I think I must be stupid. Over the past week or two I have been trying to understand something – and for the life of me, I just can’t crack it.
There is a general consensus, it seems, that under no circumstances should North Korea be allowed to develop its nuclear capability. Fine, up to a point. I have no desire whatsoever to see any country join the arms race. The fewer military machines that have access to nuclear weapons the better. I am all for the so-called Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. But surely that Treaty should apply to all nations equally – and not be used as a way of frustrating the ambitions of some?
Where is the logic in insisting that North Korea should remain at a huge disadvantage in terms of the ‘deterrents’ it possesses, when the State is under almost constant threat, from countries that do have access to a nuclear arsenal? The US has a huge military presence in South Korea. And with the likes of Donald Trump in charge, you never know what might happen. If I were in the Korean leader, Kim Jong-un’s boots, that’s certainly what I’d be thinking.
To make an obvious comparison, everyone knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists says that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have between 75 and 200 nuclear warheads at their disposal. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is more specific, calculating that the government in Tel Aviv has 80.
The State of Israel has been throwing its weight around for years, engaging in a sustained policy of attempting to humiliate and crush Palestinian nationals. I am not saying that North Korea has shown itself to be a peace-loving nation. Nor am I suggesting that, under Kim Jong-un, it is less of a threat to world peace than Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu.
The truth is that I don’t know which is ultimately more likely to push us all to the brink. Israel has been doing a pretty good job of that with its ongoing land-grab in the West Bank and the justification, which that provides, for Islamic extremism. In short, Israel has been guilty of far more aggressive military behaviour over the past ten years than North Korea has since the US was turfed out of the place back in 1953. In fairness to the Americans, they didn’t end up in Korea because they wanted to build holiday homes there. In the aftermath of World War II, there was a vacuum on the peninsula, after the defeat of imperialist Japan. In that same moment, if the US had simply pulled out of Germany, the biggest country in Europe would have fallen under Soviet control. In Korea, either China or the Soviet Union would have stepped in.
Having steadied the ship, three years after the war, the US handed control over to a freshly elected South Korean government. The First Republic of South Korea was established in 1948. As with the current inhabitants of a free, democratic Germany, the vast bulk of the 51 million people who live in South Korea remain eternally grateful to the Americans for carving out the space in which a new democracy might flourish.
The history of the peninsula is a tangled one. The new government was guilty of atrocities against suspected communist sympathisers: some estimates suggest that over a million people were slaughtered by them, though there is no agreement on the number. Some might say in retaliation, North Korean forces invaded in June, 1950.
The decision of the international community to get involved in the fight was the first ever taken under the umbrella of the United Nations Command, led by the United States. China rowed in with the North Koreans. In the long run, while the border shifted marginally, stalemate ensued. The truth is that for both sides, the equilibrium since has always had an element of unfinished business.
Memories in the United States are long. They have never forgiven North Korea for at least partly winning a war that they were supposed to lose. But Korean memories are long too. In the post-war cold war scenario, to many Koreans the US – like Japan before them – was an imperialist occupying force in the southern part of the country, as was the Soviet Union in the North.
By carrying out sustained bombing missions, levelling towns and killing thousands of civilians during the war, the US briefly gained control of the entire peninsula, finally taking Pyongyang.
In The United States Air Force in Korea 1950 –1953, historian Robert F. Futrell includes a description of the town of Huichon, which was written by General William F. Dean, who had been held prisoner in North Korea.
“The city I’d seen before – two-storied buildings, a prominent main street – wasn’t there anymore,” he stated. “I think no important bridge between Pyongyang and Kanggye had been missed, and most of the towns were just rubble or snowy open spaces where buildings had been. The little towns, once full of people, were unoccupied shells. The villagers lived in entirely new temporary villages, hidden in canyons or in such positions that only a major bombing effort could reach them.”
War is brutal. As that account confirms, US forces were utterly amoral and unscrupulous in the way they prosecuted the campaign, subjecting the North Koreans to three years of sustained bombardment. In the end, the superior firepower of the United States counted only for so much. Their supremacy didn’t last.
During those three years, peasant armies from North Korea and China had battled to rid the country of what they saw as their latest oppressor. The North Koreans dug deep. They battled hard. And as the Viet Cong would later, they survived. Many of the US troops wondered why they were there. “We’re here,” they might have sung, “because we’re here because, we’re here because we’re here…”
They destroyed the capital city of Pyongyang in the hope that this might break the spirit of the Koreans. It didn’t. Gradually the Americans were pushed back. North Korea snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of defeat. They retook the former capital city Kaesong, which had been part of South Korea.
Sense eventually prevailed. On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, ceding control of North Korea to the joint forces of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. The division of the country remained, but the not-so-modern State of North Korea had been born.
The truce arrived at 64 years ago, has on occasion seemed fragile. It is a permanent affront to North Korea that the US remains active on Korean soil and that South Korea still lays claim to the entire Korean peninsula. On the other hand, North Korea has not abandoned its claim to the entire Korean peninsula. On the other hand, North Korea has not abandoned its claim to the whole peninsula.
With a population of 51 million, South Korea is a liberal democracy, delivering high levels of personal freedom to its citizens, as well as the world’s third highest health adjusted life expectancy. It also boasts the world’s seventh most advanced economy. It is, in other words, an extraordinary success story. Asked to choose between the two where you’d prefer to live, I’d go for South Korea every time. Military dictatorships remain the last refuge of the scoundrel.
Looking across the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries, it must rankle with the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-on, that his less noisy neighbours seem to be faring rather well. But he’s also aware of the reality that there is an ongoing threat to North Korea’s very existence.
In the circumstances, the last thing the world needs is a President of the USA who himself acts like a tin-pot dictator. In the latest flare-up, instead of letting diplomats do their painstaking work, Trump had to insist publically that his dick was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s.
We already knew that Donald Trump was a menace. As events in Charlottesville over the weekend confirmed, he has created the ground in which American Nazis are flourishing. But his sub-B-Movie threats to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen before” are as dangerous as they are amateurish. And far from dissuading North Korea from its nuclear ambitions, it will only confirm that, right now, nuclear capability is precisely what they need. Just as a deterrent of course. I may not like the North Korean regime. And I may assume that many of the 25 million citizens there would welcome a regime change. But the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons.
I still can’t see any objective reason why North Korea should be excluded from the club – unless there is an agreement to a timed reduction in nuclear powers across the board. And there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that.
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