The World’s Real Nuclear Menace Isn’t North Korea

Photo by Toby Scott | CC BY 2.0

With growing speculation of war with North Korea and familiar apocalyptic rhetoric in recent times, the United States and North Korea have participated in increasingly bellicose exchanges. These recent exchanges range from President Trump calling on other nations to stop financing and trading with North Korea because it’s a “very serious nuclear menace,” redesignating North Korea as an official state sponsor of terrorism, to more North Korean nuclear missile tests and American and South Korean joint war games.

In light of the nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea bringing frequent comparisons to the Cuban Missile Crisis and discussion of hypothetical worst-case scenarios, it’s worth reviewing the United States’ record and examining whether North Korea is really the belligerent nuclear menace the world needs to liberate itself from. As critics of American foreign policy have noticed, the United States’ leaders, its media and its citizens never quite seem to recognize the full consequences of their country’s actions in other regions, or investigate its long history of conflict with North Korea.

To begin in chronological order, touring around the globe, it’s been noted by international relations scholars and historians that the Korean War is partly known as “The Forgotten War” because Americans have largely forgotten “the utter ruin and devastation” the United States inflicted upon North Korea. It’s not widely known that the United States’ own leaders have admitted to have “killed off” approximately 20% of North Korea’s population throughout the war by targeting “everything that moved.” Or that the United States destroyed more cities in North Korea than it did in Germany or Japan during World War II by dropping more bombs than it did throughout the entire Pacific Theatre. When there were few urban targets left to bomb, the United States began to bomb dams that supplied water for the production of rice—one of the quintessential food commodities in Asia—which led to mass starvation during and after the war. While Americans may not remember the carnage across the other side of the world, North Koreans have never forgotten the destruction on its own peninsula, nor the American threats to use nuclear weapons during the war which first inspired Kim Il-Sung to obtain his own nuclear deterrent decades ago.

Looking at events throughout the next few decades, it’s apparent that American policymakers either fail to consider, or disregard, how their duplicitous dealings and illegal military interventions across the world could inspire smaller countries like North Korea to seek more cost-effective and credible deterrents to an American invasion than large standing armies, in the form of nuclear weapons.

While American officials compare the situation in North Korea with the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis by depicting North Korea as an irrational and unpredictable adversary willing to initiate nuclear destruction, the real comparison lies in the United States’ refusal to live under the same threat it subjects to other countries, which forms a straight line of continuity to the present.

Historians have long known that John F. Kennedy lied to the American public by claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administrations had allowed a dangerous missile gap to grow in the Soviet Union’s favor, despite the opposite being the case. And that Nikita Khrushchev was inspired to equalize the balance of power by dispatching Soviet nuclear weapons to Cuba upon learning that the United States had stationed its nuclear weapons near the Soviet Union in Turkey, and to deter the United States from launching an invasion of Cuba. This fear of invasion was a justifiable concern considering the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in the previous year and the CIA’s ongoing Operation Mongoose at the time, which tried to undermine the Castro regime through assassination attempts and sabotage.

However, the United States found the mere perception of an even playing field intolerable as it dispatched a naval blockade, considered an act of war in international law, to prevent further missiles from reaching Cuba. All of this happened despite Kennedy’s own assessment that the blockade would increase the probability of war to climb as high as 50%. We now know that even top-level decision makers like former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara were rendered speechless decades later upon learning that both the United States and Cuba had severely underestimated the risk of nuclear war at the time.

In the end, nuclear war was barely averted by the heroism of Soviet submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov, who disobeyed orders to to launch a nuclear torpedo in response to his superiors’ panic over depth charges dropped by American ships during the blockade. The United States struck a deal with the Soviet Union to lift the blockade, provide a promise not to invade Cuba and to secretly remove the missiles in Turkey in exchange for the public removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. The mere semblance of a rational quid pro quo was unacceptable to the United States, which insisted on the risky optics of humiliation in order to reinforce its hegemonic principles that Cuba had no right to possess a deterrent to what seemed like an imminent American invasion, and that the United States should enjoy an offensive nuclear capacity denied to the Soviet Union.

Later on during the Reagan era, the United States illegally invaded Grenada to enact regime change in 1983, while simultaneously ratcheting up the annual joint United States-South Korea war games simulating possible invasions of North Korea near its borders. Kim Il-Sung was reportedly unsettled by the idea that the United States could perceive the tiny spice island of Grenada as a threat, and feared that nothing less than a nuclear deterrent would be sufficient to keep Pyongyang outside the crosshairs of Washington. Three years after the invasion of Grenada, the North Korean regime established its Ministry of Atomic Energy Industry to formally declare its intent to develop a nuclear weapons program, which exists to this day.

Moving towards the twenty-first century, the Bush 43 administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, which had long given up Iraq’s nuclear weapons despite the Bush 43 administration’s lies about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), would serve as one example of a dictatorship being toppled due to the lack of a credible nuclear deterrent. Another example would follow with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who announced that Libya would also give up its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles in addition to its infant nuclear weapons program in December 2003. Even though George W. Bush celebrated Libya’s decision at the time, declaring that the world should take away the lesson that “leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations,” the succeeding Obama administration would go on to deliver the exact opposite lesson by assisting in the ouster of Gaddafi in 2011. Observing the situation in Libya, a North Korean official at the time explicitly remarked that the “Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” claiming the West’s deal with Libya was “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”

More towards the present, President Trump’s decision to “decertify” the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in October—despite worldwide acknowledgment that Iran has fully kept its side of the deal—has led some journalists to note that it’s more accurate to report that the United States was reneging on its JCPOA commitments, drawing parallels with its inconsistent foreign policy in Libya. The United States’ refusal to honor its agreement has bolstered the popularity of the hardline Iranian view that the United States and Saudi Arabia can’t be trusted.

There is remarkable irony in the United States betraying its JCPOA commitments considering the previous hysteria claiming that Iran was “the gravest threat to world peace,” despite not having invaded a single country in over 200 years. It’s a little known fact that Iran’s own Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Javad Zarif, actually critiqued the JCPOA because it didn’t go far enough towards ensuring peace in the Middle East—calling on Israel to join Iran in establishing a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East—which Iran incidentally first proposed to the UN General Assembly in 1974.

The irony is only heightened when we consider that the United States possesses an additional obligation to engage in good faith efforts towards establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as the Bush administration’s appeal to UN Security Council Resolution 687 to provide some pseudo-legal basis for its invasion of Iraq—claiming that Iraq had failed to live up to the resolution’s obligation to disarm itself of WMDs—when Article 14 of Resolution 687 called for the elimination of Iraqi WMDs for the explicit purpose of creating a NWFZ in the Middle East.

Aside from North Korea, another nuclear power the United States is presently antagonizing is Russia, which has led some observers to liken the current relationship to be that of a new Cold War for quite some time. One can recite a litany of American provocations against Russia ranging from the still unproven allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election to the United States’ proven interference in Russian elections, from the hypocritical accusations of war crimes in Syria that the American-backed rebel forces seeking regime change also committed, to the Obama administration’s use of deceit in persuading Russia not to veto a UN Security Council resolution permitting the use of force in Libya, which would teach Vladimir Putin the “lesson” that weakness and compromise would be exploited by the United States.

But these examples ignore the United States’ more direct contributions to heightened nuclear tensions with Russia. Despite the Bush 41 administration’s verbal “iron-clad guarantees” made to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward,” in exchange for the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990 and agreements to halt the arms race, ban chemical weapons and drastically reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles, succeeding administrations began to treat Russia as a defeated nation who “lost” the Cold War ever since.

The succeeding Clinton administration would proceed to illegally bomb Serbia and violate prior promises by expanding NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries, tarnishing the Russian population’s perception of the United States. Currently, NATO’s eastern expansion has reached Russia’s borders with NATO troops deployed in Poland and the Baltic States, which would be analogous to the United States finding Mexico, Cuba, Canada and most of South America welcoming Russian bases and troops in a military alliance against it. Notwithstanding the barrage of propagandistic charges of “Russian aggression,” NATO’s expansion and the Obama administration’s support for a violent coup ousting pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is responsible for provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration’s placement of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems near Russian borders was a continued reversal of the short-lived Nixon-Ford administrations’ policy of détente. It’s common knowledge among nuclear strategists around the world that BMD systems are offensive weapons by nature—designed to secure a nuclear first-strike advantage by neutralizing the threat of retaliatory nuclear strikes—and serve as a “Trojan Horse” for the militarization of outer space, as BMD systems depend on satellites that must be protected from the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons readily available to other nations. The threat BMD systems pose to international stability was what led the United States and the Soviet Union to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972.

The ABM Treaty was promptly violated by the Reagan administration’s infamous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” program—a large subsidy for American high-tech industry under the guise of its fantastical aims of constructing orbiting “battle platforms,” with uranium and plutonium powered hypervelocity guns, particle beams and laser weapons—with the ABM Treaty later being unilaterally abrogated by the Bush 43 administration in 2001. Concerns about the destabilizing effects of deploying BMD systems have already materialized with Russia recently testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to penetrate them.

But even critics of dishonest American foreign policy around the globe for fostering North Korea’s distrust often neglect to mention the history of the United States reneging on its commitments with North Korea itself. The Clinton administration was able to get North Korea to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994-2002) through the Agreed Framework of 1994, signed an additional agreement to mutually cease bearing “hostile intent,” and had indirectly worked out another deal to buy all of its medium and long-range missiles until the Bush 43 administration named North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil,” threatening it with the possibility of “preemptive” war.

In spite of this setback, the Bush 43 administration was able to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons under the six-party talks in 2005—in return for a light-water nuclear reactor for its medical and energy needs and an end to aggressive rhetoric—only for the same administration to quickly undermine the agreement by renewing its threats of force, withdrawing its offer of a light-water reactor and freezing North Korean funds in foreign banks.

The succeeding Obama administration’s foreign policy wouldn’t diverge very much from its predecessors by continuing the United States’ aggressive rhetoric, and by enacting harsh and politically ineffective sanctions which punish the population for the actions of its insulated leadership. However, some differences include its State Department providing assistance in the production of a graphic film depicting Kim Jong-Un’s head exploding, increasing cyberattacks to sabotage North Korea’s missiles and simulating nuclear strikes with stealth bombers.

The situation has only deteriorated under the Trump administration with its destabilizing statements and policies around the world, which is increasing pressure on other nations to pursue nuclear weapons. President Trump and his fellow Republicans have illegally threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and cause its “extinction.” Despite the corporate media’s frequent barrage of misleading headlines implying that the North Korean leadership won’t surrender its nuclear weapons under any circumstances—and refusal to report the timing of North Korea’s missile tests in the context of the annual joint American and South Korean war games simulating nuclear first-strikes, invasions, and assassinations of the North Korean leadership near its borders—the truth is that North Korea has repeatedly offered to give up its nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration has rejected China and North Korea’s numerous proposals to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile program in exchange for ceasing the threatening joint war games. It’s possible that the offers are insincere and that North Korea can’t be trusted to follow through on its commitments, but the point remains that diplomacy hasn’t been seriously pursued and that the United States’ own trustworthiness is hardly any better.

While there are some differences between the Trump administration’s foreign policy and its predecessors’, the United States’ general pursuit of overwhelming supremacy in all terrains of warfare including land, air, sea and outer space (also known as “full-spectrum dominance”), has remained largely intact. President Trump has called for a tenfold expansion of the United States’ nuclear stockpile in spite of the numerous arms reduction treaties the United States is committed to. His administration is also rushing to enact Obama administration programs to “modernize” the “nuclear triad,” estimated to cost over $1 trillion across three decades, to improve precision targeting and reducing blast yields to make nuclear first-strikes more thinkable.

The “Trojan Horse” for the militarization of space represented by the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) BMD system in South Korea—to secure a nuclear first-strike advantage against China and North Korea—is expected to trigger a new arms race in the region in addition to another arms race for space weapons. Despite virtually universal support for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) Treaty in the UN since 1985, including Russia and China, the United States has continually refused to negotiate the PAROS Treaty in the UN’s Conference on Disarmament because of its large technical advantages in BMD systems and potential space weaponry.

South Koreans and American military officials, academics, and journalists are certainly correct to note that North Korea’s “realist” foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent and predictable in comparison to President Trump’s unpredictability and frequent commitments to keeping “all options on the table.” However, to imagine that the Trump administration’s unpredictable posture regarding nuclear weapons is a large deviation from the norm of past administrations is a mistake. The United States has consistently refused to adopt a “no-first-use” pledge in order to keep the option of a nuclear first-strike open. A 1995 STRATCOM report entitled the Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence during the Clinton administration mentioned that it would be detrimental for the United States to portray itself as “too fully rational and cool-headed,” and recommended that it project an “irrational and vindictive” national persona with some “potentially ‘out of control’” elements instead.

The hegemonic principles are consistent: the United States and its allies should possess an offensive nuclear capacity to destroy their enemies denied to other nations, and can flout international law and their foreign obligations on a whim.

The North Korean government is a contemptible and authoritarian regime that’s justly condemned for its numerous human rights violations, but as foreign policy critics like Noam Chomsky have pointed out, there’s no logical connection between a regime’s domestic brutality and the threat it poses abroad. Although the United States is increasingly degenerating into an impoverished and totalitarian society with its own internal human rights abuses, there’s no doubt that American citizens enjoy a greater degree of liberties than North Koreans. There’s also little question that the United States has unleashed far more violence and aggression abroad. The latest international poll found that the United States is considered to be the greatest threat to world peace, beating out all other competitors—including North Korea—by decisive margins. A casual examination of the United States’ record abroad can yield similar damning conclusions: the United States is the world’s nuclear menace, not North Korea.

Joshua Cho is a recent graduate of Boston College, aspiring journalist and former intern at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.