Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Military Spending

The Need For A New US Foreign Policy Towards North Korea

US-North Korean relations remain very tense, although the threat of a new Korean War has thankfully receded.  Still the US government remains determined to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea and continues to plan for a military strike aimed at destroying the country’s nuclear infrastructure.  And the North for its part has made it clear that it would respond to any attack with its own strikes against US bases in the region and even the US itself.

This is not good, but it is important to realize that what is happening is not new.  The US began conducting war games with South Korean forces in 1976 and it was not long before those included simulated nuclear attacks against the North, and that was before North Korea had nuclear weapons.  In 1994, President Bill Clinton was close to launching a military attack on North Korea with the aim of destroying its nuclear facilities.  In 2002, President Bush talked about seizing North Korean ships as part of a blockade of the country, which is an act of war.  In 2013, the US conducted war games which involved planning for preemptive attacks on North Korean military targets and “decapitation” of the North Korean leadership and even a first strike nuclear attack.

I don’t think we are on the verge of a new Korean war, but the cycle of belligerency and threat making on both sides is intensifying.  And it is always possible that a miscalculation could in fact trigger a new war, with devastating consequences. The threat of war, perhaps a nuclear war, is nothing to play around with.  But – and this is important — even if a new war is averted, the ongoing embargo against North Korea and continual threats of war are themselves costly: they promote/legitimatize greater military spending and militarization more generally, at the expense of needed social programs, in Japan, China, the US, and the two Koreas.  They also create a situation that compromises democratic possibilities in both South and North Korea and worsen already difficult economic conditions in North Korea.

There is a choice for peace

We doesn’t have to go down this road—we have another option—but it is one that the US government is unwilling to consider, much less discuss.  That option is for the US to accept North Korean offers of direct negotiations between the two countries, with all issues on the table.

The US government and media dismiss this option as out of hand—we are told that (1) the North is a hermit kingdom and seeks only isolation, (2) the country is ruled by crazy people hell bent on war, and (3) the North Korean leadership cannot be trusted to follow through on its promises.  But none of this is true.

First: if being a hermit kingdom means never wanting to negotiate, then North Korea is not a hermit kingdom.  North Korea has been asking for direct talks with the United States since the early 1990s.  The reason is simple: this is when the USSR ended and Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries in central Europe moved to adopt capitalism.  The North was dependent on trade with these countries and their reorientation left the North Korean economy isolated and in crisis.

The North Korean leadership decided that they had to break out of this isolation and connect the North Korean economy to the global economy, and this required normalization of relations with the United States.  Since then, they have repeatedly asked for unconditional direct talks with the US in hopes of securing an end to the Korean War and a peace treaty as a first step towards their desired normalization of relations, but have been repeatedly rebuffed.  The US has always put preconditions on those talks, preconditions that always change whenever the North has taken steps to meet them.

The North has also tried to join the IMF and WB, but the US and Japan have blocked their membership.

The North has also tried to set up free trade zones to attract foreign investment, but the US and Japan have worked to block that investment.

So, it is not the North that is refusing to talk or broaden its engagement with the global economy; it is the US that seeks to keep North Korea isolated.

Second: the media portray North Korea as pursuing an out of control militarism that is the main cause of the current dangerous situation.  But it is important to recognize that South Korea has outspent North Korea on military spending every year since 1976.  International agencies currently estimate that North Korean annual military spending is $4 billion while South Korean annual military spending is $40 billion.  And then we have to add the US military build-up.

North Korea does spend a high percentage of its budget on the military, but that is because it has no reliable military ally and a weak economy.  However, it has largely responded to South Korean and US militarism and threats, not driven them.  As for the development of a nuclear weapons program: it was the US that brought nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.  It did so in 1958 in violation of the Korean War armistice and threatened North Korea with nuclear attack years before the North even sought to develop nuclear weapons.

Third: North Korea has been a more reliable negotiating partner than the US. Here we have to take up the nuclear issue more directly.  The North has tested a nuclear weapon 5 times: 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016.

Critically, North Korean tests have largely been conducted in an effort to pull the US into negotiations or fulfill past promises.  And the country has made numerous offers to halt its testing and even freeze its nuclear weapons program if only the US would agree to talks.

North Korea was first accused of developing nuclear weapons in early 1990s.  Its leadership refused to confirm or deny that the country had succeeded in manufacturing nuclear weapons but said that it would open up its facilities for inspection if the US would enter talks to normalize relations.  As noted above, the North was desperate, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, to draw the US into negotiations.  In other words, it was ready to end the hostilities between the two countries.

The US government refused talks and began to mobilize for a strike on North Korean nuclear facilities.  A war was averted only because Jimmy Carter, against the wishes of the Clinton administration, went to the North, met Kim Il Sung, and negotiated an agreement that froze the North Korean nuclear program.

The North Korean government agreed to end their country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and normalization.  And from 1994 to 2002 the North froze its plutonium program and had all nuclear fuel observed by international inspectors to assure the US that it was not engaged in making any nuclear weapons.   Unfortunately, the US did not live up to its side of the bargain; it did not deliver the aid it promised or take meaningful steps towards normalization.

In 2001 President Bush declared North Korea to be part of the axis of evil and the following year unilaterally canceled the agreement.  In response, the North restarted its nuclear program.

In 2003, the Chinese government, worried about growing tensions between the US and North Korea, convened multiparty talks to bring the two countries back to negotiations.  Finally, in 2005, under Chinese pressure, the US agreed to a new agreement, in which each North Korean step towards ending its weapons program would be matched by a new US step towards ending the embargo and normalizing relations.  But exactly one day after signing the agreement, the US asserted, without evidence, that North Korea was engaged in a program of counterfeiting US dollars and tightened its sanctions policy against North Korea.

The North Korean response was to test its first nuclear bomb in 2006.  And shortly afterwards, the US agreed to drop its counterfeiting charge and comply with the agreement it had previously signed.

In 2007 North Korea shut down its nuclear program and even began dismantling its nuclear facilities—but the US again didn’t follow through on the terms of the agreement, falling behind on its promised aid and sanction reductions.  In fact, the US kept escalating its demands on North Korea, calling for an end to North Korea’s missile program and improvement in human rights in addition to the agreed upon steps to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  And so, frustrated, North Korea tested another nuclear weapon in 2009.

And the US responded by tightening sanctions.

In 2012 the North launched two satellites.  The first failed, the second succeeded.  Before each launch the US threatened to go to the UN and secure new sanctions on North Korea.  But the North asserted its right to launch satellites and went ahead.  After the December 2012 launch, the UN agreed to further sanctions and the North responded with its third nuclear test in 2013.

This period marks a major change in North Korean policy. The North now changed its public stance: it declared itself a nuclear state—and announced that it was no longer willing to give up its nuclear weapons.  However, the North Korean government made clear that it would freeze its nuclear weapons program if the US would cancel its future war games.  The US refused and its March 2013 war games included practice runs of nuclear equipped bombers and planning for occupying North Korea.  The North has therefore continued to test and develop its nuclear weapons capability.

Here is the point: whenever the US shows willingness to negotiate, the North responds.  And when agreements are signed, it is the US that has abandoned them.  The North has pushed forward with its nuclear weapons program largely in an attempt to force the US to seriously engage with the North because it believes that this program is its only bargaining chip.  And it is desperate to end the US embargo on its economy.

We lost the opportunity to negotiate with a non-nuclear North Korea when we cut off negotiations in 2001, before the country had a nuclear arsenal. Things have changed.  Now, the most we can reasonably expect is an agreement that freezes that arsenal.  However, if relations between the two countries truly improve it may well be possible to achieve a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula, an outcome both countries profess to seek.

New possibilities and our responsibilities

So, why does US refuse direct negotiations and risk war?  The most logical reason is that there are powerful forces opposing them.  Sadly, the tension is useful to the US military industrial complex, which needs enemies to support the ongoing build-up of the military budget.  The tension also allows the US military to maintain troops on the Asian mainland and forces in Japan.  It also helps to isolate China and boost right-wing political tendencies in Japan and South Korea.  And now, after decades of demonizing North Korea, it is difficult for the US political establishment to change course.

However, the outcome of the recent presidential election in South Korea might open possibilities to force a change in US policy. Moon Jae-in, the winner, has repudiated the hard-line policies of his impeached predecessor Park Guen-Hye, and declared his commitment to re-engage with the North.  The US government was not happy about his victory, but it cannot easily ignore Moon’s call for a change in South Korean policy towards North Korea, especially since US actions against the North are usually presented as necessary to protect South Korea. Thus, if Moon follows through on his promises, the US may well be forced to moderate its own policy towards the North.

What is clear is that we in the US have a responsibility to become better educated about US policy towards both Koreas, to support popular movements in South Korea that seek peaceful relations with North Korea and progress towards reunification, and to work for a US policy that promotes the demilitarization and normalization of US-North Korean relations.

I discuss this history of US-North Korean relations and current developments in South Korea in a May 8 interview on KBOO radio; you can hear the interview here: http://kboo.fm/media/57730-how-us-has-provoked-north-korea

To keep up on developments I encourage you to visit the following two websites:

Korea Policy Institute: kpolicy.org

ZoominKorea: zoominkorea.org

Join Koreans In Opposing THAAD Deployment

The US government, with the approval of the South Korean government, wants to locate a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.  Growing numbers of South Koreans oppose this.  They fear that the anti-missile system, which is largely aimed at China and Russia, will only increase military tensions and fuel a new arms race in the region as well as worsen relations with North Korea.  Those living close to the proposed location for the THAAD battery worry about the long term health effects of the associated high-intensity radar system.  Their fears and worries are well founded.

no-war

While the anti- THAAD struggle is big news in Korea, little is known about it in the United States.  This is unfortunate because the U.S. effort to expand its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region also has real consequences for people in this country.  For example, the resulting militarization will lead to ever higher levels of U.S. military spending, draining resources away from needed social programs.  And, of course, it increases the risk of a new war.  In short, it is in the interest of people living in the United States to join with people in South Korea to oppose the THAAD deployment in South Korea.

Therefore, several U.S. based organizations have joined in coalition under the banner of “Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific.”  Its demands are simple:

  • We urge the U.S. government to rescind its decision on THAAD deployment in South Korea.
  • We urge the U.S. government to pursue all possible avenues for reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula by re-engaging in diplomacy with North Korea.
  • We urge the U.S. government to resolve conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region peacefully, through diplomacy and dialogue.

The coalition’s website, http://stopthaad.org/, includes a longer statement of purpose and links to articles that analyze both the political aims and consequences of the proposed THAAD deployment and the growth of the resistance movement in South Korea.  As you will see, close to 100 organizations have already endorsed the coalition’s demands.

As a first action, the coalition is organizing candlelight vigils in select U.S. cities in solidarity with candlelight vigils taking place in South Korean cities; information about them can also be found on the website.

 

Opposing US Militarism In South Korea

The militaristic nature of the Obama administration pivot to Asia is fully on display in South Korea.  While rarely discussed in the United States media, the South Korean government recently agreed to let the US military station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in the South Korean city of Seongju.  The decision has been strongly criticized by the governments of China and Russia, and fiercely resisted by the people of Seongju.

The US and South Korean governments claim that the battery is needed to help defend South Korea from a possible North Korean missile attack.  However, it is far more likely that this decision is part of a broader US effort to strengthen its regional missile defense system and first-strike capacity against China and Russia.

As the Korea analyst Gregory Elich explains, this system is not designed to counter any likely North Korean threat:

The missiles in a THAAD battery are designed to counter incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude ranging from 40 to 150 kilometers. Given North Korea’s proximity, few, if any, missiles fired by the North would attain such a height, given that the point of a high altitude ballistic missile is to maximize distance. Even so, were the North to fire a high altitude ballistic missile from its farthest point, aimed at the concentration of U.S. forces in Pyeongtaek, it would require nearly three and a half minutes for THAAD to detect and counter-launch. In that period, the incoming missile would have already fallen below an altitude of 40 kilometers, rendering THAAD useless. In a conflict with the South, though, North Korea would rely on its long-range artillery, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles, flying at an altitude well below THAAD’s range.

It is also far from certain that the system even works reliably despite Department of Defense approved test results.  As Elich points out, “the tests failed to replicate real-world scenarios, so claims made about THAAD’s effectiveness are unproven.”

So, what is the gain for the US in securing South Korean government willingness to host the system?  The THAAD battery also comes with a powerful radar system that has two different modes of operation.  The first, the terminal mode, is designed to detect incoming missiles and direct counter-missiles.  The second, the forward-based mode, is designed to cover a much wider area and is connected to the US-based missile defense system.  “[I]n forward-mode a radar at Seongju would be capable of covering much of eastern China, as well as missiles fired from further afield as they fly within its detection range.”  In other words, used in forward-mode, the THAAD radar system would greatly enhance the US military’s ability to track and destroy Chinese and Russian missiles, an ability that would significantly contribute to US first-strike capabilities by compromising Chinese or Russian capacities to launch a counter-strike.

Thus, the effort to establish a THAAD battery in South Korea is best understood as a part of the broader US effort to ring China and Russia with missiles and radar systems.  The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space has declared October 1-8 “Keep Space for Peace Week.”  In concert with that effort they published the following poster which highlights the aggressive nature of US policy.

ksfpw16

The Obama administration is well aware that South Koreans do not want to be dragged into a US confrontation with China or Russia and so it appears likely that the US and South Korean governments conspired to win popular support for the battery by encouraging South Koreans to believe that its sole purpose was to reduce the likelihood of a North Korea missile attack.  However, things haven’t worked out as the two governments hoped.

Growing numbers of South Koreans are actively organizing in opposition to the battery.  The resistance in Seongju grew so strong that the government was forced to announce that it would consider an alternative location.  But the residents of Seongju, joined by a wider social movement, are demanding that the government renounce its willingness to host the battery.

Seongjuprotests

The resistance has been spirited and creative as highlighted in this report from the blog Zoom in Korea:

The online “We the People” petition against THAAD deployment surpassed its goal of 100,000 signatures on August 10. The Seongju residents gathered for their 29th nightly candlelight vigil that evening were beaming with joy. The emcee shouted, “What day is today?” and the residents shouted back in unison, “The day we reached 100,000!” According to the White House petition website, any petition that garners 100,000 signatures in 30 days triggers an official response from the White House within 60 days of the date that the goal is reached.

To be sure, waging an online petition campaign in Seongju was no easy task. Most residents don’t have computers nor read English. The petition requires an email verification step, but most didn’t have email accounts. College students set up booths at the nightly candlelight vigils and patiently helped older residents through the process, starting with opening an email account.

The residents made clear that they are not appealing for sympathy from the White House. The petition campaign was a process of organizing the entire country beyond Seongju to demand that the United States rescind its THAAD decision and exert pressure on the White House.

“Until when do we hold the rain ceremony?” asked Lee Jae-dong, the chair of the Seongju branch of the Korean Peasants League and the emcee of the nightly candlelight vigils.  “Until it rains!” replied the crowd. “Until when do we fight THAAD deployment?” he asked. “Until it’s rescinded!” replied Seongju residents in unison.

In August, a Veterans for Peace delegation traveled to South Korea to meet with Koreans resisting the deployment and to learn more about how best to build solidarity.  Two members of the delegation were denied entry into the country by South Korean authorities.

We need to do our part in this struggle and not just out of sympathy for Koreans.  The THAAD deployment, if successful, can only heighten tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen those forces in the US that seek to further militarize our own foreign and domestic policies.

North Korea In The News

The North Korean government claims to have detonated a hydrogen bomb on January 6, 2016,  its fourth test of a nuclear weapon since 2006.  Most analysts believe that what was actually tested was a less powerful atomic bomb or perhaps a “boosted-fission weapon.”

Regardless, the media is full of stories questioning Kim Jung-un’s motives or sanity and discussing the possibility of the UN placing yet more sanctions on North Korea.

As for motives, here is what the New York Times thinks its readers should know:

What might North Korea be trying to accomplish with its threats?

In the past, United States administrations and South Korean governments managed to tamp down periodic heightened tensions with North Korea by offering concessions, including much-needed aid, in return for the North’s promising to end its nuclear weapons programs. Many analysts believe that North Korea is again seeking aid and other concessions, while some suggest that it merely wants to be recognized as a nuclear state, like Pakistan.

Still others suggest that the North genuinely fears an attack by the United States or South Korea and views the warnings as deterrence. Highlighting a perceived threat from abroad is also a favorite tool the North Korean government uses to ensure internal cohesion in an impoverished country that has experienced enormous privation, including devastating famine and continuing pervasive hunger.

Missing from all the discussion about North Korea is the actual history of US-North Korea relations.  That is unfortunate, to say the least, since that history would make clear that the US has repeatedly offered and then just as quickly withdrawn its concessions even when the North has complied with US demands.  It would also make clear that the North has always sought and been responsive to meaningful US overtures.  There is no big mystery about what North Korea wants.  It wants a peace treaty ending the Korean War and normalized relations with the US.

As for that history, I think much of what needs to be known can be found in the following previously published May 2, 2013 blog post.

The Need To Work For Peace On The Korean Peninsula

This long post examines the causes of and offers a response to the dangerous escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

While the details of U.S.-North Korean relations are complex, the story is relatively simple.  In brief, the U.S. government continues to reject possibilities for normalizing relations with North Korea and promoting peace on the Korean peninsula in favor of a dangerous policy of regime change.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the U.S. media supports this policy choice with a deliberately one sided presentation of events designed to make North Korea appear to be an unwilling and untrustworthy negotiating partner.

As a corrective, in what follows I offer a more complete history of U.S -North Korean relations, focusing on the major events that frame current tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.  This history makes clear that these tensions are largely the result of repeated and deliberate U.S. provocations and that our best hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula is an educated U.S. population ready and able to challenge and change U.S. foreign policy.

Historical Context

Perhaps the best starting point for understanding the logic of U.S.-North Korean relations is the end of Korean War fighting in 1953.  At U.S. insistence, the fighting ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.  A Geneva conference held the following year failed to secure the peace or the reunification of Korea, and U.S. demands were the main reason for the failure.

The United States rejected North Korean calls for Korea-wide elections, supervised by a commission of neutral nation representatives, to establish a new unified Korean government, a proposal that even many U.S. allies found reasonable.  Instead, the U.S. insisted, along with South Korea, that elections for a new government be held only in the North and under the supervision of the U.S. dominated United Nations.  Needless to say, the conference ended without any final declaration, Korea divided, and the United States and North Korea in a continuing state of war.

Up until the late 1980s/early 1990s, an interrelated, contentious but relatively stable set of relationships—between the United States and the Soviet Union and between North Korea and South Korea—kept North Korean-U.S. hostilities in check.  The end of the Soviet Union and transformation of Russia and other Central European countries into capitalist countries changed everything.

The loss of its major economic partners threw North Korea’s economy into chaos; conditions only worsened the following years as a result of alternating periods of flood and drought.  The North Korean government, now in a relatively weak position, responded by seeking new trade and investment partners, which above all required normalization of relations with the United States.  The U.S. government had a different response to the changed circumstances; seeking to take advantage of the North’s economic problems and political isolation, it rejected negotiations and pursued regime change.

It is the interplay of U.S. and North Korean efforts to achieve their respective aims that is largely responsible for the following oft repeated pattern of interaction: the North tries to force the United States into direct talks by demonstrating its ability to boost its military capacities and threaten U.S. interests while simultaneously offering to negotiate away those capacities in exchange for normalized relations.  The United States, in turn, seizes on such demonstrations to justify ever harsher economic sanctions, which then leads North Korea to up the ante.

There are occasional interruptions to the pattern.  At times, the United States, concerned with North Korean military advances, will enter into negotiations.  Agreements are even signed.  But, the U.S. rarely follows through on its commitments.  Then the pattern resumes.  The critical point here is that it is the North that wants to conclude a peace treaty ending the Korean War and normalize relations with the United States.  It is the U.S. that is the unwilling partner, preferring to risk war in the hopes of toppling the North Korean regime.

The Framework Agreement, 1994-2002

The U.S. government began to raise public concerns about a possible North Korean nuclear threat almost immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  These concerns were driven by many factors, in particular the U.S. need for a new enemy to justify continued high levels of military spending.  Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in testimony to Congress that with the Soviet Union gone, the United States was running out of enemies.  All that was left, he said, was Fidel Castro and Kim Il Sung.

The North had shut down its one operating reactor in 1989 for repairs.  In 1992, the CIA claimed that the North used the shutdown to reprocess plutonium and was now in possession of one or two nuclear weapons, a claim disputed at the time by the State Department.  The North also denied the claim but offered to settle U.S. nuclear concerns if the United States would enter into normalization talks.

The Clinton Administration rejected the invitation and began planning for war.  War was averted only because of Jimmy Carter’s intervention.  He traveled to North Korea and brokered an agreement with Kim Il Sung that Clinton reluctantly accepted.  The resulting 1994 Framework Agreement required the North to freeze its graphite-moderated reactor and halt construction of two bigger reactors.  It also required the North to store the spent fuel from its operating reactor under International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) supervision.

In exchange, the U.S agreed to coordinate the building of two new light water reactors (which are considered less militarily dangerous) that were to be finished by 2003.  Once the reactors were completed, but before they were fully operational, the North would have to allow full IAEA inspections of all its nuclear facilities.  During the period of construction, the U.S. agreed to provide the North with shipments of heavy oil for heating and electricity production.

Perhaps most importantly, the agreement also called for the United States to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” with the North and “provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States.”

Tragically, although rarely mentioned in the U.S. media, the U.S. government did little to meet its commitments.  It was repeatedly late in delivering the promised oil and didn’t begin lifting sanctions until June 2000.  Even more telling, the concrete for the first light water reactor wasn’t poured until August 2002.  Years later, U.S. government documents revealed that the United States made no attempt to complete the reactors because officials were convinced that the North Korean regime would collapse.

The Bush administration had no use for the Framework Agreement and was more than happy to see it terminated, which it unilaterally did in late 2002, after charging the North with violating its terms by pursuing nuclear weapons through a secret uranium enrichment program.  Prior to that, in January 2002, President Bush branded North Korea a member of the “axis of evil.”  In March, the terms of a new military doctrine were leaked, revealing that the United States reserved the right to take preemptive military strikes and covert actions against nations possessing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as use nuclear weapons as an option in any conflict; North Korea was listed as one of the targeted nations.  In July, President Bush rejected a North Korean request for a meeting of foreign ministers, calling Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and a “spoiled child at the dinner table”

It is certainly possible that North Korea did begin a uranium enrichment program in the late 1990s, although the Bush Administration never provided proof of the program’s existence.  However, what is clear is that the North did halt its plutonium program, allowing its facilities to deteriorate, with little to show for it.  The failure of the United States to live up to its side of the agreement is highlighted by the fact that North Korea’s current demands are no different from what it was promised in 1994.

The North Korean government responded to the Bush administration’s unilateral termination of the Framework Agreement by ordering IAEA inspectors out of the country, restarting its plutonium program, and pledging to build a nuclear arsenal for its defense.

Six Party Talks, 2003-7

Fearful of a new war on the Korean peninsula, the Chinese government organized talks aimed at deescalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.  The talks began in August 2003 and included six countries—the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.  Two years of talks failed to produce any progress in resolving U.S.-North Korea differences.  One reason: the U.S. representative was under orders not to speak directly to his North Korean counterpart except to demand that North Korea end its nuclear activities, scrap its missiles, reduce its conventional forces, and end human rights abuses.  The North, for its part, refused to discuss its nuclear program separate from its broader relations with the United States.

Finally, in mid-2005, the Chinese made it known that they were prepared to declare the talks a failure and would blame the United States for the outcome.  Not long after, the United States ended its opposition to an agreement.  In September 2005, the six countries issued a Joint Statement, which was largely a repackaged Framework Agreement.  While all the countries pledged to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, most of the concrete steps were to be taken by the United States and North Korea “in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.”

Unfortunately, the day after the Joint Statement was issued, the United States sabotaged it.  The U.S. Treasury announced that it had “proof” that North Korea was counterfeiting $100 bills, so called super notes, an action it said amounted to war.  It singled out the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, which was one of North Korea’s main financial connections to the west, for supporting the country’s illegal activities, froze its dollar accounts, and warned other banks not to conduct business with it or service any North Korean dollar transactions.  The aim was to isolate North Korea by denying it access to international credit markets.  The charge of counterfeiting was rejected by the North, most Western currency experts, and even China and Russia who were given a presentation of evidence by the U.S. Treasury.  However, fearful of possible U.S. retaliation, most banks complied with U.S. policy, greatly harming the North Korean economy.

The timing of the counterfeit charge was telling.  The U.S. Treasury had been concerned with counterfeit super notes since 1989 and had originally blamed Iran.  The sum total identified was only $50 million, and none of the notes had ever circulated in the United States.  This was clearly yet another effort to stop normalization and intensify economic pressure on North Korea.

The North announced that its participation in Six Party talks was contingent on the withdrawal of the counterfeit charge and the return of its Banco Delta Asia dollar deposits.  After months of inaction by the United States, the North took action.  On July 4, 2006, it test-fired six missiles over the Sea of Japan, including an intercontinental missile.  The U.S. and Japan condemned the missile firings and further tightened their sanctions against North Korea.  In response, on October 8, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.  Finally, the U.S. agreed to reconsider its financial embargo and the North agreed that if its money was returned and it received energy supplies and economic assistance it was willing to once again shutdown its nuclear facilities, readmit international inspectors, and discuss nuclear disarmament in line with steps toward normalization of relations with the United States.

The Six Party talks began again in December 2006 but the process of securing implementation of the Joint Statement was anything but smooth.  The U.S. chief negotiator at the talks announced in February 2007 that all frozen North Korean deposits would be unfrozen and made available to the North within 30 days; the North was given 60 days to shut down its reactor.  However, the Treasury refused to withdraw its charges, and no bank was willing to handle the money for fear of being targeted as complicit with terrorism.  It took the State Department until June 25 to work out a back-door alternative arrangement, thereby finally allowing the Six Party agreement to go into effect.

The Six Party Agreement, 2007-9

As noted above, the Six Party agreement involved a phased process.  Phase 1, although behind schedule because of the U.S. delay in releasing North Korean funds, was completed with no problems.  In July 2007, North Korea shut down and sealed its Yongbyon nuclear complex which housed its reactor, reprocessing facility, and fuel rod fabrication plant.  It also shut down and sealed its two partially constructed nuclear reactors.  It also invited back IAEA inspectors who verified the North Korean actions.  In return, the U.S. provided a shipment of fuel oil.

Phase 2, which began in October, required the North to disable all its nuclear facilities by December 31, 2007 and “provide a complete and correct declaration of all its existing nuclear programs.”  In a separate agreement it also agreed to disclose the status of its uranium enrichment activities.  In exchange, the North was to receive, in stages, “economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance.” Once it fulfilled all Phase 2 requirements it would also be removed from the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act and the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

North Korean complaints over the slow delivery of fuel oil delayed the completion of this second phase.  However, in May 2008, North Korea completed the last stage of its required Phase 2 actions when it released extensive documentation of its plutonium program and in June a declaration of its nuclear inventory.  In response, the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

However, the U.S. government failed to release the remaining promised aid or end the remaining sanctions on North Korea.  It now demanded that North Korea accept a highly intrusive verification protocol, one that would open up all North Korean military installations to U.S. inspection, and made satisfaction of Phase 2 commitments dependent on its acceptance.  The U.S. was well aware that this demand was not part of the original agreement.  As Secretary of State Rice stated, “What we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactors, into phase two.”

The North offered a compromise—a Six Party verification mechanism which would include visits to declared nuclear sites and interviews with technical personal.  It also offered to negotiate a further verification protocol in the final dismantlement phase.  The U.S. government rejected the compromise and ended all aid deliveries.

In February 2009, the North Korea began preparation to launch a satellite.  South Korea was preparing to launch a satellite of its own in July.  The North had signed the appropriate international protocols governing satellites and was now providing, as required, notification of its launch plan.  The Obama administration warned the North that doing so would violate sanctions placed on the country after its nuclear test.  In response, the North declared that it had every right to develop its satellite technology and if the U.S. responded with new sanctions it would withdraw from the Six Party talks, eject IAEA monitors, restart its reactors, and strengthen its nuclear deterrent.

The North launched its satellite in April.  In June, the U.S. won UN support for enhanced sanctions, and the North followed through on its threat.  In May the North conducted a second nuclear test, producing yet another round of sanctions.

Recent Events

In April and December 2012 the North again launched earth observation satellites.  Although before each of these launches the U.S. asserted that these were veiled attempts to test ballistic missiles designed to threaten the United States, after each launch almost all observers agreed that the characteristics of the launches—their flight pattern and the second stage low-thrust, long burntime–were what is required to put a satellite in space and not consistent with a missile test.

After the December launch, the only successful one, the U.S. again convinced the Security Council to apply a new round of sanctions.  And in response, the North carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013.  The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out that there have been “more than 2,000 nuclear tests and 9,000 satellite launches” in the world, “but the UN Security Council has never passed a resolution prohibiting nuclear tests or satellite launches.”  The Security Council responded to the North’s nuclear test by approving stricter sanctions.

In addition to sanctions, the U.S. has also intensified its military provocations against the North in hopes of destabilizing the new North Korean regime led by Kim Jung Un.  For example, in 2012, U.S.-South Korean military analysts conducted the world’s largest computerized war simulation exercise, practicing the deployment of more than 100,000 South Korean troops into North Korea to “stabilize the country in case of regime collapse.”  As part of their yearly war games, U.S. and South Korean forces also carried out their largest amphibious landing operations in 20 years; 13 naval vessels, 52 amphibious armored vehicles, 40 fighter jets and helicopters, and 9,000 U.S. troops were involved.

As part of its March 2013 war games, the U.S. flew nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth bombers over South Korea; these are also the only planes capable of dropping the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb, which was developed to destroy North Korean underground facilities.  Nuclear-capable B-52 bombers also flew over South Korea, dropping dummy munitions.  The United States also sent the nuclear-powered submarine USS Cheyenne, equipped with Tomahawk missiles, into Korea waters.

The North Korean government responded to these threats in three ways.  First, the content of their declarations changed.  In particular, they began to focus their own threats on the U.S. as well as South Korea.  For example, the government stated, “If the US imperialists brandish nuclear weapons, we — in complete contrast to former times — will by means of diversified, precision nuclear strike in our own style turn not just Seoul, but even Washington, into a sea of fire.”  It also asserted, for the first time, that its nuclear weapons were no longer negotiable.  At least, not “as long as the United States’ nuclear threats and hostile policy exist.”

Second, the government put North Korean forces on full alert, including all artillery, rockets, and missiles.  Kim Jong Un announced that the country would “answer the US imperialists’ nuclear blackmail with a merciless nuclear attack.”  Finally, it announced, in April, that it would restart its uranium enrichment program and its Yongbyon reactor.

What Lies Ahead

The Obama administration has adopted what it has called the doctrine of “strategic patience” in dealing with North Korea.  But as made clear from above, in reality the U.S. has continued to pursue an aggressive policy towards North Korea, motivated by the hope that the regime will collapse and Korean reunification will be achieved by the South’s absorption of the North, much like the German experience.

The consequence of this policy is ever worsening economic conditions in the North; continuing military buildup in the United States, Japan, China, and both North and South Korea; a strengthening of right-wing forces in South Korea and Japan; and the growing threat of a new war on the Korean peninsula.  There are powerful interests in Japan, South Korea, and the United States that are eager to further militarize their respective domestic and foreign policies, even at the risk of war.  Tragically, their pursuit of this goal comes at great cost to majorities in all the countries concerned, even if war is averted.

The North has made clear its willingness to enter direct talks with the United States.  It is only popular pressure in the United States that will cause the U.S. government to change its policy and accept the North Korean offer.  It is time for the U.S. government to sign a peace treaty finally ending the Korean War and take sincere steps towards normalization of relations with North Korea.

 

Taxes and Militarism

Tax day has come and gone.  And there is indeed a lot to complain about: our corporations and the wealthy have successfully minimized their own tax responsibilities, leaving us to support a powerful and profitable military-national-security-industrial complex at the expense of needed public services and social programs.

Let’s start with who pays taxes.  Individuals and corporations both pay income taxes to the federal government.  However, as the chart below shows, corporations have been able to take advantage of increasingly lenient income tax laws and a corporate friendly globalization process to significantly lower their tax obligations.  If we add payroll taxes which are paid by individuals to support specific programs like Social Security and Medicare, the overall individual contribution is approximately 80% and the corporate share about 11%.

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Lower corporate taxes were supposed to unleash the power of the market and make us all better off.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all they have done is boost corporate profits at the public expense.

Of course, income tax burdens are not equally divided among individuals.  In fact, our federal income tax code has become increasingly favorable to higher income earners.  As the next chart shows, the top marginal income tax rate has been dramatically reduced.  The top marginal tax rate was 50 percent in the mid-1980s and even higher in the 1950s.  Currently, the top rate is 39.6 percent; it is paid by individuals making more than $406,750 and couples making more than $457,600.  And then there are tax breaks that disproportionately benefit top income earners.

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The combination of more income going to top earners, lower top marginal tax rates, and specially crafted tax breaks cannot help but reduce federal tax revenues and drive up our federal deficits.

The payment of income taxes is one thing—how the federal government uses the money it receives is another.  As we see next, military related activities absorb a heavy share of federal spending.

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Direct spending on the military accounted for 27 cents of every dollar spent.  Including spending for veterans benefits and approximately two-thirds of the interest on the federal debt adds another 16.05 cents, which brings the overall military total to 43.05 cents out of every dollar spent.  This is a conservative estimate because it does not include spending on activities that fall under the broader heading of national security such as homeland security and certain “foreign aid” expenditures.  No wonder our infrastructure and social programs are starved for funds.

Federal spending can be divided into non-discretionary and discretionary items.  In the case of the former, spending is mandated by law, such as payment of the national debt.  In the case of the latter, the federal government has discretion in how it spends our tax money.  Looking just at discretionary spending reveals even more clearly the dominant position of the military in our budget priorities.

discretionary-desk

Moreover, political pressure keeps working to push the military share higher.  Both House and Senate budget proposals call for spending some $530 billion on defense in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.  That is the most that can be spent without triggering automatic spending cuts due to sequestration.  But – happily for the military – there is an exception to the sequestration process.

The exception allows Congress to authorize unlimited spending for current military operations or what is officially known as Overseas Contingency Operations.  House and Senate proposals include more than $90 billion under this heading.  Significantly, there is no similar exception when it comes to spending on non-military, discretionary items.  Apparently our non-military needs don’t rise to the same level of urgency as our military ones.

A few key changes in the tax code and federal spending priorities and a better 2016 tax day is not hard to imagine.

The Federal Budget In Pictures

The following charts, taken from a National Priorities Project post, highlight our federal budget priorities.

As the post explains:

President Obama recently released his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal. Budgets are about our nation’s priorities: What are we going to spend money on? How are we going to raise the money we want to spend?

Though the budget ultimately enacted by Congress may look very different from the budget request released by the president, the president’s budget is important. It’s the president’s vision for the country in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, and it reflects input and spending requests from every federal agency.

 Here’s a look at the overall proposed budget:

2016-budget-chart-total-spending2_large

 

2016-budget-chart-discretionary-mandatory-interest-on-debt2_large

 

Here’s a look at the allocation of discretionary tax dollars:

2016-budget-chart-discretionary_large

 

Here”s a look at the relative balance of military and non-military discretionary spending over time:

2016-budget-chart-military-non-military-discretionary_large

 

Here’s a look at the structure of taxes supporting federal spending:

2016-budget-chart-individual-corporate-tax-line-chart_large

Still The World’s Top Military Spender

According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the United States remains the world’s top military spender. In fact, U.S. military spending equals the combined military spending of the next ten countries.  And most of those are U.S. allies.

Top 15

Although declining in real terms, the U.S. military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.  As the following chart shows, military spending absorbs 57% of our federal discretionary budget.

discretionary spending

 Notice that many so-called non-military discretionary budget categories also include military related spending. For example: Veteran’s Benefits, International Affairs, Energy and the Environment, and Science.   We certainly seem focused on a certain kind of security.

 

America: Land Of The Surveilled and Imprisoned

America stands out for the high share of its labor force that is employed in what economists Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev call “guard labor.”

There are now more people working as private security guards than high school teachers.

The following graph highlights the number of “protective service workers” employed per 10,000 workers and the degree of income inequality in the year 2000 for 16 countries.  The United States is tops on both counts.

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Two things stand out from this graph beyond U.S. “leadership.”  The first is the relationship between the share of protective service workers and inequality.  As Bowles and Jayadev comment:

In America, growing inequality has been accompanied by a boom in gated communities and armies of doormen controlling access to upscale apartment buildings. We did not count the doormen, or those producing the gates, locks and security equipment. One could quibble about the numbers; we have elsewhere adopted a broader definition, including prisoners, work supervisors with disciplinary functions, and others.

But however one totes up guard labor in the United States, there is a lot of it, and it seems to go along with economic inequality. States with high levels of income inequality — New York and Louisiana — employ twice as many security workers (as a fraction of their labor force) as less unequal states like Idaho and New Hampshire.

When we look across advanced industrialized countries, we see the same pattern: the more inequality, the more guard labor. As the graph shows, the United States leads in both.

The second is the rapid rise in the U.S. share of guard labor and inequality from 1979 to 2000.

For those who like definitions: The category protective service workers includes those employed as Private Security Guards, Supervisors of Correctional Officers, Supervisors of Police and Detectives, Supervisors of all other Protective Service Workers, Bailiffs, Correctional Officers and Jailers, Detectives and Criminal Investigators, Fish and Game Wardens, Parking Enforcement Workers, Police and Patrol Officers, Transit and Railroad Police, Private Detectives and Investigators, Gaming Surveillance Officers, and Transportation Security Screeners.  Inequality is measured by the gini coefficient; the higher the number the greater the degree of inequality.

As noted above Bowles and Jayadev have explored broader measures of guard labor.  One such measure adds members of the armed forces, civilian employees of the military, and those that produce weapons to those employed as protective service workers.  The total was 5.2 million workers in 2011.

One can only wonder in what ways and for whom this large and growing dependence on guard labor represents a rational use of social resources.

Cutting Through The Budget Nonsense

The media continues to direct out attention to deficits and debt as our main problems.  Yet, it does little to really highlight the causes of these deficits and debts.

The following two figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities help to clarify the causes.  It is important to note that the projections underlying both figures were made before the recent vote making permanent most of the Bush-era tax cuts.

Figure 1, below, shows the main drivers of our large national deficits: the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economic crisis and responses to it.  Without those drivers our national deficits would have remained quite small.

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Figure 2, below, shows the main drivers of our national debt. Not surprisingly they are the same as the drivers of our deficits.

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Significantly, the same political leaders that scream the loudest about our deficits and debt have little to say about stopping the wars or reducing military spending and are the most adamant about maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts.  That is because, at root, their interest is in reducing spending on non-security programs rather than reducing the deficit or debt.

Some of these leaders argue that the tax cuts will help correct our economic problems and thereby help reduce the deficit and debt.  However, multiple studies have shown that tax cuts are among the least effective ways to stimulate employment and growth.  In contrast, the most effective are sustained and targeted government efforts to refashion economic activity by spending on green conversion, infrastructure, health care, education and the like.

While Republicans and Democrats debate the extent to which taxes should be raised, both sides appear to agree on the need to reign in federal government spending in order to achieve deficit reduction.  In fact, federal government spending has been declining both absolutely and, as the following figure from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows, as a share of GDP.

government-spending-as-a-percent-of-gdp

In reality, our main challenge is not reducing our deficit or debt but rather strengthening our economy, and cutting government spending is not going to help us overcome that challenge.  As Peter Coy, writing in BusinessWeek explains:

It pains deficit hawks to hear this, but ever since the 2008 financial crisis, government red ink has been an elixir for the U.S. economy. After the crisis, households strove to pay down debt and businesses hoarded profits while skimping on investment. If the federal government had tried to run balanced budgets, there would have been an enormous economy wide deficit of demand and the economic slump would have been far worse. In 2009 fiscal policy added about 2.7 percentage points to what the economy’s growth rate would have been, according to calculations by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. But since then the U.S. has underutilized fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool. The economic boost dropped to just half a percentage point in 2010. Fiscal policy subtracted from growth in 2011 and 2012 and will do so again in 2013, to the tune of about 1 percentage point, Zandi estimates.

or02_GDPChart_405

If we were serious about tackling our economic problems we would raise tax rates and close tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations and reduce military spending, and then use a significant portion of the revenue generated to fund a meaningful government stimulus program.  That would be a win-win proposition as far as the economy and budget is concerned.

Scaling The Fiscal Cliff

With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.

The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs.  See here for details on the taxes and programs.

Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.

The U.S. economy is already losing steam.  GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis.  GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%.  GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%.  And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.

With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.

So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?

Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity.  What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction.  Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget.  Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:

safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.

The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size.  The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.

Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans.  President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.”  He wants both tax increases and spending cuts.  He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.

The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions.  While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending.  Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.

So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?

We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem.  As Jamie Galbraith notes:

. . . is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run – as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary – and in fact capricious – assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.

Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling.  In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.

As Jed Graham points out:

From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP.  That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.

Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.

In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits.  Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.

As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff—here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:

the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).

In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes.  These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side.  As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.

Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .

However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget.  We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs.  For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.

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And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts–that would be a minimum of $1 trillion–and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure.  Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.

Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction.  The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.