The Madness of the American Ruling Class vs. the Sanity of the People of South Korea

Photo by Valeriana Solaris | CC BY 2.0

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The United States Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776

In 2003 the American historian of Korea Bruce Cumings wrote that whether or not we would have another terrible war with North Korea was to be decided by a “capricious Administration that listens to nobody,” i.e., that of George W. Bush. And here we are again, put in the same position by the same party backing another capricious administration that is in charge of making the call—violence or diplomacy. But many observers feel that the recent hiring of the Three Bludgeoneers Gina Haspel, Michael Pompeo, and John Bolton seems downright “mad,” in the sense of the Mad Hatter in the story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The safety and happiness of the People was the stated purpose of the new government that was established in 1776 in the United States. The word “the People,” unjustly, did not then include Native Americans, African slaves, or other members of homo sapiens in other countries, but at the time the idea that the ruled have the right to “to alter or to abolish” the rulers’ regime when it does not promote their safety and happiness was a radical idea.

Indeed, the French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville lavished praise on American democracy in his classic Democracy in America (1835-40) after a stay in the US of several months during which he studied the American penal system and traveled widely. For many people around the world in those days the United States was a beacon of light holding forth the hope that democracy could be established even when conjoined to an economic system that empowered the tyranny of private wealth.

South Korea’s historical significance today is similar. It is a beacon of light in the darkness of Northeast Asian tyranny. South Koreans have a democracy-promoting constitution that already clearly recognizes what could be termed a “right to resist.” The  preamble to the constitution of the Republic of Korea (ROK) mentions two powerful democratic movements in the history of South Korea, i.e., the “March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Nineteenth Uprising of 1960 against injustice.” (100 years of struggle against foreign domination will be remembered on March 1st next year). But as if the recognition of these two bright historical moments is not fully complete from the perspective of the democracy and peace-promoting President Moon Jae-in, he is now about to further enshrine this “right of resistance” by adding three other moments of democracy in action, the Bu-Ma Democratic Protests of 1979, the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, and the June Struggle of 1987. This should not be surprising since it was a people’s uprising called the “Candlelight Revolution” that brought him to power after unseating and imprisoning Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, dictator from 1963 to 1979. Also imprisoned now is Lee Myung-bak, an earlier president who served from 2008 to 2013. That makes four former presidents who have been arrested on corruption charges since the 1990s. Democracy seems to be alive and well in South Korea.

Considering the strong movement for democracy and peace in that country, i.e., the movement for sanity, let us compare such sanity with the madness of American government today, controlled as it is by the World’s Most Dangerous Political Party. The Party has succeeded in building a government that is fully “locked and loaded” with the bullets of Haspel, Pompeo, and Bolton against the growing threat of peace in Korea.

The Madness of the Republicans

President Trump has announced that he will hire John Bolton as his National Security Adviser. This announcement follows those of Haspel and Pompeo’s appointments. Haspel will be in charge of the CIA and Pompeo the State Department. This news about Haspel and Pompeo was worrisome enough, but the news about Bolton is like a bolt of electricity painfully zapping the hearts of well-informed, peace-loving Americans. As many have commented, Bolton the warmonger is about as consistent as they come. It is widely agreed that his appointment is bad news for both the people of Iran and of North Korea.

In the case of Korea, he goes so far as to claim that North Korea presents to Americans an “imminent threat,” and even demands “striking first.” He is portrayed as advocating a “pre-emptive strike,” but in fact, the word “preventive war” would more accurately describe the direction in which he will push the President and our country. What he is envisions for the US is best categorized as the more aggressive type of state violence “preventive war” for the simple reason that, compared to the US, North Korea’s preparedness for battle is like that of a child holding one pistol that may or may not be loaded, while the US is like a team of elite special forces whose members are all equipped with fully automatic, tried and true firearms. This idea that North Korea is about to launch an attack on the US is absolutely absurd. In some rare theoretical cases, a pre-emptive strike might be thinkable in the minds of some hawks, even if such a strike would be illegal under international law, if there were solid evidence that North Korea was preparing to launch a sudden devastating attack with ICBMs, but that is not now the case. A quick comparison of the relative military and economic power, the size of the populations, and the international alliances of the US and North Korea would immediately dispel any such paranoia. (For example, see my “Will Supreme Leader Trump Commit the Supreme International Crime?“).

Dwight D. Eisenhower is reported as saying, “Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” Unfortunately for us, Donald Trump is no Eisenhower and will probably actually listen to John “Iraq War” Bolton. Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army who served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. He knew war intimately and he was no “fortunate son” in the sense of CCR’s famous antiwar song, unlike Trump. Trump grew up in a house with six bedrooms and four an a half baths in an upper middle-class neighborhood in the city: Jamaica Estates, Queens. Eisenhower grew up in small-town Abilene, Kansas. His family did not even have enough money to send two boys to college. Unlike Eisenhower but like George W. Bush before him and like Kim Jong-un his opponent, one could say that Trump, too, is where he is  today thanks to his rich daddy.

A study paid for by the US Army War College entitled “Preventive War and its Alternatives: the Lessons of History” concludes that “preventive wars are not attractive policy options for addressing” nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC) threats.  (Wow, it must have taken decades of research before they could reach this jaw-dropping conclusion). “Examination of the historical record reveals that limited strikes on NBC programs are generally ineffective. Larger-scale attacks intended to overthrow a regime are sometimes successful, though their financial, human, military, and geopolitical costs (including counterproductive effects on the war on terrorism) are so substantial that they are unattractive policy choices.” They also wind you up in international war crimes tribunals. A quick look at the history of the second American war against Iraq would also enlighten one about the costs of preventive war.

This new triumvirate of Pompeo, Haspel, and Bolton reminds one of the Bush-era characters Powell, Rumsfeld, and Cheney. Stephen Walt argues in “Welcome to the Dick Cheney Administration,” Bolton is a card-carrying member of the Washington consensus, and in fact, not outside the bounds of that group of extremists. I agree. This follows the pattern of the last few decades of the Republican Party, i.e., one of installing government officials who openly profess views and enact policies that hark back to the dark days of Nazism. Different faces, same masters. In place of Secretary of State Colin Powell we will have Michael “Bomb Iran” Pompeo, instead of Michael “Drone Strikes” Hayden we will be served by Gina “Torture Queen” Haspel, and instead of  Condoleezza “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” Rice, we will have John “Iraq War” Bolton.

Other madmen not to be forgotten include “Mad Dog” General James Mattis, who took over where Donald Rumsfeld left off as Secretary of Defense. And always the life of the party, Vice President Mike Pence continues the tradition of Dick Cheney.

As Medea Benjamin, recently informed us, however, Walt’s estimate of the negative effects of the Iraq War are even worse than he mentioned, which lends even more credibility to his argument. He cites “hundreds of thousands” killed in Iraq. Assessing the damage 15 years after the Iraq War, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies have recently demonstrated that, in fact, 2.4 million Iraqis have been killed. But those are just the people killed in Iraq. Who knows how many have been killed in the Middle East as a result of the chaos created by the Iraq War (not to mention the Gulf War)? Who could deny that the carnage in Syria was partly caused by the chaos generated by the Iraq War? The numbers will just continue to climb. Then there are the untold millions of wounded and PTSD sufferers, the millions who were displaced, the millions who starved or became sick due to the War, and who knows how many who were inspired to take matters into their own hands through terrorism in other countries. All that tragedy and ugliness would easily be surpassed by a Korean War 2.0, especially if nuclear weapons were employed, as they probably would be.

Recent examples of the madness of our government include 1) threatening invasion and regime change with North Korea, the garrison state that is like a porcupine in that it has much defensive capability and little offensive capability and, like a porcupine, is also long-lived; 2) offering North Korea the choice between total submission and nuclear holocaust; 3) Holding joint US-South Korea war games even after the detente and major concessions from North Korea; 4) demanding “denuclearization” without offering to cut back on our 6,800 nukes intimidating North Korea and the rest of the world, all of which work, or to discontinue the Obama-era investment in modernization of nukes that made them all the more lethal and when many of our nukes are installed in our submarines, any percentage of which could be off the coast of Korea at this moment; and 5) continuing 19th century-style “gunboat diplomacy” and Open Door Policy. What our country is doing is the international relations equivalent of noticing a cliff and immediately running straight for it. The Republicans never saw a cliff they did not want to run towards.

The Sanity of the Candlelighters

As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “People in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than governments.” The grassroots South Korean Candlelight Revolution today represents the light in the darkness. “I hope that Pyeongchang will become another candle to be lit,” Moon said the other day. “Like the candles the Korean people held out in the face of the crisis of democracy, I believe that Pyeongchang will become a candlelight that sheds light on peace when peace is threatened.”

President Moon may be one of the greatest peacemaking heads of state in the world today. He certainly has the experience that is one ingredient of wisdom. In 1976 a group of American and South Korean soldiers recklessly broke the first commandment of the North-South armistice when they entered the “DMZ” (Demilitarized Zone), the forbidden buffer zone dividing the two countries. Why did they jeopardize the safety of everyone on the entire Peninsula? Because there was one annoying poplar tree that blocked their view of the North. Their quick act of aggression nearly sparked a second holocaust on the Peninsula. One of the South Korean soldiers who was ordered to help cut that tree down that day was President Moon. He saw with his own eyes how easy it is to start a war.

When his family name that is pronounced “Moon” in Korean is written in Chinese characters, it is written with a character that is pronounced “wen” in Chinese and “bun” in Japanese. It can mean “writing,” “culture,” or even “civilization.” Given President Moon’s past career and his recent role in bringing about detente, sanity, and the possibility of a civilized peace, I think of him as the “Civilization President.” He, along with the Candlelight Revolutionaries who put him in power, are returning us to sanity and leading us toward civilization.

Approximately one year ago, on 11 March 2017, the Candlelight Revolution was celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Koreans after it was announced that that President Park Geun-hye would be impeached for bribery and corruption. Opponents of the ousted President Park remained non-violent even as her police killed three of the protestors. On 24 March a year later Americans led by hundreds of thousands of sane young people protested against gun violence and mass shootings, another form of haphazard mass killing that is not unlike war. Americans and South Koreans share a concern with haphazard violence. We simply have a different focus at the moment.

In the case of South Korea, perhaps the primary driver of their revolution providing the fuel that kept the fire of the people’s anger burning was Park Geun-hye’s image of elitism and conspicuous wealth. It has been written that the “Candlelight Revolution sprang from a collective determination to act against a system in which only the wealthy and connected appear to advance.” Her indulgences and those of her friends, such as designer accessories and ponies for spoiled children, incensed South Koreans.

The resentment of class inequalities has long been a recurring theme in modern Korea before and during the period of humiliation by the Empire of Japan as well as during the present era of the divided Peninsula—a division that was brought to them primarily by the US. Even today in South Korea, there is severe income inequality. Overlapping with a class inequality that had divided Koreans for centuries was the fact that the Japanese colonizers had come in on the side of the ruling class. Japanese colonizers set themselves up as the new ruling class but they protected certain privileges, such as status and wealth, of the old aristocracy (i.e., the yangban).

Some are of the view that Trump has brought Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Moon together, i.e., a situation in which Kim Jong-un said, “OK, OK, OK” when the Madman from the Bully State cornered him. But if this is true, if Washington is pushing its “ally” into the arms of its “enemy,” then we Americans must think about our role as citizens. Instead of sitting and watching as South Koreans are pitted against America’s ridiculously over-armed runaway war machine, we should stand up and join South Koreans, who are giving hope to millions of people around the world with their loud and clear message that “The people are sovereign!”—revolutionary words on some Candlelighter signs in Seoul that remind us of our own country’s struggle against colonialism. By standing shoulder to shoulder with them we can help them check, challenge, or  maybe even eventually end the oligarchic rule of the 1% over those of us who work for a living. More importantly, by doing so we can become ethical agents rather than slaves to power in the midst of this epoch-making struggle for human rights.

If we succeed in doing as the South Korean Candlelighters have done, we will no longer be ruled by the Most Dangerous Political Party in History and we will enjoy that “Safety and Happiness” that the American Declaration of Independence tells us we have a right to—updating the notion of “we” to include, of course, all members of the species. If we fail, our government could, in our names, spark a conflagration in Northeast Asia like the world has never seen before and surpass the brutality of German Nazis. Germans have faced their past genocide head on. But if the US government continues to follow in the footsteps of the Third Reich (1933-45), many historians in the future will surely conclude that the Americans of 2018 had no sense of their place in history. That ignorance of history will be ascribed to the lack of any kind of decent reflection and atonement for the history of their country’s first shameful genocide—an honest accounting of what happened to the 80 million people that lived in America after the genocidist Christopher Columbus arrived—or such reflection on the mindless killing of many millions around the world in American wars after the huge and unprecedented build-up and unleashing of the military sponsored by President Truman before and during the Korean War.

If we Americans succeed, perhaps some future American kindergarteners will be introduced to their world history lesson with the following nursery rhyme:

Trumpty Dumpty put up a wall
Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Trumpty together again.

Once more, South Koreans have successfully deposed a tyrant and installed a leader who represents their interests. They have lit up the dark night sky through their Candlelight Revolution. Americans, whose country was a model of democracy in Tocqueville’s eyes, must not let democracy die in darkness. To be sane is to care. Are you going to be a “good American” like the “good Germans” who turned a blind eye under Adolf Hitler’s reign? Or are you going to be a good citizen and voice your dissatisfaction with the new American Nazism? As Tocqueville wrote, “in democracies the working class takes a part in public affairs.”


Alexis Dudden, “Revolution by Candlelight: How South Koreans Toppled a Government,” Dissent Magazine (Fall 2017).

Kim Kyu-nam, “Blue House seeks to add three more references to democratic movements in preamble to Constitution,” Hankyoreh (21 March 2018).

Stephen M. Walt, “Welcome to the Dick Cheney Administration,” Foreign Policy (23 March 2018).

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.