uncertainty, making such a great effort to build a nuclear arsenal? Why not use its scarce resources to tend to its own people?

There are at least four important points to consider when studying why the North Koreans continue to build a nuclear arsenal. If these four points are seriously understood, then their actions appear less irrational than otherwise assumed.

  1. The war has not ended: US Ambassador Nikki Haley says that the North Koreans are ‘begging for war.’ But North Korea has been in a permanent state of war against South Korea and its allies since June 1950. When the guns stopped firing in July 1953, the war did not end. There has been an armistice since 1953, but no peace treaty. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is not a border between North and South Korea, but a tense border for hostilities that remain vital.’’

  1. The US conduct in the war is a sign of its belligerence: Most US high school students study the history of World War II and the US war in Vietnam, but do not get taught the Korean war. They learn little of the great barbarity of the US bombing of that country, not only of the bridges on the Yalu River but of dams and schools, hospitals and factories, government offices and residential homes. During the active phase of the war, the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs (including 32,557 tons of napalm – a chemical weapon) on Korea – more than the US tonnage dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of World War II. On November 5, 1950, Far East Air Forces General George E. Stratemeyer wrote that the instructions he got from General Douglas MacArthur was that ‘every installation, every facility, and village in North Korea now becomes a military and tactical target.’ Three days later, the US bombers dropped 500 tons of incendiary bombs on Sinuiju, destroying 60% of the city. Almost all of the cities of Chosan, Hoeryong, Huichon, Koindong, Manpojin, Namsi, and Sakchu were destroyed. On December 30, Stratemeyer told his officers that they would now destroy North Korea’s four largest cities – Pyongyang, Hamhung, Hungnam and Wonsan. At the close of the bombing, eighteen of twenty-two major North Korean cities were levelled. This is data from the United States Air Force, not from North Korean textbooks. Every American should digest this history.

  1. George W. Bush raises the belligerence: In 1994, North Korea and the United States signed the ‘Agreed Framework’ for negotiations. This was a real breakthrough. In exchange for material demonstration that it would not increase its weapons programs, the North Koreans would be able to replace their aging Yongbyon nuclear reactor by two light water reactors. North Korea had — in 1985 — joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This was a major confidence builder for any negotiations. What the North Koreans wanted more than anything was for the US to draw down its troop levels in South Korea and to cease its provocative war games near the North Korean frontier. There are about 30,000 US troops in South Korea and 50,000 US troops in Japan — two detachments that threaten North Korea. The Clinton administration agreed to postpone the Team Spirit war games with South Korea. This was seen by the North as a major concession. Construction on the light water reactors began in August 2002. But this was already too late. In January of 2002, US President George W. Bush added North Korea into his ‘axis of evil.’ The three countries in that axis were Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In 2003, the US conducted a ‘regime change’ war against Iraq. The following year — in 2004 — the US pushed an isolation policy against Iran through the ‘nuclear threat’ agenda. The Europeans, driven to the wall by the war on terror, backed the US even though many European diplomats knew that there was no fire behind the smoke that the Americans claimed to see. North Korea, watching Baghdad being destroyed and Iran being threatened, walked away from the talks. Construction on the light-water reactor ended in 2006 and in 2009 the Six Party talks over peace with the North collapsed. George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech pushed the North towards a reopened nuclear weapons agenda.

  1. Libya gives up its nukes and finds regime change is the answer: In 2003, Libya’s government led by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi decided to end its clandestine nuclear weapons program. At that time, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency – Mohamed ElBaradei said that he had a ‘gut feeling’ that Libya was about three to seven years away from building a nuclear weapon. But Libya decided to end that program, and the following year to end its chemical weapons program. By the end of 2004, then, Libya was largely without weapons of mass destruction — all removed voluntarily. The US promised the Libyans security guarantees for their removal of these weapons. But then, in 2011, the United States and NATO – under a UN mandate – conducted a ‘regime change’ operation against Libya. The country is now in great pain, destroyed by this regime change operation of 2011. The message to North Korea is clear — if you give up your nuclear weapons, you will be a victim of regime change.

You don’t need to understand Korean culture to see why the North Korean regime is obstinate to build up its nuclear shield. Unless the United States and its allies downgrade their threats against North Korea, there will be no possibility of peace in northwest Asia. Indeed, this no longer a regional struggle. The hydrogen bomb changes everything. This is a global catastrophe. It is necessary to demand the creation of a real process for peace, not belligerent talk from the UN chamber.

On these days, with nuclear war at the edge of our consciousness, it is worthwhile to read the diary of a Japanese doctor – Michihiko Hachiya — kept during and after the bombing of Hiroshima and published in 1955. Here, as war sits near us, is Dr. Hachiya on what he saw in the dim light after the bomb fell on his city,

‘There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw — complete silence.’

By Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

MORE FROM Vijay Prashad

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Donald Trump North Korea Nuclear Powers Politics United Nations War