Rockets went off on the Fourth of July as usual, though some were not the variety you can now apparently buy in New York State at any of what seems like a million roadside stands. I am of course referring to the launch of the North Korean “ICBM” and the response by the American expeditionary force permanently stationed in South Korea – namely a volley of missiles fired into the sea. The North Korea missile story was teased for a couple of days by the likes of Joe Scarborough, in between his raking over the details of some petty blackmail Trump’s flunkies were pulling on him and his partner. Now it’s full-court press on North Korea, reminiscent of the kind of rhetoric we heard prior to the Iraq war.
The first report I heard started with the term “provocation”. It went downhill from there. The fact is, I have yet to hear from anyone on mainstream media programming who doesn’t subscribe to the general consensus view that (a) North Korea is a madman aggressor nation, (b) only pressure on China can “bring them to heel”, and (c) we tried negotiations and it didn’t work. In fact, I have yet to hear any politicians on the center-left raise doubts about this toxic consensus. It seems with respect to this and similar conflicts, politics stop at the water’s edge. That would be fine if they had it even half-right, but they don’t.
First of all, the madman aggressor notion ignores the fact that we maintain the most powerful military force on the peninsula. It also frames the issue as one centering on a leader’s irrationality. Whatever the faults of the Pyongyang regime, it’s not hard to see why they want a credible nuclear deterrent. It’s actually a relatively sane response to the threat of attack from a superpower that (1) destroyed them once in the 1950s and (2) is a constant menacing presence, running mock invasions and leadership decapitation exercises several times a year. Second, the China “card” is irrelevant – North Korea’s disagreement is with us, not China. That’s why they’re building an ICBM. They want what they’ve always wanted – a non-aggression guarantee from us, which is what China and Russia have called for – along with restraint from Pyongyang – after their recent summit.
Finally, the “we tried it” claim is false. We reneged on the 1994 nuclear deal, which involved our providing the North Koreans with a light-water nuclear reactor – something Clinton and the GOP Congress never followed through on. The 2000 election debacle stopped the Clinton foreign policy team from working out a non-aggression agreement with Kim Jong Il at the last minute, then two years later North Korea was added to the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush II administration, placing a big red bull’s eye on their flank. That pretty much guaranteed the continuation of their nuclear weapons program.
We are experiencing the bitter outcome of consistently bad policy implemented by both major political parties. Such a longstanding consensus implies that there may be some merit to the suggestion made by Chomsky and others that the continuing Korean conflict serves our grander imperial vision by preventing the ultimate economic integration of northeast Asia. If China, Japan, and Korea lessened tensions and formed a cooperative arrangement of sorts, it would be a formidable economic rival to U.S. hegemony, to be sure.
The downside risks of this kind of brinkmanship are too great. There’s one way out of this disaster: talk to Pyongyang. This is no longer an ideological dispute as it was framed in the 1950s (North Korea is a model for no one). This is about safety and survival for everyone on the Korean peninsula, and that needs to be the guiding star for our Korea policy moving forward.