Recent rhetorical grandstanding should not obscure a clear and present danger, writes Lindsey German
It may be that we will look back on August 2017 as a month when the hot war rhetoric got a bit out of hand. Or it may be that we will look back on it as the start of a new hot war, involving North and South Korea, the US, China and Japan. It really is that frightening. The world is closer to nuclear war than at any time probably since the Cuba missile crisis in 1962.
Donald Trump’s tweeted promise that he would rain ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea like the world has never seen was quite an extraordinary statement for anyone to make who was not preparing for a war of some kind. Since then, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has tried to row back from the implications of the threat, telling Americans that they could ‘sleep well at night’. Meanwhile US defence secretary James Mattis (a former general known as ‘mad dog’) has told North Korea that it faces ‘the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.’
Meanwhile North Korea has announced that it is planning to launch four missiles on the Pacific island of Guam, site of a giant US air base from where planes flying over Korea are launched. This is on top of testing of a series of missiles which may have the capability to reach western cities in the US (although it is unclear that they could do so) and the claim in some quarters that North Korea has developed a mini nuclear warhead.
The levels of rhetoric from Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have shaken millions of people around the world. We have become used to the seemingly endless wars played out in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, and to the constant background of war which has played out over the past 16 years of the war on terror. But this conflict risks the threat of nuclear war – a war which will lead to the destruction of much of the planet and to the deaths of millions of people.
This week has marked the anniversary of the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons by the United States in August 1945. To this day the US is the only country to have used nuclear weapons.
The prospect of a new war involving nuclear weapons is now conjured up over the conflict with North Korea. The Korean peninsula, occupied by Japan during the Second World War, has been divided in two since the end of the Korean war from 1950- 53. The US and a number of other countries, including Britain, were involved in that war which was a proxy for the Cold War conflict between the US one the one hand and China and Russia on the other. There were major interventions in Korea and Vietnam aimed at preventing the spread of regimes seen as sympathetic to China.
The US used napalm – a chemical weapon made notorious through its later use in Vietnam – and carpet bombing to win its war aims. There was talk also of using another nuclear weapon. In addition, the US quite deliberately and brutally targeted the civilian population of Korea, bombing dams which flooded the rice fields and left people to starve. It is estimated that around a quarter or a third of the population died in total from bombing and war related deaths.
After three years, the ceasefire left the country partitioned more or less where the war had started, and the populations of both north and south still live with the legacy of that war which looms large in the national consciousness.
North Korea has found itself increasingly isolated politically and economically in recent decades, and this isolation is partly reflected in Kim Jong-un’s belligerent rhetoric against the US. He wants to bolster his legitimacy as a ‘strong ruler’ against the US, in a country where there are huge economic problems and no democracy.
Last weekend the UN unanimously placed further sanctions on North Korea in response to its development of nuclear weapons, which is prohibited under international non-proliferation agreements. Nuclear weapons which are true weapons of mass destruction cannot be justified in any circumstances. Yet there are gross hypocrisies here, since the US is the possessor of by far the largest nuclear arsenal, which it has no intention of getting rid of, despite international agreements.
The US response to the nuclear testing in the north has been to station the THAAD missile shield system in South Korea. This makes a US first strike more likely, not less. In addition, there are 30,000 US troops stationed in the South. War, even if it is confined to the peninsula, will lead to widespread civilian casualties and probably escalation to other countries.
It is comforting for many on the liberal left to believe that there cannot be a war, that the rhetoric is just that. It is easy to portray Trump and Kim as two cartoon like figures who are full of bravado but will do nothing in the end. That may indeed be the outcome – but we shouldn’t count on it. Trump and Kim are both highly unpredictable. More fundamentally, the looming economic conflict between China (North Korea’s closest ally) and US is widely predicted to lead to future military tensions.
There is also talk among US Republicans about ‘preventative war’ or limited bombing of nuclear test sites. While it may be that there are attempts at diplomacy in the short term to end this crisis, it will not go away. China and Russia want a freeze on military activity and testing north and south, which so far the US will not agree.
Socialists and anti-war campaigners have every interest in calling for peace and demilitarisation, and for an end to the sabre rattling, which can easily get out of control. More widely, there has to be an increased pressure for nuclear disarmament. This is a war that no one can win.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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