The US-DPRK Singapore Summit Was A Meaningful Step Towards Peace On The Korean Peninsula

The June 12th Singapore Summit between the US and the DPRK was an important, positive step towards the achievement of peace on the Korean Peninsula, normalized relations between the US and North Korea, and the reunification of Korea.

In the words of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union, one of South Korea’s largest unions:

The very fact that the top leaders of North Korea and the U.S., two countries whose relationship has been laced with hostility and mutual threats for the last seventy years, sat together in one place and shared dialogue is historic and signals a new era in which peace on the Korean Peninsula is possible. We therefore welcome the North Korea-U.S. Summit and joint statement.

At the same time, it is important not to lose perspective.  The Summit was a step, but only step, towards improved relations.  Many challenges remain on the road ahead, and it is going to require popular pressure to keep us moving forward.

The summit was a real movement away from war

On the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un, even before the Summit, announced an end to his country’s missile and nuclear weapons testing.  At the Summit, he once again committed his country to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is a commitment to end the county’s nuclear weapons program if matched by a US commitment to refrain from threatening a nuclear attack on North Korea or introducing nuclear weapons on or around the Korean Peninsula.  He also agreed to destroy his country’s main missile engine testing facility, having already destroyed the country’s nuclear bomb testing facility. He also agreed to allow a return of US military personal to search for and repatriate the remains of US soldiers killed during the Korean War.

On the US side, Donald Trump pledged to end the war games which are held several times a year in and around the Korean Peninsula and which include simulated nuclear attacks on North Korea and planning for the “decapitation” of North Korea’s leadership.

And both sides agreed to more meetings to work on structuring a process designed to achieve the denuclearization of the Peninsula and the normalization of relations between the US and North Korea, which would mean among other things, an end to the Korean War and US sanctions against North Korea.

And thanks to the positive momentum generated by the Singapore Summit, North and South Korea continue to build on the success of their own recent summit.  For example, the militaries of the two countries recently held their first general level talks in ten years and agreed to fully restore their military communication lines, as well as began talks to demilitarize the DMZ area.

These are incredibly positive developments, especially in light of the fact that only months ago we faced the very real threat of a new Korean War.

There is strong support in South Korea for improved North Korean relations

These developments are extremely popular in South Korea.   More than 80 percent of South Koreans support South Korean President Moon’s policies, including his own summit meeting with Kim.  And in elections held the day after the US-North Korean summit, his Democratic Party won 14 of the 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races and 11 of 12 parliament by-elections.  Opposition parties that criticized Moon’s approach to North Korea were thoroughly defeated.

If this response has surprised people in the United States, it is only because many have little understanding of the costs paid by people in South Korea from the state of war between the US and North Korea.  For example, the state of war has allowed conservative governments in South Korea to use national security laws to outlaw a progressive political party, dissolve militant trade unions, arrest trade union leaders, break strikes, and restrict freedom of speech.  It has also enabled conservative forces to win massive increases in military spending at the expense of social programs and legitimated the growth of US military bases throughout the country, with their immense environmental and social costs.  And then there is the real and constant threat of war.

Of course, the people in North Korea have suffered the most—the threat of war and the need for greater military spending as well as the economic embargo and sanctions have taken a real social and economic toll; political and human rights have also suffered.  At the same time, it is worth pointing out that despite claims that the North Korean government cares little for the well being of its people,

several reports and academic studies show that North Korea’s food situation is stable and on par with – or even better than – some other nations in Asia.

Professor Hazel Smith, Director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at Cranfield University in the UK, concluded in a new research paper that levels of severe wasting – people being underweight for their height because of acute malnutrition – is lower in North Korea than in a number of other low-income countries [including India, Pakistan, and Indonesia] and equal to those in other developing countries in Asia.

Troubling criticisms of the Summit 

Tragically, many liberal voices have been raised in opposition to the Summit and the possibilities for peace it has encouraged.  Progressive commentators, as well as Democratic Party politicians and established journalists, have expressed outrage and worry over the fact that Trump met with Kim.  In broad brush, they say that the US gave Kim all he wanted, which was legitimacy on the world stage, and got nothing in return.  Or that by agreeing to halt war games, the US gave away its most important bargaining chip.  Or that the US flag and NK flag should never have flown side by side—given the dictatorial nature of the North Korean regime.  Or that the US is undermining the ROK-US alliance.

As Korea analyst Tim Shorrock noted:

Even as the first images flashed across the world of Trump and Kim shaking hands against the unusual background of US and DPRK flags flapping together, social media and op-ed sections of media sites were filled with denunciations of Trump. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate led the attack.

“In his haste to reach an agreement, President Trump elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” charged House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, who last week warned that the Democrats might oppose any agreement that didn’t include the now-famous CVID commitment, said on the Senate floor that Trump had “legitimized a brutal dictator.”

Conservative columnists had a field day. “The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States—each country’s flag represented, a supposedly ‘normal’ diplomatic exchange between two nuclear powers—was enough to turn democracy lovers’ stomachs,” Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Post. Similar analyses were posted all day on Twitter.

Progressive media commentators also joined in.  For example, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow warned that Trump was being played by both Russia and North Korea:

Russia has just this tiny little border, 11 mile long border, with North Korea, with one crossing on a train. And they’ve got a troubled and varied history over the decades with that country. But Russia is also increasingly straining at its borders right now, and shoving back U.S. and Western influence. Especially U.S. and Western military presence anywhere near what it considers to be its own geopolitical interests. And one of the things that they have started to loudly insist on is that the U.S. drop those joint military exercises with South Korea. The U.S. has kept those going as a pillar of U.S. national security strategy for 70 years, now. Until last night, when Trump casually announced that that’s over now. He’s doing away with those. Blindsided everybody involved. And gave North Korea something they desperately want and would do almost anything for. Except he gave it to them for free. How come?

This is puzzling and disturbing.  We were on the verge of a new Korean War, and now we are engaged in serious peace talks.  That is a positive step.  Underlying these criticisms seems to be the assumption that the US always pursues a democratic foreign policy and thus should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, test new ones, and threaten to use them against other countries as it sees fit.  And other countries should refrain from objecting to or actively resisting US actions, especially developing their own weapons in response to US threats.  This is a very problematic assumption.

The importance of history

Most Americans do not know the history that got us here, starting with the fact that the Korean War ended with a cease fire, not a peace treaty. For many years, neither the US or North Korea showed much interest in ending the state of war.  That changed in the early 1990s with the end of the Soviet Union.  This event left North Korea without a powerful military protector and its major trading partner.  At the same time, the country was also hit by major floods in the mid-1990s, further adding to its security and economic problems.  These developments led North Korea to seek an accommodation with the US, which it hoped would lead to an end to the state of hostilities between the two countries.  North Korean overtures were generally rejected by the United States.

The US threatened to drop nuclear bombs on North Korea during the Korean war.  The US introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea in the late 1950s, against the terms of the armistice agreement that ended the fighting in Korea.  In the 1970s the US began war games that soon included simulated nuclear attacks against North Korea.  Without the Soviet Union’s protection, the North felt it had no choice but to take steps to protect itself, and that led it to pursue its own nuclear weapons program while simultaneously seeking peace talks with the United States.  North Korea repeatedly said, as it said again in Singapore, that it would abandon its nuclear program if the US ended its hostile policies.

While North Korea is always presented as an aggressive military power, the fact is that South Korea has outspent North Korea on defense every single year since 1976.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea currently spends roughly $40 billion a year on defense–and this does not include US military spending in the region.  By contrast, North Korea spends only $4 billion.

Trump’s willingness to cancel war games is a positive first step in showing that the US is seriousness about creating a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.  These war games, which happen at least twice a year, include B-52 bombers that are nuclear capable, stealth fighters, submarines with nuclear missiles, hundreds of thousand troops, and are organized to practice attacking North Korea.

North Koreans still remember the Korean War, which included, as historian Bruce Cumings describes,

three years of “rain and ruin” by the US air force. Pyongyang had been razed to the ground, with the Air Force stating in official documents that the North’s cities suffered greater damage than German and Japanese cities firebombed during World War II.

Just as the Japan scholar Richard Minear termed Truman’s atomic attacks “exterminationist”, the great French writer and film-maker Chris Marker wrote after a visit to the North in 1957: “Extermination crossed this land.” It was an indelible experience still drilled into the heads of every North Korean.

In light of this history, one can easily understand why North Korean leaders find current US war games threatening.

Agreeing to halt these massive exercises is not giving North Korea something undeserved.  It is an important way for the United States to demonstrate that it is serious about achieving peace.  And, as noted above, North Korea is taking its own actions to demonstrate its seriousness, halting all missile and nuclear tests and destroying its test sites.  In this context, it is worth pointing out that North Korea has not demanded that the US stop all its missile and bomb testing, which continue.  It asks only that the US agree to normalize relations and commit not to threaten to attack the North or introduce nuclear weapons onto the Korean Peninsula—thus producing a nuclear free Korean Peninsula.

Agreeing to end the state of war is not giving North Korea some special benefit.  It is helping the Korean people gain the space they need to deal with their own division. Supporting such a process is also the best way to generate the kinds of interactions needed to promote real democratic change in both Koreas.  It also helps us in the United States, making it easier to confront our own militarism and the huge costs that we pay for it.

Real change is possible.  This is the moment to do what we can to build a strong popular movement on both sides of the Pacific for peace and reconciliation.

 

I recently discussed the Singapore Summit on KBOO radio.  You can hear the interview here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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US Policy and Possibilities For Peace On The Korean Peninsula

 

KOREAN CONFEDERATION OF TRADE UNIONS UNIFICATION COMMITTEE AND US LABOR AGAINST THE WAR SOLIDARITY DELEGATION TO KOREA, May 3, 2018, in front of the U.S. Embassy, Seoul, South Korea

The recent inter-Korean summit and the upcoming US-NK summit have suddenly made real the possibility for an end to the Korean War, normalization of relations between the US and North Korea, and meaningful progress toward Korean reunification.  Although the peace process is being driven by Korean efforts, clearly, the outcome depends heavily on US actions.

Unfortunately, the US press is not doing a very good job informing people about the history of US policy towards Korea, North and South, which means that it is not as easy as it should be to build a popular movement for peace. In response, the Korea Policy Institute has just published a reader on US Policy on Korea.  It is 130 pages long, with 19 articles by authors from the United States and Asia, and organized into the following five sections:

  1. The Unending Korea War
  2. US Foreign Policy Towards North Korea
  3. South Korea: The Democratic Struggle
  4. Voices For Peace
  5. A Hopeful Start To An Era Of Peace

You can download it or order hard copies here:

http://kpolicy.org/the-kpi-reader-2018-important-new-resource-on-korea/

And keep checking the Korea Policy Institute website for the latest news and analysis of events.

What’s Driving Trade Tensions Between The US and China

There is a lot of concern over the possibility of a trade war between China and the US.  In early April President Trump announced that his administration was considering levying $100 billion of additional tariffs on Chinese exports, after the Chinese government responded to a previously proposed US tariff hike on Chinese goods of $50 billion by announcing its own equivalent tariff hikes on US exports.  And the Chinese government has made clear it will again respond in kind if these new tariffs are actually imposed.

So, what’s it all about?

To this point, it is worth emphasizing that no new tariffs have in fact been levied, by either the US or Chinese governments.  The first round of announced US tariffs on Chinese goods are still subject to a public comment period before becoming effective, and the content of the second round has yet to be formally decided upon.  Thus, both countries have time to back away from their threats.

Also significant is the fact that both countries are being careful about the products they are threatening to tax.  For example, the Trump administration has carefully avoided talking about placing tariffs on computers or cell phones, two of the biggest US imports from China.  The US has also refrained from putting tariffs on clothing, shoes, and furniture, also major imports from China.

It is not hard to guess the reason why: these goods are produced as part of multinational corporate controlled production and marketing networks that operate under the direction of leading US corporations like Dell, Apple, and Walmart.  Taxing these goods would threaten corporate profitability. As a former commissioner of the US International Trade Commission pointed out: “It seems that the U.S. trade representative was very much aware of the global value chains in keeping some of these items off the list.”

The Chinese government, for its part, as been equally careful. For example, it put smaller planes on its proposed tariff list while exempting the larger planes made by Boeing.

Although the media largely echoes President Trump’s claim that his tariff threats directed at China are all about trying to reduce the large US trade deficit with China in order to save high paying manufacturing jobs and revitalize US manufacturing, the president really has a far narrower aim—that is to protect the monopoly position and profits of dominant US corporations.  The short hand phrase for this is the protection of “intellectual property rights.” As Trump tweeted in March: “The U.S. is acting swiftly on Intellectual Property theft. We cannot allow this to happen as it has for many years!”

Bloomberg News offers a more detailed explanation of the connection between the tariff threats and the goal of defending corporate intellectual property:

the White House is considering imposing tariffs on a broad range of consumer goods to punish China for its IP [intellectual property] practices. . . . the U.S. alleges . . . that China has been stealing U.S. trade secrets, forcing American companies to hand over proprietary technology as a condition of doing business on the mainland, and providing state support for Chinese firms to acquire critical technology abroad. A consensus is growing that these policies, designed to establish China as a dominant player in key technologies of the future, from semiconductors to electric cars, threaten to erode America’s technological edge, both commercial and military.

In other words, US tariff threats are, in reality, a bargaining chip to get the Chinese government to accept stronger protections for the intellectual property rights and technology of leading US firms in industries such as pharmaceuticals, aerospace, telecommunications, and autos.  If Trump succeeds, US multinational corporations will become more profitable.  But there will be little gain for US workers.

The auto industry offers a good case in point.  President Trump has repeatedly said that forcing China to lower its tariffs on imported US cars will help the US auto industry.  As he correctly points out, there is a 2.5 percent tariff on cars shipped from China to the U.S. and a 25 percent tariff on cars shipped from the U.S. to China.  Trump claims that lowering the Chinese tariff would allow US automakers to export more cars to China and boost auto employment in the US.

However, GM, Ford and other automakers have already established joint ventures with Chinese firms and the great majority of the cars they sell in China are made in China.  This allows them to avoid the tariff.  China is GM’s biggest market and has been for six years straight.  The company has 10 joint ventures and two wholly owned foreign enterprises as well as more than 58,000 employees in China. It sells approximately 4 million cars a year in China, almost all made in China.

The two largest automobile exporters from the US to China are actually German.  BMW shipped 106,971 vehicles from the U.S. to China in 2017; Mercedes sent 71,198.  Ford was the leading US owned auto exporter and in third place with total yearly exports of 45,145 vehicles.  Fiat Chrysler was fourth with 16,545.

In short, lowering tariffs on auto imports from the US will do little to boost auto production or employment in the US, or even corporate profits.  The leading US automakers have already globalized their production networks.  But, changes to the joint venture law, or a toughening of intellectual property rights in China could mean a substantial boost to US automaker profits.

For its part, the Chinese government is trying to use its large state-owned enterprises, control over finance, investment restrictions on foreign investment, licensing powers, government procurement policies, and trade restrictions to build its own strong companies.  These are reasonable development policies, ones very similar to those used by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  It is short-sided for progressives in the US to criticize the use of such policies.  In fact, we should be advocating the development of similar state capacities in the US in order to rebuild and revitalize the US economy.

That doesn’t mean we should uncritically embrace the Chinese position.  The reason is that the Chinese government is using these policies to promote highly exploitative Chinese companies that are themselves increasingly export oriented and globalizing.  In other words, the Chinese state seeks only a rebalancing of power and wealth for the benefit of its own elites, not a progressive restructuring of its own or the global economy.

In sum, these threats and counter-threats over trade have little to do with defending worker interests in the US or in China.  Unfortunately, this fact has been lost in the media frenzy over how to interpret Trump’s grandstanding and ever-changing policies.  Moreover, the willingness of progressive analysts to join with the Trump administration in criticizing China for its use of state industrial policies ends up blurring the important distinction between the capacities and the way those capacities are being used.  And that will only make it harder to build the kind of movement we need to reshape the US economy.

North Korea in the Age of Trump

On January 23, Hyun Lee, the managing editor of ZoominKorea, and I spoke at a UCLA Center for Korean Studies sponsored event titled “North Korea in the Age of Trump.”  I went first, offering a critical perspective on US foreign policy towards Korea, North and South.  Hyun Lee then talked about the importance of Science and Technology in North Korea.

Both presentations can be viewed here:

Tragically the US media and government appear more eager for war than peace on the Korean Peninsula.  This reality was underscored by their negative reactions to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s declaration, which included a call for talks between North Korea and South Korea and acceptance of South Korea’s invitation to participate in the Winter Olympics being held in South Korea.

Here are some examples:

Choe Sang-Hun and David Sanger, writing in the New York Times, quickly declared that Kim Jong-un’s welcoming of renewed contacts with South Korea represented little more than “a canny new strategy” designed to divide South Korea from the US and weaken the alliance.  They raised the “fear that if dialogue on the Korean Peninsula creates a temporary reprieve from tensions, the enforcement of sanctions could also be relaxed.

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, struck a similar tone in an article published in the Atlantic magazine.  Considering the possibility of talks to be a trap for South Korea, he ended his article expressing fear that South Korean President Moon could be forced into concessions that “might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the US.”

A few days later, Robert Litwak, a senior vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “Washington and Seoul should not take Mr. Kim’s bait.  Instead, the North Korean offer should be put to the diplomatic test through a united Washington-Seoul front.”

A New York Times article quoted Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration, as saying: “It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the U.S. behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea. And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”

Heather Nauert, the US State Department’s spokesperson, made clear that the US is carefully watching South Korea.  “Our understanding,” she said, is that these talks…will be limited to conversations about the Olympics and perhaps some other domestic matters.”  South Korea isn’t “going to go off freelancing” she told the press.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told journalists at the UN that “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea.”

And then, just as the talks were getting ready to begin on January 9, US officials let it be known to The Wall Street Journal that they were “quietly debating” the possibility of what they called a “bloody nose” tactic that would involve a “limited military strike” against North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites without somehow setting off “an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.”

And as a measure of just how seriously the US is considering such an action, President Trump recently withdrew his support for Victor Cha’s nomination to be the US ambassador to South Korea.  Although Cha advocates the strongest possible sanctions on North Korea, he lost his position because he expressed reservations about the wisdom of such a military strike.

The fact that North Koreans and South Koreans walked together under one flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics does not mean that the danger of war has passed.  But it is a good sign.  We in the US need to do what we can to ensure that US government actions, including a new round of war games, do not throw up roadblocks to a process that needs to be encouraged.

Media Complicity Increases The Possibility Of A New Korean War

Tensions between the US and North Korea are again rising in the wake of North Korea’s November 28th test of an ICBM that experts believe has the potential to deliver a nuclear bomb to cities on the east coast of the US, including Washington D.C.

As I have written before, we desperately need to change US foreign policy towards North Korea.  North Korea’s leaders continue to seek talks with the United States, with all issues on the table, those of concern to them and those of concern to the US government.  But the US government continues to refuse.  The Trump administration has even rejected North Korean offers to freeze its production and testing of missiles and nuclear weapons in return for a halt to US war games directed against North Korea.

Instead, Trump continues Obama’s strategy of responding to every North Korean missile launch or nuclear test with new military threats and sanctions.

Unfortunately, changing US foreign policy towards North Korea is no easy matter.  One reason is that there are powerful forces opposing a de-escalation of tensions.  Sadly, the tension is useful to the US military industrial complex, which needs enemies to support its desire increase in the military budget.  It is also useful to the US military, providing it with a justification for maintaining troops on the Asian mainland and in Japan.  The tension also helps the US government isolate China and boost right-wing political tendencies in Japan and South Korea, developments favorable to our own militarists and right-wingers.  Of course, the costs of US policy fall on ordinary people.

Another reason for the difficulty in changing US policy towards North Korea is that the US media does little to provide the context necessary for people in the United States to understand its lawless and destructive nature.

The illegality of Trump administration threats of destruction

The Trump administration has repeatedly threatened North Korea with total destruction.  What is missing from media accounts of these threats is the explanation that they represent a violation of the UN Charter and international law.  As Gavan McCormack explains:

According to the UN Charter’s Article 2 (3), disputes between states must be settled by peaceful means and (4) “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state …” [italics added]. Article 33 further specifies the obligation of parties to any dispute likely to endanger international peace and security to “first of all, seek a solution by negotiation inquiry, mediation, conciliation … or other peaceful means of their own choice.” By ruling out negotiations with North Korea and insisting only on submission, the US, Japan and Australia ignore or breach this clear rule (and Japan breaches also the proscription on the “threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” in its own constitution). Going beyond that, President Trump has also not only insulted the North Korean leader from the platform of the UN General Assembly but actually threatened his country with “total destruction,” by “fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” That surely qualifies as threat. It is even genocidal, and therefore criminal behavior, not only on the part of those (Trump) who utter it but on the part also of those like Abe and Turnbull (to whom perhaps now India’s Modi is to be added) who endorse and encourage it.

Moreover, in 1996, the International Court of Justice, in response to a UN request, ruled that threats to use nuclear weapons against another country are a violation of international law except “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”  In certainly seems clear that the US is in violation of international law because of its repeated threats and military exercises designed to practice a nuclear attack on North Korea.

Tragically, the US media has remained silent about this lawlessness on the part of the US government.

The illegality of US-initiated UN sanctions on North Korea

The US has aggressively pursued the adoption of UN sanctions on North Korea.  The ones adopted in August and September are the most sweeping yet. They call for blocking North Korean exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, seafood and textiles, all of which are important earners of foreign exchange. The resolutions also ban countries from opening new or expanding existing joint ventures in North Korea or renewing labor export agreements.  They also impose a cap on the amount of oil North Korea is allowed to import and call for a total ban on the country’s import of natural gas and condensates.  If rigorously enforced these sanctions will devastate living conditions for the great majority of North Koreans.

However, sanctions that target an entire population with the aim of causing economic collapse, such as those being imposed on North Korea, are illegal under the UN charter.  As McCormack points out:

Only sanctions carefully tailored to apply to those who act in the name of the government and bear responsibility for its offensive actions may be legitimate. . . . The point is clear that that those imposing sanctions bear an obligation to ensure they impact only upon those who are in a position of power, not on innocent civilians. There is reason to wonder if the United Nations itself, by the ordering of collective punishment of the entire North Korean people for offenses committed by their government, may be acting criminally.

Again, where are the stories pointing out the lawlessness of US and UN actions?

The missing explanation of North Korean responses to US policy

The reporting on North Korea’s November 28th ICBM test offers another example of the US media’s failure to educate its readers. For example, here is the LA Times:

The launch is North Korea’s first since it fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan on Sept. 15, and may have broken any efforts at diplomacy meant to end the North’s nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials have sporadically floated the idea of direct talks with North Korea if it maintained restraint. . . .

Italy’s U.N. Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, the current Security Council president, told reporters late Tuesday that “it’s certainly very worrying. Everybody was hoping that there would be restraint from the regime.”

This reporting certainly suggests that North Korea just doesn’t want peace no matter how hard the US and broader international community try.  But the story changes if we provide some missing context.

Since 2013 North Korea has offered to halt its testing of missiles and nuclear weapons if the US would halt its war games.  The US organizes two different annual war games in South Korea, the first is held over March and April and the second is in August.  But from time to time, it also engages in other smaller military exercises on and near the Korean peninsula.

The August 2017 war games included planning for a nuclear attack and “decapitation” of North Korea’s leadership.  These August war games are smaller than the March-April ones but still large.  This one included some 20,000 US and 50,000 South Korean troops.  And this year, for the first time, they were combined with a separate 18 day live-fire exercise involving US and Japanese forces on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

North Korea responded to these threatening maneuvers by first firing a missile over Hokkaido on August 29, the day after the completion of the US-led exercises.  Then on September 3, it conducted its sixth and largest test of a nuclear weapon.  And finally, on September 15, it tested a new intermediate-range missile to demonstrate its ability to hit the major US air base in Guam.

There are 75 days from September 15 to November 28; this is an important interval.  The reason is that the US had publicly called upon North Korea to halt its missile testing for at least 60 days to show its good will.

For example, in August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a group of reporters that “The best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches . . . We’ve not had an extended period of time where they have not taken some type of provocative action by launching ballistic missiles. So I think that would be the first and strongest signal they could send us is just stop, stop these missile launches.”  And in October, Joseph Yun, the U.S. State Department’s top official on North Korea policy, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations “that if North Korea halted nuclear and missile testing for about 60 days, that would be the signal the United States needs to resume direct dialogue with Pyongyang.”

As we have seen, the North Koreans did refrain from missile launches and weapon tests for more than 60 days.  But, what did the US do during that time to encourage North Korea?

On September 23 the Pentagon sent B-1B Lancer bombers, nicknamed “the swan of death,” to fly over international airspace just off the coast of North Korea, the first time since the Korean War that a U.S. bomber flew over North Korea’s east coast.

Then for five days, starting October 16, the US conducted joint naval exercises with South Korea that included the nuclear aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, three nuclear submarines, Aegis destroyers and more than 40 other battleships and numerous fighter aircraft.

In November, the US conducted more navel drills.  This time it was a four-day exercise involving three aircraft carriers–the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz–and their multiship strike groups in the waters between South Korea and Japan.  This was the first time all three aircraft carriers were together in the Western Pacific in a decade.  South Korean and Japanese warships also participated in the exercise.

Also in November, President Trump placed North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which meant new sanctions.  And finally, again in November, the US announced yet another war game to be scheduled for the period December 4-8 involving US, Japanese, and South Korean forces.  Called Vigilant Ace, the military announced that this exercise would includeenemy infiltration” and “precision strike drills” and involve 8 air bases, 12,000 soldiers, and 280 aircraft, including the two stealth fighters, the F-22 and the F-35.  This was to be the first time that the F-22 and F-35 would be used in war games on the Korean peninsula.

So, after waiting 75 days, and observing US actions, all of which were hostile, North Korea not surprisingly responded with the launch of its most powerful ICBM, showing the US that it could target even its capital if attacked.  But by presenting this missile launch without the appropriate context the media made it appear as just another example of North Korea’s recklessness and hostility.

 

Sadly, we have a lot of work to do.

Challenging US Foreign Policy Toward North Korea

It is an understatement to say that relations between the US and North Korea are very tense—the US government continues to threaten to further tighten economic sanctions on North Korea and launch a military attack to destroy the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons infrastructure.  And the North for its part has said it would respond to any attack with its own strikes against US bases in the region and even the US itself.

Making matters worse are Trump’s personal attacks on Kim Jong Un, the head of the North Korean government.  And as an indicator of how much tensions have ramped up, Kim himself spoke, responding in kind to Trump.  It is very rare, in fact this may be the first time, that a North Korean leader has personally responded to comments made by another government; usually the North Korean position is conveyed by a government official or their news service.

This is obviously not a good situation, but it is also important to realize that what is happening now is not new.  The US began conducting war games with South Korean forces directed against the North in 1976 and it was not long before those included simulated nuclear attacks against the North, and that was before the North had any nuclear weapons.  In 1994, President Bill Clinton came very close to launching a military attack on North Korea.  In 2002, President Bush talked about implementing a naval blockade of North Korea and seizing its ships, an act of war, and also announced the adoption of a new National Security Strategy under which the US announced its right to take pre-emptive military action against any nation that it felt posed a threat to US interests, with North Korea said to be at or near the top of the list.  Since 2013, the US has conducted annual war games involving planning for preemptive attacks on North Korean targets that include the use of nuclear weapons and what the military calls the decapitation of the North Korean leadership.

The point here is not just that we have a history of threatening war, including nuclear attack, against the DPRK, but that it is a bipartisan history, involving both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Although we have thankfully so far averted a new Korean war, the cycle of belligerency and threat making on both sides is intensifying, and it is always possible that a miscalculation could trigger the start of military actions.  However, and this is very important, even if war is averted, the high level of tension between the US and North Korea itself comes with unacceptably high costs.

President Trump is continuing the strategy of past administrations of responding to every North Korean missile launch or nuclear test with new sanctions.  These sanctions are cutting deep, hurting North Korean living conditions.  It is collective punishment of the entire North Korean population.  As Gregory Elich explains, the US is already at war with North Korea, “doing so through non-military means, with the aim of inducing economic collapse.”

For example: UN resolution 2371, passed August 5, 2017, aims to block North Korea “from exporting coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood, all key commodities in the nation’s international trade. The resolution also banned countries from opening new or expanding existing joint ventures with the DPRK.”  UN resolution 2375, passed September 11, 2017, is designed to further limit “North Korea’s ability to engage in international trade by barring the export of textiles. It is estimated that together, the sanctions may well eliminate 90 percent of the DPRK’s export earnings. . . . The September resolution also adversely impacts the livelihoods of North Korea’s overseas workers, who will not be allowed to renew their contracts once they expire.”

The social costs of US policy are not limited to North Koreans, although they bear the greatest burden.  The tensions generated by the escalating US-NK standoff are helping to fuel greater military spending and militarization in Japan and China, as well as the US.  This is a dynamic that strengthens the political power and influence of dangerous rightwing forces in all these countries.  And in South Korea, these tensions are already at work undermining democratic possibilities, as labor leaders are jailed, civil rights curtailed, and progressive political parties disbanded in the name of national security.

So, it is not enough for us to just work to oppose outright military conflict.  We need to change the dynamics driving US and North Korean relations.  And, there is no mystery about the best way to achieve this end: the US needs to accept DPRK offers for direct negotiations to end the state of hostility between the two countries.  Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to forcing the US to the negotiating table. It requires building a strong popular movement that can cut through the myths and distortions that the US media and government promote in defense of current policy.  For an example of some of what we must overcome, see “The need for a new US foreign policy towards North Korea.”

Cutting through the myths and distortions also requires that we hear progressive voices from South Korea.  Jang Jinsook, Director of Planning of the Minjung Party of South Korea, a new progressive party that will formally launch on October 15, is one such voice.  What follows is a short excerpt from her talk titled “Honoring The Candlelight Revolution In A Time Of Looming War In Korea” that was given at the People’s Congress of Resistance at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in mid-September: 

The U.S.-North Korea Conflict: The Final Stage

Military tension between North and South Korea has always been headline news in Korea. Every year in March and August, when the U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct their massive military exercises, tensions escalate, and each time, people in Korea experience renewed fear: “Maybe this time, it will really lead to war.”

The U.S. and South Korean militaries say these are routine exercises, but they deploy weapons of mass destruction, rehearse the occupation of North Korea, and simulate real-war scenarios as well as the decapitation of the North Korean leadership. North Korea has strongly objected to these exercises, but this has been going on for a long time.

The Korean peninsula has always lived with the imminent threat of war. But until recently, it never made headline news in the United States.

I’ve been seeing the headlines in U.S. news in the few days I’ve been here: “Kim Jong-un, North Korea, missiles….” This ironically pleased me because finally what was once considered only a problem of the Korean peninsula has now become a U.S. problem. Now that the war threats are acute, it has finally become headline news in the United States.

It is the United States that has conducted the greatest number of nuclear tests, possesses the greatest nuclear arsenal, and has actually dropped atomic bombs on a civilian population. North Korea is in the stage of developing and testing nuclear weapons, opposes U.S. aggression and sanctions, and demands a peace treaty. Which party is the real threat?

For the first time in a long time, defending the U.S. mainland from the threat of nuclear war has become a priority policy agenda for the U.S. government. Of course, news about North Korea must be distressing for the people who live in the United States.

But it is the U.S. government that has created this situation, and the solution is quite simple. It is to realize a peace agreement between the United States and North Korea.

The more the United States piles on sanctions against North Korea through the UN, the more North Korea will become hostile and the two countries will inch closer to war. And the more this crisis intensifies, the U.S. government will sell more weapons to South Korea and increasingly meddle in South Korea’s internal affairs.

For the past sixty years, since the Korean War and the 1953 signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the United States, South Korea has been a military outpost for the United States. The so-called U.S.-ROK alliance seriously undermines the sovereignty of South Korea. The forced deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system is a case in point.

We demand the following:

  1. The United States must end sanctions against North Korea, which are an act of war.
  2. North Korea and the United States must sign a permanent peace agreement.
  3. U.S. forces in Korea should withdraw from the Korean peninsula along with their weapons of mass destruction.
  4. The United States must stop meddling in South Korea’s internal affairs.
  5. Lastly, we must build enduring solidarity for peace in Korea and across the world.

 

You can read her entire speech and learn more about the Minjung Party of South Korea here, on the Korea Policy Institute website.

The Bipartisan Militarization Of The US Federal Budget

The media likes to frame the limits of political struggle as between the Democratic and Republican parties, as if each side upholds a radically different political vision. However, in a number of key areas, leaders of both parties are happy to unite around an anti-worker agenda.  Support for the military and an aggressive foreign policy is one such area.

On September 18, US senators approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018.  Donald Trump had proposed increasing the military budget by $54 billion.  The Senate voted 89-9 to increase it by $37 billion more than Trump sought.  In the words of the New York Times:  “In a rare act of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, the Senate passed a $700 billion defense policy bill on Monday that sets forth a muscular vision of America as a global power, with a Pentagon budget that far exceeds what President Trump has asked for.”

The NDAA calls for giving $640 billion to the Pentagon for its basic operations and another $60 billion for war operations in other countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  The House passed its own version of the bill, which included a smaller increase over Trump’s request as well as new initiatives such as the creation of a Space Corps not supported by the Senate.  Thus, the House and Senate need to reconcile their differences before the bill goes to President Trump for his signature.

It is clear that Democratic Party opposition to Trump does not include opposition to US militarism and imperialism. As Ajamu Baraka points out:

Opposition to Trump has been framed in ways that supports the agenda of the Democratic Party—but not the anti-war agenda. Therefore, anti-Trumpism does not include a position against war and U.S. imperialism.

When the Trump administration proposed what many saw as an obscene request for an additional $54 billion in military spending, we witnessed a momentary negative response from some liberal Democrats. The thinking was that this could be highlighted as yet another one of the supposedly demonic moves by the administration and it was added to the talking points for the Democrats. That was until 117 Democrats voted with Republicans in the House—including a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus—to not only accept the administration’s proposal, but to exceed it by $18 billion. By that point, the Democrats went silent on the issue.

It is important to keep in mind that, as William D. Hartung shows, “there are hundreds of billions of dollars in ‘defense’ spending that aren’t even counted in the Pentagon budget.” Hartung goes agency by agency to show the “hidden” spending.  As he notes:

You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal — nuclear warheads — would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget.   And you would, of course, be wrong.  The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year.

Hartung’s grand total, which includes, among other things, the costs of Homeland Security, foreign military aid, intelligence services, the Veterans Administration, and the interest on the debt generated by past spending on the military, is $1.09 Trillion.  In short, our political leaders are far from forthcoming about the true size of our military spending.

Militarization comes home

Opponents of this huge military budget are right to stress how it greatly increases the dangers of war and the harm our military interventions do to people in other countries, but the costs of militarism are also felt by those living in the United States.

For example, ever escalating military budgets fund ever new and more deadly weapons of destruction, and much of the outdated equipment is sold to police departments, contributing to the militarization of our police and the growing use of force on domestic opponents of administration policies, the poor, and communities of color.  As Lisa Wade explains:

In 1996, the federal government passed a law giving the military permission to donate excess equipment to local police departments. Starting in 1998, millions of dollars worth of equipment was transferred each year, as shown in the figure below. Then, after 9/11, there was a huge increase in transfers. In 2014, they amounted to the equivalent of 796.8  million dollars.

Those concerned about police violence worried that police officers in possession of military equipment would be more likely to use violence against civilians, and new research suggests that they’re right.

Political scientist Casey Delehanty and his colleagues compared the number of civilians killed by police with the monetary value of transferred military equipment across 455 counties in four states. Controlling for other factors (e.g., race, poverty, drug use), they found that killings rose along with increasing transfers. In the case of the county that received the largest transfer of military equipment, killings more than doubled.

Militarization squeezes nondefense social spending 

Growing military spending also squeezes spending on vital domestic social services, including housing, health, education, and employment protections, as critical programs and agencies are starved for funds in the name of fiscal responsibility.

The federal budget is made up of nondiscretionary and discretionary spending.  Nondiscretionary spending is mandated by existing legislation, for example, interest payments on the national debt.  Discretionary spending is not, and thus its allocation among programs clearly reveals Congressional priorities.  The biggest divide in the discretionary budget is between defense and nondefense discretionary spending.

The nondefense discretionary budget is, as explained by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training, and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low- and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.  A significant share of this funding comes in the form of grants to state and local governments.

As we see below, nondefense discretionary appropriations have fallen dramatically in real terms and could potentially fall to a low of $516 billion if Congress does not waive the sequestration caps established in 2011.

The decline is even more dramatic when measured relative to GDP.  Under the caps and sequestration currently in place, nondefense spending in 2017 equaled 3.2 percent of GDP, just 0.1 percentage point above the lowest percentage on record going back to 1962.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “That percentage will continue to fall if the caps and sequestration remain unchanged, equaling the previous record low of 3.1 percent in 2018 and then continuing to fall (see the figure below).”

Looking ahead

As the next figure shows, the proposed Trump budget would intensify the attack on federal domestic social programs and agencies.

If approved, it “would take nondefense discretionary spending next year to its lowest level in at least six decades as a percentage of the economy and, by 2027, to its lowest on that basis since the Hoover Administration — possibly even earlier.”  Of course, some categories of the proposed nondefense discretionary budget are slated for growth–veterans’ affairs and homeland security–which means that the squeeze on other programs would be worse than the aggregate numbers suggest.

No doubt the Democratic Party will mount a fierce struggle to resist the worst of Trump’s proposed cuts, and they are likely to succeed.  But the important point is that the trend of militarizing our federal budget and society more generally will likely continue, a trend encouraged by past Democratic as well as Republican administrations.

If we are to advance our movement for social change, we need to do a better job of building a strong grassroots movement in opposition to militarism.  Among other things, that requires us to do a better job communicating all the ways in which militarism sets us back, in particular the ways in which militarism promotes racism and social division, globalization and economic decay, and the deterioration of our environment and quality of life, as well as death abroad and at home, all in the interest of corporate profits.  In other words, we have to find more effective ways of drawing together our various struggles for peace, jobs, and justice.