Less than three months into President 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 the pieces are in place. An aircraft carrier group is en route to the Korean peninsula and anonymous sources have threatened a pre-emptive strike against 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 likely 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 US media tell it, all of the irrationality and risk is on the North Korean side. NBC News, in an article announcing the US threat of unauthorised 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 US escalated the major power conflict in Syria with little warning. The New York Times spoke of China’s need to “rein in” the childish North Koreans, even though it is the US that has killed at least 1000 civilians in combat so far this year.
Western propaganda draws from a deep well of racist “yellow peril” prejudice to stoke irrational fears against this tiny, poor, isolated country. It amplifies this paranoia with long-standing stereotypes of East Asian “oddity” to dehumanise North Koreans.
In the hands of a war-horny bigot like Trump, this well-established, bipartisan narrative poses the fearsome threat of nuclear war.
There are three basic pieces to the West’s slander of North Korea — that the whole country is “crazy”, dangerous, and untrustworthy. They cannot be reasoned with, they won’t honour diplomatic agreements, and at any moment they could fly off the handle and kill millions of people for no reason.
This demands extraordinary military pressure from the US and allies and may, alas, require us to destroy them.
Each of these is a perverse misrepresentation. The claim that they are insane is a clear example of “gaslighting” — an abusive tactic where the perpetrator drives their victim crazy and then uses such a response as proof of the victim’s irrationality, justifying further abuse.
North Korea is bordered on the south by South Korea and on the north by China. South Korea hosts 28,500 US military personnel, many of them literally amassed at the North’s border. To its east is Japan, a nation that brutally occupied Korea for decades and is home to tens of thousands more US soldiers.
North Korea is surrounded on all sides by countries that have invaded or occupied them in living memory. On top of this, the country remains technically at war with the world’s most powerful military, with no peace treaty even being signed to end the 1950-53 Korean War. This military is poised to invade at a moment’s notice.
This is the sort of scenario that would make any country not just paranoid, but legitimately insecure. In light of US military aggression against other countries deemed “rogue states”, it is no surprise North Korea works to build up its defensive capabilities.
The Korean War is within living memory. During that conflict, the US killed a quarter of the North Korean population and leveled its urban centres, leaving almost no structures standing in Pyongyang.
The US media, however, never provide this context. Instead North Korean military propaganda is presented as aggressively unhinged. But if North Korea is “crazy” for its militarism, then the US is downright certifiable.
US 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 who believe in unicorns. This feeds off orientalist logic that sees East Asians as a nearly subhuman “other” that cannot be reasoned with and so must be handled with force.
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 cannot operate more than about 50 kilometres off the coast and the US 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? North Korea could maybe lob a missile at Japan — or maybe not, a missile test on April 15 failed — and they could level Seoul with artillery alone. But why would it do this? It would prompt either the US or China to respond and destroy it.
The only way to explain such a unilateral assault is to go back to that same baseless “crazy” claim. They could miscalculate of course, but claims that North Koreans are especially dangerous almost always relies on 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 infantilising, dehumanising, racist logic.
And any claims of a direct North Korean threat to the US is ludicrous. It has no weapons capable of reaching within thousands of miles of the US, and are years away from developing any. Even if it reached that goal — which its very uneven history of missile tests indicates will be very difficult — it would still have thousands of fewer weapons than the US.
Cable news is a much bigger threat to US security than North Korea ever will be.
If North Korea’s military threat is totally derived from its desire to prevent a US attack, why not negotiate a peace between North Korea and the US? A negotiated settlement could move both back from the brink and perhaps even provide space for an opening in North Korean society.
Conventional wisdom says 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 is not North Korea that has betrayed past agreements, but the US.
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 basically traded the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for normalised economic and diplomatic relations with the US.
As a good faith step to spur the negotiations, North Korea submitted to limited weapons inspections while the US cancelled military exercises with South Korea. North Korea also used its plutonium production plants for energy, so the US agreed to help provide them with fuel oil until two light water nuclear reactors — which cannot be weaponised — could be built.
The US failed to uphold its end of the agreement almost immediately. Two weeks after it was signed, Republicans won control of Congress and labelled the agreement “appeasement”. Congress never provided sufficient funds for the fuel oil and the US never met the obligations set in the Agreed Framework.
The US also failed to take even the first preliminary steps in building the light water reactors for more than four years. It then moved at such a slow pace that there was no chance of meeting the framework’s timelines.
Most significantly, Congress blocked any attempts to begin normalising relations between North Korea and then-president Bill Clinton never pressed it to do so.
North Korea played along for at least four years and even warned that it would restart its nuclear program a year before it actually began a pilot program. North Korea did not shift from this pilot effort to a full-scale weapons program until then-president George W Bush refused new negotiations in 2001.
North Korea’s record is one of cooperating whenever Washington cooperated, and retaliating whenever it reneged. This extended to the later Six Party Talks begun in 2003 between North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia that almost brought North Korea back into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Talks broke down when the US refused to release US$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.
Yes, North Korea is governed by a repressive regime. But this is beside the point. The US does not pick its enemies for their moral qualities.
The US’s long history of supporting, and often imposing, brutal dictatorships shows it does not care about human rights or freedom when deciding which nations to support or oppose.
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 difference is that, unlike North Korean, Pakistan is subject to the US empire — and it buys it weapons from the US military-industrial complex.
North Korea dares to not only maintain its independence, but to seek to defend it. Therefore, it cannot be rewarded with negotiation.
It is our responsibility to push back against our governments lying their way into nuclear war.
[Abridged from Defiant. Andrew Dobbs is an activist, organiser, and writer based in Austin, Texas.]