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The Consequences of Gun-at-the-Head Diplomacy


“The US kill rate in the 1950-53 Korean War equaled more than one 9-11 every day… for the whole 1,100 day war…The US may have killed 20% of the population of Korea, said General Curtis Lemay, who was involved in the US air war on Korea. If so, that is a higher rate of genocidal slaughter than what the Nazis inflicted on Poland or the Soviet Union.”

— Stansfield Smith, “North Korea’s Justifiable Anger“,  CounterPunch

North Korea’s military remains on hair-trigger alert following joint-military exercises that were conducted by the United States and South Korea in April. Barack Obama, who promised to negotiate directly with the DPRK during his 2008 presidential campaign, has reneged on his promise and taken a  more belligerent approach to the crisis than his predecessor, George W Bush.  Obama’s war games, which were the largest of their kind, were deliberately provocative and designed to test the North’s new leader Kim Jong Un.  Pyongyang responded to Obama’s incitement by cutting off all ties with the South, closing Kaesong Industrial Complex, and by launching six missiles into the sea off it’s East coast. The North Korean Committee for Peaceful Reunification also released this statement:

“The joint naval drill involving the latest weaponry including the nuclear aircraft carrier is a wanton blackmail against us and demonstrates that the (US and South Korea) attempt to invade us has reached an extremely reckless level.  The risk of a nuclear war in the peninsula has risen further due to the madcap nuclear war practice by the US and the South’s enemy forces.”

It’s clear that Obama’s “rollback strategy” has merely escalated tensions and increased the likelihood of a conflagration. It has also given Pyongyang the excuse it needs to divert more of its dwindling resources into nuclear weapons. How does this advance US geopolitical interests or improve  regional security? It doesn’t. The policy is a complete disaster. By antagonizing the North with these pointless military maneuvers, Obama is forcing them to build nukes. Why is that so hard to grasp?

The Korean people know their history even if their counterparts in the United States of Amnesia do not. More than 2 million people were killed in the Korean War,  the vast majority of them Chinese and North Koreans. In contrast, the number of US combat troops that were killed is quite small, just 36,000.  While every death is deeply felt by friends and family, it’s hard to imagine the impact of seeing 20 percent of your countrymen wiped out by a foreign army.  Pyongyang understands the costs of war  which is why their why official communiques are always so blustery and hyperbolic. It’s because they don’t want to look weak,  because weakness encourages adventurism.  The DPRK’s incendiary rhetoric is a contrivance that’s crafted with one purpose in mind, to avoid another war with the United States.

Here’s a short blurb from an article at Global Research that provides a glimpse of the how the war was prosecuted by the US military:

 “US General MacArthur instructed his bombers “to destroy every means of communication and every installation, factory, city and village” in North Korea except for hydroelectric plants and the city of Rashin, which bordered China and the Soviet Union, respectively….

“The blanket fire bombing of North Korean cities, the destruction of dams and the resulting devastation of the food supply and an unremitting aerial bombardment were more intensive than anything experienced during the Second World War.

At one point the Americans gave up bombing targets in the North when their intelligence reported that there were no more buildings over one story high left standing in the entire country … the overall death toll was staggering: possibly as many as four million people. About three million were civilians… Even to a world that had just begun to recover from the vast devastation of the Second World War, Korea was a man-made hell with a place among the most violent excesses of the 20th century.”

US forces killed millions, leveled the North, and left the country in ruins. Why? Because policymakers in Washington decided that US interests were at stake.

In a recent article at Consortium News, UC Santa Cruz professor Christine Hong explained the whimsical way that Korea was divided by US post WW2. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“If you go back to 1945, you see that scarcely three days after the bombing of Nagasaki, two junior U.S. army officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel retired to a small room armed with nothing more than a National Geographic map of the Korean peninsula, through which, in a 30-minute session, with absolutely no consultation of any Korean, divided the Korean peninsula. This division of the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel into north and south, and the creation of a southern government, had no popular legitimacy.”

How do you like that; 30 minutes with felt-tip pen, and Pentagon warplanners created the rationale for killing over two million people and laying the peninsula to waste.  It’s astonishing. And what’s more astonishing is the fact that our Nobel Peace prize-winning president, Barack Obama, has been ratcheting up the pressure on the North by leading the charge for tighter sanctions (on banking and trade),  increasing the range of missiles in the South (to hit targets in the North), and staging massive war-games  aimed at further isolating the North and exacerbating regional tensions. The joint-maneuvers anticipated a scenario in which the present regime in the Pyongyang collapses. Here’s a bit of background from the same article:

 “In a recent Pentagon press conference, [Defense Secretary] Chuck Hagel was asked whether or not the U.S. sending D2 stealth bombers from Missouri to fly and conduct a sortie over South Korea and drop what the DOD calls inert munitions in a simulated run against North Korea could be understood as provocative. He said no, they can’t be understood as provocative.”

So simulated nuclear attacks on a foreign capital are “not provocative”? Obviously, Hagel doesn’t worry too much about his credibility.  Here’s more from the same article:

“It’s almost impossible for us in the United States to imagine Mexico and the historic foe of the U.S., Russia, conducting joint exercises that simulate an invasion of the United States and a foreign occupation of the United States.  That is precisely what North Korea has been enduring for several decades.”

While it is factually true that the DPRK faces incitements that the US would never tolerate on its own borders; it’s also true that the rules do not apply to the United States. Everyone knows this.

According to an op-ed in the Washington Post by ex-president Jimmy Carter, the North seeks a “denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a permanent cease-fire”, but insist that it be “based on the 1994 agreements”. (The US never fulfilled its end of the bargain in the so called 1994 Agreed Framework. Obama refuses to do so today.) The DPRK leaders have promised that their nuclear facilities and their “array of centrifuges would be ‘on the table’ for discussions with the United States.”  In other words, the North is ready for bi-lateral talks with United States provided there are no conditions. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has rejected such talks unless there is concrete evidence of  “denuclearization”. Pyongyang must agree to concessions (tantamount to nuclear disarmament) before the administration will even negotiate.  If the North agreed to Obama’s terms,  then the same incriminating farce that took place in Iraq prior to the war would be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.

It makes no sense for the DPRK to comply with rules which undermine its bargaining position and pose a threat to its national sovereignty. Nor does it make sense for the US to create conditions which lead to nuclear proliferation.  Sanctions, isolation and belligerence have backfired and increased the prospect of a miscalculation that could precipitate a nuclear war.   It’s time for Obama to lower the temperature, tone down the saber rattling, and abandon the failed policy of regime change. As journalist Stansfield Smith said, If we want North Korea to change “then we should stop pointing a gun at their head.”

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Whitney’s story on how the banks targeted blacks for toxic subprime mortgages appears in the May issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at


MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at

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