Interviewing John Feffer

ZNet: Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book is about? What is it trying to communicate?

My new book, North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis
, looks at the current stand-off between the United States and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear program.  The purpose of the book is to outline the flaws of the Bush administration approach of labelling North Korea evil and pressing for regime change.  So that readers can understand the context behind the headlines, I provide a chapter of historical background that takes readers from the first U.S. intervention in Korea in 1866 through the period of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War and into post-Cold War period. 

I then try to give North Korea’s perspective on its predicament before detailing the U.S. strategy of containment and rollback from Bush Sr. to Bush Jr.  The current crisis is not, as the Bush administration suggests, simply a result of North Korea’s persistent desire to obtain nuclear weapons.  Nor did the crisis catch the Bush administration without a coherent policy in place.  Contrary to the claims of administration figures, Bush did not adjust “policy midstream in response to new information and a new calculation of the threat from North Korea.”   As the book demonstrates, the current policy on North Korea was incubating in conservative policy circles during the 1990s.  Once in power, the Bush administration has used various means to pursue its ultimate goal: the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. 

The disagreement between North Korea and the United States is not a minor one.  Geopolitics has rendered the Korean peninsula one of the most highly militarized areas of the world.  The De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas is perhaps the most dangerous tripwire in the world, what Bill Clinton dubbed “the scariest place on earth” on a visit there in 1993.  It is a war waiting to happen.  Although the great powers in the region — China, Japan, and Russia – do not want such a war, they may get drawn in despite their best intentions.  As such, the current conflict between the United States and North Korea has profound international implications.  In the book, I set this conflict in the larger pattern of U.S. geopolitical strategy toward East Asia, which I dub “gunboat globalization.”  Finally, in the last chapter, I offer some alternatives that can lead to a solution crafted by Koreans themselves. 

ZNet: Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

I spent three years in Tokyo with my partner working as the East Asia representatives for the American Friends Service Committee.  In that capacity, we traveled to North Korea three times and South Korean more than two dozen times.  In hundreds of conversations with Koreans in North and South, I discovered that so much of the history and nuance of the region isn’t conveyed in U.S. media accounts.  When I returned to the United States, I wanted to produce a book that reflected how people in Korea think of North-South relations and relations with America.  I also wanted to point out the problems in U.S. policy, not only in the Bush administration’s stance but in Clinton’s as well.  In addition to materials gathered during my stay in East Asia, the book relies on hundreds of sources from around the world.  North Korea is a relatively isolated country and it requires a good bit of detective work to assemble a picture of what’s going on there.

ZNet: What are your hopes for “North Korea, South Korea”? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

We urgently need a change in U.S. policy toward North Korea and toward East Asia more generally.  I hope that my book will, first of all, raise the profile of Korea on the agendas of progressive organizations in the United States (and in Japan, Germany, and Spain where the book is being translated).  I rather doubt that North Korea, South Korea
will find its way onto the bookshelves of any Bush administration officials.  But I hope that some of the critiques and some of the alternatives find their way into the mainstream debate on these issues in this country.  The fact that the book has garnered interest in South Korea has made me quite happy about the undertaking.  If we are in the same terrible impasse in November 2004, with the United States continuing to play a negative role on the peninsula, then I would feel very discouraged. 

To end on a more optimistic note, I believe that most Americans can easily recognize the flaws of U.S. policy.  I gave a presentation at MIT recently where the back cover endorsement by Noam Chomsky no doubt helped to fill out the audience.  After the presentation, one of the students approached me and introduced himself as “a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy you were talking about.”  I told him that it was nice to be able to put a face to the conspiracy and thanked him for coming out to the presentation.  He replied that he would quibble with a couple of the things I said in my presentation, but basically I was right in my critique of U.S. foreign policy.  This anecdote demonstrates how “out there” the Bush policy really is, and how public support can be readily mobilized behind a reasonable alternative.

link for the book: www.johnfeffer.com

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