Why we must challenge US foreign policy towards North Korea

November 4, 2017
US warships heading to the Korean Peninsula last month.

It is an understatement to say that relations between the US and North Korea are very tense.

The US government continues to threaten to further tighten economic sanctions on North Korea, and launch a military attack to destroy the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons infrastructure. For its part, the North says it will respond to any attack with its own strikes against US bases in the region and even the US itself.

Making matters worse are Trump’s personal attacks on Kim Jong Un, the head of the North Korean government. Indicating how much tensions have ramped up, Kim himself spoke, responding in kind to Trump. This may be the first time that a North Korean leader has personally responded to comments made by another government. Usually the North Korean position is conveyed by a government official or its news service.

Not new

This is not a good situation, but it is also important to realise it is not new. The US began conducting war games with South Korean forces directed against the North in 1976. It was not long before those included simulated nuclear attacks against the North — before the North had any nuclear weapons. 

In 1994, then-US president Bill Clinton came very close to launching a military attack on North Korea. In 2002, then-president George W Bush talked about implementing a naval blockade of North Korea and seizing its ships — an act of war.

He also announced a new National Security Strategy under which the US announced its right to take pre-emptive military action against any nation that it felt posed a threat to US interests. North Korea was said to be at, or near, the top of the list.

Since 2013, the US has conducted annual war games involving planning for pre-emptive attacks on North Korean targets. It includes the use of nuclear weapons and what the military calls the decapitation of North Korea’s leadership.

The point here is not just that the US has a history of threatening war, including nuclear attack, against the DPRK, but that it is a bipartisan history. It has involved both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The cycle of belligerency and threat-making on both sides is intensifying. It is possible that a miscalculation could trigger the start of military actions. However, and this is important, even if war is averted, the high level of tension between the US and North Korea itself comes with unacceptably high costs.

Collective punishment

Trump is continuing the strategy of past administrations of responding to every North Korean missile launch or nuclear test with new sanctions. These sanctions are cutting deep, hurting North Korean living conditions. 

It is collective punishment of the entire North Korean population. As Gregory Elich explained in a September article at Korea Policy Institute, the US is already at war with North Korea, “doing so through non-military means, with the aim of inducing economic collapse”.

For example: UN resolution 2371, passed in August, aims to block North Korea “from exporting coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood, all key commodities in the nation’s international trade. The resolution also banned countries from opening new or expanding existing joint ventures with the DPRK.” 

UN resolution 2375, passed in September, is designed to further limit “North Korea’s ability to engage in international trade by barring the export of textiles. It is estimated that together, the sanctions may well eliminate 90 percent of the DPRK’s export earnings ... The September resolution also adversely impacts the livelihoods of North Korea’s overseas workers, who will not be allowed to renew their contracts once they expire.”

The social costs of US policy are not limited to North Koreans, although they bear the greatest burden. The tensions generated by the escalating US-NK standoff are helping to fuel greater military spending and militarisation in Japan and China, as well as the US. This dynamic strengthens the political power and influence of dangerous right-wing forces in all these countries. 

In South Korea, these tensions are already at work undermining democratic rights. Labour leaders are jailed, civil rights curtailed and progressive political parties disbanded in the name of national security.

So, it is not enough for us to just work to oppose outright military conflict. We need to change the dynamics driving US and North Korean relations. There is no mystery about the best way to achieve this end: the US needs to accept DPRK offers for direct negotiations to end the state of hostility between the two countries. 

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to forcing the US to the negotiating table. It requires building a strong popular movement that can cut through the myths and distortions that the US media and government promote in defence of current policy. 

This also requires that we hear progressive voices from South Korea. Jang Jinsook, Director of Planning of the Minjung Party of South Korea, a new progressive party that formally launched last month, is one such voice. 

South Korean voices

What follows is a short excerpt from Jinsook’s talk titled “Honoring the Candlelight Revolution in a Time of Looming War in Korea” that was given at the People’s Congress of Resistance at Howard University in Washington, DC, in September: 

“Military tension between North and South Korea has always been headline news in Korea. Every year in March and August, when the U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct their massive military exercises, tensions escalate, and each time, people in Korea experience renewed fear: ‘Maybe this time, it will really lead to war.’

“The U.S. and South Korean militaries say these are routine exercises, but they deploy weapons of mass destruction, rehearse the occupation of North Korea, and simulate real-war scenarios as well as the decapitation of the North Korean leadership. North Korea has strongly objected to these exercises, but this has been going on for a long time.

“The Korean peninsula has always lived with the imminent threat of war. But until recently, it never made headline news in the United States.

“I’ve been seeing the headlines in U.S. news in the few days I’ve been here: ‘Kim Jong-un, North Korea, missiles…’ This ironically pleased me because finally what was once considered only a problem of the Korean peninsula has now become a U.S. problem. Now that the war threats are acute, it has finally become headline news in the United States.

“It is the United States that has conducted the greatest number of nuclear tests, possesses the greatest nuclear arsenal, and has actually dropped atomic bombs on a civilian population. North Korea is in the stage of developing and testing nuclear weapons, opposes U.S. aggression and sanctions, and demands a peace treaty. Which party is the real threat?

“For the first time in a long time, defending the US mainland from the threat of nuclear war has become a priority policy agenda for the US government. Of course, news about North Korea must be distressing for the people who live in the United States.

“But it is the U.S. government that has created this situation, and the solution is quite simple. It is to realize a peace agreement between the United States and North Korea.

“The more the United States piles on sanctions against North Korea through the UN, the more North Korea will become hostile and the two countries will inch closer to war. And the more this crisis intensifies, the U.S. government will sell more weapons to South Korea and increasingly meddle in South Korea’s internal affairs.

“For the past sixty years, since the Korean War and the 1953 signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the United States, South Korea has been a military outpost for the United States. The so-called U.S.-ROK alliance seriously undermines the sovereignty of South Korea. The forced deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system is a case in point.”


Jinsook listed five demands:

  1. The United States must end sanctions against North Korea, which are an act of war.
  2. North Korea and the United States must sign a permanent peace agreement.
  3. US forces in Korea should withdraw from the Korean peninsula along with their weapons of mass destruction.
  4. The United States must stop meddling in South Korea’s internal affairs.
  5. Lastly, we must build enduring solidarity for peace in Korea and across the world.

You can read her entire speech and learn more about the Minjung Party of South Korea at the Korea Policy Institute website.

[Slightly abridged from Reports from the Economic Front.]

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