The Threat of Nuclear Annihilation
Since the day Donald J. Trump entered the White House, one thing has been established with absolute veracity: he is a consummate liar. He has told numerous lies to the world as well as to the American people. The frequence of his lies can be assessed from a report published by the Washington Post recently which said, “As of our latest update October 10, 2017, or his 264th day in office, the president has made 1,318 [false or misleading] claims over 263 days … Trump has a tendency to repeat himself, and that includes his false or misleading claims.” Even some senior members of his own party, whose ideological disposition is extremely conservative, have castigated him as wholly unreliable and some have even declared him unfit for office.
Tragically, some liberals in the United States are now beginning to think of the 43rd President, George W. Bush, who recently gave a veiled chiding to Trump for leading the country into a precipitous decline, as a respected figure. However, what they have evidently forgotten is that Bush and his cohorts celebrated their act of bombing Afghanistan. If this savagery was not enough, the fiction of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was deployed to enlist “the international community” in an illegitimate war against Iraq the consequences of which can be seen in the incessant turmoil in the Middle East and much of West Asia and the birthing of the Frankenstein monster called ISIS.
Nonetheless, whatever the supposed differences between trump’s two predecessors Bush and Obama, or between the Republican establishment and what is commonly – but mistakenly – described as its radical “fringe” as it is far more than a fringe comprised of white supremacists, xenophobic nationalists, militarists, and Tea Party ideologues, there are a number of issues on which there is a unanimity of opinion. None of these issues is as important as the threat that North Korea is purported to pose to the US.
A great many American politicians and commentators have criticized Trump for his intemperate use of language in discussions around North Korea, and some thought his use of Twitter to threaten war against a sovereign state was injudicious. Why Trump should have been expected to display more restraint in this matter than in any other is something of a puzzle, unless one holds the view that on the matter of North Korea, Trump ought to have been more calculating since the stakes – outbreak of nuclear war – are infinitely high. There is, thus, a current of feeling that Trump would be better advised to negotiate rather than issue naked threats. But none of this signals any substantive difference of opinion even among Trump’s critics and detractors about the existential North Korean threat to the US.
Iteration of a Long Simmering War
The present war of words between US President Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un commenced after a series of missile tests over the summer by North Korea. Since February, reports suggest, North Korea has fired at least 22 missiles during 15 tests. Kim Jong-un is nothing if not unmindful of the place of 4th July, which marks Independence Day in the American political imaginary. He chose that day to launch the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile having a range exceeding 5,500 kilometres and having capability to ‘reach anywhere in the world’.
Trump took the bait. On 19 September, in his maiden address before the United Nations General Assembly, he issued a warning to a small band of “rogue states” that the “US would not stand by idly as they violated the rights of their subjects and the sovereignty of other nations.” Had he only condemned “the depraved regime in North Korea” for the “starvation deaths of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing and oppression of countless more,” Trump would have been following in the footsteps of other American Presidents; but he chose to go beyond. He caricatured Kim by saying: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime … [t]he United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Ironically, Trump unabashedly declaimed on the possibilities of a legitimate genocide from a forum that was set up, primarily, to enhance the prospects for global peace and cooperation.
Kim responded in kind; he ridiculed Trump as “a gangster fond of playing with fire,” adverting to the “totally deranged behaviour of the US President.” The “Supreme Leader” of North Korea would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” This missive would send Trump scurrying for the dictionary – only to find that “dotard” is nothing more than an old person, especially one who is weak and senile. And, if there is anything that Trump ferociously dislikes, it is the suggestion that he is “weak.”
A Nation under Occupation
What has made possible an American consensus on North Korea such that its leader is never anything but a ‘madman’, a ‘ruthless dictator’ who cares little for his people and even less for the rest of the world, and who may be ‘loony’ enough to initiate a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or the US? What is elided in representations of Kim as the very picture of irrationality?
The Korean War (1950-1953) is commonly described in the US as “the forgotten war,” though it lasted three years and led to more than 36,000 American casualties. The war takes a back seat in public discussions and collective memory to the Vietnam War. The latter lacerated American society and led to upheavals, the reverberations of which are felt to the present day. It is from Vietnam that one of the many enduring myths which have since informed American military intervention emerged, namely the idea that the war was only lost because the generals were compelled by supine politicians to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs.
The Korean War, on the other hand, has always appeared to have something of the insipid and the indecisive about it in American common understanding: three years after the fighting commenced, the status quo was affirmed. In cold-blooded calculations, nothing is made of the immense loss of lives on the Korean side. No American monument to the dead in Vietnam, not even Maya Lin’s celebrated national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, even mentions that some 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, including two million civilians on both sides; but much worse is the national apathy about the Korean War, where the civilian count was higher, at around 2.73 million, and that too over a much shorter period of time.
The history of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and, likewise, the history of the American bombing of North Korea are both germane to the present situation. For well over a thousand years, Korea remained a unified country. Japanese incursions into Korea began around 1870, but Great Power politics enabled the Koreans to stave off colonization for a few more decades before Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910. Resistance to Japanese rule intensified with the advent of communism, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 led to the declaration of Korean independence. The Soviet Union, which has not been a force in the Pacific theatre of war and had played no direct part in the liberation of Korea, entered the war against Japan, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August, and a day before a second nuclear weapon incinerated Nagasaki. So, the spoils of war were now to be divided between the victorious Americans and Russians. Korea might well have remained a unified country had either the US or the Soviet Union lavished any real attention on it, but at that time, it was not a part of the calculus of global domination. Moreover, it did not have any strategic importance for either superpower so neither country paid much attention to it; American and Russian forces remained there only to restrain each other as there was no strong conviction in either Washington or Moscow that the territory itself was significant. It was along the 38th parallel (the border between South Korea and North Korea) that two countries came into existence in 1948: the American zone became South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with its capital in Pyongyang, was formed in the northern arm of Korea.
A History of Bombing
The commonplace narrative of the Korean War renders the North’s surprise attack on the South on 25 June 1960 as a desperate attempt at land-grabbing and unification by a ruthless dictatorship. Such accounts obfuscate a number of critical developments between 1945 and 1950. The Russians quit North Korea in late 1948; the Americans did likewise; leaving South Korea almost the same time. Forces from both Koreas frequently violated the border, and a series of incursions into North Korea from the South preceded the North’s invasion of 25 June. Thoughts of unification were ever present among political leaders both in the South and the North. As Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and the founding father of the country’s political dynasty, wrote in January 1950 to the Soviet Ambassador to his country, “Lately, I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country”. South Korea, for its part, was determined to seek unification on its own terms.
If much is occluded in the commonplace narratives of Korea’s history between 1945 and 1950, the pulverisation of North Korea from the air during the war constitutes perhaps the most gruesome chapter in the global history of aerial bombing. The US dropped 6,35,000 tonnes of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tonnes of napalm (a highly incendiary jellylike substance used in fire bombs, flamethrowers, etc.; it is a fiery tactical weapon that can stick to targets like no other incendiary weapon); in comparison, 5,03,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped by the US in the Pacific theatre, an area vastly greater than North Korea, in four years during the Second World War. On “an average good day,” according to a US Eighth Army chemical officer quoted in a recent study of napalm, American pilots dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm, which US Marines cheerfully nicknamed “cooking oil,” over North Korea. The sadistic Curtis LeMay, the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, admitted some years later, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off 20 percent of the population.” According to the North Koreans, by the end of the war, there were “only two modern buildings” that “remained standing in Pyongyang” and by the fall of 1952 “every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed”.
The “forgotten” war still remains in the American imagination a “limited” war. North Korea, however, experienced a “total” war, a war of genocidal intent.
What is vividly clear is that political discussions in the US around Korea remain spectacularly oblivious to both of the psychological effects of the war that persist into the seventh decade after its end and the purchase – in political, social, cultural and educational terms – that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as something of a concentration camp.
Beyond all this, however, is the one unpalatable truth that is not recognized in the laws and conventions that govern relations between states, and shows how much further international law still has to evolve if the notion of being “civilized” is not to remain a sham.
To threaten a sovereign state with genocide and nuclear annihilation, and that too under the roof of the United Nations, should itself be construed as a crime against humanity. It is an indubitable fact that the US has on several occasions, since the end of World War II, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons. In November 1950, President Truman had revealed at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea had always been “under consideration”. Ever since, North Korea has lived under the shadow of that threat: it is an intolerable burden for any country to shoulder.
There is no question that calls for dialogue and negotiation must be heeded, but the admission that constructive conversation, or whatever other anodyne term one prefers, is an indispensable requirement for ensuring that the Korean peninsula is not engulfed in unquenchable flames may not have much traction in the years ahead unless the notion that no country has a legitimate interest in nuclear weapons is seriously entertained.
Nuclear weapons ought not to be a matter of inheritance; if countries insist on that privilege that alone should be enough to render them into pariahs.