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As the Korean Peninsula takes tentative steps toward a huge rapprochement and hundreds of millions of people in Northeast Asia hold their breath, liberal Americans tell us we cannot trust North Korea’s government because they are not a good-faith negotiator, as if Washington is. In the words of the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, “We must view it with the necessary skepticism born of such talks in the past. On multiple occasions, Pyongyang has seemingly opted for the path of negotiation, only to reverse course after pocketing concessions from Seoul or the international community” (the Guardian). Hmm… Just coming to the table to grab some concessions and then later reversing course? That sounds familiar. Washington does it all the time. Pyongyang, on the other hand, tends to keep its promises. This is not to say that North Korea is a wonderful, virtuous country, only that its government is interested in peace, very interested. Of course, it is. After all, violence is a tool of the powerful, not the weak.
The New York Times Choe Sang-hun and Mark Landlermarch reported the other day that “later in Washington, Mr. Trump told reporters: ‘The statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive. That would be a great thing for the world’.” They portray his words as brash and contrast them with the statements of White House officials, who were “more cautious, with one senior official noting that the United States has negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program off-and-on for 27 years, and that the North Koreans have broken every agreement they ever made with the Americans.” Choe and Landlermarch use the word “noting”! As if they are simply noting the documented record of US-North Korea relations, a record with a long list of good-faith efforts toward peace on Washington’s side and broken promises on Pyongyang’s side. In fact, the few officials and journalists who make an effort to read our history with North Korea understand that the opposite is true. Sadly, such responsible officials and journalists are a rare breed.
So let us pull out the record and skim through it. One of the first examples of how Washington “pockets concessions” and then later “reverses course” is the armistice that was supposed to lead to a peace treaty after the Korean War was halted in 1953. Yes, right from the very beginning Washington’s lack of good faith was evident. Under the armistice that was signed, introducing qualitatively new weaponry to the Peninsula was prohibited, but Washington brought in nuclear cannons and Honest John nuclear-tipped missiles in January 1958. They continued stockpiling nuclear weapons until 1991. Then they switched to more effective conventional weapons. The US also had ICBMs that could strike from a distance and nuke-equipped submarines that could be moved to the Korean Peninsula at any time. Thus the Korean Peninsula was originally nuclearized by Washington and has been kept that way ever since 1958.
The Agreed Framework
Now, for an example from recent decades, let us recall how Washington got us into the current crisis in the first place, a time when the world lost a precious chance to prevent North Korea’s acquisition of nukes and greatly slow global nuclear proliferation. I refer to what happened after Washington signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994.
In that year Bill Clinton was about to launch an illegal “pre-emptive strike” against North Korea to destroy their nuclear reactors, but Jimmy Carter saved the day when he got them to agree to freeze their nuclear program. The North followed through immediately by leaving the fuel rods in cooling ponds and discontinuing new construction. In return, Washington was supposed to build two light-water reactors, but they did not get around to it until August 2002.
In January 1995 North Korea lifted its trade and investment barriers, as both sides had agreed to do, but it was not until the year 2000 that the US made a half-hearted effort to lift its own barriers.
The US was also supposed to “provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” but we never provided formal assurances and continued to threaten them with nuclear weapons, such as in 1998 when “long-range nuclear attack drills on North Korea” were simulated by the Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina. It was decided that we would hit their hardened underground facilities, of which North Korea has many, with our nukes, and that nukes would be used “as early in a crisis as possible.” A few months later, Marine Lt. Gen. Raymond Ayres publicly announced, “We’ll kill them all” in the context of his discussion of US plans to preemptively attack North Korea, just to make sure that North Korea got the message and that everyone knew that the Agreed Framework meant nothing to us.
When North Korea celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Kim regime by putting a satellite in orbit in 1998, the mass media falsely claimed that North Korea had threatened Japan and violated its sovereignty. In addition, US intelligence admitted a few weeks later that, in fact, it was just a kind of fireworks show. That should have been obvious anyway from the timing. It was not mentioned that five years had passed since the last time North Korea launched missiles.
In order to salvage the agreement that was quickly falling apart due to Washington’s abuses, the Clinton administration made some fresh promises in 1999. This was when the president of South Korea was the great peacemaker and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009), so just as with the current “sunshine policies” of President Moon Jae-in, that original sunshine policy seems to have warmed hearts in the North. Thanks in part to Kim Dae-jung, Washington enjoyed amazing cooperation from Pyongyang, even to the extent that they permitted the US military to inspect an underground fortification that was suspected of being used for a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, the North agreed to continue to respect the agreement in spite of Washington’s previous lack of a good-faith effort to uphold its promises.
But soon after the agreement was resuscitated in this way, George W. Bush finally killed it off with his “Axis of Evil” speech reminding North Korea that the US was a serial killer, and that next on the hit list after Saddam Hussein would be Kim Jong-il (1941-2011), Kim Jong-un’s father.
How Washington Treats Koreans
But Washington does not care about these people in Korea anyway because 1) Americans are not threatened. Beijing and Moscow, on the hand, are concerned because their people and territories are directly threatened by the prospect of war on the Peninsula again. Beijing is especially vulnerable and they probably remember the fact that 900,000 Chinese died fighting to protect North Korea last time from the UN Command. Chinese and Russians, who do not enjoy the kind of security that South Korea and Japan do, with the Bully on their side, have to worry about what would happen in the event of a restart of the violence; 2) the 200 million people in Northeast Asia whose lives would be put in danger by war on the Korean Peninsula are from places that Americans do not concern themselves with and even willingly choose to remain ignorant about, i.e., places like Korea (population 80 million); the Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang that border on North Korea (100 million); Primorsky, Russia (2 million); and Okinawa (1 million), which would be one of the first parts of Japan to be struck by North Korea since American bases are concentrated there; 3) except for the Russians, the peoples of this region are not white, and the majority are not Christian; 4) these regions were formerly ruled by communist governments—“better dead than Red” as Americans used to say in their brutal, flippant fashion. People are even afraid of Bernie Sanders-style social democracy that would dare to give national health care to every person in the country, as other developed countries do. Such a humane and efficient system is still akin to Stalinism in the eyes of many Americans. That is how anti-socialist the US is.
Most importantly, however—a point that everyone should keep in mind as Washington assumes a peace-seeking posture while it works to block peace when out of the public eye—is the wealth of East Asia and the old Open Door Policy of getting that wealth into American hands. Only that history of greed can explain Washington’s obsession with North Korea, a country that takes a dozen hours to fly to from the US. If peace breaks out, we could “lose” Korea completely, just as we once “lost” China. “We” means the folks who run the show in Washington, i.e., “the 1%.” Naturally, the idea that the world may be able to get on just fine without the US military must horrify Washington elites and the lords of the military-industrial complex.
Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country (2003) and his “Wrong Again,” The London Review of Books (December 2003).
Thanks to Stephen Brivati for contributing much of the content of this essay and also for editing help.