The arrival of Donald Trump into the Whitehouse has escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula. In recent months, Trump has goaded the North Korean regime on an almost daily basis. In August, he threatened to unleash “fire, fury and frankly power” if the North does not halt their nuclear weapons programme. In September, at the U.N, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and to make “Kim Jong-Un disappear.” After the latest round of UN sanctions forced Koreans to queue for gas, Trump tweeted, “Too bad!” And finally, on September 19th, he launched a massive show of force by sending 14 fighter jets and bombers on a live-fire drill near the border. Trump’s ongoing suite of provocations are part of his bid to appear effective in dealing with America’s overseas headaches. He has signalled that he is finished with Obama’s “strategic patience” policy. The new approach will be one of “maximum pressure and engagement.”
Trump’s lurid, off-hand militarism is an awful addition to the Korean crisis. The constant stream of threats creates a climate of fear that inflames the conflict and terrorizes ordinary Koreans. The degree of tension that already exists on the peninsula means that Trump’s aggressive behaviour could easily spark a larger confrontation. Yet, whilst it is important to register the distinct threat that Trump poses, his behaviour is by no means unprecedented. In fact, Trump’s racist sabre-rattling draws on a long history of US pressure and provocation against the North. For the past nine years, the Obama-Clinton administration has held the embattled state in a stranglehold of economic sanctions accompanied by threats of military annihilation. Throughout his presidency, Obama routinely threatened Kim Jong-Un with total destruction. In 2016, he warned that “the US could, obviously, destroy North Korea with its arsenals.” And from 2012 onwards, Obama massively expanded the “Foal Eagle War Games,” which take place each year in neighbouring South Korea. In 2013, in a move to provoke and intimidate the North, Obama deployed nuclear-bomb capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-22 fighter jets, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and four guided missile carrier destroyers. These deployments were on top of exercises and simulated invasions of the North which involved 10,000 US soldiers and more than 200,000 South Korean troops. Judged as rhetoricians, Trump and Obama are certainly poles apart. Judged as defenders of US interests abroad, they share much the same perspective.
Curtailing China’s growth
The continuities in US foreign policy towards North Korea are born out of the threat that China poses to US interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Over the past twenty years, as China has rapidly expanded, they have begun to assert themselves as an imperialist power. US socialist Ashley Smith writes, “This is not the result of ideology but of the economic compulsion for the state to secure resources, develop markets, and open sites for investment for Chinese capital.” The main task for the US state in the 21st century, as set out in Obama’s flagship policy document “The Pivot to Asia,” is to contain the rise of China and to maintain US hegemony over the shipping lanes, natural resources and labour power in the Asia-Pacific. North Korea plays a crucial role in this strategy by providing the US with a strong alibi to expand their military and economic presence right on the doorstep of China. This logic explains why US policy towards the North, from the second Bush administration onwards, has been wholly geared towards the perpetuation of the crisis through constant pressure and provocation.
For the past decade, the US has pursued an aggressive military buildup in the region. They have built and upgraded bases on the islands of Guam and Hawai’i, in countries like Vietnam, the Phillipines and Australia, and, especially, in the territories of South Korea and Japan. The US has gradually installed thousands of nuclear warheads on submarines and warships throughout the Pacific ocean. At each step of the way, the US uses the threat from North Korea as an alibi to justify this expansion. Obama’s push for the THAAD missile deterrent and surveillance system in South Korea is a good example. Ostensibly, the system is necessary to counteract the threat from North Korea. It’s range, of course, extends far into China. In recent years, the US has engaged in numerous exercises and “war games” that work to increase the military “interoperability” of US forces and their allies. The chief justification is that these are entirely defensive operations to counteract aggression from North Korea. In reality, they are preparations for future conflict with China.
On the economic front, China has rapidly become the principal trading and investment partner for South Korea and Japan; the world’s fifteenth and third largest economies respectively. China has managed to draw these key US allies into a tight economic relationship through bilateral and trilateral trade agreements. Currently, China is pushing for the development of RCEP, a multilateral trade agreement that would bind together the ten largest economies in South East Asia along with Australia, India, South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand. The goal of RCEP is to restrict and isolate the economic power of the US in the region. It is a mirror image of the TPPA, the trade deal that, although scuttled by Trump, would serve to isolate China and bind the region’s economies to the US. As US allies drift more and more in China’s orbit the US increasingly uses the military threat from North Korea to try and reign them back in. As historian David Whitehouse argues, “In 2009, when Japan proposed forming an East Asian economic unit that excluded the US, the Obama administration used the North Korean attack on a South Korean frigate to pressure Japan to block with the US and South Korea against China and North Korea.” In this way, the threat posed by North Korea is used by the US as a wedge to keep its foot in the door of the North East-Asian economic hub.
US imperialism and racism
In order to justify the “Pivot to Asia,” Western politicians construct North Korea as an “unpredictable” “rogue state” ruled by a “madman” despot who presents a nuclear threat to the entire “civilized world.” Through this lens, North Korea’s behaviour is seen less as a defensive reaction against intensifying US pressure and more as the inexplicable manifestations of an unhinged mind. This line of thought feeds off of what historian Hugh Gusterson terms “Nuclear Orientalism.” This is, he writes, the idea that Western monarchs are calm and rational while those in the East are inscrutable, impulsive and dangerous. We can think back to Kim Jong-Il who was labelled in the American press as “Dr. Evil” and as a “radioactive lunatic.” Trump and his entourage, who call Jong-Un a “rocket-man,” a “maniac,” a “bad dude” and a “wack-job” are simply the latest mouthpieces for the same racist propaganda.
As “rock solid” supporters of US imperialism, New Zealand politicians peddle the same story. Former foreign minister Gerry Brownlee describes Jong-Un as “nuts.” In 2013, John Key called him an “unpredictable lone-wolf.” And in May this year, former Prime Minister Bill English commented that North Korea is a “provocative ” “rogue state” that poses a threat to the entire world. The notion that North Korea poses a threat to the US, its allies and the world is utterly ridiculous. North Korea’s economy ranks as the 125th in the world. They cannot even light their cities at night let alone challenge the world’s largest military superpower. In reality, the regime’s military buildup is an entirely defensive project that arise out of seventy years of US invasion, sanctions and existential threats of annihilation. The North’s nuclear weapons programme is not part of some mad plan to take over the world. It is a product of the intensification of US pressure under Bush, Obama and now Trump. Recent US adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have understandably convinced the Northern regime that they will only be safe from US invasion if they can develop a nuclear deterrent.
Reject US Imperialism
Politicians and the media provide us with the comforting lie that the conflict is caused by the capricious will of a madman despot. In reality, it is the predictable, rational status-quo that we need to be afraid of. As historian Greg Afinogenov writes, “it is the sheer reach and relentlessness of American empire that has set us on knife-edges all over the world….If we are the brink of nuclear apocalypse, it is because the reasonable people, the Pences and the Frums and the Obamas and the Clintons, have put us and kept us there.” If we want to see a movement towards peace and stability we need to get the US out of Korea.