KOREA, CHINA, AND THE US
by Stan Goff
October 14 , 2003, 300 PDT, (FTW) — The brouhaha about North Korean nuclear weapons is panicking plenty of people these days. For all the wrong reasons.
The most recent repositioning of Chinese troops along the border with North Korea (the actual name of this country is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK], and the name of “South Korea” is the Republic of Korea [ROK]) reported in Asia Times has led to yet another round of speculation in the press. In particular, there is concern related to the reported deployment of heavy mechanized Chinese forces inside the 100-kilometer exclusion zone established trilaterally between China, DPRK, and Russia.
In fact, the key to understanding the immense and shifting strategic complexity of Korea is recognition of the fact that the peninsula has something in common with Afghanistan – really bad geographic luck. It borders two historic rivals, who happen to be strategic and economic rivals with the Untied States – China and Russia. And the key to understanding the apparent rivalry between DPRK and the United States is recognition that US provocation on the peninsula is aimed not at subordinating DPRK, but at control over Korea as a whole.
This site and others have explored the geostrategic issues between the US, Russia, and China at some length, so I’ll spare the reader a recounting. The primary point I will make is that China will become the world’s largest consumer of oil within the next decade, if current trends hold (which I will say they cannot, but that’s also another article), that China’s domestic production of oil has passed its Hubbert peak and is in permanent decline (increasing China’s dependence on imports), and throwing it into direct conflict with the US – now the world’s biggest energy hog – which will also vastly increase its demand for foreign oil, if current trends continue. And China is now systematically hollowing out the US industrial base with its sea of landless labor through the Trade Deficit.
In preparation for this historic conflict, and in spite of the financial and economic Gordian knots that now bind China and the United States, the US has already begun attempting the military encirclement of China. As many readers know, well before 9/11, military plans were already off the shelf to invade Afghanistan, a country that lies directly on the land route between China and the Gulf States, where overland pipelines might transport energy from the sweet crude fields of Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (as well as oil and natural gas from the Caspian region) to the world’s largest and fastest growing economy.
Again, without digressing, it is important to point out that simple military encirclement is inadequate, as both a US strategy and as a lens for understanding the geopolitics of Asia and the United States.
What needs to be de-mystified here, however, is Korea itself, and its relationship to the US, beginning with the US occupation of Korea in 1945 after the defeat of Japan.
Prior to the Second World War, Korea had lived under the boot of Japan since Japan’s 1905 annexation of the Korean peninsula. Korea was a distinct culture in the region, one that had leapt ahead of other East Asians in literacy when an enlightened despot, King Sejong of the Choson Dynasty phonetically alphabetized the Korean language in 1446, making literacy the province of the whole population. The alphabet, called Hangul, eventually gave its name to the language itself, and Koreans even refer to themselves by this term – a form of powerful national identification.
Annexation and occupation by the Japanese was a terrible humiliation and the source of a powerful and widespread Korean popular resistance that gestated in the belly of the Japanese occupation and sprang into the open after the Second World War.
When the Americans occupied southern Korea in the wake of WWII (with Soviet occupation of the North), Koreans in both regions looked forward to a quick transition to reunification and self-determination. But an openly racist US general, John R. Hodge, was installed as the virtual viceroy of the ROK. The US quickly moved to re-establish relations with its recent enemies in Germany and Japan as part of a containment strategy against the Soviets and Chinese. Hodge summarily put the most despised ROK officials, those who had openly collaborated with Japan, in charge of the nation’s government, under his direction.
Nationalist insurrection broke out, with various nationalist and communist groups joining forces, and civil war ensued. In the larger context of the Cold War, Korea became an international battleground involving the Americans, Soviets, and Chinese. Under American pressure, and a vote taken when the USSR’s representative was absent from the Security Council, the United Nations itself lent its legitimacy to the US forces in the South.
In 1950, forces based in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of the north, launched a blindingly successful offensive ground action against ROK forces, pushing ROK forces off the peninsula and almost wholly onto Taegu Island. An American expeditionary force that was sent to help the ROK – fully expecting the DPRK forces to break and run at the sight of US troops – was instead delivered a swift and humiliating defeat at the hands of a highly disciplined and well-trained DPRK military. US ground forces had been allowed to deteriorate in number and quality since the Second World War, and their performance was miserable.
As US reinforcements poured onto the peninsula to engage the Korean War in earnest, Hodge declared that fully 30 percent of the Koreans in the south were sympathetic to communist forces; a claim that was only partially true, since the issue was not ideological, but national. A secret policy in the US armed forces was adopted, one that has just received exposure in the last couple of years: episodic massacres of Korean civilians.
Revelations of the massacre at No Gun Ri in 1950, where upwards of 300 Korean civilians were systematically murdered by the American 1st Cavalry Division and the US Air Force, led to further investigations of American conduct during the Korean War. It is becoming ever clearer that hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians were murdered with the complicity and participation of US troops by ROK’s hated Syngman Rhee regime.
The US media, as craven as ever, collaborated in the cover-up of No Gun Ri and the whole US conduct of the war, which is why it is still not generally understood.
After the lightning advance of DPRK against ROK and American troops in 1950, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the wholesale destruction of Korea. His orders were to destroy “every means of communication, every installation, factory, city and village from the front line to the Yalu River.” [italics mine-SG] This was also the world’s introduction to a new weapon, napalm. Within two years, nearly every human settlement in the North had been subjected to firebombing, and the vast majority of targets were civilian. Electricity production was destroyed. Dams were ruptured, flooding the precious rice plains that had been carefully developed between the rugged mountains. American pilots machine-gunned the peasants in the North for sport. Tibor Meray, a Hungarian correspondent returned from a tour of the North in a state of utter shock. There were, he reported, “no more cities in North Korea.” In the South, American-led massacres were combined with wholesale executions by the ROK government of anyone remotely suspected of being “subversive.” In the end, according to General Curtis LeMay, “We burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both, and… we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes.” Four million people died in the Korean War.
When the war was fought to a standstill at the DMZ, with Chinese and DPRK troops having mounted a blood-drenched war of attrition to push the UN/US back, DPRK consolidated itself against future attacks by placing itself on a permanent war footing, and by adopting an internal policy of isolation and self-reliance, called juche sasang. This official ideology is what the US press and political establishment now portray as “deranged.”
The authoritarian US-client government of the ROK continued harsh repression of its population for decades afterward, as US troops occupied bases across the country, generating hundreds of GI border-towns whose primary industries were alcohol by the drink and prostitution, offending the sensibilities of the majority of Koreans.
A popular rebellion against the Chun Doo Hwan regime and the US broke out in Kwangju in 1980, and the ROK army, with assistance from the US armed forces, massacred over 2,000 resisters.
In 1993, Private Ken Marcel, US Army, was drunk. He attempted to coerce sex from Yun Kum Yi, a young Korean woman, who rebuffed him. So Marcel beat her to death, tore off her clothes, pushed an umbrella into her anus, a bottle into her vagina, then shook a box of laundry detergent onto her bloody, desecrated corpse. Anti-American demonstrations flared again, and were put down with brutal force by the ROK government.
Prior to the last general election in ROK (2002), another mass uprising happened in reaction to the exoneration of US Army Sergeants Fernando Nino and Mark Walker, whose armored vehicle ran over and killed Korean 14-year-olds Misun and Hyosun, two schoolgirls on their way to a birthday party.
What brought decades of anti-American resentment boiling to the surface was not just an apparent negligent homicide, in which the company commander was also implicated (and exonerated). ROK courts have long abdicated their jurisdiction over US occupying forces through a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which turns the vast majority of GIs who commit crimes in Korea back over to US military authorities for adjudication. SOFA is more than a symbol. It’s the legal embodiment of US military domination of the ROK since the Korean War.
American soldiers commit around 600 crimes a year in ROK. Less than four percent are tried in a ROK court.
The election of populist-nationalist, Roh (pronounce it ‘No.’) Moo-hyun, came in the wake of a campaign where the defining issue became who could demonstrate the most muscular anti-Americanism.
This is the context within which provocations by the US against DPRK must be understood. The greatest US fear on the peninsula, especially since ROK mounted an economic challenge in the region as one of the “Asian tigers”, is reunification, which would eliminate the US pretext for continuing its military occupation of the southern half of the peninsula. The US would lose its most important forward base in Asia, and the one positioned on the doorstep of China.
In 1993, when reunification talks were proceeding apace between North and South, at the same time, Private Marcel was desecrating the body of Yun Kum Yi, the government of Bill Clinton tried to start a war there.
ROK’s emergence as one of the Asian industrial tigers brought with it the big cat of a militant trade union movement that showed the willingness to go toe-to-toe with the army and police in the streets. This militancy was more than matched by the long-standing student-led struggles for self-determination and an end to US occupation. Now that student-labor resistance spread to the general population of Korea, with reunification as its battle cry. The popular resistance to Korean participation in the 1991 aggression against Iraq had been ferocious. This combination of independent development, popular street politics, and a growing movement to reintegrate the two Koreas, was simply too much to bear, and the Clintonistas fell upon a bizarre plan to start a war there to disrupt these threats to US occupation.
Clinton Madness Preceded Bush’s Follies
The Clinton Administration eventually found a new, equally risky method for attacking the Asian economic challenge, when Robert Rubin opened up the hedge fund attacks on the region that almost (inadvertently) toppled the global economy in 1998. But in 1993, the Clinton Administration was hell-bent on an old fashioned military action. Those of us who are amazed by the Strangelove-like quality of the Bushites should take caution before we posit Democrats as a saner alternative. As you shall see, the Clintonistas were every bit as dangerous and deluded as your favorite neocons.
Early in 1993, the US redirected some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles in Alaska from targets in the former Soviet Union to targets in DPRK. This was in conjunction with the announcement of a massive war game off the coast of Korea. These were both immensely provocative and threatening actions. Imagine an American response should someone abruptly aim dozens of thermonuclear weapons at US cities, then send their navy to within sight of our coasts.
The US press then portrayed DPRK as unstable when it responded by threatening to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The deranged North Koreans – in their irrational paranoia – believed that pointing multi-warhead thermonuclear weapons at them was a hostile act. How dare they?
Once the press did its job of convincing the public that DPRK was in the hands of schizophrenic leadership, the US prevailed on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to demand that DPRK submit to inspection of “undeclared” nuclear sites. The IAEA had never made that demand of any nation before. Never. Pyongyang – in its infinite ‘paranoia’ – regarded this as a hostile act too, and one that was intended to expand intelligence gathering by US delegates with the inspection teams. This, of course, turned out to be true.
With not a whit of evidence – a la Iraq – the Clinton Administration then leveled the claim that DPRK was developing nuclear weapons with plutonium from its Yongbyon reactor. Even though scientists pointed out that DPRK didn’t have the technical wherewithal to use this reactor for weapons-grade plutonium or to convert it into a deliverable weapon, the story was amplified and repeated as gospel by the US press, then echoed worldwide on newswires.
Once the fictional atomic bomb program was developed by the Clintonites, the fiction’s authors demanded that DPRK put an end to it. The whole plan was put on hold after the Somalia debacle, but later, with defense contractor William Perry appointed Defense Secretary, the plan was taken up again to attack DPRK.
The central feature of their proposed opening salvo was to be an attack on the Yongbyon reactor. Perry later admitted, “We readied a detailed plan to attack the Yongbyon facility with precision-guided bombs [manufactured, of course, by Perry’s former employer, Martin-Marietta]. We were highly confident that it could be destroyed without causing a meltdown that would release radioactivity into the air.”
Gregory Elich, who wrote an account of this whole, sorry episode for the Center for Research on Globalization (www.globalresearch.ca), understated, “It seems highly dubious that a release of radioactivity could have been avoided.” In fact, bombing a nuclear power plant categorically will cause Chernobyls, or worse, beginning not with core melts, but with ignition of the spent nuclear fuel and volatilization of clouds of gamma-emitting Cesium-137. But Perry and Clinton are regarded as “sane”. DPRK’s leaders, who were the target of this plot, are labeled “insane.”
The Clinton Administration was preparing a war in which they freely admitted among themselves that the “intensity of combat would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War.” Given that it would initially center around the ROK capitol of Seoul, where over 10 million people live, that may have been another understatement.
Kim Young-Sam, the ROK president at the time, figured out what was happening when troops started shifting into forward positions, and US warships formed a ring off the coast. He called Bill Clinton and demanded to know just what in the hell was going on. Clinton tried to convince Kim to sign onto this mad adventure, and after half an hour, Kim personally told Clinton not to count on the military of ROK to lift a finger.
Jimmy Carter took his own unilateral action to stop this Second Korean War. On June 15, 1994, Carter met with DPRK leader Kim Il-Sung and, with no authorization whatsoever, arranged a deal wherein DPRK would agree to freeze their upgrades of aging reactors if they could gain assistance with developments of newer, safer ones. This was an offer by DPRK for a diplomatic solution to a malignant crisis manufactured by the Clinton administration. Carter, knowing full well that the entire Clinton Administration was off its medication, then invited CNN to broadcast his meeting with the North Koreans – an unprecedented breach of protocol that may allow history to forgive any of Carter’s earlier sins – which forced the Clinton Administration, described by alarmed State Department insiders as “crestfallen” at the loss of their war, to accept the publicly outstretched diplomatic hand of DPRK.
The economic context of all this brinksmanship within the DPRK was indescribable. A terrible domestic crisis was just beginning to sink in. Its principal trading partner, the USSR had recently disintegrated, which resulted in a steep loss of critical oil and gas supplies. DPRK has one peculiar resource that gave them a temporary fix: uranium. But their low-grade uranium doesn’t work in the light water reactors the US was pushing in its “diplomacy.” The older, graphite moderated reactors, like the one that crashed in Chernobyl, were what they knew how to use. By the time Clinton started his provocations, Russian oil supplies to DPRK had dropped to 10 percent of their Soviet-era level. DPRK would have been more than happy to stay out of the nuclear business altogether, were it not for outrageous economic sanctions pushed by the US that simultaneously limited supply and severely constricted North Korean access to dollars – the currency in which world oil (and world trade) is denominated.
The post-Soviet energy contraction in DPRK was a cautionary tale for all of us in the oil dependent world as we approach global peak production. Fertilizer disappeared. Crops lost yields. Factories closed. Spare parts began to disappear, closing down mines. Lights went out. The heat went off. Then nature stepped in – if you still accept that climate change and its consequences are not androgenic – and kicked DPRK to the ground. Severe floods wrecked a significant portion of its hydroelectric capacity.
This was the situation that forced the proud North Koreans – who had literally cut off lights and heat across this frigid nation, in the rugged spirit of juche sasang – to offer abandonment of its critically needed nuclear power program in the face of US bullying.
One of the least understood (in the US) aspects of US statecraft, to this day, is energy as a political weapon. China understands it. So does Europe.
This was the situation in which DPRK signed onto the Agreed Framework, as it was called, in which the US offered to provide heavy oil to DPRK, which would amount to a whopping eight percent of its energy needs, while they built the new light water reactors.
But in the emerging new international division of labor, DPRK had become the Apaches, untamable and therefore superfluous, and this “treaty” was broken before the ink was dry, with the US demanding yet again invasion inspections, then accusing the Koreans of bad faith when they failed to submit.
And DPRK was now in a position of extreme energy vulnerability. Again, the context was the great sorrow.
In 1995, tremendous floods swept away over 400,000 hectares of prime farmland just before harvest in a nation with a short growing season, and rendered 5 million people who lived on that agricultural land homeless. Records showed it to be the worst flood in a century. To this day, crop yields are affected by that deluge.
The coalmines filled with water. The turbines on the hydroelectric plants clogged and went silent.
In 1996, before recuperation efforts from the 1995 floods could get under way, another series of floods ravaged the nation. In 1997, a severe drought followed that killed 70 percent of DPRK’s corn. On the west coast, that same year, a tidal wave struck. Then came the typhoons that destroyed an additional 29,000 homes. And in 2000-2001 came the worst drought in Korea’s history. In addition to the loss of both crops and seed, there was a water shortage like nothing anyone had experienced in Korea for 1,000 years. This is when the stories began about people eating the bark off of the trees, when the catastrophic cascade that began as an energy crisis combined with economic warfare from the US washed over DPRK like a biblical scourge. And the mainstream press said of this poor, proud nation that they wrecked their own economy.
The people of ROK, however, still seeing their northern neighbors as sisters and brothers, pushed their own government to move toward rapprochement. The arrogance of the Americans only served to awaken the profound latent resentment of occupied ROK. The most recent US provocations are not about starting a war with DPRK, though they might create the conditions for the US to stumble into one. They are designed to stampede the ROK leadership into a crisis that will re-polarize Korea, and disrupt the very nationalism that cries for reunification. Reunification would take away the pretext for the American military presence to China’s south.
The Bush strategy of reasserting control over East Asia and the Pacific Rim, however, with Korea as a target, is having the paradoxical effect of elevating the importance, status, and prestige of the primary challenger in the region to US dominance; China, with whom DPRK shares its longest border, and who will take credit if they succeed in defusing the tensions there and block the US government’s revised plans for war. Complicating these relationships is the fear of both ROK and China that any kind of sudden mass economic migrations out of DPRK could deliver a serious blow to their own economies, if and when these tensions abate. It is this combined threat of US provocation and DPRK economic refugees that probably underwrites troop movements along the Sino-Korean border – possibly combined with a Chinese desire to signal the US that there are lines that cannot be crossed even for the infinitely pragmatic Chinese.
The tensions in the region have not been improved by the Japanese acquiescence this year to the US request to station “theater missile defenses” on Japanese soil. In response, DPRK said on October 5, 2003 that they would no longer confer with the Japanese in the multilateral negotiations, and again the press has utterly failed to mention the real missiles, and referred only to ‘North Korean” recalcitrance.
US saber rattling and alarmism about “North Korean” nuclear weapons becomes more than a little hypocritical when one considers, as Covert Action Quarterly’s Karen Talbot points out, “the U.S., which possesses by far the largest arsenal of nuclear armaments, has failed to abide by Article VI of the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which stipulates that the nuclear weapons states, including the U.S., accomplish the total and unequivocal elimination of their nuclear weapons. The existence of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is bound to lead other nations to try to acquire such weapons. Washington is maintaining a double standard by requiring other nations to respect the NPT when the U.S. is planning to develop new nuclear weapons.” [italics mine-SG]
New nuclear weapons specifically designed with Korea in mind.
Rumsfeld this year notified the military of his intent to redeploy forward-based US troops along the DMZ back toward Taegu, not to retreat, but to convert the DMZ, and Seoul with its 10 millions into a potential impact area for a war of extermination against the North. That’s why the Bush Administration is pushing research into low-yield atomic bunker penetrating munitions (which will be the dirtiest nuclear weapons yet). DPRK has organized its whole society for war and civil defense literally underground, and the nation is a vast catacomb of tunnels and underground bunkers.
But the Chinese, sensing American military and political weakness with the quagmire in Iraq deepening, the domestic legitimacy of the Bush administration waning now in the face of one revelation of perfidy on top of another, may be looking at an historic opportunity in the region, possibly even a decisive move to displace Japan as the Asian center of gravity.
The Hu Jintao government – even as they move to militarily secure their borders against any Korean exodus north – knows that DPRK knows that China is their last best hope in the confrontation with America. China is now in a position to arrange a settlement of the “North Korean nuclear crisis”, turning the US-grown diplomatic lemon into lemonade for Beijing.
Everyone, including the mad hatters in the Bush cabinet – with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld, who I have convinced myself has a neurological disorder – knows that US military ground capacity is now stretched to its absolute limit, and it is slowly dawning even on the most obtuse that the historical military blip that was “victory from the air” was anomalous. Iraq will likely be the Bush Waterloo, and the inevitable attempt to recoup from this even after a political transition in the US will be fraught with difficulty, and immensely complicated.
It will likely be China, and not the International Atomic Energy Agency, who oversees the “de-proliferation” of DPRK.
It will be the United States that continues to throw its shoulder up against the military, political, financial, and energetic limits to growth. Which card will fall first is still an open question. Rumsfeld’s manic visions notwithstanding, the Bush administration will probably go down in ignominy – sooner rather than later – and the next Korean War, we can only hope, will wither away unfulfilled in the beleaguered consciousness of this administration as it thankfully did with Clinton’s.
Portions of this essay are taken from Stan Goff’s upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century” (Soft Skull Press, 2004).