By Eva Cheng
In early 1994, when pressure was mounting in the US Congress to cut the country's war budget, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs General Colin Powell was quoted by Washington's Defense Monitor magazine as saying: "I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of villains ... I'm down to [Cuban President Fidel] Castro and [North Korea's] Kim Il Sung."
Around the same time, James Woolsey, then director of the CIA, warned in a Senate hearing that the US must not reduce its war machine because the "jungle" was still filled with "poisonous snakes". He stressed North Korea was a key example.
Powell's frank comment was an exception in Washington's propaganda campaign, which has demonised North Korea for over four decades. Also closer to the truth was the comment by the Center for Defense Information in the same issue of Defense Monitor: "The Pentagon uses Kim as the bogeyman to justify preserving the excessively large military forces of the Cold War and keeping 35,000 U.S. troops in South Korea".
Later, the Congress approved US$260 billion for the US war budget for 1995, even higher than the Cold War average of about US$250 billion. To pay for the military increases, Clinton slashed US$10 billion from education, housing and environmental protection.
The Howard government's plan to increase the Australian Defence Force's funding by $1 billion reveals a similar priority. Minister for defence Ian McLachlan said on April 27 that the new funding would enable the military to respond to "unexpected" challenges "anywhere in the world".
That is, it can poke its nose into other countries' affairs, following the lead and within the "security" umbrella of the US. McLachlan stressed the danger that North Korea might start a war in the Korean peninsula, hinting that Australia might intervene.
The threat of an aggressive North Korea is the central theme of the US propaganda campaign. Soviet occupation of the northern part of Korea in 1945 (by agreement with the US, to disarm Japanese troops) was portrayed as "aggression". Meanwhile, the US occupied the south, crushing a popularly elected government.
Washington split Korea in 1948 by naked force, and the war of 1950-53 cemented the division at the cost of millions of Korean lives. Washington accused the north of starting the war, but both sides were in active war preparation.
US bombing devastated the north, destroying not only its relatively stronger industrial base but also its meagre agricultural infrastructure. In the first three months alone, the US forces dropped 29.5 million litres of napalm, primarily in the north. Deliberate bombing of the dikes which provided water for 75% of North Korea's rice production and the resulting widespread flooding undermined the north's ability to meet its food needs.
The north's harsh weather and mountainous terrain make food production difficult. It was no accident that Japan concentrated food production in the south during its 35-year rule over Korea.
Because of the Washington-led economic blockade, the north had to undertake the enormous jobs of postwar reconstruction, the building of a non-dependent economy and food self-sufficiency at the same time.
North Korea's relatively rich endowment with mineral resources is vital to building an industrial base. But there is a limit to what it can do about its lack of petroleum and coking coal, despite great efforts to find substitutes.
That gap had been filled through help from the Soviet Union and China. China's demand for payment by hard currency, rather than through the long-standing practice of barter for North Korean goods, has dealt Pyongyang a serious blow.
Devastating floods in 1995 and 1996 cut harvests last year to half of recent levels. Washington deliberately made things worse, warning other countries against "excessive" assistance, based on the speculation that the food would end up feeding the military.
Washington found North Korea's military expenditure of about US$5 billion a "threat" despite the fact that it amounts to only a tiny fraction of its own arms spending and less than half of South Korea's US$12.4 billion (1992).
North Korea's development was distorted by its military expenditure, which it could have done without in the absence of enormous military threats from the US. Despite the assessments of its own State Department, the International Atomic Energy Agency, South Korea and Russia that North Korea was far from being capable of producing nuclear weapons, Washington continued to whip up a North Korean "nuclear threat" in 1993-94. The CIA claimed then that the north already had two or three bombs.
Washington refuses to reduce its forces of close to 100,000 in Japan and South Korea despite the end of the Cold War and persistent opposition from peoples of the two countries. Those are its only remaining military bases in Asia. It would have a much weaker case for maintaining them or its military alliance with Japan without a North Korean "threat".