An Escalating North Korea Crisis

With President Trump demeaning North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, tensions over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear missile program grow worse, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The United Nations Security Council voted last week to unanimously back the U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution banning exports of coal, lead and seafood to North Korea, in response to its recent testing of a hydrogen bomb.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses the Security Council ministerial-level meeting on the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). At right is Rex W. Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State and President of the Security Council for April. Behind Tillerson is U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

I spoke about the volatile situation with Flashpoints Special Correspondent and Korea expert Kay Jay Noh — recently back from the region — and with Christine Ahn, a policy analyst with expertise in Korea, globalization, militarism, women’s rights and philanthropy. She is co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute (KPI), National Campaign to End the Korean War, and Women Cross DMZ.

Dennis Bernstein: Let’s begin with you Christine Ahn. Your response to the sanctions? They could have been a lot tougher?

Christine Ahn: Nikki Haley had announced after North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test that they were going to further tighten the noose on North Korea and propose some very ambitious sanctions. The good news is that, probably because of pushback from China and Russia, these sanctions have been significantly watered down.

However, as we know from sanctions on Cuba and Iraq, these sanctions tend to harm everyday people. Diplomacy seems to have become equated with more sanctions, which we know further aggravate North Korea and incite them to rapidly pursue their missile and nuclear capability.

Kay Jay Noh: It is useful to look back at the last weeks and months leading up to this situation. On July 14 and July 28, North Korea tested a new ICBM. The US response was to say that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury, the likes of which had never been seen before on the earth.” Hours later the North Koreans responded with a very careful, detailed threat of their own, saying that they would envelope Guam with fire.

On August 21, the joint US/South Korean war games took place, but they were scaled down a little bit. So, instead of the usual 25,000 US troops, there were 17,500 US troops. That is not an insignificant de-escalation. In response to the war games, the North Koreans fired three short-range missiles.

A little while later the US conducted new war games with Japan; And North Korea, to express its displeasure, fired an ICBM, which flew over Hokkaido and landed in the ocean. The US retaliated by bringing in B-1 bombers that were doing decapitation runs. This is exactly the kind of strategic asset deployment that the North Koreans consider to be a red line.

In response to that, they detonated what they claim is an H-bomb on September 3. Later reports said that it was 6.3 on the Richter scale, somewhere between 100 and 150 kilotons, making it ten to fifteen times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. They claimed that this was the perfect test, that it was adjustable and that they were also capable of launching an electromagnetic pulse.

So, if we look back, we can see a tit-for-tat process. In game theory, this is the only procedure that has been shown to result in de-escalation between two parties who are in conflict and who do not have accurate information.

DB: So what do we do now, knowing that North Korea is clearly a nuclear power to be reckoned with?

North Korean missile launch on March 6, 2017.

CA: North Korea is the most sanctioned country in the world. The largest war games in the world are conducted to simulate an invasion of their country and a decapitation of its government. Obama’s “strategic patience” policy included cyber warfare, these massive military games, and more sanctions on North Korea’s financial system. All of this helps explain why North Korea feels that they must pursue the survival of their regime and their country.

Yes, it is a new day now that North Korea does possess nuclear weapons. With every missile test they conduct, they are improving their capability of striking the US mainland. But it is not North Korea’s plan to conduct a preemptive strike against the United States. At their Workers’ Party Congress last year, they stated specifically that they would not conduct a first strike, that their program has always been for self defense.

DB: It is a bargaining chip toward being taken seriously. They saw what happened to Iraq, to Libya.

CA: Clearly, we must seek the abolition of nuclear weapons. We are in a very dangerous game of political reality, when all five permanent members of the Security Council are unwilling to sign the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

I would like to point out that, even though North Korea has said on numerous occasions that they are unwilling to give up their nuclear weapons program, they have said that they would consider abandoning their nuclear weapons program if the hostility from the US were to no longer exist. We have to dialogue with the North Koreans.

The first step might be “the freeze for the freeze,” currently backed by China and Russia, which calls for the US and South Korea halting their war games in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear and missile tests. The next step would be the gradual lifting of the sanctions against North Korea. Unless we begin to talk, there is going to be no move toward eventual denuclearization.

But we have to realize that that process of denuclearization may have to be tied to the reunification of Korea. The division of Korea has created an untenable situation where both sides are continuing the massive militarization. Reunification could resolve the nuclear crisis that is facing Northeast Asia.

Seriously wounded North Korean soldiers lie where they fell and wait for medical attention by Navy hospital corpsmen accompanying the Marines in their advance. September 15, 1950. (Photo by Sgt. Frank Kerr, USMC)

KJN: We have to remember that South Korea was created by the United States as an artificial proxy state after World War II to prevent the creation of a unified Korea.

During the Korean War, the North faced nuclear annihilation at least seven times. From 1958 until 1991 there were tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula. All 950 of them were removed in 1991, but then ICBMs, which were pointed at the Soviet Union, were redirected at North Korea.

Colin Powell threatened to turn North Korea into a charcoal briquette; Recently Secretary of Defense Mattis spoke of “annihilation”; John McCain has spoken of the “extinction” of North Korea. It makes sense that North Korea would be seeking a deterrent.

Fundamentally, the only way out of this is through negotiations and diplomacy. “Freeze for freeze” is a good place to start but we have to see whether there is political will on the part of the United States.

CA: That is going to require a peace movement in the United States which doesn’t just buy the corporate media narrative that North Korea is out to destroy the United States. Being the most sanctioned country in the world and being the enemy of the most powerful country in the world, the North Koreans have figured out how to get around sanctions.

We have seen their GDP improve. In fact, by many indicators, North Korea is somewhere in the middle of Asian countries. We have to stop believing that regime change is possible.

KJN: North Korea’s GDP grew four percent last year, despite sanctions. This is twice that of South Korea. North Korea’s GDP is 205th in the world, which means it is extremely poor. But you can say that it is the poorest advanced nation in the world. The people of North Korea live 15 years longer than their GDP counterparts. The life expectancy in South Berkeley is 68, while the life expectancy in North Korea is 71.

CA: And they have a hundred percent literacy rate.

KJN: The first set of UN sanctions were on coal, iron ore and seafood. The second set of sanctions involves textiles, a cap on oil imports, and the withholding of work permits for the 93,000 North Korean guest workers around the world.

CA: I am hopeful that the US peace movement will launch a campaign to get our members of Congress to act to restrain the Trump administration from doing anything reckless.

I think we need to challenge the US travel ban to North Korea. I know that there is some discussion about organizing a peace delegation of Americans to engage in talks. When our government is not willing to talk to the North Korean government, the people must take the initiative.

As Kay Jay said, we need the peace movement to create the political will for some kind of peace agreement with North Korea that will avert a nuclear disaster.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.

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11 comments for “An Escalating North Korea Crisis

  1. September 19, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Best analysis of North Korean situation I’ve read. Asians who know their history ought always to be included in discussions such as this.

  2. Zachary Smith
    September 19, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    In response to that, they detonated what they claim is an H-bomb on September 3.

    In my opinion this is an example of the Post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. The Wiki thoughtfully translated it as “after this, therefore because of this”.

    The recent bomb test was going to happen, period. Only the timing was an issue. When the next one is ready it is going to happen, too. The North Koreans may be fortunate enough to have justification in something Trump or Haley has just said or done, but if not, they’ll invent one. They’re just too close to the finish line to stop the nuclear program voluntarily.

    But we have to realize that that process of denuclearization may have to be tied to the reunification of Korea. The division of Korea has created an untenable situation where both sides are continuing the massive militarization. Reunification could resolve the nuclear crisis that is facing Northeast Asia.

    One of the imaginable reasons for North Korea acquiring a huge nuclear arsenal is to force unification on its own terms. The only way I can see the North Korean dictator-headed government stepping down would be a plausible threat of death to the entire bunch of them coupled with the “carrot” of a UN pardon of all crimes plus a tax-free bribe amounting to billions of dollars. If anybody else has a better notion, kindly let me know.

    During the Korean War, the North faced nuclear annihilation at least seven times.

    Frankly, I don’t believe this. The US had a very small nuclear arsenal of ordinary atomic bombs. All of them were needed to deter Russia. Just because MacArthur was running his mouth a lot doesn’t mean a thing.

    It’s true that President Eisenhower drew up war plans involving the use of nuclear weapons, but they were clearly aimed at intimidating China. As so many authors here have already pointed out, by 1953 North Korea had been devastated by conventional bombing to the point there were no worthwhile targets left in that country.

    The author lists previous verbal threats against North Korea by Powell, Mattis, and McCain. At the UN the Lunkhead from the White House is quoted thusly:

    “The US has great strength and patience,” Trump said. But he added: “If it is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

    I would propose that whoever is writing Trump’s speeches be taken for a medical treatment which would involve a stout Botox injection into every finger he uses for typing. If the person who crafted that UN speech was wearing a military uniform, break him to Buck Private and retire him from the services with a pension suitable for his new rank.

    Threatening destruction of North Korea is imbecility of the first rank. In the worst of cases some very bad damage to the place could occur if war comes, but claiming it as a goal from the outset is plain madness. This verbal bashing is descending into something Hillary Clinton would do. And I can’t think of a worse insult than that.

    I think we need to challenge the US travel ban to North Korea.

    Oddly enough, I agree for obvious tourists. Anybody stupid enough to travel there plainly deserves what they get.

    • Richard Wright
      September 19, 2017 at 11:59 pm

      So I know this is somewhat minor, but I’ve heard nobody point out that in his “speech” before the UN, Trump stated the “rocket man” was on the way to suicide, apparently confusing suicide with murder (“totally destroy North Korea”).

    • Evangelista
      September 20, 2017 at 8:48 pm

      ” ” But we have to realize that that process of denuclearization may have to be tied to the reunification of Korea. The division of Korea has created an untenable situation where both sides are continuing the massive militarization. Reunification could resolve the nuclear crisis that is facing Northeast Asia.”

      One of the imaginable reasons for North Korea acquiring a huge nuclear arsenal is to force unification on its own terms. The only way I can see the North Korean dictator-headed government stepping down would be a plausible threat of death to the entire bunch of them coupled with the “carrot” of a UN pardon of all crimes plus a tax-free bribe amounting to billions of dollars. If anybody else has a better notion, kindly let me know.”

      First, in regard to the quoted statement by Idealist Christine Ahn, Korea was a naturally divided peninsula before the advent of Western interfering and abusing. Northern and Southern people considered themselves different. An effect of Western interference has been to introduce a recognition that all Koreans are alike Koreans (and, with China’s peoples alike Oriental) with a common adversary in Westerners, who want to manipulate all of them. This should be kept in mind when analyzing Kim’s rhetoric toward Japan: “Are you ones of us, or are you going to be toads for Them? ” his rhetoric asks, while his threats are to anihilate if they choose ‘them’. You might not recognize this ‘diplomacy’, but it is; its purpose is to divide Japan from the West Kim-threats against South Korea are the same, diplomatic overtures to ‘join your own or die as Their dogs’. The crazier the West threatens the more effective the Kim-diplomacy is. Unification of the two Koreas will only be on us-against-the-West terms. Once the Western Colonial Imposition against Asia is in the past the natural (popularly recognized) divisions will reassert and the peoples of the Koreas will interact, but identify with each their own groups, as they did before. “One Korea” is a Western Pacifism Ideal; getting along is what the Koreans would, without the Western Threat, strive for.

      “North Korea acquiring a huge nuclear arsenal…to force unification on its own terms” is also a Western construction. That would be what a Westerner would think to do. North Korea will almost certainly not acquire “a huge nuclear arsenal”. It will not need to, or have use of its own for such. North Korea is a little headland holding a forward position against Western aggression. The Western aggression is currently focused against North Korea, but is seen, in East Asia, to be against East Asia. This means the Western aggression is perceived against China and Russia and Indochina, Vietnam, et al. This means that North Korea is not all alone snarling against the already proved to be vicious and violent West. North Korea has the solid and powerful backing of the two Great Powers at its back.

      It should be assumed a certainty that both China and Russia knew where, when and what of North Korea’s nuclear test explosion. It is also wise to assume the timing was not defined entirely by North Korea: Amost certainly North Korea waited for word to go ahead coming from the petro-sesmologists of both China and Russia, all over Mongolia and Siberia, and let ‘er rip when they got the word: “OK, we’re ready, let ‘er rip.” In other words. Russia, China and North Korea got more for North Korea’s nuclear nose-thumb to the West than only the gratifying squawks and howls of the Western Posers feeling themselves goosed.

      You have to remember that in East Asia they remember, even if in the West they do not, that America shipped all of its manufacturing over to China and Korea (North Korea jobs for China, supplying parts, fr which “sanctions” only hang over like a cloud of smog, unpleasant, but not slowing anyone down much), which means that if, or when, an “American War Machine” kicks into gear to move against East Asia it is going to advance only until it needs parts. Then it will have to “make armistice” to order and obtain from its adversaries in order to advance again. It seems to be a North American problem; the downfall of the indigenous Americans when the Euros invaded with gunpowder; they were dependent on thei Euro enemies for that comodity, without which their war-guns were useless. Check the history of the British trying to buy weapons from China early in WWII, to defend Hongkong and Singapore.

      Next, North Korea is not a “Dictator-headed” government. Kim Jong-un is not a dictator, he is a representative figurehead; The latest representative of the first Kim, the first figurehead to represent North Korean Resolve in the face of Western Assault. Kim Jong-un does the photo-ops and is on the posters as representative of the North Korean government. In the West, even though they have a Roman Church that has a Pope that is similar, they seem unable to comprehend the concept. So the West defines a “Dictator” and leads itself in a fantasy circle. Hey, it works good for propaganda… Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un stands forth, the orator, on the government stage, undoubtedly having great fun blasting insults at the Western bombasters, with, if you notice, always a solid phalanx of support behind him. Trump blows for one blow-hard and a cadre of military puffers, Kim blows back for a government.

      If the U.S., and the U.N., want to resolve the “Korean Crisis” the first thing they might want to try to gain a consensus to do might be to negotiate a surrender and terms to end the Korean War. Remember that war? The U.S. , fighting for the U. N., which it owned at that time, got its arse kicked and had to back out. It negotiated an armistice, to save itself face. But then, instead of following up with negotiating terms to end the war, it has spent sixty years puffing and posturing and claiming “We coulda beat ’em…”

      Bribe North Korea, hell, as the loser the U. S. owes billions in reparations.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain
    September 20, 2017 at 4:12 am

    Trump’s threat of genocide against the DPRK means that the USA finally has an honest Butcher-in-Chief. And the Foreign Minister of Aust-failure, the USA’s most toadyish stooge, the skeletal ‘Asbestos Queen’ Julia Bishop, rushed to endorse his Hitlerite threats.

  4. Tom Welsh
    September 20, 2017 at 9:52 am

    ‘With President Trump demeaning North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea…’

    … with rockets…

    Yosemite Uncle Sam strikes again! Dumber than the dumbest of the dumb.

  5. September 20, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Good article

  6. Michael Kenny
    September 20, 2017 at 11:33 am

    As the Institute for Strategic Studies report argued, North Korea doesn’t produce all it needs to launch nuclear weapons. At very least it has to import rocket motors which are obtained illicitly either from or via Russia. All Putin has to do is put a stop to that traffic and the NK nuclear programme stops dead in its tracks.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 20, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      All Putin has to do is put a stop to that traffic and the NK nuclear programme stops dead in its tracks.

      If the Tooth Fairy is managed in the right way, a person can accumulate great wealth and retire comfortably on the income from the interest.

    • robjira
      September 20, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      I think you mean the champions of democracy in Ukraine, not the champions of democracy in Russia.

  7. mark
    September 21, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    “Sanctions have been significantly watered down.”
    90% of NK’s foreign trade, 50% of its oil supply cut off.
    The US now threatening and blackmailing countries across the planet to destroy the remainder.
    Significantly watered down???!!!
    Once again, the two great snakes, Russia and China, are enabling and facilitating US aggression and economic strangulation.
    Grovelling and kowtowing to Uncle Sam in a futile policy of appeasement.
    Just as in the past they stabbed Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Iran in the back.
    500,000 children under 5 died in Iraq, 1991-2003, because of similar economic strangulation, also enabled by Judas Russia and Weasel China.
    Anyone from these 5 countries should regard Russia and China as just as much an enemy as the US.
    They will always sell out friendly countries to Uncle Sam in return for worthless promises the US has no intention of ever keeping.
    Russia played the snake with Iran. Refused to complete Bushehr, supply the S300s Iran had paid for, to grovel to the Zionists and Uncle Sam. Enabled crippling sanctions in Iran based on WMD lies they knew were lies and said were lies. Children died as a result. In return Russia was promised ABM missiles would not be moved near Russia’s borders. The US immediately reneged on this, just as it did on “not one inch” NATO expansion..
    Russia and China will always sell out its friends. And it sells them out cheap.
    Once the outer cordon of prey nations – North Korea, Venezuela, Iran – have been destroyed, by some combination of outright aggression, regime change, economic strangulation and propaganda warfare, with Russia and China yet again acting as accomplices, the US will close in for the kill against Russia and China.
    Probably starting with pet Islamic terror groups in Dagestan and Xinjiang. Propaganda vilification and economic warfare. Maybe more attempts at colour revolutions, which we have already seen in both countries. Aggressive military confrontation ending in the first strikes the US is now openly discussing.
    If this happens, it will be no more than they deserve. The US always turns on its vassals. They will experience what they have enabled the US to inflict on others.

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