Semantic Warfare: Words as Guided Missiles

Over half a century ago, the South Korean government banned the word “labor” from the Korean language. The US Military Government in Korea had already banned labor unions, labor strikes, the labor party, all things popular and labor; anything hinting of or leading towards the independent collectivist government that the people desired and wanted. Following the lead of the US Military government in Korea, the newly installed puppet government went even further, excising the word “labor” (“nodong”) from the national lexicon: until recently, in South Korea, it was hard to speak of labor laws, labor safety, labor contracts, labor conditions, or labor in any context. South Koreans, when they have to speak of labor, get by with an unwieldy prescriptive neologism, “diligent work” (“Kunlo”), or other contrived, borrowed words.

Up North, in their newly minted worker’s state, the government laid claim to the other side of the linguistic divide by naming or calling everything they could “labor”. In particular, taking semantic warfare to the level of performance art–as if banished words could become projectiles, and projectiles words– they would name the workhorse of their missile system, “Rodong”[1]: “Labor”.

So when dog-walking-genuinely-approachable-friendly-neighborhood-US-ambassador Mark Lippert was assaulted by a knife-wielding assailant in March, leaving him with a bloody gash that required 80 stitches, one of the responses of the ruling party government was to propose a missile defense system[2], and no one so much as blinked.

In the topsy-turvy paranoid dream logic of Korean politics, this makes sense. Both the radical activist, and the South Korean Ruling party are operating from similar historical assumptions: the reason for aggression lies in historical US actions taken against popular worker’s governance and national determination. Capital was made to trump labor, profits were prioritized over people, re-colonization over independence, Empire over the multitude, and the power of labor, of the people was defeated, disciplined, denied, destroyed, and simply shot down.

In short, the underlying political rebus goes something like this: labor, is a guided missile, and South Korean territory, represented by the sovereign US ambassador’s face—representing the territory where labor cannot enter, must be shot down, intercepted, shielded, protected at all times.

This is the back story.

This Sacred Light

The year is 1945. The month is August.  It is hot, but the heat is nothing compared to the bright, shimmering exultation filling the streets. Korea has just been liberated from the yoke of Japanese rule—35 years of brutal, nightmarish colonization: resource extraction, enforced slave labor, wartime sex slavery, terror, repression, massacres, and cultural genocide. The grass roots resistance—consisting millions of workers and peasants that had fought the Japanese, forms thousands of people’s committees, these in turn redistribute land, reclaim the means of production, socialize ownership of factories, and collectively take over the function of government, and in turn they declare an Independent Korean People’s Republic, headed by a moderate leftist patriot called Yo Un Hyong. This liberation of Korea is called “Kwangbok Jul”—“the day of the restoration of the light”, and the song to commemorate this occasion goes:

Let’s touch the earth again,

The ocean is dancing; my loved ones….

Let’s guard this liberation forever…

Let this sacred light grace the world.

* * *

This light is soon to be extinguished, the bloodtide to flow again.

Enter the US, downstage right. Dim lights, blood red.

General John Reed Hodge, “Patton of the Pacific”, head of the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), has been charged with the administration and occupation of South Korea after the Japanese surrender in 1945. The Soviets, entering from the North, allow the people’s committees relative autonomy. But Hodges notes with extreme disfavor the “communistic activities” of the “liberated oriental people”. Tasked with imposing a capitalist state on people who want neither capitalism nor further colonial expropriation[3], Hodge quickly bans the people’s committees, “declares war” on the Korean People’s Republic (KPR), institutes English as the national language, and prohibits any collective organizing or action. Hodge also decides to put the Japanese administrators and collaborators back into power to force the creation of anti-communist, pro-US capitalist state. He builds a national police force and army from Japanese collaborators and rightwing extremists—all with a reputation for sadism and brutality–and then uses these to attack and suppress labor unions, workers committees and peasant associations, and any remnants of the KPR. “Our mission was to break down this Communist [sic] government”. The national union, Chonpyong (500,000 members) is banned; farmer’s unions (3 million members) are banned. The Labor Party is banned. All opposition is banned.  Everything collective, egalitarian, anti-colonial, justice-seeking, anti-capitalist is banned, attacked, destroyed. The Korean people themselves are declared “official enemies”.

The leaders of the KPR, long-suffering patriots and independence activists, seek dialogue and negotiation, trying to reason with the USAMGIK, but Hodge refuses to meet with them, preferring to respond with the language of intimidation, violence and domination.

The people erupt in protest in the millions: with dignity, ethically, non-violently: the Koreans have been resisting occupation for 35 years with the Japanese. The US and its quisling rightwing extremists put these indigenous rebellions down rapidly: with massive repression and firepower: the US has been crushing indigenous resistance for 350 years. “It was war….that is the way we fought it”[4]. Soon, more people are imprisoned by the US than under Japanese colonial rule, and Americans are more hated than the Japanese. “The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression”, wrote CLR James; the cruelties were ferocious indeed: bayonets, bullets, and tanks are deployed, rightwing death squads unleashed, concentration camps instituted, scorched earth tactics implemented; the casualty numbers soar to staggering proportions: 300 Killed in the October protests, 7000 shot to death in Yeosu and Soonchon, 30,000-80,000 raped, napalmed, massacred on Jeju Island (and the rest herded into concentration camps), 200,000-350,000 shot to death in the Bodo League massacres within weeks, and finally, 4-5 million bombed, napalmed, slaughtered in the holocaust of the Korean conflict.   The country is rendered a charred moonscape, the peninsula slashed into two, one expansive killing field for limitless American firepower. Whole cities are torched to cinders, the peninsula is razed into deserts of rubble, the entire population of the North reduced to hiding and cowering in subterranean caves to survive. No country in the history of the world, up to that point, has ever been on the receiving end of such a devastatingly disproportionate, concentrated and unrestrained military violence: war, the Korean War, is a misnomer.

This is genocide.

The Empire has come of age.

* * *

Tinker, tailor, soldier, genocidaire.   A series of unspeakable despots are recruited to join the bloody carousel of US cold war puppetry to enforce this regime. Syngman Rhee, genocidaire extraordinaire, a tweedy Princeton trained-and-stained puppet despot, becomes South Korea’s first dictator-cum-stooge, first murdering off political adversaries, then conscripting and summarily massacring hundreds of thousands of red-baited innocents in mile after long mile of trenches, before finally instigating full scale war. Taking cynicism to its ultimate degree, some of these massacres are filmed by the US military and then turned into propaganda snuff films about “communist atrocities”[5].

Former artillery officer and counterinsurgency war criminal in the Japanese Kwangtung Army–a rolling atrocity machine unto itself–Takaki Masao, later called Park Chung-Hee, follows soon after, turning the country into a state capitalist developmental state through military prostitution, war-profiteering, sweatshop exploitation, and corporatist nepotism. Caligula in Raybans and a bomber jacket, he runs the country like a private brothel and labor concentration camp, tossing out 5 year plans for development, while lecturing peasants how to plant rice, workers how to grease machinery, and housewives how to pickle Kimchi. He is finally shot to death by his own CIA chief, in the drinking party prelude to an orgy in an ornate KCIA playhouse. “I shot the heart of the Yushin [dictatorship] like a beast” said the assassin, a close retainer and confederate still capable of being appalled by the sheer monstrosity of Park’s vision.

Ruthless and cunning, Chun Doo Hwan, the bald-headed butcher of Kwangju and the “Triple Purification Re-education Camps”, continues Park’s legacy of crimes against humanity with suave Roh Taewoo, both close retainers and disciples of Park in a high powered chaebolocracy (conglomeratocracy) as they begin the process of full neo-liberal integration into the global capitalist economy. Altogether they push, prod, pull, and beat the bruised and bleeding ox of Korean workers through the steaming slaughterhouse of capitalist development, crushing bones, bodies, spirits, extracting the laboring, beating, heart of value, while crossing rivers of sweat and blood, doing in short decades what most other countries took centuries to achieve.

Edit out the cries and whimpers, the beatings, the kidnappings, the gulags and re-education camps, the terror, the torture, the broken bodies, the deaths, the unspeakable, unimaginable suffering. Silence the voices of dissent, shrieking from the graves and torture chambers. Behold now the dazzling capitalist miracle.

Backstage, behind the façade, the human detritus:

Over the Azure Stream: Anguishing the Skies

I am going.

Do not cry;

I am going.

Over these parched hills that anguish even the skies,

Down the long and dusty road to Seoul

I am going to sell my body.

Kim Ji Ha

Over the azure stream, Chonggyechon, the “peace” market in Seoul was, writes Bruce Cummings, a circle of hell, “a vast warren of sweatshops to make Dante or Engels faint”. If exploitation was the motor that developed South Korea, desperation was its flywheel. Twenty thousand children and young women were packed into tiny dark warrens, stacked 4 feet high, where they would kneel at whirring sewing machines for 14, 16, sometimes 24 hrs a day in a mad haze of terror, panic, fatigue, and fabric dust “thick as snow”. “Beatings like animals” were common; rest breaks infrequent, wages a deadly pittance—a few dollars a month. When the beatings failed to keep the “diligent workers” awake to meet deadlines, they would be shot up with hiroppon–methamphetamine—invented by the Japanese to keep soldiers alert and tireless in combat–, and forced back to work. “We came to work to help our impoverished families, but it has been more difficult than we imagined possible”, said a young female worker.

A bright, idealistic, young garment worker, Chon Tae-il, working in the sweatshops, seeks to change things. Picking up a worn copy of a book of labor laws, he teaches himself the law, and attempts to hold the government to its own standards, drafted on paper to look comparable with the labor standards up North. He petitions, writes, documents, publicizes, organizes every way possible:

“Dear Mr. President. We do not benefit from the law. More than 90 percent of the company where over 20,000 are employed are girls aged 18 years on average. We work 15 hours a day, and it is too much. The assistant workers who make up 40 percent of the workforce are only 15 years old. Please protect these young, innocent souls before they get hurt….we are not machines,” Chun wrote in a newspaper. “Please let us rest on Sunday.”

Ignored, ridiculed, shut out, fired, blacklisted, eventually exhausting every avenue of redress or hearing for the nightmarish working conditions, Chun alights upon the only way to make his voice heard above the dark din of apathy, violence, and repression. He douses himself in gasoline, sets himself on fire, runs through the narrow alleyways of the peace market, ablaze like a human torch. “We are not machines! Respect the law!”, he howls, a flaming human jeremiad, fire combusting the meager tallow of his worn, emaciated body, illuminating and charring to black ash the book of labor laws in his hands, that floats up like a supplication through blinding waves of heat and light.

“Respect the diligent work standards laws!”

Remember, the word labor itself has been effaced from the Korean language.

A dozen burning jeremiads ensue, a thousand angry human pyres of protest, some visible, some not, in thousands of factories, labor camps, sweatshops. Out of these hot ashes, the Yushin—dictatorial garrison decrees–and its counterpoint, the Minjung, the multitude arises and speaks: “I’ll go ahead, and you, the living, follow!”

Some of these protests are reported: the Dong-Il Textile protest, the Hyundai Ulsan strike, the brutal YH sweatshop occupation—others not—the Sabuk Miner’s strike, the Hyundai worker’s strike in Iran. All are brutally put down by police and the Korean CIA. Thousands of strikes and protests involving millions of workers, waging class struggle under unimaginable odds. By 1979, workers and citizens together will render several cities in the south of the country almost ungovernable; while reputedly disputing among itself whether to unleash the “Pol Pot” option[6] (i.e. mass slaughter), the leadership will shoot itself, resulting in a coup; in 1980, in the Kwangju protest, there will be a mass slaughter of thousands; 40,000 will also be rounded up and thrown into gulags; in 1987, despite killings, torture, and disappearances, the multitude will force semi-democratic elections, waging general strikes and pitched street battles against Police against fog banks of tear gas and beatings; and throughout the nineties, they will continue to throw their bodies against the machine to eventually end military rule in 1993. An ardent enabler of the dictatorships and their unrestrained use of violence, the US will be dragged kicking and screaming into this new world, and not to be defeated, it will come back later with a vengeance, gutting hard-won labor rights and popular reforms through shock therapy and structural adjustment in 1997 with IMF sanctions, even as populist governments are elected —actions that Koreans compare to the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1910. These structural reforms will do what even the military dictatorships could not: eventually fragment and destroy the heart of the labor movement through forced precaritization, casualization, and tiering of its labor force. To this day, 60% of South Korean laborers are precarious temporary workers, the country lacks basic social welfare, and a handful of megacorporations effectively monopolize the economy.

The official narrative of the “Korean Miracle” goes something like this: hard work, along with shrewd and strategic economic planning—assisted by elite technocrats from MIT and Harvard– allowed South Korea to boost itself into the ranks of the developed economies. An ethic of diligence and frugality, a tradition of veneration for scholarship and self discipline, combined with visionary state planning, focused on export-oriented development, using strategic loans to cultivate partnerships in key industries, along with judicious protectionism, bootstrapped the country out of abject poverty into the ranks of the proud, powerful, industrialized nations. Along the way, an army of “diligent workers”: German miners and nurses, Middle Eastern construction workers, Vietnam war veterans, factory workers, textile workers, steel workers, ship-builders, auto workers, farmers, all proudly lifted Korea into the stratosphere of economic wealth and health through earnest sacrifice and patriotic solidarity.

True in the generic way that triumphalist-capitalist-developmental economics fairy tales go–themselves a rehash of Adam Smithian mythologies of original accumulation— conflict-free self-congratulatory claptrap updated by the Ivy-League and Beltway punditocracy: the Vogels, Rostows, Huntingdons.  But here’s another key piece that has been excised: not just the worker’s nodong, their “diligent work”, their unimaginable han, suffering, and sacrifice, the world’s longest work hours, and the highest industrial death and accident rate in the world (2.6%). The central muscle that lifted South Korea out of poverty, was not just the pumped up biceps of the urban factory worker, the delicate extensor digitorum of the sweatshop laborer, or the occipitofrontalis of the concentrated cognitariat. It was the hidden, scared, scarred sphincters of the levator ani, the genital muscle.

Government as Pimp: The Biopolitical Economy of Sexual Labor

“The puppet called “developmental capitalism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of sexual labor, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and shameful and must be kept out of sight”

—Apologies to Walter Benjamin.

“Prostitution is only a specific example of the general prostitution of the laborer”, states Marx, but in the 1960’s the labor of prostitution became the specific marrow and general backbone of the Korean capitalist economy, along with the troops it sent to Vietnam. The artificially implanted capitalist economy in South Korea, was a fragile, disorganized, stunted fetus, barely viable, subsisting on US handouts and national beggary, mere fractions of the surging, healthy socialist economy in the North, that was referred to as “The Korean Miracle”. [7]

The Japanese colonization from 1910-1945 had imposed on Koreans the Japanese state religion, Japanese names, Japanese language, and the drafting of some 4 million Koreans as slave laborers. It also involved the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of Korean women into sexual slavery for their frontline troops. “Gifts from the emperor to loyal troops”, the “comfort women” system was the Japanese bureaucratic rationalization of military gang rape, managed and administered up to 25-50 times a day to its hapless victims. Less than one out of four women would survive the ordeal.

The Japanese colonizers eventually left, but their vicious practices did not. When the US placed the Japanese collaborators into power in order to construct a vassal capitalist state bonded to the US and Japan, these collaborators—opportunists, sycophants, sociopaths– on behalf of the US, kept the worst of the Japanese institutions: the bureaucracy, police, prisons, schools, and comfort stations, in place.    Soon the South Koreans were providing comfort women for the US troops, as well as their own. Starving war orphans, impoverished war widows, former comfort women, kidnapped North Korean women, and spouses of political prisoners were the conscripts for these new comfort brigades. Labelled “Class V” military supplies, shipped in “like cold beers”, “half ton trucks filled with pathetic women”, these desperate, traumatized women were administered as treats, rewards, perks to occupying US troops who came to expect them as part of the global spoils of empire.

“Picture having 3 or 4 of the loveliest creatures god ever created hovering around you, singing, dancing, feeding you,…saying all at once, you are the greatest: this is the Orient you heard about and came to find”, the Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper, proclaimed.

More prosaically, they were “Cheap yellow fucking machines”—cheaper and easier, in the words of a US commander than a renting a car and raping someone–,and they became the linchpin of the biopolitical economy of military imperialism, the cornerstone of a sexual primitive accumulation.

Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military,” says Kim Ae-ran, a former camptown prostitute. The figures bear her out: one US estimate indicates that 25% of the country’s revenue was garnished through prostitution during the 60’s[8]; over 1 million would serve in its army of prostitutes[9]. Along with the 320,000 soldiers sending remittances from Vietnam, these prostitutes became the lifeline of the fragile national economy, a key source of foreign capital for industrialization and infrastructure. Maintaining the supply and delivery of prostitutes, and policing their service for the US military (and later for Japanese sex tourists) became a key strategy for the country’s economic development. Lawmakers urged the recruitment and training of prostitutes; the minister of the interior, Lee Sung-woo responded with measures for “improvement in the supply of prostitutes” and the “recreational system for American troops”[10]; the provision of “naked women for the pleasure of foreign soldiers” was openly discussed and debated. The prostitutes themselves were praised as “dollar earning patriots”, lauded publicly, in the words of Minister Min Kwan-sik, for “selling their cunts for the nation”[11], even as they were despised and outcast for their immoral trade.

To this end, the Korean government created over a hundred “special tourism districts” around bases—essentially free trade zones for the export of sex—and working hand in hand with the US military, took upon itself to provide clean, docile, subservient women for US military sexual needs. Women were registered, regulated, licensed; numbered permits had to be obtained and prominently displayed like taxi medallions; vaginas were routinely inspected like the brakes on a cab[12]—for the safety of the passenger—and women would be beaten if they refused inspection[13]. If they were found without their papers or if they were anything less than perfectly pristine or disease-free, they were locked up (in barbed wire surrounded “monkey houses”)[14]. Fully two thirds of South Korea’s public health budget at the time was spent on policing women’s vaginas. They were also lectured on their patriotic duties: how to whore in English, how to please their clients, and the importance of their vaginas in the fight against communism (and for national development). These camptowns, purgatories of human misery, sexual exploitation, violence, and humiliation for impoverished, desperate, traumatized young women, were also segregated along racial lines, reconstituting a vernal Jim Crow south, importing the cultural imperialism of racist segregation, sexual objectification, orientalist dehumanization and capitalist exploitation in a nightmarish ground zero of intersectional oppression and dehumanization. Along the way, a US surgeon, Ralph Millard, invented eyelid surgery[15], an operation that allowed these prostitutes to look more western, thus more pleasing to their US clients; a practice, that in a stunning act of collective, internalized, symbolic violence, millions of Korean women have now adopted as a status symbol.

To this day, in South Korea, prostitution is a still a huge business, thought to be between 1.6 and 4.1% of GDP[16]— by some estimates, larger than agriculture or fishing combined; one out of five young women between 15 and 29 is estimated to have worked in prostitution. In the globalizing logic of neoliberal capital, there is now an active transnational sex traffic of Korean women smuggled abroad (to the US and Europe), and of foreign (South East Asian, Filipina, and Eastern European) women trafficked into Korea, as well as horizontal and vertical integration of the sex trade worldwide[17]. According to Sheila Jeffreys, the “industrialized vagina” of these camp town brothels kick started the global industrialized sex trade; and by concentrating the zone of cultural encounter to the cloaca, it also generated the global, yellow-fevered, imperialist fetish for docile, submissive, objectified Asian women, and its ideology of skin-based colonial sexual privilege, access, and domination.


In short, a toxic brew of patriarchy, militarism, colonialism, and capitalism, conspired to traffic women into sexual slavery, and then erased their suffering and contributions from the history and economics textbooks, while normalizing, rationalizing, and industrializing sexual commodification and exploitation both locally and globally. When the history of the “development” of South Korea is finally truthfully told, it will reveal the implementation of developmental pimping as a force of primitive accumulation—the exploited, controlled, raped, caged, medically surveilled, and militarily/bureaucratically administered vagina as start-up industry and biopolitical engine of economic development and integration.  “Force”, wrote Marx, is the “midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. In South Korea, and other developing nations following its footsteps, sexual exploitation was that force.

Crimes Against Gender: the Uncomfortable Palimpsest

This is the subtext of the embarrassing spat with Wendy Sherman, the tough-minded US state department diplomat who recently pooh-poohed the comfort woman issue and other Japanese war crimes, and urged Korea and Japan to find common ground on regional concerns and geopolitical strategy. “Get over it”, and get together, get with it, seems to be her message and others at the US State Department: don’t ruminate over past history, move on.

Unfortunately, it’s more complex than that. First, Korean acrimony with Japan is not a recent spat about colonization: Japanese disdain and abuse of Koreans goes as far back as 1592, when Japanese invaders were kidnapping and selling Koreans and Korean women to Portuguese slave traders; Koreans were blamed for the Great Kanto Earthquake, where thousands were lynched and slaughtered indiscriminately; and to this day, conscripted Zainichi Koreans living in Japan are still treated as an underclass without full rights in contemporary society.

More importantly, the abomination of the comfort women issue is not something that will conveniently wither away. The palimpsest of human suffering cannot be simply scraped clean and rewritten, especially when the record of barbarity is etched on living human skin. The term itself, and the Korean euphemism “volunteer brigades” are both misnomers: if words could edge us closer to the dizzying precipice of truth, “bureaucratically-administered-prolonged-wartime-gang-rape-victims” would be more accurate.

Comfort stations, according to survivors, were a continuous “hell of fear, shame and sorrow”: women were often kept in small cells or stalls, like barn animals, and raped non-stop—with the same ruthless assembly line efficiency that Japanese would bring to building cars, electronics, and gadgets. Most comfort women would not survive these conditions: it’s estimated that 40% committed suicide; those who did not die from beatings, abuse, or sheer despair, were sometimes dragged out and killed like stray dogs by the Japanese as the war drew to close. Although historians assume 75-90% death rate for comfort women—higher than even frontline combat soldiers–, the fact remains that from an estimated total of 200,000, only a miniscule fraction have survived to speak up against the obscene Japanese revisionism that argues that they were voluntary courtesans living decadent, pleasure-filled lives of luxury. In this context, bureaucratically-administered-prolonged-wartime-gang-rape-victims-the-majority-of-whom-were-abused-to-death-but-who-continue-to-be-defiled-and-disrespected would be a more appropriate term.

For Korean activists, this issue is not specifically about Koreans, but a global crime against humanity; not something to be simply wished away like ghosts and goblins; most certainly not if the guilty party—the Japanese government– is now reneging on or watering down past apologies and actively revising history. From the standpoint of the Korean people, the selectiveness of the US in deciding which crimes deserve condemnation and which deserve amnesia, and the framing of this as a narrow issue of nationalism, and not one of universal conscience, signals willful blindness, callousness, hypocrisy, or self-interest, and triggers memories of their own brutal treatment at the hands of the US military.

Specifically, this denialism resurrects the unspoken and unresolved issue of “comfort women” trafficked, exploited, co-administered, and abused by the US military itself in the Jim Crow sexual plantations around its bases, for which no acknowledgment and apology has ever been issued. The complicity of the current Park administration, tied dynastically and ideologically to the US-installed-collaborator governments that created and administered this sexual plantation labor as a form of primitive accumulation, colors this issue yet more intensely.  The larger, harder question is that of justice and reparations for the violent integration of South Korea into the global economy by means of its cloaca: the sexual-economic colonization of South Korea—and other third world colonies—through crimes against humanity and gender in the forced creation of the capitalist state and the global economic order.

The Money Shot: White Sexual Imperialism

Over this dispute falls the long shadow of THAAD and the Pacific Pivot.

THAAD stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. One of the most expensive, advanced, ballistic missile defense systems in existence, developed over decades by Lockheed Martin, it is a system designed to shoot down missiles in their terminal descent phase, ostensibly providing strong protection against theater ballistic missile threats.

The US state department has been urging the South Korean government aggressively to purchase and install this multi-billion-dollar system on the Korean peninsula[18]. They have been pushing hard; and they have already scouted locations on Korean soil, and lobbied congress for appropriation. The Korean administration has played footsie (“strategic ambiguity”), with the state department, hinting coyly that they might be okay with its deployment but only if they do not have to foot the tab, since they are building their own system (KAMD), which the US has opined as ineffectual.

This North Korean missile threat, from the standpoint of the US, is the reason to cut through the Gordian knot of Korean misapprehension, misgivings, and circumspection around alliances with Japan. The plan is for the US to link up Korea in a Japanese-US-Korean trilateral defense alliance, with an interoperable, layered ballistic missile defense system as a key component, and a reinvigorated, remilitarized Japan as partner and ally. Mediated intelligence sharing has already been agreed upon; this is the next logical step in the relationship.  Hence the anxious shotgun brokerage. THAAD redirects concerns about Japanese war crimes and sexual exploitation with the high-powered, misdirecting rhetoric of mutual defense against imminent, dangerous North Korean aggression: “Japan may have committed some indiscretions in the past, but imagine what future catastrophe beckons if you don’t collaborate whole-heartedly with your unrepentant former colonial rapist immediately.”

A small problem: North Korean missiles aimed at the South are unlikely to reach the 40-150km altitude that is the effective range of THAAD. As with other systems (AEGIS SM-3), everyone sees stationing THAAD in Korea to be like bringing a high-powered sniper rifle instead of gloves to a boxing match, or, for that matter, missiles to a knife fight: someone else is targeted, something else planned, something else is on the agenda.

That agenda is China’s rise to economic dominance in the region. The mere fact of China’s economic success is a threat, according to key influential leaders. “China cannot rise peacefully”, “cannot be a responsible actor on the global stage”, “cannot be a partner”, they say, and therefore must be neutralized, neutered, spayed; the Pacific is a key US interest, and no challenge to US hegemony can be allowed to exist there. The Pacific Pivot, a “rebalancing” of US military capacity to Asia, moves 60 percent of US war forces and materiel into the region, while the Transpacific Partnership, creates a 12 country economic megabloc to exclude and isolate China. This, along with local defense alliances shoring up a deadly necklace of strategic bases with missile systems and advanced hardware, are part of the global US strategy of military and economic encirclement to counter and choke off China’s regional rise, and if necessary, force economic or military submission. The US has already expanded Japanese military capacity with the revised cooperation guidelines that gut Japan’s neutrality and allow much more aggressive military action. Korean lack of alacrity in cooperation—due to China’s voiced opposition–has been an inconvenient roadblock on this master plan.

The THAAD system itself constitutes one component of the pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense system. This integrates with “networked, cross-domain operations” of the AirSea Battle doctrine (renamed JAM-GC), an aggressive anti-A2/AD (anti-access area denial) plan in the Western Pacific Theater of Operations, aimed at controlling China’s sea lanes, littoral waters, air zones, space, and cyberspace. Framed as “helping to set the conditions… sustain a stable, favorable conventional military balance throughout the Western Pacific region”, it is not merely a defensive or reactive strategy, but involves “moving upstream along the kill chain”, attacking Chinese military installations deep inland, knocking out logistical, surveillance, communications, and missile infrastructure, and pre-emptively decapitating command and control nodes. It is a planned, organized, aggressive doctrine and plan of war, ready for implementation, defining geostrategic and diplomatic actions, and driving procurement and budget decisions. “A drawn sword cannot be simply re-sheathed, but must be used first”, goes the saw.   This is a weapon sharpened, unsheathed, threatening, and already raising the risk of dangerous escalation.

* * *

Beneath the traditional realist, neorealist, neoliberal discourses about statecraft regarding Asia, lie older, intractable, Colonialist, Orientalist tropes, shot through with the language of gendered subjugation and sexual conquest. Commodore Shufeld, the signatory of the first treaty between Korea and the US in 1882 stated:

“The Pacific is the ocean bride of America….China & Japan & Corea….. are the bridesmaids…. Let us as Americans, see to it that the “bridegroom cometh”….let us determine while yet in our power, that no commercial rival or hostile flag can float with impunity over the long swell of the Pacific sea….It is on this ocean that the East & the West have thus come together, reaching the point where….human power attains its climax.”

Likewise, technostrategic language bristles, as Carol Cohn pointed out, with sexual metaphors about power, size, vigor, and capacity. Beneath the veneer of techno-security-policy discourse, AirSea Battle betrays a highly sexualized anxiety, with its language of “penetrating, long-endurance….capabilities;…forward base hardening,….greater penetrating and stand-off long-range ISR capabilities and capacities…..long-range penetrating strike operations .”

In this light, below the seemingly rational discourse on rights, global commons, balancing, and security that clothe discussions about China and US geopolitical/geo-economic strategy (THAAD, Ballistic Missile Defense Systems, AirSea Battle, and the Pacific Pivot itself), the outlines of the blunt, protruding, indelicate, hard-on of imperial white male dominance, can be made out, barely hidden under the anxious fig leaf of “deterrence” and “common interest”.

THAAD itself can be identified as a fetishized cyber-techno-phallus, the dangerous, bleeding edge of thanato-phallic-narcissistic military posturing, in the cock-a-ludicrous exhibitionism of US exceptionalism: a sexuo-ideological fantasy that seeks domination (and feminization) of all challengers, and the continued gendered exploitation of the continent. Refusal of access—anti-access/area denial—is forcefully prevented; x-band radar turns the entire Chinese continent transparent, a global x-rated panoptic peeping tom; and through “networked, integrated, attack-in-depth”, any resisting or competing weapon systems and their small, insignificant, missiles, lacking power, thrust, reach, size, are imagined emasculated into orifices to be targeted, torn apart, and exploded.

The pivot is thus, the anxious, imperial male fantasy of permanent sexual entitlement and access, a theology of omniscience, omnipotence, (and omni-benevolence), and a dispirited fear of loss of potency and connection- that drives the urge to keep the Asian continent in permanent submission, permanent servitude, and “forever bottom”.

What is overlooked in this posturing is whether a call for peaceful coexistence has any possibility, valence, or value, something to be settled outside the pornographic cinema of sexual fantasy, the cruel theater of threats and intimidation, the web of intrigue, violence, and military brinksmanship.

Whether dialogue, reason, and common humanity have a claim, not to be dismissed lightly, in a future among equals without drawn arms, sighted guns, weaponized missiles, and perverse techno-fantasies of global domination and submission, packaged under the slick labels of “deterrence”, “commons”, and “balancing”.

Or whether Asian history will revert to the status of a comfort woman, serving Empire, cheaply selling itself for pretended promises of security and status, whoring itself to despair underneath the table, as the missiles sprout, the armies encamp, the weapons bristle, and the capitalist endgame damns the region into escalating tension, conflict, war, and irredeemable, unimaginable, global apocalypse.

Time, and the diligent labor of love, in the struggle of hearts and minds for peace, has never been so pregnant with redemptive possibility and apocalyptic peril.

K. J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at


[1] This is the name of the North Korean re-engineered SCUD-B missile.

[2] The ruling Saenuri Party representative Yoo Seong Min reiterated this proposal in March 10th, right after the attack. Rep. Na Kyung-won, Rep. Won Yoo-chul, also made calls for the installation of the system.

[3] A survey done by the US government in August 1946, a year after the banning of the KPR shows that 70% of the population still wanted a socialist government, 7% a communist one. Only 14% wanted a capitalist government. In George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, 67 (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); from Korea Journal, Nov 1986, 42.

[4]George Ogle, South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle, 11 (London: Zed books, 1990).

[5] See, for example, “The Crime of Korea”, Armed Forces Screen Report, Issue #125, 1950:, a film about the Daejon Massacre by South Korean troops attributed to the North.

[6] Discord was reported between Cha Ji Chol, head of presidential security and Kim Jae Kyu, the head of KCIA. In response to massive civil protest in 5 cities in the south of the country, Cha stated that in “Cambodia, 3 million people were killed off (by Pol Pot). We could kill off 1-2 million people, and that would solve that problem.”  It’s reported that this debate was later picked up again at dinner, where Cha stated that putting down the protests could result in thousands of casualties. Park pointed out that the Shah of Iran was deposed because he didn’t kill off enough of his people, and that he would be willing to kill off 30,000 people if that’s what it took. Cha, in disagreement, then shot Park and Cha.
See Michael Breen, The Koreans: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea, 205 (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1999)

[7] Joan Robinson, Monthly Review, January 1965, V16, No9,.

[8] Park, Soo-mee, Joongang Daily, 10/30/2008. “Former sex workers in fight for compensation”.

[9] Katharine H. S. Moon, Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (Columbia University, 1997)
[10] Choe, Sang-hun, New York Times, 1/07/2009, “Ex-Prostitutes Say South Korea and U.S. Enabled Sex Trade Near Bases (page 2)”.

[11] Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, Tokyo, April-Sept. 1976, p.9; quoted in

[12]Park, Soo-mee, Joongang Daily, 10/30/2008

[13]Park, Soo-mee, Joongang Daily, 10/30/2008

[14] Choe, Sang-hun, New York Times, 1/07/2009, “Ex-Prostitutes Say South Korea and U.S. Enabled Sex Trade Near Bases (page 2)”.


[16] Sarah C Soh: The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, 202 (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

[17]Donna M. Hughes, Katherine Y. Chon, Derek P. Ellerman, Modern Day Comfort Women: The U.S. Military, Transnational Crime,

and the Trafficking of Women, p16

[18] Gregory Ellich, Global Research, See more at:


K.J. Noh is a long time activist, writer and teacher.  He can be reached at