Pyongyang: the Perennial Enemy

Recent events on the Korean peninsula have brought this region back into the international spotlight. The current situation seems to be this. The Pyongyang government, somewhat paranoid about military exercises conducted by its two major enemies within easy striking distance of its territory, shelled an island November 23, 2010 and killed civilians living and working there after South Korea fired into disputed waters. The Seoul government, currently dominated by the South Korean right wing and military, responded by stepping up its rhetoric and threatening serious military action. Washington, whose actions over the past sixty years are a primary cause for the on again, off again relations between the two Koreas (and, arguably, the existence of two Koreas in the first place), took advantage of the increased military action by sending an entire carrier group into the region. Today (December 8, 2010) there appears to be a militarized calm. Seoul has promised air raids if its territory is hit by Pyongyang again. Washington has demanded that Beijing rein in Pyongyang. Seoul and Washington have signed a “free trade” agreement.

Why is Pyonyang so concerned? One example can be found in a recent article in the Washington Post. According to the article written by John Pomfret and dated December 6, 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is considering war crime charges against Pyongyang for its attack. Meanwhile, George Bush and his retired administration, who reinvigorated the enmity between Washington and Pyongyang, walks free after clearly admitting in his memoirs (among other things) to a criminal conspiracy to torture prisoners?a war crime.

As for the deadly North Korean shelling, even the New York Times acknowledged that the North Korean shelling may have been provoked by South Korean forces when it wrote : “North Korea blamed the South for provoking the attack by firing at it from the island, Yeonpyeong, which lies in waters disputed by the two sides. The South, which returned fire, insisted it had been firing only test shots and that none were in territory it recognized as the North’s.” In other words, South Korean forces fired into disputed territory and the North fired back. This does not excuse the actions of the North Korean forces, but it does provide a more understandable rationale than that favored by those who dismiss the regime in Pyongyang as suicidal and just plain crazy.

As I write this, there are those in the United States military and political establishment who are urging that the US not attend the six-party talks scheduled for later this month. To do so, they state, would be rewarding Pyongyang’s aggressive behavior. The hypocrisy of this position is all too clear. If one applies this logic to Washington, then it becomes quite clear that in almost all negotiations the US has with any country it is being rewarded for its aggressive behavior. Indeed, there is no negotiation the US enters into that is not underscored by the bloodshed and mayhem Washington’s military has let loose on innumerable nations and peoples. If one keeps this in mind, it becomes clear that the so called irrational behavior of Pyongyang is not irrational according to the rules of international relations. In fact, it is precisely how military power enforces political claims and demands.

The question remains, as it has for sixty years, why is Washington so opposed to signing a peace treaty and/or the reunification of Korea? It seems like the primary opponents to reunification even today are Washington and elements of the South Korean political and military establishment. The latter, keeping the experience of Bonn after the reunification of Germany, might fear the costs involved even though Korea’s northern half is mineral rich. Washington, however, mostly fears that any reunification agreement would require US forces to leave the country, which would meant the loss of a major military outpost flanking China. For those who have not been paying attention, there is a growing sense in the halls of US power that China is Washington’s once and future enemy. In the minds of those espousing this concept, this enmity goes beyond a competition for the world’s markets. Indeed, according to the proponents of this concept, Beijing is quickly becoming Washington’s military enemy as well. Other than the need for the Pentagon and its associated industries needing an enemy whose threat is more convincing than the non-threat presented by the Afghan people, the framing of Beijing as an enemy of the US seems foolish and counterproductive. Then again, the neverending war in Afghanistan is also that, yet it continues in large part because it makes money for the war industry.

Speaking of industry, how does the new “free trade” agreement fit in with the current situation vis-a-vis the Koreas, China and the United States? It would seem not very well. After all, if almost all tariffs are now going to be dropped on US goods going into South Korea, how will a war help? Any real conflict would severely limit the influx of US goods certain to flood South Korean markets once the agreement takes effect. Then again, if the government in Pyongyang can be done away with, a whole other frontier opens up for US and Korean monopoly capitalism. Still, it seems that the preferred method of opening that frontier is to do so over time and without war. This particular moment, then, is a moment where the political desires of the Empire’s militaristic right wing appears to collide with those in the power elites who prefer profit over imperial prowess. A somewhat similar instance of this was the US relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The energy and arms industries had no problem dealing with Hussein’s government despite its cruelty and repression. However, there came a time when those with the political desire to get rid of the Hussein regime positioned themselves so they could act and the 2003 invasion was unleashed. When it comes to Korea, the question is not whether Washington wants the regime in Pyongyang to collapse, but how that collapse will occur: through continued isolation and sanctions or a war?

RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook.  He can be reached at:





Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: