Testing Hegemony

Realpolitik, its claims to the contrary, has usually been a fraud, dealing neither with practical politics, in contradistinction to an ideological posture, worldview, or weltanschauung, nor with a pragmatic grasp of reality, in contradistinction to a theoretical comprehensive conception, here, of political economy, social structure, fundamental values, whether to be or having already been achieved through political power.  Seemingly visionary, its vocubulary is all about the status quo, authored by and at the service of established institutions.  One thinks immediately of Machiavelli, Metternich, and, among lesser lights, Henry Kissinger, generally in praise of conservative policies skillfully packaged to appear reasonable and enlist the support of the masses.  In doing so, we generally fail to connect the dots: a manipulative mode of organizing power-relations through war, plunder, domestic repression, and super patriotism.

As such, even when we penetrate the propagandistic façade, we seldom find it turned, as an analytical tool, to the advantage of radicals.  For radicals, it is unknown or unacceptable territory.  I should like to change this, appropriating realpolitik to the unenviable task of justifying (less as defense than explanation, the reader alone rendering final judgment) the current policies and activities, specifically with respect to nuclear warfare, of North Korea, something no self-respecting radical conceives of doing in the present  political-intellectual climate.  (Not that radicals must support North Korea or minimize its  institutional-cultural mechanisms of conformity and repression, assuming these can be demonstrated, but only that radicals should not fear making a positive assessment if that appears warranted, nor be intimidated by “official” thinking and consequent public ridicule when adopting an unpopular position with respect to  the DPRK.)

Granted, nuclear warfare is per se evil; there are no attenuating circumstances for what North Korea has  proposed over the last several weeks—none whatever, except the moment one realizes the magnitude of the opposition it faces to its survival, one can then begin to explore the wider context for its posture, and, still without granting absolution (as if that were in our power!), recognize the provocation counts both ways, with the US far more violative of international law and common decency of the two.  Short of the nihilistic lesser-of-two-evils argument Democrats foisted on the American people to justify Obama’s reelection and current policies, what can be said about the North Korean position which constitutes an  indictment of America’s present course in world politics?  A vast sea of goose-stepping, automaton-like soldiers pumping clenched fists, as seen on television, is hardly reassuring.  Why then proceed further?

First, radicalism must look in the mirror.  In the last four decades, it has become increasingly fearful its patriotism broadly construed will be questioned, with the result that the political-ideological spectrum has gravitated perhaps farther rightward than in living memory.  It does not require proclamations or deeds affecting the overthrow of capitalism to represent unacceptable radicalism.  A thousand and one sundry charges not sufficiently mainstream will do.  The result, as a gradual process of ideological and structural absorption, is the internalization of boundaries, nowhere more focused than on radicalism.

If the historical burden has been on the labor movement as the catalyst for change during the second-quarter of the 20th century, followed by the antiwar and civil-rights movements in the third, society since then has been cast adrift, left at the mercy of the growing consolidation of wealth, chiefly in finance, and the steady accumulation of power in the military, together synthesized in a mature stage of capitalism which seeks domination of the process of globalization.  When I say, “patriotism broadly construed,” I mean radicalism’s drawing inward, seeking safe havens, a “go-it-along” attitude toward foreign policy, war, intervention, the domestic imbalance of wealth and power, a time for proving itself supplicants at the altar of market fundamentalism, privatization—in a word, radicalism as neutralization of the person.  When this happens, prudishness takes over, here, follow the path of least resistance—or none at all.

This is understandable—up to a point.  Radicals transvalue compromise as principle, a necessary mental gymnastic which enables us to differentiate ourselves from the pack, and without which the pretense to possessing for our ideas and actions an immaculate nature, freed alike from cynicism and expedience, is not possible.  Else, the line is crossed, as it has been for many, and we uncritically reproduce what exists  with Obama, the liberalization of moral turpitude, the smiling face of permanent war, sustained through bipartisan collaboration.  The popular phrase, “thinking outside the box,” which should not be taken too seriously (if it were, we’d see more equality, less inhumaneness), creates anxiety for radicals, still fearful of the political culture of red-baiting and, since the untimely demise of antiwar and civil-rights protests, betrays a submission to authority and false consciousness devoid of social content.  I would like to break the mold in a modest way and reach beyond current radical discourse to contend, free from illusion, that North Korea, rather than we look away as it is relentlessly demonized, deserves serious attention as the wrongfully treated party in international politics, led by the United States in its heavy-handed work of regime change.

Here hats-off to CounterPunch this week for bucking the tide of obligatory patriotism, felt even among radicals, when it published three articles that neither attacked the DPRK nor added to the antiradical, one-sided treatment of its position.  Stansfield Smith’s “What North Koreans Think,” Apr. 8, based on first-hand interviews, captures the distinction between “slave” and “noble” states, the latter poignantly expressed—because largely still denied–as those which “are in control of their own development and have a future.”  One sees from respondents informed criticism of US policies and the double standard applied to North Korea in terms of the sanctions regime, alleged violations of international law, and the provocative activities intended to force it into lose-lose military confrontations.  (One almost imagines  eavesdropping on Obama’s national-security deliberations, so closely have they detected his obsession with destroying North Korea.)

In the second, Gregory Elich’s, “What’s Annoying the North Koreans?” Apr. 9, we find a clear pattern in which America has equipped, trained, and mobilized South Korean troops to vanquish North Korea by whatever means—a strong statement, by my reading, but borne out by the evidence.  Elich’s detailed account only goes back to October 2012, yet in that brief span one sees the cumulative effect of six decades of intervention, direct and by proxy, now accelerated.   No doubt is left about US intentionality, a carefully constructed program, bipartisan, focused on bringing the DPRK to its knees.  Through US pressure, South Korea is granted  exemption from limits placed on the range of its ballistic missiles; US-South Korea military exercises lead to the doctrine and practice of “tailored deterrence,” which called for the use of disproportionate force (and preemptive strikes); satellite launches are viewed instead as ballistic missile tests, thus rationalizing the South’s deployment of cruise missiles aimed at the North; and, to name another grievance, sanctions on trade and banking (aimed at North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank) practically halted international monetary transactions.  And of course there were overlapping joint exercises last month—Key Resolve and Foal Eagle—accompanied by a large anti-missile build-up, displays of stealth bombers, and intimidation on a grand scale.

Stansfield Smith, in “North Korea’s Justifiable Anger” Apr. 10, picks up on the grossness of the US role of intervention (“…these are not ‘deterrent’ war maneuvers, but ‘pre-emptive war’ maneuvers’), and the reminder of air war casualties during the Korean War, implicitly querying: how would we like, given the Stealth bombers flying in the vicinity, putting ourselves in the North Koreans’ shoes?  One quotation from the article says it all:  “An accurate reading of the events leading up to the present situation shows that North Korea is responding to US military escalation, and in particular to US refusal to negotiate.  This includes a peace treaty to end the Korean War, any steps towards reunifying Korea, the end to the occupation of South Korea and ending the annual month-long US-South Korean war maneuvers.  Even today, it includes US refusal to talk in order to lower the tensions.” (Italics, mine)

Context is or should be everything in public—especially foreign—policy, in this case open hostility and the direct threat to the North’s survival via a US-South Korea offensive paradigm of containment, first, then ultimate extinction, as part of a broader geopolitical strategy in the Far East creating open markets consonant with the structure of advanced capitalism.  Neither socialist and/or communist remnants nor national liberation and/or autonomous modernization models is wanted.  South Korea is America writ small, free-market capitalism with, nonetheless, the inevitable consolidation and monopolization which makes a mockery of free markets, except in their common everyday meaning: deregulation carried to the hilt.  Context:  The US has used North Korea as an ideological punching bag since time immemorial, or rather, the last six-plus decades.  The reasons may be numerous, from planting a heavy footprint in the region as part of the political-strategic framework for  keeping the Soviet Union (now Russia), Japan, India, and to the point of deemphasizing the others, China, within an acceptable, stabilized international framework under US leadership, to its fine tuning under Obama of the “pivot” to Asia, specifically, the isolation and containment of China as the key to maintaining singular world-power status by any and all means.  Obama’s mellifluous phrase, “all options on the table,” comes to mind.

In this light, North Korea provides the pretext for keeping alive Cold War tensions (with the switch to a new adversary), thereby enabling America to continue waving the banner of world counterrevolution, whose ripples spread from Asia to Africa, the Middle East, and, perhaps more urgent than ever, Latin America.  This in turn provides a credible basis and rationale for mammoth defense expenditures, with the clear advantage, consistent with militarism and the maldistribution of wealth, of cutting to the bone the domestic social safety net, an ideal way of maintaining class differentials and the disciplining of the labor force.  The interconnectedness between militarism, privatization, capital accumulation, and the social control of the working class (including a surplus labor force, in the form of an underclass), is made patently clear in the past half-century, brought to a flowering in Obama’s revitalization of the Cold War under the auspices of counterterrorism.  Here it is hard to determine whether foreign or domestic policy considerations are paramount, although fortunately for policy makers they go beautifully together.  In either case, North Korea becomes the malign poster-boy of choice (presumably, raw communism as the incitement to comprehensive action at home and abroad), and in its own right is simultaneously viewed as  essential to our aims, cast as the villain, enabling us to implement, in concert with the South, both the market paradigm and the necessary military presence for keeping pressure on China, and yet on the more basic level, regarded as irrelevant, merely the sentry at the gates, standing before China.  In true US fashion, to obtain maximum ideological mileage it is necessary to demonize whomever we designate as the enemy.

Absent US world power ambitions and arrangements (e.g., next door, South Korea, part of the diamond necklace of military bases spanning the globe), would North Korea feel compelled to maintain a military state-of-readiness?  We have no answer, except that the US has never tried to dispel fears of conquest—just the opposite: rearming South Korea and Japan, participating  in joint military exercises, launching  economic boycotts which knowingly target foods and medicine.  This past week we were treated in the media to the flight of nuclear-capable Stealth bombers, as a blatant warning to North Korea to knuckle under or face the prospect of nuclear annihilation if it persists in its weapons’ production.  And then (Apr. 4), we find acceleration of the timetable for installing the missile defense system in Guam.  Each day, there is something else or something new.  The US cares not a farthing for North Korea; it uses it as a surrogate for striking out at China.

My defense of North Korea’s present course—here radicals might want to jump ship, lest their political  legitimation be questioned—turns on invoking Realpolitik as a standard of measure.  Apologetics are not wanted or needed.  Take a worst-case scenario:  North Korea’s threat of nuclear warfare, a point which  must hold for all countries, the US and Israel included, is per se evil.  North Korea is not pure Utopia, pie-in-the-sky soulful bliss (nor, for that matter, blanket dystopian Hades either).  No quarter, then, should be given to the nuclear cloud, which is to be condemned. Nor can one claim that provocation is a two-way street, however heavy the traffic of trucks and artillary on one side, as though therefore excusing human slaughter.  Having known fifty-sixty years ago the equivalent of today’s Neo-Cons, who happily ensconsed in the comfort and safety of their game theories or, now, palatial think tanks, could dispatch one hundred million persons without remorse, Rand Corporation military intellectuals, in tennis whites, I recognize the cynicism that goes with the strategic-studies psychology and want no part of it.  How then defend North Korea on any grounds?

Easy.  On more enlightened patriotic grounds (not my wont, but not altogether superficial), one could say that any factor which halts America’s march to unilateral global dominance does America a favor by saving it from self-destruction or, possibly worse, a barren landscape of alienated, sated lives, in which supremacy earns the hatred of remaining humankind.  The world is not for bullying.  North Korea is an example of the multipolar dispersal of global power (China, of course, a still better one), a decentralized system that leads away from an hubristic outcome guaranteed to ensure ultimate defeat—or the total fascisization via unrestrained warfare of the international system.  This is the direction we are heading.  To the US juggernaut, North Korea is a mere impediment to be crushed in all good time, hence a stand-in for China which, since 1949, has been correctly viewed as the ultimate barrier to world domination.

Realpolitik helps in the weighing of consequences, here, a decision to favor the North Korean military build-up as preferable to the seemingly democratic globalization of American power, essentially a counterrevolutionary imperium perversive of all democratic mass movements.  This is not for the sake of North Korea, which, given the existing alliance systems, could well withstand American pressures for some time, but for the sake of a variegated world order not suffocated by the institutions of mature capitalism, and thus, where people remain free to determine the structure of their political economies and the content of their social values not threatened by internal subversion or external conquest.

I do not come to this position lightly.  For me, the advanced stage of capitalism, in which militarization of its structure, values, and hierarchical social relations is the dynamic element of its mature organization, reveals an inner core of fascism, waiting to be activated through war, depression, or other cataclysmic event.  With complexity comes potential destabilization.  (Max Weber’s insight, as I interpret his Theory of Social and Economic Organization, is that at the heart of the rational-legal order lies the charismatic, testifying to capitalism’s fragility and need for absolute order.)  From a democratic standpoint, stripped of nationalistic fervor, North Korea—returning to our analysis—cannot possibly inflict the global damage of which the United States is capable, not because of size or nuclear arsenal, but because of electing to stand on the wrong side of history.  Counterrevolution in a world bursting with energies can bring down the Temple, but not greet the new dawn.  America has had its chance to work with emerging nations, to welcome social-structural change, to wield its influence for peace rather than war, and in every instance since at least the aftermath of World War II has fallen flat on its face.  It doesn’t take F. Scott Fitzgerald to tell us, there are no second chances.  History does that for us.

I submit, the Korean War, to which present-day developments refer back, was not only about the power struggle on the Peninsula, in effect an ideological microcosm of, and previewing, the Cold War, just as, earlier, the Spanish Civil War previewed World War II, although it certainly was that.  But in addition it was the dress rehearsal,  like Spain, with Syngman Rhee and Francisco Franco having interchangeable roles, for the still grander struggle that even World War II presaged: the survival of capitalism as the predominant, even exclusive, world system, against multiple challenges from the Center and Left having in common anticolonialism and/or different forms and degrees of socialist and mixed economies.  We saw, America chose Rhee as the defender of “freedom,” signaling on all sides, and pointedly, national liberation struggles, its global guardianship of the Right which meshes perfectly with its future right-wing political-ideological course.  The Korean War reveals the fascist potential of mature capitalism.

To evaluate North Korean actions today, one must revisit the historical context of yesterday.  For the US, China loomed large over everything—perceived, mistakenly or not, as a revolutionary force, which had successfully resisted American pressures to keep in power a corrupt dictatorship.  We “lost” China to the Communists, according to the China Lobby, which, by the then politics, represented the Far Right of the Republicans, but actually were kissing cousins of those supporting Obama’s Pacific-first strategy today,  the endless dream of reconquering China for world capitalism in general, and American-defined market ambitions in particular.  Only this time, the world has moved beyond the geopolitical vision of a simpler era, making Far Eastern stabilization, commercial-financial penetration, and military dominance more difficult if not impossible to achieve.  The US, however, still feels up to the task, so that a hard-boiled, ideological stance toward North Korea has become inseparable from the postponed though always to be acted upon confrontation with China.  America’s choice of fighting proxy wars until the field is cleared for decisive ideological resolution (an apt characterization of the Korean War) is no longer historically realizable, now, because North Korea is unwilling to play by the old ground rules (although not apparent, it, like North Vietnam, has cast its response to America in national-liberation terms), and because China itself has become immeasurably stronger in the intervening decades.  Not, as we presently see, does this necessarily mean that China has North Korea’s back.  (Apr. 7,  China’s new president, Xi Jinping, referring to the rising tensions on the Peninsula, said that no Asian country “should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.”)  Neither China nor Russia has exemplified the revolutionary fervor of international communism when self-interest intrudes, a fervor more in the telling than in the doing.

Thus it appears that North Korea has been hung out to dry, a condition which may account for its note of stridency.  My support does not rest on sympathy, although one person’s ideological constancy is another’s rigidness, and in a period when socialism is under attack, even from within, courage not to capitulate (as in the case of North Korea) has to count for something.  In fact, capitalism—hegemony looking down from the heights—has invariably been guided by the falling-domino theory, the question “What if?” prompting extremes of punitive response, as in:  what if Cuba, Chile, Venezuela, succeed, or here, North Korea, will that accelerate the revolutionary process, or contrariwise, halt or slow down the reconquest of indigenous peoples, countries in early stages of socialist industrial experimentation, and lands rich in natural resources?  The US has a lot riding on the determination of that question, its stake in the world system, including its ability to exploit, siphon off, extract, take by force for its own welfare the vast sources of global wealth, leaving others in a weakened state of dependence showing gratitude for the right to exist.

North Korea, if still remaining a surrogate for China, also, by US standards, is worth destroying in its own right.  Kim Jung Un is playing into our hands.  While it is forever the custom to portray the victim as the aggressor, the current example of demonization—“the untested young leader,” repeated ad nauseum—has White House management written all over itself.  Curiously, no-one has noted similarities between North Korea and Israel, or rather, what the former is accused of (reckless nuclear diplomacy), which for the latter, is deemed praiseworthy.  Militarism for one, is peaceful defense of the homeland for the other.  That the double standard is so easy to detect, suggests the opportunism of the Obama course, the hoped-for “miscalculation” on North Korea’s part providing pretext for demonstrating to the world American military glory and might.

It is not necessary here to return to the causative factors involved in the Korean War itself, although, to appreciate the continuities in the United States position, 1950 to the present, several points should be made.  In the aftermath of World War II, the thrust of American policy was Europe-centered, to provide a military-political bulwark against Soviet expansion and/or ideological influence westward, contention focused on Germany, Eastern Europe, and via the reparations question (Germany) the rebuilding of war-devastated Russia.  Complementing the emphasis on anticommunism was the American planning, from at least 1943, of market penetration into Europe, including the trade restrictions posed by the British and French imperial systems.  The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and  justly famous paper, NSC-68, the National Security Council blueprint for increased military spending and sharply clarified geopolitical aims, all together constitute a far-reaching global posture the US would take in response to communism, Third World emerging industrial economies, and the structuring of the global economy, its stabilization to ensure American access to essential raw materials as well as the wider imperatives of enlarging trade (an outgrowth, in part, of fears of the onset of another Great Depression).

The US is poised even before 1950 to embark on a unilateral course, with the assistance of international organizations it was instrumental in creating (notably the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), to construct a global framework maximizing the advantages of American capitalism in an environment which would preserve world capitalism itself.  1949, reasonably confident about events in Europe, the US suddenly faces epochal changes: the fall of China, the Soviet success in testing an atomic bomb, and a growing recognition of decolonialism, national liberation struggles, and in Vietnam the French, despite American assistance, about to be thrown out—a collapsing world in all respects, particularly in light of postwar expectations of American power.

Precisely then, the Korean War breaks out, June, 1950, which occurs within a policy-context bewildering, in the sense of raising multipronged issues and requiring a balancing act to stretch resources in the face of a seemingly universal communist threat.  Truman (Acheson in the shadows) immediately responds to what appears the North Korean invasion of the South.  I’m not clear about who started the conflict, nor, in hindsight, is that as important as the fact that both sides were engaged in war preparations and were destined to be pawns in a Great Powers’ struggle.  The Korean War, as I’ve maintained, was fought over geopolitical considerations far greater than concerned the immediate parties.  Russia, like the US, feared the consequences of national liberation currents, as a threat to its bloc, but it also strongly believed that an American-sponsored South, in conjunction with the rearming of Japan, would pose a security threat leaving it vulnerable.  America saw danger everywhere, especially given its strong assistance to the South, which, if defeated, would possibly hearten the forces of social revolution throughout the Third World.  And naturally, there was China right around the corner.  Intervention became axiomatic among the key Truman advisers.

In addition to this formative context for US-North Korean relations, it may be helpful to review the areas of friction between the two nations during the Obama administration, when I first became aware of cumulative tensions themselves the product of Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific and intended isolation and containment of China.  North Korea draws America’s attention to the Pacific, affording the path for making incremental advances, and the positioning of forces (especially naval power, such as the role assigned supercarriers), in the ultimate—and to policy makers, inevitable—showdown with China.  Dramatizing, i.e., exposing, the US counterrevolutionary posture, with the Pacific the designated region of choice (for obvious reasons going back to America’s reliance on and fascination with the Open Door), North Korea is like the canary in the mine, an early warning system of potential world conflagration.  In 1950 it may have been America’s doormat on which we wiped our feet in responding to the siren song of vast markets and equally vast populations, the symbolic import, beyond the crassness of commercial penetration, of the Far East, as we then proceeded forward in grounding down popular resistance to our selfsame grubby purposes.

Now, is different.  No longer do the old stereotypes apply.  America has met its match, and for that I am thankful—the highest patriotism, I believe, lies in  the direction of cleansing the detritus of poisonous wastes from the social order.  Racism, militarism, exploitative capitalism, for starters, but it’s America’s choice how the purificatory process is accomplished, whether through self-destructive combativeness or humanitarian release.  In this regard, North Korea becomes a window into the American soul.  Why is the situation different?  Long term political (global stabilization)-economic (markets and materials)-ideological (salvational capitalism) objectives remain the same, but the decentralization of the world power structure, coupled with the fact that America in its continued pursuit and maintenance of these objectives has overextended itself, has led to the proportionate decline in American power.  Hence when I say “I am thankful,” I have little doubt that America would be a better place, more democratic, internally and on the world stage, if it could come to terms with its role of one among many, exchanging humility for hubris, focusing on America’s own problems rather than buttressing its ruling elites through militarism and a bloated defense budget.

Points of friction, precipitated by Obama’s aggressive designs on China and the Far Pacific, following the “normalized” burdens placed on North Korea (e.g., trade embargoes), annual joint military exercises in the region, base concentrations, etc., then continued and perhaps intensified by his administration, can be noted through reading the New York Times, a hardly exhaustive record but convenient to our present purposes.  I present in chronological order my relevant Comments to the paper, unaltered, as an informal running political journal (some of which entries, perhaps too strong for its liberal sensibility, and I use “liberal,” as would any radical, pejoratively, being deemed not publication-worthy):

Starting with Nov. 23, 2010, one sees the report of increasing tensions between the North and the South based on mutual firings (the North’s shelling of Yeonpyeong island receiving the most attention), which had as their context US military activity in the area, joint maneuvers, the visit of a Stanford physicist to the North’s nuclear facility, and the North’s food shortages because of the blockade:

Is it possible to step back and review the events, or must one immediately leap to the conclusion of a North Korean “provocation” against South Korea? Yes, the North is in dire straits–yet, we see the West using the denial of food relief as a political weapon to force submission to Western policies. More directly, recently the US engaged in sea exercises off North Korea with an incredibly major show of force. We also see South Korea testing missiles in disputed waters claimed by the North. And of course, the mobilization of 70,000 South Korean troops in exercises intended to simulate an invasion of the North.

Perhaps North Korea is wrong here, but the term “provocation” can also be labeled against the South.  And Mr. Obama’s recent Asian trip cannot be neglected for its relevancy to North Korean behavior: The ploy about American job-creation as the rationale for the trip smells to the heavens. The purpose of the trip, as one conservative approvingly noted in an op-ed piece for The Times, was to surround China with an American-sponsored alliance system, one that also would promote the further isolation of North Korea. The display to an eminently qualified American nuclear physicist of advances made in North Korea in weapons research and development is not surprising when the fuller geopolitical context is filled in: North Korea wants incorporation into the world community, but on terms which honor its political and economic autonomy.

Nearly two months later, the Times views the cumulating tensions on the Peninsula, typically, through Cold War spectacles, implicitly ratifying Obama’s Pacific strategy while defining political engagement in the same way Israelis do with respect to the Palestinians—show no mercy; the beauties of force:

When the editorial states that “there is also a real danger that the North Korean government will misread any opening as weakness and an invitation to act out even more,” The Times gives voice to the very mental set that has long characterized (sixty years) Cold War assumptions and, not incidentally, legitimizes vast military outlays (more than the rest of the world combined): Openness = weakness; always be tough, lest America become subject to attack; security can best be realized through a state of perpetual war.  In a word, demonize, demonize, demonize.  Indeed, you do not even see the contradiction when you speak of Pres. Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” for in explanation you write: “He promised engagement, tightened sanctions [and] strengthened regional alliances….” In sum, engage by showing toughness. Appropos of that, we find in this very week Sec. Gates negotiating an arms treaty with Japan that is hardly intended to  promote a pacific climate in the region. Nor is the US position on Okinawa encouraging, for even to Japan we tell them what and where our bases will be, like it or not.

Perhaps abandon your belligerence long enough to take a cooler appraisal of the situation, and be more candid about your attitudes toward China, which on numerous occasions is little more than China-bashing.

Toward the close of 2011, with the death of Kim Jong-il, we see the Times in full battle gear describing him, under the heading, “North Korean Dictator,” in demonian terms as one “who realized his family’s dream of turning his starving, isolated country into a nuclear-weapons power even as it sank further into despotism,” an obituary suggesting that with friends like this one surely doesn’t need enemies:

The Obama administration could not ask for a better Christmas gift than the death of Mr. Kim. Everything appears so predictable, right down to the war games provided for such an eventuality. By predictable, I mean: drive home the anxiety and fear; have South Korea maintain a high state of alert; push North Korea into further isolation in the world community by assuming its tendency toward war.  Did it occur to anyone that sympathy might be expressed to the North Korean people at Mr. Kim’s death?

Mr. Obama has won a major public relations victory for his Pacific Rim strategy. North Korea was never the real enemy. It was, and now more clearly than perhaps at any time in the last four decades, remains CHINA. Escalate the tensions, flex Uncle Sam’s muscles, do anything but move in the direction of world peace. Mr. Obama is in a masculinity contest with the Republicans to see who can be the tougher, who can be the more militaristic, who can best achieve economic growth through war and the preparation for war.

On Dec. 22, three days later, Nicholas Kristof wrote that diplomacy should trump belligerence in this case, to which I felt compelled to add: “…a dose of outreach.”

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s good sense, which regrettably is not shared by the administration. For over a half-century a large number of US troops have been stationed in South Korea, as well as vast sums in military aid to that country. This is never mentioned, even though it would be provocation enough facing any country. Now, however, matters are still worse, with Mr. Obama’s Pacific Rim strategy:  Isolation for North Korea is compounded by the explicit desire to encircle China.  Poor Japan, with US pressures on it to maintain a nuclear arsenal.

We are fishing quite literally in troubled waters. Is it too cynical to say that in addition to assisting American business in the Far East (Boeing and General Electric are two of the President’s favorites), Mr. Obama is also using the Pacific Rim strategy to rekindle a Cold-War mentality among the American people in order to divert attention from a less than adequate domestic program? North Korea may have its loudspeakers, but we seem blessed by a sea of rhetoric bearing no relation to actual achievement.

On Dec. 27 the Times published an intriguing and significant article about the invited South Korean delegation, led by Lee Hee-ho (wife of a former president), which visited to express condolences to Kim Jong-un after his father’s death, at which, as the lead states, “North Korea Asks South to Restore Deal to Spur Investment.”  In other words, there were grounds for reconciliation (reinstatement of a trade pact the South scuttled five years before), if it were not for US efforts to stir controversy.  But peace is the furthest thing from  the US’s mind:

Much to the undoubted consternation of the United States, peace may break out on the Korean Peninsula. I am amused at the comments whenever North Korea is mentioned in these last few weeks in The Times. When I suggested condolences might be expressed by President Obama, someone replied, as per usual, that we cannot show weakness to the barbarous regime. By implication: let’s keep North Korea isolated and militarily surrounded. Squeeze ’em till it hurts. Meanwhile, this holier-than-thou attitude conveniently hides our own acts of barbarism, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, earlier, throughout Latin America.

Let’s somehow get beyond demonization as national policy. That will be hard, if not impossible. The Obama administration is particularly belligerent, with its announcement of the Pacific Rim strategy and the avowed intent to encircle China. Knee-jerk hostility serves a failed presidency well; for it permits the maintenance of an all-time high defense budget, the continued stationing of huge numbers of troops in South Korea, and the equally continuous build-up of military bases worldwide.

Oh yes, people are in dire straits at home, with pawn shops–replete with Santa Clauses–the preferred sites for Christmas shopping.  Mortgage foreclosures continue apace, while the president luxuriates in Hawaii.  But don’t criticize!  Only communists, fellow travelers, and now, Pakastanis (smarting under the use of drones from their soil), are un-American.

Two days later the Times reported on the installation of the new leader, “At Huge Rally, North Koreans Declare Kim Their Leader,” the article sprinkled with the usual stereotypes, “hermetic country,” Kim as young, untested, etc., but more interesting, the absence of informed criticism, the venomous replies of readers, which drew my reaction thusly:

… another occasion for venting spleen toward North Korea by your posters, many of whom, to be sure, are 120% Americans introjecting our military prowess and demonstrating to the world America’s conviction of nonpareil status and power. Frankly, I would be prepared to hear informed criticism of North Korea PROVIDED we simultaneously were candid about our own faults, particularly our geopolitical role in the world and the implicit militarism which unifies the American people in support of it.

 As a child I learned, Don’t throw stones at glass houses. Consider our large military presence in South Korea for more than a half-century. Consider our war in Vietnam, which to this day has not drawn the outrage commensurate with the unwarranted and brutal intervention. Consider our training of death squads for Latin America at Fort Benning.  Consider our wholly unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former based on official lies, the latter, as part of a global strategy of trade penetration and influence, NOW carried to a new dimension by President Obama with his Pacific Rim strategy, intended for the encirclement of China. (Indeed, our demonizing of North Korea is inseparable from our attempt to contain China, the new whipping boy to supplant Russia in our carefully orchestrated effort to popularize a Cold War mentality.)

When critics of North Korea, each outdoing the other in vituperation, are also willing to look inward, then I will listen.

Apr. 12, 2012 North Korea suffered humiliation when its rocket launching of a satellite was a disaster, a “humiliation” no doubt felt domestically, yet magnified by the Times, as the Obama administration, not hiding its delight, began to explore options (after halting food relief):

If the satellite is merely “a dishwasher wrapped in tinfoil,” then why all the fuss? The answer is obvious: Historically the US placed its credibility foremost, not simply as an abstraction, but as signifying its claim to exclusive superpower status. With that claim in doubt (indeed, clearly no longer even tenable), combined with Mr. Obama’s assertion of the US as a Pacific power, the satellite launching hits us in the psychological belly.

The response is pitiful. For sixty years, and not only with respect to North Korea, the US has treated the internal affairs of other countries–usually smaller, weaker–with contempt. Even China, which Republicans screamed in the early ’50s, was “lost” (presumably by Adlai Stevenson), as though she was ours to lose. What monstrous geopolitical ego, as though America, by natural right, can determine other nations’ conduct and destiny.

So here again, the use of “options”–why not just nuke ’em! is probably a refrain running through the American psyche. We isolate North Korea internationally for six decades because they do not exemplify Friedmanite free-market economics, and after we isolate them–a squeeze bringing the population close to starvation–we then proceed to blame them for their isolation and point to their impoverished condition as confirmation of their presumed inferior ways. A win-win for American foreign policy, except that the world is changing and the victims want to be heard. The launching is not our business.

The following day, Apr. 13, the Times, under “North Korean Launch Failure,” delineated more clearly how that nation had been conceived in administration circles as part of a unified containment strategy directed at China:

Gloating over the launch failure reveals the infantile thinking and behavior which characterize American foreign policy. Why, given the US hostility to North Korea for six decades, should not its government be concerned about creating a nuclear deterrent? We seem ready to demonize whomever resists the blandishments of market fundamentalism. Obviously the poverty we ridicule the regime for is a consequence of our own effort at embargo, encirclement, and international ostracism.

I feel sorry for the North Koreans because they have from the start been a pawn in great-power politics. What we can’t do, by way of internal intervention via economic pressures, against China, we take out on them.  Now Pres. Obama goes a significant step beyond Bush Two, with his Pacific-first strategy making the United States, by design, the exclusive superpower in the region. China replaces Russia as the Cold War enemy.

We had a glimpse of that this week with the report on Littoral Combat Ships, a huge waste of money–far more than is alleged about the launch failure–in its own right, and particularly vexatious when Americans at home remain unemployed, foreclosed, and threatened with the destruction of the social safety net. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; there may come a time when it is the North Koreans’ turn to look down on the US, suffocating in military waste and, out of greed, nipping at each other’s heels. We are hardly shining examples of moral behavior.

That same day, in response to Times posters’ driving home the point that North Korea should be subject to short shrift, I replied (with the foregoing in hand):

Hi Jack and publius, Thanks for your replies. Jack, if relying on military spending to produce weaponry is a means of solving the unemployment problem, I’d rather see the US go down the tubes; rather, why not public works, which really brings large numbers into the workforce, instills pride and respect (read about the achievements of CCC, WPA, and PWA in the New Deal), and addresses shocking deficiencies of infrastructure. Your vaunted military-industrial complex has left a lot of children in America malnourished. My concern goes deeper: by winning labor over to large defense expenditures, the result is to make labor a cheering section for militarism. This, regrettably, has been the history of labor since the 1950s (and of the way the Democratic party has fully subscribed to the Cold War mental set still with us.)  I happen to believe that militarism–now, Obama’s China policy and huge defense budgets, as well as his cosiness with the military and intelligence communities–is destructive of democracy.

Publius, on North Korea, I suggest you go back to 1950 and the Korean War, and whether or not the South was ready–with US support and blessings–to attack first.  South Korea under Rhee was every bit a dictatorship as the North.  More basic, our concern then, and now, was/is China. We  isolated the North as a warning to China and to justify huge troop numbers and bases in the South.  We strangled the North and then blame them for their forced austerity.

And now we come to the very recent past; thus far, it can be seen that North Korea, although not receiving the national attention reserved for Iran, is integral to the global geopolitical strategy of the United States, registering boldly on the radar screen because of its development of nuclear weapons and, with the missile launches, their delivery systems.  Here the Times’ Mark Landler, reporting  on the administration’s China policy, “A Measure of Change:  Obama’s Journey to Tougher Tack on a Rising China,” (Sept. 21, 2012), while not recognizing the president’s initial posture of hostility toward China, reveals the dimensions of the Pacific Rim strategy.  North Korea is not mentioned in the article, but its place as a stepping stone to major confrontation with China follows from America’s regional ambitions.  This is all about playing hard-ball, from lecturing Hu Jintao to filing cases before the WTO alleging trade discrimination to shoring up alliance systems, even to stationing marines in Australia.  This belligerence, intentionally antagonizing China, was not lost on the North Koreans as well:

Landler presents important information, but I believe he misses the larger picture. Obama’s Pacific-first strategy goes to the heart of America’s present geopolitical vision. This is not about tiny islands or Obama’s affinity for Asian culture and landscape. It is no coincidence that Rhodes, who wrote the Cairo speech, is an architect of the policy.  As many observers have come to realize, Obama the candidate and in his first months in office is very different from his subsequent presidency, a difference like night and day, or peace and war.

Obama is realpolitick par excellence. He is also the global salesman for American business and guardian of the hierarchical shape of the US economy, including–following Bill Clinton and his team of deregulators–the trend toward financialization.  In these respects, China is the supreme challenge to Americal global military, political, and economic dominance–as in its African and Latin American investments.

Most important, Obama has in fact geared the US’s military buildup with China specifically in mind. He has invested billions in a new generation of nuclear weapons and the vehicles for their deliverance. This still is largely unreported, although The Times did have an article on the littoral craft suited to the mission. Contrary to Washington denials, this is a policy of encirclement. The Chinese are not stupid. They recognize, from naval power to influence in South Asia, US fears of decline–to be prevented at all costs.

Moving ahead to Feb. 12, 2013, Times reporters Neil MacFarquhar and Jane Perlez, under the heading, “China Looms Over Response to Nuclear Test by North Korea,” we see that the North’s planned third test, on the eve of Obama’s State of the Union address, makes clear that China, though not accused directly, is viewed as controlling the North, and hence bears responsibility (and presumably faces retribution) if the North continues its testing program.  China, despite its present criticism of the North, does not intend a fundamental break, its reasoning—according to the reporters—being quite revealing.  Hu Jintao will not “move quickly to change the nation’s long-held policy of propping-up the walled-off government that has long served  as a buffer against closer intrusion by the United States on the Korean Peninsula.” (Italics, mine)  China recognizes the high stakes involved in US intervention, especially in the context of Obama’s Pacific-first strategy:

“Blowback” slides easily off the tongue, but it is true.  As a young man in the 1950s I demonstrated for nuclear disarmament and, esp., the end of testing. I earned my stripes. Thus I can now say, misanthropic and contradictory as it sounds, GREAT, let North Korea go on. I’m sure I’m the only voice in America saying this.

The value of North Korea’s activity lies in that it further contributes to a multipolar world, rather than allow the US to seek and partly achieve unilateral global military, political, and financial dominance. We have had it our way too long–since 1945, serving as a global counterrevolutionary force, with interventions, forcible market domination, etc.

Still today, with Obama’s State of the Union coming up, we are mired in deception. E.g., New Start provided for the “modernization” of nuclear weaponry, i.e., reduce the stock, increase the LETHALITY of what remains.  Plus, no doubt, a new generation of nuclear weapons is in the pipeline. Perhaps it takes a North Korean nuclear program to bring the US to its senses–and, for a change, a modicum of honesty. To wit, we are presently egging Japan on to become nuclear, in violation of Art. 9 of its Constitution, all for the purpose of confronting China.

The US will have to learn to live with China, along with Brazil and other economic powerhouses, and not use its arsenal as an intimidatory force. The timing is excellent, to highlight Obama’s hypocrisy in tonight’s speech.

March 16, Chuck Hagel, as the new Secretary of Defense, signaled  that nothing had changed, only, rather, intensified,  in announcing, as reported by Thom Shanker, et. al, “U.S. Is Bolstering Missile Defense to Deter North Korea,” that the US would “ deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons….”  The cost, $1B.  The locations: California, Alaska.  The purpose: given the limited range of their missiles, war hysteria, preparedness, an escalation of home defense.  The head of the US Strategic Command said in Senate Armed Services testimony that an additional site on the East Coast may be needed to deter Iran.  In effect, the clock is ticking:

There we go again. North Korea is a blessing; its “caustic” talk gives the US a shot in the arm for further military spending, for stirring up our people as a way of gaining consent for more weaponry, more interventions, more effort to retain a #1 global military-economic posture as in fact America is in decline. There is no mention of how North Korea’s actions relate to Obama’s Pacific-first strategy, the notorious “pivot” in which military forces and diplomatic efforts are being focused on the containment of China–from supercarriers, littoral craft, long-range bombers to joint maneuvers, shored-up alliances, and the encouragement of Japan to go nuclear, it is the US, not North Korea, which represents a MENACE to world peace in the region.

Disguise it as one will, the US is delighted with, and has deliberately egged on, North Korean belligerence. The actual Obama-Brennan doctrine, vivified in the program of armed drones for targeted assassination, is PERMANENT  WAR. Obama represents the restoration of the 1950s Cold War climate–perhaps Bradley Manning can be “our” Rosenbergs. Secrecy, intolerance of dissent, phobic reaction to revealing war crimes–we see a self-inflicted National Security State of drones at home soon in place to intensify surveillance, self-inflicted because leading further into the muck of authoritarianism.  Here Democrats are indivisibly linked to Republicans; the political order is a sham.

Finally, the Times editorial on Secretary Kerry’s visit to South Korea, praise for his sensible toughness—cool words, yet total confrontation should US demands on denuclearization not be met (Apr. 13, 2013).  Next stop, China, a no doubt polite lecture on its fault for not reigning in the North, Kerry, much to the dismay of many who earlier supported him, not skipping a beat from his predecessor:

Despite the diplomatic language, Sec. Kerry resumes the saber-rattling which has characterized US policy toward North Korea from the start. Frankness is in order. The US cares little about North Korea, which has always in policymakers’ eyes been a surrogate for China. The Korean War began the year after the fall of China (which also saw the first Soviet test of an atomic bomb). In sum the present conflict is in straightline continuity with 1950: a Cold War framework, with China rather than Russia the adversary.

Still determinative is the US resistance to national liberation struggles, Third World progress toward industrialization, and autonomous modernization–all of which, after decades is still part of the historical process, and all inimical to US interests. China, not North Korea, poses the challenge of global trade-and-investment penetration–obviously, but North Korea takes on importance because its very existence and recent activity is a reminder that the world power structure is becoming decentralized: a multipolar world, in which the US can no longer assert unilateral efforts of American-defined stabilization.

Following Obama’s reelection the Times had an editorial, “The Foreign Policy Agenda,” (Nov. 11, 2012), which said in part: “Mr. Obama is expected to use his second term to deepen engagement with Asia to protect American military interests and ensure American access to economic opportunities in that region.”  Military interests plus access to economic opportunites = precisely the militarization of US capitalism we have come to recognize, not only in the Pacific-first strategy but also the ruling principle for American policy in general—counterrevolution with no shame, only gladness.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.


Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.