By Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War, WorldBeyondWar.org
On August 5, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster informed MSNBC that the Pentagon had plans to counter the “growing threat” from North Korea—by launching a “preventative war.”
Note: When someone armed with world-ending weapons is speaking, language is important.
For example: a “threat” is merely an expression. It may be annoying, or even provocative, but it is something that falls well short of a physical “attack.”
“Preventative war” is a euphemism for “armed aggression”—an action the International Criminal Court identifies as “the ultimate war crime.” The slippery phrase “preventative war” serves to transform the aggressor into a “potential” victim, responding to a perceived “future crime” by acting in “self-defense.”
The concept of “preventative violence” has a domestic counterpart. An investigation by London’s The Independent found that US police killed 1,069 civilians in 2016. Of those, 107 were unarmed. Most of these individuals died because of the concept of “preventative war.” The typical defense from the officers involved in deadly shootings was that they “felt threatened.” They opened fire because they “felt their lives were in danger.”
What is intolerable on the streets of America should be equally unacceptable when applied to any country within range of Washington’s globe-straddling weaponry.
In an interview on the Today Show, Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted: “There will be a war with North Korea over their missile program if they continue trying to hit America with an ICBM.”
Note: Pyongyang has not “tried to hit” the US: It has only launched unarmed, experimental test missiles. (Although, listening to Kim Jong-un’s heated, over-the-top rhetorical threats, one might think otherwise.)
Living in the Shadow of a Frightened Giant
For all of its unparalleled military might, the Pentagon has never been able to assuage Washington’s abiding suspicions that someone, somewhere, is plotting an attack. This fear of a constant “threat” from foreign forces is invoked to channel massive tides of tax dollars into an ever-expanding military/industrial pond. But policies of perpetual paranoia only make the world a more dangerous place.
On September 5, Russian President Vladimír Putin, responding to journalists’ questions about the worrisome face-off between the US and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), issued this warning: “[R]amping up military hysteria in such conditions is senseless; it’s a dead end. It could lead to a global, planetary catastrophe and a huge loss of human life. There is no other way to solve the North Korean Issue, save that peaceful dialogue.”
Putin dismissed the efficacy of Washington’s threat to impose even harsher economic sanctions, noting that the proud North Koreans would sooner “eat grass” than halt their nuclear weapons program because “they do not feel safe.”
In a commentary posted in January 2017, Pyongyang underscored the fears that prompted the DPRK to acquire its nuclear arsenal: “The Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya, after surrendering to the pressure from the US and the West, which were attempting to subvert their regime[s], could not avoid the fate of doom as a consequence of . . . giving up their nuclear program.”
Time and again, the DPRK has railed against the ongoing joint US/ROK military exercises staged along Korea’s contentious borders. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has characterized these events as “preparations for the second Korean War” and “a dress rehearsal for an invasion.”
“What can restore their security?” Putin asked. His answer: “The restoration of international law.”
Washington’s Nuclear Arsenal: Deterrent or Provocation?
Washington has expressed alarm that the latest long-range tests by the DPRK suggest that Pyongyang’s missiles (sans warhead, for now) may be able to reach the US mainland, 6,000 miles away.
Meanwhile, the US maintains its own long-established and launch-ready atomic arsenal of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs. Each can carry up to three nuclear warheads. At last count, the US had 4,480 atomic warheads at its disposal. With a range of 9,321 miles, Washington’s Minuteman missiles can deliver a nuclear blow to any target in Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, and most of Africa. Only Southern Africa and parts of the Antarctic are beyond the reach of America’s land-based ICBMs. (Add the Pentagon’s nuclear-armed submarines, and nowhere on Earth is beyond Washington’s nuclear reach.)
When it comes to defending its nuclear missile program, North Korea uses the same excuse as every other atomic power—the warheads and rockets are solely intended as a “deterrent.” It is basically the same argument employed by the National Rifle Association, which asserts the right to self-protection involves the right to bear arms and the right to use them in “self-defense.”
If the NRA were to apply this argument at the global/thermonuclear level, consistency would require that organization stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Kim Jong-un. The North Koreans are simply insisting on their right to “stand their ground.” They are only claiming the same status that the US grants to other existing nuclear powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.
But somehow, when “certain countries” express an interest in pursuing these weapons, a nuclear-armed missile is no longer a “deterrent”: It instantly becomes a “provocation” or a “threat.”
If nothing else, Pyongyang’s truculence has done the nuclear abolition movement a great service: it has demolished the argument that nuclear-tipped ICBMs are a “deterrent.”
North Korea Has Reason to Feel Paranoid
During the brutal years of the 1950-53 Korean War (called a “peace action” by Washington but remembered by survivors as “the Korean Holocaust”), American aircraft dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm over North Korea, destroying 78 cities and obliterating thousands of villages. Some of the victims died from exposure to US biological weapons containing anthrax, cholera, encephalitis, and bubonic plague. It is now believed that as many as 9 million people––30% of the population—may have been killed during the 37-month-long bombardment.
Washington’s war on the North stands as one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
The US blitz was so merciless that the Air Force eventually ran out of places to bomb. Left behind where the ruins of 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and more than a half-million homes. The Air Force also managed to bomb bridges and dams on the Yalu River, causing farmland floods that destroyed the country’s rice harvest, triggering additional deaths by starvation.
It is worth recalling that the first Korean War erupted when China honored a 1950 treaty obliging Beijing to defend the DPRK in the event of a foreign attack. (That treaty is still in effect.)
The Continued US Military Presence in Korea
The “Korean conflict” ended in 1953 with the signing of an armistice agreement. But the US never left South Korea. It built (and continues to build) a sprawling infrastructure of more than a dozen active military bases. The Pentagon’s military expansions inside Republic of Korea (ROK) are frequently met with dramatic eruptions of civilian resistance. (On September 6, 38 people in Seonju were injured during a confrontation between thousands of police and demonstrators protesting the presence of US missile interceptors.)
But most troubling to the North are the annual joint military exercises that deploy tens of thousands of US and ROK troops along the DPRK’s border to engage in live-fire exercises, marine assaults, and bombing runs that prominently feature nuclear-capable US B-1 Lancer bombers (dispatched from Anderson Airbase on Guam, 2,100 miles away) dropping 2,000-pound bunker-busters provocatively close to North Korean territory.
These annual and semi-annual military exercises are not a new strategic irritant on the Korean Peninsula. They began just 16 months after the signing of the armistice agreement. The US organized the first joint military deployment—”Exercise Chugi”—in November 1955 and the “war games” have continued, with various degrees of intensity, for 65 years.
Like every military exercise, the US-ROK maneuvers have left behind landscapes of scorched and bombed earth, bodies of soldiers inadvertently killed in mock-combat accidents, and vast profits reliably tendered to the companies that supply the weapons and ammunition expended during these martial extravaganzas.
In 2013, the North responded to these “show of force” maneuvers by threatening to “bury [a US warship] in the sea.” In 2014, Pyongyang greeted the joint-exercise by threatening “all out war” and demanding the US halt it’s “nuclear blackmail.”
The “largest ever” military drill was held in 2016. It lasted two-months, involved 17,000 US troops and 300,000 soldiers from the South. The Pentagon characterized the bombings, amphibious assaults, and artillery exercises as “non-provocative.” North Korea responded predictably, calling the maneuvers “reckless . . . undisguised nuclear war drills” and threatening a “preemptive nuclear strike.”
Following Donald Trump’s incendiary threat to strike Kim with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” the Pentagon opted to bank the flames even higher by proceeding with its previously scheduled August 21-31 air, land, and sea exercise, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. The verbal slugfest between the two combative leaders only intensified.
While most of the US media has spent the past months obsessing over North Korea’s nuclear program and its missile launches, there has been less reporting on Washington’s plans to “decapitate” the country by removing the Korean leader.
A “Wide Range of Options”: Assassination and Covert Ops
On April 7, 2917 NBC Nightly News reported that it had “learned exclusive details about the top secret, highly-controversial options that are being presented to the president for possible military action against North Korea.”
“It’s mandatory to present the widest possible array of options,” Nightly News’ Chief International Security and Diplomacy Analyst Adm. James Stavridis (Ret.) stated. “That’s what enables presidents to make the right decisions: when they see all the all the options on the table in front of them.”
But the “wide array of options” was dangerously narrow. Instead of considering diplomatic options, the only three options placed on the President’s table were:
Nuclear Weapons to South Korea
“Decapitation”: Target and Kill
Cynthia McFadden, NBC’s Senior Legal and Investigative Correspondent, laid out the three options. The first involved reversing a decades-old de-escalation treaty and shipping a new assortment of US nuclear weapons back to South Korea.
According to McFadden, the second option, the “decapitation” strike, was designed to “target and kill North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un and other senior leaders in charge of missiles and nuclear weapons.”
Stravridis, however, cautioned that “decapitation is always a tempting strategy when you’re faced with a highly unpredictable and highly dangerous leader.” (The words are freighted with a chilling irony given that the description fits Trump as well as Kim.) According to Stravridis, “The question is: what happens the day after you decapitate.”
The third option involves infiltrating South Korean troops and US Special Forces into the North to “take out key infrastructure” and possibly stage attacks on political targets.
The first option violates numerous nuclear nonproliferation agreements. The second and third options involve infringements of sovereignty as well as gross violations of international law.
Over the years, the Washington has used sanctions and military provocations to harass the North. Now that NBC News has been given the go-ahead to “normalize” the political assassination of a foreign leader by presenting Kim’s murder as a reasonable “option,” the geopolitical stakes have grown even higher.
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Washington has imposed sanctions (a form of economic water-boarding) on a wide array of targets—Syria, Russia, Crimea, Venezuela, Hezbollah—with negligible results. Kim Jong-un is not the kind personality that responds well to sanctions. Kim has ordered the execution of more than 340 fellow Koreans since he assumed power in 2011. HIs victims have included government officials and family members. One of Kim’s favorite means of execution reportedly involves blowing victims to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun. Like Donald Trump, he’s use to getting his way.
And so, it is doubtful that overt US threats calling for Kim’s murder will do anything more than harden his determination to empower his military with “offsetting” weaponry that can “send a message” to Washington and to the tens of thousands of American soldiers surrounding North Korea to the south and east—in Japan and on Okinawa, Guam and other Pentagon-colonized islands in the Pacific.
The Fourth Option: Diplomacy
While the Pentagon cannot guarantee what impact its actions may have on the future, the State Department has significant data on what has worked in the past. It turns out that the Kim regime has not only approached Washington with invitations to negotiate an end to hostilities, but past administrations have responded and progress has been made.
In 1994, after four months of negotiations, President Bill Clinton and the DPRK signed an “Agreed Framework” to bring a halt to the North’s production of plutonium, a component of nuclear weapons. In exchange for abandoning three nuclear reactors and its controversial Yongbyon plutonium reprocessing facility, the US, Japan, and South Korea agreed to provide the DPRK with two light-water reactors and 500,000 metric tons of fuel oil a year to offset the energy lost while replacement reactors were constructed.
In January 1999, the DPRK agreed to meetings designed to deal with missile proliferation matters. In exchange, Washington agreed to remove economic sanctions imposed on the North. The talks continue through 1999 with the DPRK agreeing to halt its long-range missile program in exchange for a partial lifting of US economic sanctions.
In October 2000, Kim Jong Il sent a letter to President Clinton in a gesture designed to affirm the continued improvement of US-North Korean relations. Later, in an op-ed written for the New York Times, Wendy Sherman, who served as special adviser to the president and secretary of state for North Korea policy, wrote that a final agreement to terminate the DPRK’s medium- and long-range missile programs were “tantalizingly close” as the Clinton Administration came to an end.
In 2001, the arrival of a new president signaled an end to this progress. George W. Bush imposed new restrictions on negotiating with the North and publicly questioned whether Pyongyang was “keeping all terms of all agreements.” Bush’s sally was followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s brusque denial that “imminent negotiations are about to begin—that is not the case.”
On March 15, 2001, the DPRK sent a heated response, threatening to “take thousand-fold revenge” on the new administration for its “black-hearted intention to torpedo the dialogue between north and south [Korea].” Pyongyang also cancelled ongoing administrative talks with Seoul that had been intended to promote political reconciliation between the two estranged states.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, George W. Bush branded the North as part of his “Axis of Evil” and accused the government of “arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.”
Bush followed up by formally terminating Clinton’s “Agreed Framework” and halting the promised shipments of fuel oil. The DPRK responded by expelling United Nations weapons inspectors and restarting the Yongbyon reprocessing plant. Within two years, the DPRK was back in the business of producing weapons-grade plutonium and, in 2006, it conducted its first successful nuclear test.
It was an opportunity lost. But it demonstrated that diplomacy (although it takes attention and great patience) can work to accomplish peaceful ends.
“Dual Freeze”: A Solution that Could Work
Unfortunately, the current resident of the White House is an individual with a short attention span and is notoriously lacking in patience. Nonetheless, any avenue that takes our nation down a path not labeled “Fire and Fury,” would be a road best travelled. And, fortunately, diplomacy is not a forgotten art.
The most promising option is the so-called “Dual Freeze” plan (aka the “Freeze-for-Freeze” or “Double Halt”) recently endorsed by China and Russia. Under this tit-for-tat settlement, Washington would stop its massive (and massively costly) “invasion games” off North Korea’s border and shores. In exchange, Kim would agree to halt the development and testing of destabilizing nuclear weapons and missiles.
Most mainstream media consumers might be surprised to learn that, even before the China-Russia intervention, the North itself had repeatedly proposed a similar “Dual Freeze” solution to resolve the increasingly dangerous stand-off with the US. But Washington repeatedly refused.
In July 2017, when China and Russia partnered to endorse the “Dual Freeze” plan, the DPRK welcomed the initiative. During a June 21 TV interview, Kye Chun-yong, North Korea’s ambassador to India, declared: “Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing. For instance, if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop.”
“As everybody knows, the Americans have gestured [toward] dialogue,” North Korea’s Deputy UN Ambassador Kim In-ryong told reporters. “But what is important is not words, but actions . . . . The rolling back of the hostile policy toward DPRK is the prerequisite for solving all the problems in the Korean peninsula . . . . Therefore, the urgent issue to be settled on Korean peninsula is to put a definite end to the US hostile policy toward DPRK, the root cause of all problems.”
On January 10, 2015, the KCNA announced that Pyonyang had approached the Obama Administration offering to “temporarily suspend nuclear tests that concerns the US [and] . . . sit face to face with the US.” In exchange, the North requested that the “US suspend joint military exercise temporarily.”
When there was no response, North Korea’s minister of foreign affairs made public note of the rebuff in a statement posted on March 2, 2015: “We already expressed our willingness to take a reciprocal measure in case that the US halts joint military exercise in and around South Korea. However, the US, from the very beginning of the New Year, outright rejected our sincere proposal and effort by announcing ‘additional sanction’ toward North Korea.”
When the Trump administration rejected the latest Russia-China “Freeze” proposal in July 2017, it explained its refusal with this argument: Why should the US halt its “lawful” military exercises in exchange for the North agreeing to abandon its “illicit” weapons activities?
However, the the US-ROK joint-exercises would only be “legal” if they were provably “defensive.” But, as past years (and the NBC leaks cited above) have shown, these exercises are clearly designed to prepare for internationally outlawed acts of aggression—including violations of national sovereignty and the possible political assassination of a head of state.
The diplomatic option remains open. Every other course of action threatens an escalation towards a potential thermonuclear clash.
The “Dual Freeze” seems a fair—and wise—solution. So far, Washington has dismissed Freeze-for-Freeze as “a non-starter.”
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Gar Smith is an award-winning investigative journalist, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, and author of Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green). His new book, The War and Environment Reader (Just World Books) will be published on October 3. He will be speaking at the World Beyond War three-day conference on “War and the Environment,” September 22-24 at the American University in Washington, DC. (For details, visit: https://worldbeyondwar.org/nowar2017.)