Part II of: North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation
The present escalation of the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un commenced after a series of missile tests over the summer of 2017 by North Korea. North Korea’s missile testing program commenced in the late 1970s using a Scud-B from the Soviet Union and remained confined to Scuds until the late 1980s. It is now nearly 20 years since it fired its first ballistic missile, but between 1999 and 2004 North Korea observed a moratorium on testing. In 2005-6, testing was resumed: perhaps not coincidentally, this is the period that followed the decisive defeat (and, eventually, execution on 30 December 2006) of Saddam Hussein, from which the father of Kim Jong-un may have drawn some lessons. Kim Jong-un, at any rate, appears to be banking on his missile and nuclear programs to keep him from having to kowtow to the United States. Since February 12 of this year, until its last test on November 29, North Korea has fired 22 missiles over 15 tests. On May 12, Kim presided over the launch of a Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of 3,000-5,500 kilometres; the same missile was tested again on August 29 and September 5, launched over Japan on both occasions. Kim Jong-un is nothing if not unmindful of the place of July 4th, which marks Independence Day, in the American political imaginary: he chose that day to launch the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile which has a range that exceeds 5,500 kilometres and that Kim boasts could reach anywhere in the world.
Trump took the bait. On September 19th, at his maiden address before the United Nations General Assembly, he issued a warning to a small band of “rogue states” that the US would not stand by idly as they violated the rights of their subjects and the sovereignty of other nations. Had he only condemned “the depraved regime in North Korea” for the “starvation deaths of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more”, Trump would have been following in the footsteps of other American Presidents; but he chose to go beyond, caricaturing Kim thus: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.” The United Nations was set up, in greater part, to enhance the prospects for global peace and cooperation: and it is from this platform that Trump unabashedly declaimed on the possibilities of a legitimate genocide: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Kim took little time in responding in kind. He ridiculed Trump as “a gangster fond of playing with fire”, adverting to the “totally deranged behavior of the U.S. President”. The “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, one of the many epithets by which the country’s despot, the “Dear Respected Comrade” and the “Beloved Father”, is known, has his own way with words: he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” This missive would send Trump, who commands a vocabulary which is as small as his mouth is big, scurrying for the dictionary—only to find that “dotard” is nothing more than an old person, especially one who is weak and senile. And if there is anything that Trump ferociously dislikes, it is the suggestion that he is “weak”. Promptly Trump tweeted back: “Kim Jung Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!” Kim Jung-un fired back—not just with words, but with an ICBM that traveled for 50 minutes and reached a height of 2800 miles: with a potential range of 8000 miles, the Hwasong-15 can reach nearly any target in the continental United States.
The so-called “Forgotten War”
What has made possible an American consensus on North Korea such that its leader is never anything but a madman, a ruthless dictator who cares little for his people and even less for the rest of the world, and who may be “loony” enough to initiate a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or—if the technology facilitates such an outcome—the United States? What is elided in representations of Kim as the very picture of irrationality? The Korean War is commonly described in the United States as “the forgotten war”, though it lasted three years, 1950-53, and led to upwards of 36,000 American casualties; it certainly takes a back seat in public discussions and collective memory to the Vietnam War, which lacerated American society and led to upheavals the reverberations of which are felt to the present day.
It is from Vietnam that one of the many enduring myths which have since informed American military intervention emerged, namely the idea that the war was only lost because the generals were compelled by supine politicians to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs. The Korean War, on the other hand, has always appeared to have something of the insipid and the indecisive about it in American common understanding: three years after fighting broke out, the status quo was affirmed. No Patton-like figure emerged from battles over a land which, if it is known for anything at all in the US, is synonymous with kimchee and barbecued meats; no stories are told in the vein of ‘Custer Died with His Boots On’; and neither is there any iconic photograph, say of soldiers gallantly and adamantly hauling the Star & Stripes to a victorious installation. Three years gone by: the Cold War had gone hot; it would revert to being cold. In these cold-blooded calculations, nothing is made of the immense loss of lives on the Korean side. No American monument to the dead in Vietnam, not even Maya Lin’s celebrated national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, even mentions that some 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, including 2 million civilians on both sides; but much worse is the national apathy about the Korean War, where the civilian count was higher, at around 2.73 million, and that too over a much shorter period of time.
The history of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and likewise the history of the American bombing of North Korea are both germane to the present situation. For well over a thousand years, Korea remained a unified country. Japanese incursions into Korea began around 1870, but Great Power politics enabled the Koreans to stave off colonization for a few more decades before Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910. Resistance to Japanese rule intensified with the advent of communism, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 led to the declaration of Korean independence. The Soviet Union was not a force in the Pacific theatre of war; it had played no direct part in the liberation of Korea. However, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, and a day before a second nuclear weapon incinerated Nagasaki, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The consequence was that the spoils of war were, upon Japan’s surrender on August 15th, now to be divided between the victorious Americans and Russians, who carved out zones of influence.
Korea might well have remained a unified country, had either the United States or the Soviet Union lavished any real attention on it; but Korea was, at that time, not part of the calculus of global domination and neither country paid much attention to Korea [Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, 2001, Paras 237-38, 244-45]. Unlike Germany, Korea did not appear to have any strategic importance for either superpower; as the historian John Gaddis has written, “American and Russian forces remained there more to restrain each other than from any strong conviction, in either Washington or Moscow, that the territory itself was significant.” [We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1998: 70] It was along the 38th parallel that two countries came into existence in 1948: the American zone became South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital in Pyongyang, was formed in North Korea.
(To be continued)