How the US Declared War on North Korea

North Korea proclaims UNSC Resolution 1718 “a declaration of war.”
One could dismiss this description as just another of Pyongyang’s exercises in hyperbolic bluster, but in fact it may be right on target. The resolution prohibits “the provision of large-scale arms, nuclear technology and related training to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as well as luxury goods,” and calls “upon all States to take cooperative action, including through inspection of cargo, in accordance with their respective national laws.”

The “luxury goods” aren’t specified, but surely include such items as French champagne and Hennessy cognac, which the Kim Jong-il is known to consume in quantity and to distribute among his generals. “This will be a little diet for Kim Jong-il,” smirked a visibly pleased U.S. UN ambassador John Bolton in announcing the resolution. That’s sure to get the (rather corpulent) Dear Leader’s dander up.

But any old commercial vessel flying the DPRK flag could be carrying some bottles of French wine or cognac. U.S. naval vessels can now, under a cloak of international legitimacy, and “in accordance with [its] national laws,” stop and board any North Korean merchant ship on the high seas and go snooping around. The resolution specifically bars “automatic military enforcement of its demands under the [UN] Charter’s Article 41,” but according to AP reporter Burt Herman, “This would be the scenario: North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons [or cognac?] would be halted at sea by a U.S.-allied naval force, with commandos swooping in from helicopters to search the vessel from bow to stern.”

Such incidents could produce armed resistance from the crews, humiliations for the DPRK, or both, and these in turn might provoke tit-for-tat actions against U.S. (and/or Japanese) civilian ships by the North Korean navy. The issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, which could be resolved through negotiations or handled through the traditional doctrine of deterrence, could mushroom into a very ugly explosive situation. Maybe that’s the intention.

China inspects North Korean cargoes entering the PRC as a matter of routine, and the mainstream press is emphasizing this to show that the whole world, including traditional Korean ally China, is implementing the UNSC resolution. But China has expressed grave reservations about the resolution’s provisions pertaining to cargo inspection, since they could produce a maritime confrontation, and has said it will not be checking any North Korean ships. Beijing’s UN ambassador Wang Guangya has declared, “Inspections yes, but inspections are different from interception and interdiction” on the high seas.

So why didn’t China abstain from or veto Resolution 1718? Obviously Beijing’s concern about nukes on the Korean peninsula, impatience at Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and desire to maintain cordial relations with the U.S. and its imperialist allies outweigh its concern about some incidents on the high seas. If there is war, China probably wants none of it. But China while insisting on the vague “military enforcement” ban hasn’t done all it could to defuse the situation. It could, for example, have made its endorsement of the resolution contingent upon a U.S. pledge to engage in direct talks with North Korea. What we’re left with is the North Koreans backed into a tight corner, perhaps about to explode another nuclear device, thinking (like Americans, Russians, Britons, French, Chinese, Israelis, South African whites, Indians and Pakistanis before them) that this will protect them.

This situation was not inevitable. In October 1994, during the Clinton administration, the U.S. and DPRK signed an “Agreed Framework” in Geneva whereby

(1) Pyongyang would freeze its existing nuclear program and agree to enhanced IAEA inspections and safeguards,

(2) both sides would cooperate to replace the North Koreans’ graphite-moderated reactors for facilities with light-water power plants,

(3) both countries would move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,

(4) both would work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and

(5) both would work to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The DPRK in fact did hold up its end of the bargain. Although it initially balked at accepting South Korean-designed Ulchin 3-4 light-water power plants, it agreed in Kuala Lumpur in June 1995 to negotiate directly with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), whose leading members are South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, which favored the construction of such plants in the North. In December 1995, KEDO and Pyongyang signed an agreement for the provision of the reactors by 2003. Meanwhile North Korea continued to cooperate with the IAEA.

As Bush entered office, physicist Gordon Prather writes, “according to the IAEA, there were no nuclear programs ­ peaceful or otherwise ­ underway in Iraq or North Korea.” But in 2002 the U.S. administration claimed that Pyongyang “had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by obtaining ­ unbeknownst to the IAEA ­ prototypes of high-speed gas centrifuges from Pakistan and that by 2001, DPRK engineers were producing ­ unbeknownst to the IAEA ­ enriched uranium in significant quantities.” As in the case of Iraq, U.S. officials claimed to have “intelligence” at variance with U.N. inspectors’ reports.

In March 2001, just weeks after his inauguration, Bush was asked by reporters why the U.S. wasn’t continuing Clinton’s negotiations with Pyongyang. “We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements,” he replied, in what Time Magazine’s Tony Karon called “a potentially catastrophic gaffe.” According to Karon, “as U.S. officials hurried to emphasize immediately after Bush’s statement, Washington has no evidence that North Korea is not complying with the terms of that agreement. Given the epic paranoia and unpredictability of the regime in Pyongyang, the last thing you want to do is accuse them of cheating – unless you’re consciously setting out to take it to the next level.”

But surely that was the point—to take it to the next level! (Why is the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit”—with its lyrics about dreaming, being shown signs, and burning out—echoing in my head as I write?)

While South Korean President Kim Dae-jung sought to pursue “sunshine diplomacy” with the north, which had resulted in the summit between him and Kim Jung-il in Pyongyang in June 2000, neocon ideologues gathered around Vice President Dick Cheney were actively sabotaging any diplomatic efforts. In 2002 the U.S. ceased the fuel oil shipments specified in the Agreed Framework, thereby unilaterally abrogating the Clinton-era pact (along with so many other international agreements deemed wimpy by these cowboys).

In January 2002, President Bush told an America shell-shocked by 9-11 that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil,” deliberately tarring it with the same brush as al-Qaeda. Pyongyang was obviously in Washington’s crosshairs, much to the dismay of Kim Dae-jung and South Korea’s sunshine diplomacy advocates. As the U.S. attack on Iraq (based on lies about weapons of mass destruction) loomed in January 2003, the DPRK with little to lose announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Agreement.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton pursued the “axis of evil” attack theme, describing life in the DPRK as a “hellish nightmare” and Kim Jong-Il as “tyrannical” in July 2003. Pyongyang responded in kind, calling the present U.S. UN ambassador “human scum” and a “bloodsucker.” Late that year, China proposed a plan for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for security guarantees and economic aid. But Cheney, according to an official quoted by Knight-Ridder newspapers, insisted on impossible revisions in an effort to sabotage that plan. “I have been charged by the President with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with,” Cheney growled. “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

The Chinese and South Koreans have appealed to the U.S. to cool the rhetoric and to engage in the bilateral talks with North Korea that the latter has repeatedly demanded. Mainstream U.S. newspaper editors have urged Washington to formally promise not to attack the DPRK in exchange for the dismantling of its military nuclear program.

But it seems that Washington indeed, as Time Magazine suggested six months before 9-11—before simplistic “evil” had yet entered the American political vocabulary—is “consciously setting out to take it to the next level.” That could be around 45,000 feet, the altitude of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

 

 

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu