Digesting some of the basic historical facts of North Korea may help people understand how human beings have reached this dangerous point, where the fate of the world—nuclear war or not—may be in the hands of a grand total of two people, at least one of whom is well-known for his bad judgment. Professor Bruce Cumings, the former chair of the history department at the University of Chicago and one of the most prominent historians of Korea, has rhetorically asked, “Why on earth would Pyongyang not seek a nuclear deterrent?” Indeed. What follows below is mostly a summary of some of his convincing arguments relating to this question and an explanation of why I respond with “indeed.”
All major modern wars have been brutal, but considering the hell that Koreans must have lived through, the Korean War must be considered one of the most brutal and tragic. The fact that the war did not result in a peaceful resolution of the civil conflict is just one of its many tragedies. The War produced an armistice—the open recognition that the War has not ended, that more innocent lives may be lost in the future.
1950 to 1953 are dates frequently given for the Korean War, but according to Cumings, the “hot” civil war in Korea began in early 1949, “when Soviet troops were out and American troops were on their way out.” Through aerial bombing, America killed millions of civilians on the Korean Peninsula, people from the south as well as from the north, through bombing attacks that “hardly left a modern building standing.” Many villages were “washed downstream” by dams that were bombed in Kusong and Toksan (a recognized war crime), and even the capital city of Pyongyang, 27 miles away, was badly flooded. The “barbaric” air war destroyed “huge irrigation dams that provided water for 75 percent of the North’s food production.”
This near obliteration of infrastructure in Korea and the resultant suffering must remain deeply entrenched in the memories of North Koreans. People there continue to live under the violence and oppression of a “garrison state.” This is Cumings view of the country, after a lifetime of research on it. A “garrison state” is a state in which “the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society.” He explains that it is a garrison state “primarily because of the holocaust that the North experienced during the Korean War.”
In his view, North Korea is the only country that has been systematically blackmailed with nuclear weapons. North Korea was directly threatened with nuclear weapons, stockpiled in a country on their southern border, by the USA from 1958 to 1991. Although Washington was not supposed to introduce any qualitatively new weaponry to the Korean Peninsula according to the armistice that it signed on July 27, 1953, it went ahead and placed hundreds of nuclear weapons—nuclear cannons and nuclear-tipped missiles—in South Korea in 1958. The next year it installed Matador cruise missiles with a range of 1,100 kilometers, thus aimed not only at North Korea but also at China and the USSR. Eventually, 70 nuclear artillery shells, large numbers of “ADMs” (atomic demolition mines, which were designed to contaminate areas of South Korea in order to stop an armored attack from North Korean forces), and 60 nuclear gravity bombs for F-4 and F-16 bombers were stockpiled there.
From the early 1980s North Korea frequently called for the Korean Peninsula to be made a nuclear-free zone. Washington could have taken them seriously and taken them up on that offer, at least until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when Pyongyang began to hint that it might develop its own nukes since it could no longer depend on Moscow to provide such backup support.
Around that time Washington removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea. This was not, however, due to the fact that the installation of those weapons had violated the 1953 armistice that Washington had agreed to, but because they were obsolete. More effective, high-yield, conventional weapons had been developed in the meantime. The threat of massive destruction and an invasion was still on North Korea’s southern border, even if the weapons were not nuclear anymore.
North Korea was also intimidated with nukes by the government of South Korea. Under the American-backed dictator Park Chung Hee (1917-1979), Seoul began developing them in the mid-1970s. South Korea already has conventional long-range missiles that can hit anywhere in North Korea’s territory, and the conventional warheads on those missiles could easily be refitted with nuclear warheads.
In 1990, the USSR recognized Seoul, and in 1991 or earlier, North Korea embarked on its own nuclear weapons program, having officially lost the “nuclear umbrella” of this former ally. In Cumings’ opinion, North Korea had probably never “felt the comforting shade of a Soviet or Chinese nuclear umbrella,” but in its public posture at least, it proceeded to follow the strategy of Israel, keeping “everyone guessing” about if and when it would have the bomb. When Pyongyang’s neighbors Russia and China had nukes, and its neighbor to the South had the USA, with whom it was officially still at war with, providing it with a nuclear umbrella, maintaining a constant threat for over half a century—whether that be invasion, “regime change,” or nuclear holocaust—it should not come as a surprise that Pyongyang wanted nukes, too.
Washington has frequently claimed to be working to reduce the threat of nuclear war, but that claim has recently once again proven to be false, or at least inconsistent with its actions, when it was recently revealed that it has quietly modernized its nuclear missiles such that, at any time, they could destroy all of Russia’s ICBMs with submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This offensive capability was made possible by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama. This encourages Moscow to “use them or lose them,” in the case of war with USA, and to keep their finger on the proverbial trigger. This capability is obviously a major threat to all three competitors in the region—Russia, China, and North Korea.
Besides giving Pyongyang lessons about the sort of power that nuclear states have over non-nuclear states, Washington also demonstrated what will happen to non-nuclear states that oppose it. In line with a deal made under the Clinton administration, Pyongyang suspended its plutonium production from 1994 to 2002. Pyongyang and Washington promised to not bear “hostile intent” toward each other. But while Pyongyang kept up its side of the bargain, one day George Bush lumped North Korea together with Iraq in the cartoonish category “Axis of Evil.” He announced a new policy of using preemptive strikes as a defense against an immediate security threat to the United States, and the deal was off. Bush not only verbally threatened North Korea in this way, he made his threat credible by invading Iraq, in complete disregard for international law. Up until this violation of the agreement with North Korea, there had been high hopes of the entire Korean Peninsula becoming a nuclear-free zone.
In the case of Libya and Ukraine, Washington has recently provided other valuable lessons to North Korea on the importance of having nukes. As Dan Coats explains regarding the recent cases of Libya and Ukraine, “Unfortunately, the lessons learned have been if you have nuclear weapons, never give them up, because it’s a deterrent from other actors who may want to interfere in your country,” and “if you don’t have them, get them.” Washington is accelerating the arms race and convincing the world that North Korea was wise to develop nuclear arms and not let them go.
Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons stockpile in 1994 in exchange for a promise that the USA, the UK, and Russia would not violate Ukraine’s sovereignty. With the nukes out of the way, the US turned Ukraine into a “CIA theme park.” Then Russia joined the fray, annexing Crimea, part of Ukraine’s territory, in 2014.
Moammar Gaddafi announced the end of Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2003. Subsequently, after NATO’s campaign in 2011 Libya became a “terrorist safe haven.” So much for the state. As for the hated dictator: Gaddafi’s fate, being sodomized, butchered, and left in a ditch will make Kim Jong-un think twice before dismantling his own nukes.
To return to North Korea, even with only the basic facts outlined above in hand, it should not surprise us that Pyongyang seeks to have planes that can kill countless civilians through aerial bombing, missiles of all ranges, and nuclear weapons—the kinds of war toys that Washington has long possessed. Like a boy of shorter-than-average stature in school who is bullied too much, who one day decides he cannot take it any longer and brings a switchblade or a gun to school, the dictator and his generals may feel that if they can just get their hands on the most powerful weapons, they may be able to deter the bully from further attacks. But now, when a nuclear conflagration could be ignited through a slight miscalculation or misunderstanding of one general due to bad intelligence, or one side jumping the gun following the “preemptive” war doctrine of “I feel threatened, therefore I’m going to annihilate them,” we need cool-headed negotiations with experts on both sides who have some knowledge and understanding of the culture, values, hopes, and dreams of their country’s enemies, that of the people and of the ruler, regardless of the ruler’s approval rating. With even top generals in the US military warning what the appalling consequences would be of the US re-starting the Korean War, using conventional and/or nuclear weapons, and in essence trying to cool down the situation (a job within the purview of the very State Department that Trump has cut back, with key posts such as US ambassador to South Korea left unfilled) it might be wise to ponder these words written by Cumings in 1997, “Backed up to the wall, [North Korean generals] will fight.” Do we really want to get into a war with a “garrison state” in possession of nuclear weapons? Wouldn’t that be the exact opposite of “national security”? Many people in unprivileged North Korea, especially Kim Jong-un’s generals, have nothing to lose. While we in the privileged world do. There are people “over there” just like us, who want to work, eat, sleep, listen to music, dance, enjoy life a little, and live in peace. For better or worse, our security is tied up with theirs.