To Distinguish Fact From Fiction in Korea, First Follow the Money

Photograph Source: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – CC BY-SA 3.0

The “masters” of the Empire of Japan, who invaded and dominated Korea for half a century, followed the “vile maxim” that is typical of the “masters of mankind,” i.e., “all for ourselves, and nothing for other people” (Adam Smith). And while a “budding elite” of talented Koreans in fields such as “commerce, industry, publishing, academia, films, literary pursuits, urban consumption” were there in the “relative openness” of the 1920s, and while they were well-equipped to lead an independent Korea, tragedy occurred, as “global depression, war, and ever-increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s destroyed much of this progress, turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance” (Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History, 2010). Many of those who chose violent resistance went to Manchuria to fight against the Japanese colonizers, and later became leaders in the North Korean army.

In Korean history there are many examples of valiant attempts by the dispossessed and dominated to force the “masters” to share, or to take back what was stolen. While many experts would agree that North Korea is a “failed Stalinist utopia,” one cannot deny that it is also a country where millions of people originally had a noble dream, one of “universal equality and affluence.” (Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, 2013). In the early days of North Korea, many were impressed with what they saw as success in the Soviet Union. Given that the dream was presented in the “‘modern’ and ‘scientific’ jargon of Marxism-Leninism,” and that the Soviet Union “made good fighter jets and had the world’s best ballet,” it is not surprising that there was often “enthusiastic response.”

On the 1st of March, 1919, leaders of the March 1st Movement had proclaimed the “independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people… to all the nations of the world in witness of human equality” (Korean Declaration of Independence). But now, one hundred years later, the Korean “is still is not free,” the life of the Korean is still sadly crippled by “the chains of discrimination,” and s/he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” The dream of Dr. King is not so different from the dream of millions of Koreans. Northeast Asia is another ocean of material prosperity—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong… Camp Humphreys in South Korea is the largest U.S. overseas base in the world, and with amenities such as the $47 million golf course provided by Korean taxpayers, Koreans there can now get a glimpse of the vast ocean of U.S. material prosperity.

According to an internal CIA study, however, even under the oppressive government that produced the “failed utopia,” North Koreans managed to get the elites dominating their Stalinist system to share their limited national wealth in a way that millions of materially deprived Americans today would envy: “compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; genuinely free housing, free health care, and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries until the recent famine.” (Cumings’ words. He refers to the famine that resulted after the horrible floods of 1995 and 1996 and the drought of the summer of 1997. Now bad weather and sanctions may be harming an already fragile food supply.

In South Korea, too, it is not hard to find evidence of millions of people striving to redistribute wealth in a fair way. One of the goals of the candlelight protest movement (or “Candlelight Revolution”) was to “implement equitable policies and measures that could ensure a level playing field for the haves and the have-nots.” (Mi Park, South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution: The Power of Plaza Democracy, 2018) Indeed, it could easily be argued that South Korean labor unions are showing the way forward for the labor movement today, demonstrating how workers can win their rights and build industrial democracy.

Considering the impact that Koreans have had and are having on the global struggle for bread, and how the “masters” with their “vile maxim” will predictably respond to that impact, readers should do a little reading and critical thinking about class struggle in Korea before accepting any claims that North Korea is endangering the lives of people in the U.S. instead of the other way around. “Following the money” when investigating such claims is the surest way to determine their reliability.

The “Threat” from North Korea

Perhaps the most important principle when considering claims of threats from North Korea is that violence is a tool of the powerful against the weak, and never vice versa. With a population 13 times larger and a defense budget 150 times larger than those of North Korea, anyone can see that the U.S. will have an unfair advantage over North Korea in any contest between the two states that is settled through violence. So for the sake of the millions in the West who are in the dark on Korea, let us “follow the money” and compare the polar opposites in the debate about North Korea—one a journalist who is well paid to write for the New York Times and the other someone who essentially writes for free, who has been punished for his writings.

In a 24 February 2010 cable from the U.S. Secretary of State to Moscow, leaked by Assange’s WikiLeaks, the words of a Russian summarizing Russian intelligence appear: “There are claims that 19 of these missiles were shipped to Iran [from North Korea] in 2005, but there is no evidence for this and concealment of such a transfer would be impossible.” Based on this cable, the New York Times’ David Sanger and his co-authors penned an article in which they wrote, “Iran obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24 of this year.” (“Iran Fortifies Its Arsenal With the Aid of North Korea,” 28 Nov 2010, New York Times.)

Gareth Porter pointed out the Times’ distortions of the facts: “The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles—supposedly called the BM-25—from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the U.S. view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the U.S. side.”  “The Russian official said there was no evidence for claims that 19 of these missiles had been shipped to Iran in 2005, and that it would have been impossible to conceal such a transfer. The Russians also said it was difficult to believe Iran would have purchased a missile system that had never even been tested.” If one reads the relevant passages in context, one sees the U.S. side being cautioned by the Russian side about its overblown fears that Iran is buying long-range missiles from North Korea. Reading Sanger, who is supposed to be informing the public about this WikiLeaks cable, it is clear that he is blowing those already-paranoid fears/claims out of proportion.

Unlike in his hawk-supporting article in the New York Times, in an interview that came out 10 days later, Sanger did mention the Russian intelligence and left open the possibility that North Korea was not selling missiles to Iran. Perhaps he did it with Porter’s criticism in mind: “Now, this missile has never been tested in North Korea or Iran so we’re not certain of its range in their hands, and the Russians pushed back and said they have some doubts about whether or not the missile had been sold or even whether it really existed.” (Terry Gross’s 8 December 2010 interview with Sanger. See also Julian Assange on this episode in his “A Cypherpunk in His Own Words,” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 208).

Sanger is a threat-exaggerator par excellence. The journalist Julian Assange, on the other hand, has warned people to not trust Washington. Consider the following lies and propaganda from Sanger. He ridiculously claimed we have “done little” to prepare for Russia’s cyber and nuclear threats, even when our military budget dwarfs that of Russia; falsely claimed that Venezuela’s Maduro was not elected through a fair election; called the war in Afghanistan a “dumb war of occupation” and downplayed Obama’s escalation of that war, despite the fact that he tripled the number of troops from 33,000 to 98,000; covered up the reality that Obama’s cyberattacks on Iran actually constituted acts of war; and he called Iran one of the “nuclear crises” facing the US, when even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) denies that there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran. Never trust a liar.

A highly questionable claim that is often supported by journalists is that Washington’s THAAD system in South Korea is protecting South Koreans. The THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is supposed to be able to shoot down ballistic missiles, but it has only been proven to work in idyllic conditions. This makes one wonder if it serves any purpose beyond profits to U.S. defense contractors.

One one succinct explanation is provided by Leo Chang. He reveals that THAAD does not make South Korea any safer in the event of a fight with North Korea due to the short distances involved. In the event of a return to the hot war, South Korea would be bombarded by missiles from the North, both nuclear and conventional. In April 2017 Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “We have the potential for a nuclear war that would take millions of lives.” And according to at least one expert, THAAD is also not going to knock down ICBMs.

So what can THAAD do? According to Chang, its real goal is to “detect and track as early as possible China’s ICBMs” that would be “headed for the West and East Coast of the US.” In the case of a war between Washington and Beijing, the area where THAAD has been installed (i.e., Seongju County in South Korea) would be a prime target for Beijing to hit before launching ICBMs against the US mainland, so in the end what South Koreans are doing, is to give Washington slightly sooner notice of in the case of nuclear war between China and the U.S. (i.e., the end of human civilization) by paying U.S. companies for hardware that endangers their own lives. No wonder residents of Seongju have intensely opposed THAAD and even President Moon Jae-in opposed THAAD at first.

Julian Assange has suggested that since North Korea’s nukes and missile developments led to THAAD, Washington may have intentionally provoked conflicts with Pyongyang to justify the deployment of THAAD. He has pointed out how such deployment leads to increased tension between Washington and Beijing, and to Beijing’s further military build-up. And he has criticized US military drills in the region.


There is a huge gap in wealth between the U.S. and North Korea, and that alone is sufficient to demonstrate that the U.S. is a threat to North Korea and not vice versa—one state pumped up and ready to obliterate the other at a moment’s notice, the other not even remotely considering a first strike. One side has hundreds of military bases and possibly more than one aircraft carrier surrounding the other; hundreds more nuclear missiles; and tens of thousands of troops and thermonuclear warheads on submarines nearby. It is as if Washington holds a gun pointed at Pyongyang’s head, and Pyongyang has a rock in a slingshot pocket pointed at Washington’s feet. Yet the U.S. congress recently passed a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that represents “complete capitulation” to Donald Trump and a “blank check for endless wars,” in the words of a joint statement from a diverse group of U.S.-based NGOs. Now, looking at the filthy rich of America and the wretched and dispossessed of Korea, whose side do you think Julian Assange is on, and whose side do you think David Sanger is on?

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

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