Sun, 14 January 2018
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We’ve all heard the reports about North Korea.
There’s no shortage of information about the nation most people love to hate. We hear a lot regarding missile tests, prison camps and brainwashing. We know the stories of Kim Jong-un and his late father Kim Jong-il, but not too much about the true patriarch of the nation; Kim Il-sung. Reports and discussions over the behavior of North Korea are abound, while self-reflection of the roots of these resentments and ill-feelings remain silent.
Today, on Majority Villain we will consider the questions:
Why does North Korea hate America? Or more succinctly put: why does it seem that way?
And two far-less talked about questions…
So, let’s have at it, shall we? This is Majority Villain.
Are we going to have a nuclear war with North Korea?
This question gets thrown around. A lot. So much so that I fear we don’t anticipate what it would mean. The levity with which we pose the question seems to traverse beyond varying degrees of caution and concern, instead springing head first into some kind of patriotic excitement on how a full-on war could somehow revitalize the American spirit. The two longest wars in American history raging on right now in Iraq and Afghanistan would suggest otherwise. It seems to me then, we ought to be wary of the words we use to describe such a scenario, lest we not anticipate what would likely be the consequences. Regardless, we continue to ask: Are we going to have a nuclear war with North Korea? Variations of the question include whether or not we should (as if choosing to have a war would place us into some type of scenario where there would be clear advantages. There probably wouldn't be). Other variants include WWIII references (beyond scary), the duty of America to be the peace-enforcer (paternal), how evil or crazy Kim Jong-un is (ironic), and more recently how the United States should use its strong arm over China to wield its powerful influence in bringing North Korea under control (dream weaving).
Let’s talk fire power.
Occasionally, people scoff at the idea that North Korea could ever successfully attack the United States with a nuclear payload missile, citing a three decade-long program littered with international embarrassments; early on it was only short-range tests, and then later a total overhype of test trajectory, and sometimes tests were flat-out failed launches. It’s not the most solid track record on missile tests in history, and that tends to lead a lot of people to thinking that the United States is safe. On the other hand, North Korea’s weapons program is young (just over 10 years old), they have an unknown number in their arsenal, and most terrifyingly - as recently as November, 2017 have they launched a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) experts say is capable of reaching anywhere within the continental United States. Is North Korea's program riddled with flaws? Yes. Does the United States have a missile defense program designed to shoot these things out of the sky? Yes. But do we know how many the United States would need to shoot down, has that missile defense system been tested, and are we even sure the United States would be the target of that attack? No, no and no.
Most experts says that the United States partner-country, South Korea would be on the receiving end of what would certainly be far too many missiles to defend against. By all accounts, South Korea would be decimated in unimaginable ways.
That makes Donald Trump’s, and more generally, the United States’ tough guy approach all the more scary — not to Americans — but to South Koreans particularly, because they would take more than their fair share of the bombardment.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to carry a big stick than it is to speak softly. Specifically, to speak about the nuance regarding North Korea, namely, the people. It’s easy to forget that there are a lot of innocent people in North Korea, both imprisoned and free who don’t necessarily agree with the aims and goals of the Kim regime. When we say things like, “North Korea is crazy” we undermine the reality of millions of citizens who are trapped in very real ways. The North Korean propaganda machine is the best in its class, censorship on rogue ideas is strictly forbidden, and dissidents who speak or act out are not given very many second chances — if ever. Most of the country is under an electric blackout and quality food sources are scarce — even among those who are not imprisoned or in labor camps. The bottom line is this: North Korea cannot be abrasively labelled as aggressive without attention to the massive population of people who are oppressed in inconceivable ways. If the United States were to attack North Korea the casualties would be astronomical just as they were the last time US troops were there.
Flash back to 1950 as global relations are beginning to take new shape in the aftermath of failed a attempt by Axis Powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan. Korea has been occupied for some three decades by the Japanese and is split up into two dictatorships; One North, one South. One protected by communist Soviet Union and one protected by capitalist America. A North Korean military front, led by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung heads into the South to take over the land. The newly formed United Nations responds under immense persuasion by the United States to intercede. What begins as a protection and post-WWII peace enforcement mission in the former Japanese-occupied country pushes back against the North, not only to the original borders, but far beyond, just shy of the Chinese border. By 1953, non-militarized treaty lines between the North and South are established where they still exist on a map today. The casualties are immense.
Howard Zinn recalls the words of a BBC journalist as he described the trauma in both Koreas after the 1950 June invasion by the North resulted in a US led campaign of 3 years of bombing, shelling and even napalm in his book, A People’s History of the United States. Sensitive listeners advised as the following description is rather unsettling.
“In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched, legs straddled, arms held out from his sides. He had no eyes, and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus…. He had to stand because he was no longer covered with a skin, but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily…. I thought of the hundreds of villages reduced to ash which I personally had seen and realized the sort of casualty list which must be mounting up along the Korean front.” (Zinn, People’s History, 1980)
Zinn estimated during this time that as many as 2 million Koreans were killed. To try to put that into perspective, it is a figure nearly 9 times higher than the number of deaths accrued during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs dropped by the United States just 5 years earlier.
Typically, this is the part where somebody argues that neither Kim Jong-un nor Donald Trump are responsible for actions taken 70 years ago. True. But that answer feels wholly insufficient, does it not? While decades-old resentments remain, a closer look at current behaviors is needed. Political linguist Noam Chomsky says that a good start to normalized diplomatic relations (like getting North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program) would be ending the threatening military maneuvers facilitated by the United States military right outside North Korea’s borders. And understandably so! Imagine what public opinion would be if Russia had 35,000 troops located in Toronto and were running drills on how to attack New York… you know, just in case. Not a good feeling, right? But Chomsky doesn’t end the argument for understanding North Korea’s fears and frustrations there. Rather, he explains quite clearly the legacy of the root of that hostility.
(Audio clip of Chomsky explaining how US troops leveled NK.)
Perhaps the irony with North Korea is our leaders are so alike. Here is a short quiz taken by the BBC, with some notable quotes of my own choosing added. I’ll read you a quote, and after a few seconds I will tell you if it was Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump. You can keep score at home. Finally, a game the whole family can enjoy!
“The military might of a country represents its national strength. Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country.” - Kim
"If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes in a moment.” -Kim
"They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” -Trump
"Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.” - Kim
“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice!” -Trump
“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” -Trump
"Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space.” -Kim
“There can be no prosperity without law and order.” -Trump
If you got a perfect score - congratulations! You know your dictators from your dickheads! Missed two? Not too shabby. If you got anything less than that - you really gotta admit it - they’re pretty damn similar, and that should give you cause to reflect on the dangers of unmoving nationalism.
International Relations in academia have competing schools of thought when it comes to a state’s behavior. There are ongoing dialogues about the varying degrees between state sovereignty vs world cooperation, military might vs diplomacy, border security vs international investment. Realist schools of thought place a premium on the need to securitize the nation, reign in foreign nationals, and build up a mighty military with the force to destroy at a moments notice if not for the home team’s offense, then for a monumental dissuasion for those with ill intentions from ever even thinking about trying something against us. Never question the home team. It is us vs them.
If the two leaders of these two governments are so eager to measure their members, display their plumage, yell the loudest, fire the biggest rockets, and ignore their own advisors, then we shall reap what we sow…
(Sound of rocket taking off)
(Ring Ring - News report: North and South Korea open up previously closed direct contact line)
What thickens the irony all the more is that Kim, unlike Trump, might be more willing to compromise. Given recent rhetoric by President Donald Trump, even in a diplomatic setting like the United Nations… (Audio of Trump at UN session) North and South Korea have been more eager to communicate today than they have been in at least two years. Does this mean that Donald Trump’s tough guy approach has worked? Or does it imply that the Koreans are finding the United States to be an obstacle to compromise? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I will not be able to answer that question here.
The more important question is how we view success as a nation. It is a me-first approach? Is there room to question the home team? Is dissidence simply permitted or is it cherished as a means to problem-solving? Howard Zinn’s take on patriotism was much different:
“If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one's country, one's fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
The United States proudly calls itself a peace-enforcer, but there is no such thing as enforcing peace. A farmer does not enforce the growth of corn. He cultivates it. An architect doesn’t enforce the construction of a new building. She develops it. Likewise, peace cannot be imposed, forced, coerce or even won.
It’s unfortunate that our über-macho society masculinity places such a premium on aggression. We see what we want and we go and make it happen. We manifest the desired outcome with elbow grease and a can-do attitude. Of course these cultural traits have their value, but why are they seen as an all-encompassing replacement, overshadowing their counterpart attributes of compassion, listening, patience and empathy.
In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day - I leave you with his own words on the subject of nationalism.
“This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” (Beyond Vietnam)
You’ve been listening to the Majority Villain podcast. I’m your host, Gregory Haddock. To redeem your villain points for this episode be sure to visit the website at www.majorityvillain.com and on Facebook and Twitter @majorityvillain. If you liked the show you have three tasks; Tell a friend, Subscribe, and Rate the show on iTunes. A link is at the very top of the show notes are on the device you’re already using.
Peace, love and villainy. Status quos are for suckers.
Music provided by the Free Music Archive under Creative Commons licensing. Today’s music by Audiobinger, Evil Bear Boris, Ari de Niro and Lee Rosevere. Show image by NASA.