Michael Slate Interviews History Professor Bruce Cumings

What “Everybody Knows” about North Korea—and the Real History of U.S. Aggression

July 2, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


On Friday, June 30, after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Donald Trump once again threatened North Korea with military aggression: “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed and frankly, that patience is over.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is an oppressive regime—not a revolutionary socialist state—a reactionary force in the world. For months now, the fascist Trump/Pence regime has threatened it, saying “all options” are on the table if Kim Jong-un does not end the country’s nuclear weapons program. Trump says he wants North Korea to be “dealt with rapidly” and his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says that every option being prepared involves a U.S. military attack. So now there is a real danger of a U.S. military attack, possibly including nuclear weapons, which could lead to the deaths of millions in the region.

The following is from a June 9, 2017 interview with author and professor Bruce Cumings on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. The U.S. rulers and media paint North Korea as the aggressor. But as Bruce Cumings reveals, there is a long history of U.S. war, threats and intervention against North Korea.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.

Michael Slate: In your book, Inventing the Axis of Evil, the truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria, you make a point I thought was important for people to understand, which is that the United States terrorized North Korea with nuclear weapons during and after the Korean War, and was the only power to introduce nuclear weapons to Korean soil. So there’s a lot that’s just unknown by people even as the U.S. puts out all this stuff about how the North Koreans are crazy and they’re playing with nukes.

Bruce Cumings: It’s a little bit like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where most people, including a lot of liberals, accepted the fact that Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator who had WMDs, and there was no real background given; for example, our support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s in the war with Iran.

Then we have a war, and the war goes very badly. It’s still a complete catastrophe. And all this history comes out. And if we were to go to war with North Korea, which has seemed closer under the Trump administration than it has been in some time, all of this would come out about the U.S. running an operation called Hudson Harbor in 1951, where B29s dropped dummy atomic bombs on North Korea to see whether they might be useful against troop concentrations and cities. President Eisenhower, toward the end of the war in May 1953, tested one of the largest atomic bombs ever tested, and also shot the first atomic cannon. And this was all put on the front pages of newspapers, and was intended to bring an end to the war and intimidate North Korea and China. And then as you said, in 1958, we installed hundreds of nuclear weapons, battlefield tactical weapons and short-range warheads on missiles, into South Korea. So we’re the first ones to introduce nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, and kept them there until 1991, when they were withdrawn on a world scale because the Pentagon felt that precision-guided high explosives, but non-nuclear weapons, would cause fewer problems. You wouldn’t have radiation and collateral damage [as you would] from nuclear weapons. So we drew them back.

We drew them back. But you can leave it to Donald Trump to tell you what the North Koreans still face, which is, for example, a Trident submarine, sometimes called Armageddon in one sausage tube. He mentioned that two of our nuclear submarines were off of North Korea last week. This is of course classified information. He’s not supposed to say that. He doesn’t know that. But the fact is that one of our nuclear submarines, or all of them, could run right up to the North Korean coast and obliterate North Korea in a matter of hours.

Colin Powell back in 1995, which should give your listeners an idea of how long this problem has been going on—it’s really 25 years we’ve been dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem—Colin Powell said if they ever used a nuclear weapon in anger, the U.S. would turn North Korea into a charcoal briquette.

I just want to say one more thing about that. If you imagine North Korea as the Green Team against the Blue Team, rather than the Evil Kim Jong-un with his crazy haircut against the always-perfect United States, you can see what they’re up against. It’s a small country, and the largest power in the world is constantly threatening it with nuclear annihilation. President Obama did this too. He routinely sent nuclear-capable B1 and B2 bombers over South Korea for exercises. So it’s a very dangerous situation, and I think it’s incumbent on Americans to put themselves in the shoes of the North Koreans and look at the world that they face, quite apart from all of our media stereotypes about how crazy they are, and how dangerous they are.

Michael Slate: When you want to talk about crazy and dangerous, you say that North Korea would not have had nukes if the U.S. had actually kept its word in the past.

Bruce Cumings: People who follow the situation closely, and high officials in the Clinton administration like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Wendy Sherman, her very close aide on North Korea, have written about this—Bill Clinton nearly struck North Korea with a preemptive attack against their nuclear facility in June 1994. It was only later that people realized, or came to understand, how close we were to a war with North Korea at that time. But Jimmy Carter intervened when he heard about all of this. He flew to Pyongyang and talked directly with Kim Il-sung and got a freeze on all of North Korea’s plutonium.

It’s very important to underline that that freeze was completely monitored and checked for eight years, 24/7. You had UN inspectors on the ground, closed-circuit cameras watching it at all times. The reactors were sealed. And of course we know with our intelligence when a reactor starts up. So there’s no question. The North Koreans didn’t have an ounce of plutonium from 1994 to 2002. However, George W. Bush had already put North Korea in his Axis of Evil in 2002. Then in September he announced his preemptive doctrine, for which the euphemism was “anticipatory self defense.” And North Korea, along with Iran and especially Iraq, were listed as the countries for which this policy was developed. He then went ahead, of course, to invade Iraq in March of 2003, which was really a preventive war rather than anticipatory self-defense. We don’t need to get into this, but Saddam Hussein was actually writing a novel at the time and trying to do everything he could not to provoke the U.S.

After that happened, North Korea just said as openly and loudly as it could, Saddam Hussein didn’t have nuclear weapons. If he had had them, he wouldn’t have been overthrown. That’s not going to happen to us. They got back their plutonium, kicked out the inspectors, and systematically began building atomic weapons, and tested the first one just three years later, in 2006.

I don’t think it’s a partisan judgment, but a factual statement to say that George W. Bush had two enormous catastrophes on his hands. One is the invasion of Iraq, which basically wrecked the Middle East since 2003. And second, he is the primary person responsible for North Korea getting nuclear weapons. And I think many experts believe that. Madeleine Albright has written about that. But it doesn’t get out in the media at all, in part because so many of our people want to say, well, that’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. We’re not to sound partisan.

Michael Slate: One of the things you talk about is that most recently, the use of agreements, etc., have been kicked to the curb, that there’s an assumption that no one has been able to rein in the nuts in North Korea and their nuke program, and it’s time to fight or topple. Let’s talk about that.

Bruce Cumings: People routinely say that North Korea has always cheated and never has kept to its agreements. And I don’t know where they’re coming from because it’s simply not true. In addition to the plutonium agreement, the freeze and the missile deal, North Korea in 2000 also opened relations with many of our allies. So they have diplomatic relations with Canada and Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy. We’re one of the last countries not to have relations with North Korea, still trying to isolate it. But the fact is, North Korea was really reaching out, and then they faced the wall of hostility from Bush.

It is true, that if we continue to intimidate North Korea with nuclear weapons, and bring them into the theater by submarines and air power, anybody in North Korea would get a deterrent. In that sense, the critics of North Korea are right that North Korea, when it felt intimidated over many, many years, eventually developed nuclear weapons. It might have happened anyway. But the fact is we did have agreements with them that kept them from moving to nuclear weapons.

Finally, I would say in response to your question, that the discourse about North Korea under Trump has just been absurd, in that Trump, as I said, talked about our nuclear submarines off the coast. He has threatened North Korea. He’s also said he’d like to talk to Kim Jung-un over a hamburger. That might be the better way to go. But he’s so erratic, and the one thing the North Koreans notice is the submarines, the two aircraft carrier task forces that are in Northeast Asian waters right now. What Trump has done privately or secretly, or what the Pentagon has done, is just jam a bunch of hardware up against North Korea.

Meanwhile, our press, and that includes not just Fox News, but CNN and MSNBC, are constantly running scare stories about North Korea. I saw on CNN that Ana Navarro, one of their frequent commentators, even referred to Kim by his first name, saying, “Little boy Un is a maniac.” She probably thought that was his last name. But that’s the level of discourse that we’ve had about North Korea under Trump.

Michael Slate: You’ve also made a point, and I think this is really important, that there’s a whole different perception of the problem, the source of danger, in relation to nukes in Korea. There’s an epistemology that is always bad no matter when it’s used, which is based on “everybody knows.” And that is a very dangerous thing in relation to this. In reality there’s a long history, as you’ve been saying, of nuclear threats against North Korea itself. In fact, the U.S. has recently installed the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. Let’s talk about those two things.

Bruce Cumings: Well, that was one of the more cynical ploys on the part of the United States in recent years. This Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system was jammed into South Korea while the current president, at the time President Park Geun-hye was being impeached, and before the election that was held earlier this month, which brought a progressive to power.

The U.S. fears that Moon Jae-in, the new president, will be an engager of North Korea like his mentor, Roh Moo-hyun, who was president from 2002 to 2007. So they wanted to get that system in and installed before the new president came into office. And he just complained last week that four launchers were brought in without his permission, or without his office being notified about that. In other words, we are continuing to add to the system even after he’s president without telling him.

There’s just an outrageous situation in our relationship with South Korea. We never have problems with the ruling party that goes back to the dictators, but we always have problems with liberals and progressives who want to try a different approach toward North Korea. The only time that has not been true was when Bill Clinton and William Perry brought American policy around to engagement for two years, 1998-2000. That’s the only time we’ve had direct talks with the North Koreans that have really yielded so much.

But I would expect that President Trump is not going to like President Moon very well, and we’ll see a lot of tension in their relationship, just as there was between George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun in the early 2000s.

I want to say one more thing about the THAAD system. It’s really designed not to knock down North Korean missiles. North Korea has short- to medium-range missiles that it can launch by the dozens, and there’s no way this THAAD system can knock them down. It’s really there to monitor North Korean long-range missiles and Chinese missile tests and long-range missiles. The Chinese have complained mightily about this.

I think the THAAD system’s installation in South Korea was primarily political, in that it was trying to get it in there before a progressive president was elected, and to do what the U.S. has been trying to do for many, many years, which is to weld South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. together in an alignment, or an alliance, to contain China. It doesn’t really have much to do at all with the so-called North Korean threat. But it has a lot to do with pissing off China and making sure the system’s in there before a president comes to power who might not like it.

Michael Slate: Just how dangerous is this situation, both in terms of war and even the impact of war on human survival?

Bruce Cumings: I’m in touch with 30 or 40 people who work on North Korea, former government officials, scholars. Somehow North Korea’s become the big deal. We have 15 or 20 websites dealing with it now that we never had 10 or 15 years ago. But in the last couple of months, I’ve seen time and again, very well-informed experts worrying about the U.S. and North Korea coming to blows. It could come from an incident that ratchets up into a war, or it could come from a preemptive attack. There was a great deal of talk back in March and April about Trump people favoring a preemptive attack on North Korea, on its missiles. You can’t really attack their nuclear facilities preemptively without letting loose a whole lot of radiation around the region.

There was almost a consensus inside the Beltway in the fall and winter that if North Korea keeps moving toward an ability to hit the United States with a long-range missile and a nuclear weapon, well we just have to think about preempting that. And it’s very, very dangerous, because along the DMZ, there have been cycles of preemption and counter-preemption both happening and envisioned by the respective militaries, North Korea, South Korea and the U.S., going back decades, going back to the Korean War. So to add the threat of a preemptive attack on North Korea’s missiles is to just come close to bringing forth the general war in the region that we talked about.

Dr. Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago, and author of many books, including The Korean War, and Inventing the Axis of Evil, the Truth about North Korea, Iran and Syria (contributor).


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