As tensions rise on the Korean peninsula its worth remembering that the US spends more than the next 42 countries combined on waging war

mushroom cloud

‘The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay’

Barack Obama, 2011

Slavoj Zizek’s famous comment that ‘It’s easy to imagine the end of the world… but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism’ can seem ominously plausible in light of recent headlines emanating from the Korean peninsula.

An arms race of rhetoric has accelerated on both sides of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea. A North Korean general recently stated:

‘Intercontinental ballistic missiles and various other missiles, which have already set their striking targets, are now armed with lighter, smaller and diversified nuclear warheads and are placed on a standby status…Washington, which is the stronghold of evils, will be engulfed in a sea of fire.’

Pyongyang has accompanied this sort of language with some low-budget videos visualising the destruction of US cities.

One of his South Korean counterparts has responded:

‘If [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked…a pre-emptive attack against the North trying to use nuclear weapons does not require consultation with the United States and it is the right of self-defense.’

The North’s leader, Kim Jong Un has suspended the military hotline between the two Koreas devised to avoid communication breakdown. He also recently visited an artillery unit to observe it pulverising an uninhabited island as target practice.

Not to be outdone in rhetorical brinkmanship, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned the North Koreans:

“We don’t have any choice in defending this country but to anticipate worst case scenarios…These are decision-making processes that evolve based on threats – you only need to be wrong once.”

Missile shield

Hagel made this comment as he announced the US was activating a missile defence shield operating along its west coast to thwart the alleged threat of a North Korean attack. Hagel has already attained authorisation from Congress for at least $2 billion for this project – at a time when the sequester is punching holes in the US welfare system. Most independent military analysts however perceive the North Korean threat to the North American continent to be totally non-existent and that the missile shield will be a complete white elephant.

Asawin Suebsaeng notes:

‘The Pentagon is spending $1 billion on a gesture. Virtually no one in the US government actually believes that North Korea is close to having the ability to hit any part of the United States with nuclear missiles. It is also unclear how close North Korea is to being able to convert their tested nuclear devices to function as warheads’.

One of Ronald Reagan’s military advisers has added:

‘Every scientific study done says it doesn’t work, even if there were a threat from Iran or North Korea, [a shield] wouldn’t be able to stop it.’

Hollywood villains

The standard backstory in the Western media for this perilous situation is that North Korea is a bellicose anachronism stuck in a time warp that irrationally refuses to interact with the rest of the world. This simplistic narrative has recently been taken to absurd levels-not coincidentally perhaps – by two Hollywood movies that demonise the Pyongyang regime. One shows the North Koreans invading the US and the other portrays them abducting the President from the White House! (take note, American pundits who deride North Korean propaganda videos…)

An deeper understanding of the modern history of the region, however,demonstrates that this narrative is inverted and that in reality the US is the main aggressor and the ultimate source of the military tension. Andrea Berger from a British military study centre concedes ‘ it is possible that North Korea’s underlying insecurities are sincere.’

This year will be the 60th anniversary of the end of the ‘first Korean War.’ In that conflict the US – under the guise of a UN intervention – came perilously close to deploying atomic bombs against Pyongyang.

In the West this war is virtually forgotten in popular consciousness, hazily squeezed in between WW2 and the Vietnam conflict. The North’s leadership, in contrast, have longer memories than Western pundits and also remember that this conflict cost them the lives of about half a million soldiers and about 20% of the civilian population. The infrastructure of North Korean society was utterly devastated by US bombing. This event was the cause of North Korea turning its back on the West and evolving its current reputation as the ‘hermit kingdom’. The American threat therefore is not purely a figment of Kim’s imagination.

In the aftermath of the conflict, America turned its client state in the South into an armed camp with nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula aimed directly at the North. The US was the first to activate nuclear proliferation in the region and the North Koreans have only belatedly tried to catch up.

In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration promised to help Pyongyang establish a civil nuclear programme but then reneged on the deal.

The North was also close to signing a non-proliferation deal a few years later with George Bush Jnr-until the US decided to add demands for on-site inspections that no other state would accept. There was even at that time an agreement in principle between the two Koreas for ‘reunification’.

Axis of Evil

In 2002, George Bush Jnr labelled North Korea as part of his absurd ‘Axis of Evil’ with no justification whatever. His motivation, of course, was to fabricate a new series of enemies to justify massive military spending in the absence of the defunct USSR. When the West easily toppled Saddam’s non-nuclear regime, Pyongyang drew the logical conclusion that it was necessary to re-activate their atomic programme to avert a similar fate.

Like his predecessor in the White House, Obama is now turning the screws on Pyongyang as a pretext for an ulterior agenda. In his case, to legitimate a strategic shift from the Middle East to the Far East – the ‘Pivot’ as it has labelled in US military thinking. This is the re-focusing of the US imperial agenda from the Middle East to the Pacific.

It is much easier to justify throwing billions of dollars at programmes such as Chuck Hagel’s missile shield if a convenient bogeyman such as Kim Jong Un can be identified. Of course, the real target audience for Obama’s brinkmanship is not in Pyongyang but Beijing. He sees this crisis as an opportunity to remind the Chinese that the US intends to remain the hegemonic power in the Pacific. There are already signs that the new Chinese leadership are buckling slightly in the face of this diplomatic offensive from Washington. On his recent visit to meet President Xi Jinping,US Secretary of State John Kerry arm-twisted Beijing to take a tougher line with its North Korean ally. He warned the Chinese leader to “put some teeth” into negotiations with Pyongyang.

Kerry is being assisted in this muscle-flexing by regional allies, South Korea and Japan,both of which have newly elected right-wing governments eager to bang the nationalist drum.

Tracing the roots of the current crisis to US imperial posturing does not imply that we should have much sympathy for the North Korean regime. Kim presides over a repressive Stalinist dictatorship that disfigures the name of marxism. No socialist can support a government that casually threatens to annihilate millions of workers in another country while allowing its own population to starve on a massive scale.

However, it should be noted that one state involved in this situation spends more than the next 42 countries combined on waging war – and it is not North Korea.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters