Traffic ladies are iconic to North Korea and it’s a highly respected profession. Their movements are definitive and militaristic, saluting party delegates as they pass as pictured here. Photo Elliot/Earth Nutshell.
Pyongyang is not crazy
Less than three months into Pres. Donald Trump’s reign we can already say that there is a non-trivial chance that the United States will soon be engaged in a nuclear war.
The threat is still remote, but all the pieces are in place. An aircraft carrier group en route to North Korea, anonymous sources threatening a preemptive strike against them, a recent unilateral attack on the Syrian government and the dropping of a 21,000 pound conventional bomb in Afghanistan — interpreted by many as a message for North Korea.
Any misjudgments or mistakes could easily spark a shooting war in which the North Koreans will face an existential threat they can only resist with their nuclear weapons. The United States would be likely to respond in kind.
The main thing standing between us and this scenario? The cooler heads and good judgement of Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
This is deeply concerning, but to hear the U.S. media tell it all of the irrationality and risk in this is on the North Korean side. NBC News, in the very article announcing the United States’ threat of unauthorized aggression against North Korea, called it “volatile and unpredictable.”
Australia’s defense industry minister called North Korea “the world’s greatest threat” less than a week after the United States escalated the major power conflict in Syria with little warning. And The New York Times spoke of China’s need to “rein in” the childish North Koreans, even if the United States is the one that’s killed at least 1,000 civilians in combat since the beginning of 2017.
Western propaganda draws from a deep well of racist “yellow peril” prejudice to stoke irrational fears against this tiny, poor, isolated country, and it amplifies this paranoia with long-standing stereotypes of East Asian “oddity” to dehumanize North Koreans and justify U.S. aggression against them.
In the hands of a war-horny bigot like Trump, this well-established, bipartisan narrative poses a fearsome threat of making nuclear war inevitable. It’s imperative that we answer these lies immediately if we are to minimize this risk.
There are three basic pieces to the West’s slander of North Korea — that the whole country is “crazy” and especially dangerous, and that North Koreans are treacherous and untrustworthy. They can’t be reasoned with, they won’t honor any diplomatic agreements, and any moment they could fly off the handle and kill millions of people for no reason whatsoever.
This demands extraordinary military pressure from the United States and allies and may, alas, require us to destroy them.
Each of these is a perverse misrepresentation. The claim that they are insane in particular is a terrific example of gaslighting — an abuse tactic where the perpetrator takes steps to make their victim act or feel crazy and then uses those responses as proof of the victim’s irrationality, a justification for further abuse.
North Korea, by way of context, is bordered on the north by China and the south by South Korea. South Korea hosts 28,500 U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, many of them literally amassed at the border with the North. On their east is the Sea of Japan (known to Koreans as the East Sea), and across that is a nation which brutally occupied Korea for decades.
The North Koreans are surrounded on all sides by countries that have invaded or occupied them in living memory, and the world’s most powerful military is still technically at war with them and poised to invade at moment’s notice.
This is the sort of scenario that would make any country not merely paranoid, but legitimately insecure. In light of U.S. military aggression against countries that choose to resist our global order — see Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. — North Korea can choose to capitulate or focus tremendous resources on building up their defensive capabilities.
Also in living memory there is the time the United States killed a quarter of the North Korean population and leveled the country’s urban centers, leaving almost no structures standing in Pyongyang. The North Koreans didn’t capitulate then and it isn’t on the table now — defense and defiance it is, and this is hardly “crazy” in context.
The U.S. media, however, never provide this context and instead they present North Korean military propaganda as being unhinged and aggressive. They never compare this, of course, to U.S. military flyovers at sporting events or the ceremonial induction of new soldiers at halftime, or even to our National Anthem with its celebration of bombings and rockets and warfare.
If North Korea is “crazy” for its militarism, then the United States is downright certifiable.
U.S. propaganda can dismiss North Korea’s legitimate concerns so easily because of the underlying racist assumption that these are a bizarre and simple-minded people that believe in things like unicorns. This feeds off of and into orientalist logic that sees East Asians as a nearly subhuman “other” that can’t be reasoned with and so must be handled with force.
It worked when we needed to justify violence against immigrant laborers in the 19th century and it works to justify our imperialist expansion today.
As for claims about North Korea’s unique danger to the world, this too is divorced from reality. The country has no meaningful power projection capability — its naval surface vessels can’t operate more than about 50 kilometers off the coast — and the U.S. military has them contained to the south. China is still North Korea’s ally and does not view it as a significant military threat. North Korea is contained.
But what about those missiles and nukes? The North Koreans could maybe lob a missile at Japan — or maybe not, a missile test on April 15, 2017 failed — and they could level Seoul with artillery alone. But why would they ever do this?
The only way to explain such a unilateral assault on any of their neighbors — which would prompt either U.S. or Chinese military assets to overwhelm and destroy them — is to go back to that same baseless “crazy” claim. They could miscalculate of course, but claims that they are especially dangerous almost always rely upon the assumption that they might just wig out and bomb everybody for no reason at all at any moment.
Again, this is rooted in an infantilizing, dehumanizing, racist logic.
And any claims of a direct North Korean threat to the United States is ludicrous bullshit. They have no weapons capable of reaching anywhere within thousands of miles of the United States, and are years away from developing it, at best. Even if they reach that goal — which their very uneven history of missile tests indicates will be very difficult — they would still have thousands of fewer weapons than we do.
Any launch of that sort would represent an act of mortal desperation — again, it would be totally delusional to launch it offensively. Cable news is a much bigger threat to U.S. security than North Korea ever will be.
So if North Korea’s military threat is totally derived from their desire to preclude a US attack why not negotiate a peace between our country and theirs? If they had that sort of assurance we could both back away from the brink and perhaps even provide space for an opening in North Korean society.
Conventional wisdom answers that the North Koreans have reneged on every agreement ever made with them. But if the “crazy” claims are an example of gaslighting, this answer is a textbook case of projection. It’s not the North Koreans who have betrayed past agreements, but the United States. To cover this up we repeat the same racist logic we used against Native Americans — we broke the treaties, but they were the “Indian givers.”
The main incident here has to do with the “Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” signed between the two countries in 1994. The Agreed Framework — as it is usually called — basically traded the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for normalized economic and diplomatic relations with the United States.
As a good faith step to spur the negotiations North Korea submitted to limited weapons inspections while the United States cancelled military exercises with South Korea. North Korea also used its plutonium production plants for energy, so the United States agreed to work with allies to provide them with fuel oil until two light water nuclear reactors — nuclear power plants that cannot be weaponized — could be built.
The United States failed to uphold its end of the agreement almost immediately. Two weeks after it was signed, Republicans took back Congress and labeled the agreement “appeasement.” They never provided sufficient funds for providing the fuel oil and the United States never met the obligations set in the Agreed Framework.
The Americans also failed to take even the first preliminary steps in building the light water reactors for over four years, and then moved at such a slow pace that there was no chance of meeting the timelines set in the Framework.
Finally, and most significantly, Congress blocked any attempts to begin normalizing relations between North Korea and the United States and Pres. Bill Clinton never pressed it to do so.
North Korea played along for at least four years and even warned us that it was going to restart its nuclear program a year before it actually began a pilot program. According to Leon Sigal, author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, the North Koreans did not shift from this pilot effort to a full-scale weapons program until Pres. George W. Bush refused new negotiations in 2001.
North Korea “was playing tit for tat — cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end enmity,” Sigal wrote in 2007. This extended to the later Six Party Talks between North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia which almost brought North Korea back into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Talks broke down when the United States refused to release $24 million frozen in a Macau bank account, and North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon six months later. But for that $24 million there might be no nuclear threat from North Korea today.
The fact is that America set such a low priority on disarming North Korea because it isn’t dangerous to the United States because it have nukes. The North Koreans are dangerous because they refuse to submit to our imperial authority and play ball with our global order.
Notice how much less hand-wringing you hear about Pakistan, even though it does have a nuclear arsenal probably 15 times the size of North Korea’s, while also actively collaborating with jihadists. The Pakistanis are subject to the U.S. empire, however, and they buy their weapons from the U.S. military-industrial complex, so they are no big deal.
North Korea dares to not only maintain its independence, but to defend it by any means necessary. It can’t be rewarded with negotiation. America has to destroy North Korea to teach the rest of the world a lesson, and this means preparing the U.S. public for nuclear war, painting the country as a bunch of war-crazed military aggressors whose word can’t be trusted.
Again, this is the definition of projection, taking advantage of racist assumptions baked into U.S. politics and culture.
The good news is that it appears that North Korea is acting both rationally and politically — not militarily — right now. The country is playing the present crisis in such a way as to encourage a favorable outcome in South Korea’s upcoming snap presidential election.
A friendlier government there could mean new economic and political opportunities as well as new diplomatic backup that could help shift the balance in any future negotiations with the United States.
Unfortunately the North Koreans are lined up against the regime of an insulated, ignorant, white supremacist warmonger who has learned in the last few weeks that the same forces lying about North Korea kiss his ass when he escalates military conflicts around the world.
It’s our responsibility to push back against our government and against the institutions lying their way into nuclear war.
It’s our responsibility to speak the truth about North Korea — even if it challenges our most deep-seated political assumptions — and it’s our responsibility, always, to stay defiant.
Read Andrew Dobbs follow up piece North Korea’s Government Is Terrible — And That’s Beside the Point