America & North Korea: A New Cold War?

By Tom Barnes, International Socialist Organisation

Who is the real aggressor?

Last December North Korea removed seals and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring equipment from its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. They taped over the lenses of monitoring cameras, and requested that IAEA monitoring personnel depart by the end of the month.

Does this confirm Americas argument that NK is developing weapons of mass destruction and is a threat to the free world?

In July former US defence secretary William Perry warned the US and North Korea were drifting towards war, with an "imminent danger" of nuclear explosions in American cities. Referring to reports that North Korea had begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods to make weapons-grade plutonium, Perry said: "I have thought for some months that if the North Koreans moved toward processing, then we are on a path toward war."

According to several media reports North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility has about 8000 spent fuel rods capable of producing enough plutonium to make between six and 12 nuclear weapons.

America argues reprocessing of spent fuel rods is a clear violation of North Koreas commitment to a treaty signed in 1994.

The truth is very different. Just as America lied over the supposed threat of WMD in Iraq, they are lying when they claim North Korea poses a threat to its East Asian neighbours and to the West, and when they claim North Korea is the main aggressor in this current conflict.

Lets start by going through the lies.

Lie 1. North Korea wont negotiate. They are only interested in intimidation.

The conflict in U.S.-North Korean relations over the nuclear issue first arose on January 26, 1993, when President Clinton announced that the U.S. military would conduct war games in South Korea. This was followed the next month by the news that some of the nuclear weapons previously targeted on the Soviet Union would be redirected at North Korea. By March, massive Team Spirit war games involving bombers, cruise missiles and naval vessels were underway.

Interpreting this as a provocation, North Korea responded by signalling it would withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, talks with U.S. officials in June 1993 led to North Korea rescinding its announcement. New difficulties soon arose when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) insisted on inspecting undeclared nuclear sites in North Korea, something the agency had never demanded from any other nation.

This demand came at the instigation of U.S. officials, who had been pressing the IAEA to engage in more intrusive and wide-ranging inspections, hoping to turn up a pretext for applying pressure on North Korea and to expand opportunities for gathering intelligence. It was at this time also that North Korea discovered that IAEA inspectors were passing intelligence on to American officials.

By 1994, talks between the United States and North Korea had broken off, and the U.S. was exerting pressure on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions. In June 1994, the U.S. formally submitted a draft resolution in the UN on graduated sanctions, while behind the scenes the Clinton Administration was already preparing for war.

Then defence secretary William Perry and assistant secretary of defence Ashton Carter "spent much of the first half of 1994 preparing for war on the Korean peninsula." According to Perry and Carter, "we readied a detailed plan to attack the Yongbyon facility with precision-guided bombs. We were highly confident that it could be destroyed without causing a meltdown that would release radioactivity into the air."

Whether or not a release of radioactivity could have been avoided, the attack would surely have triggered far greater devastation. Perry and Carter anticipated that North Korea would respond by, as they termed it, "lashing out," or to put it more accurately, fighting back against U.S. aggression. "In the event of a North Korean attack," they believed, "U.S. forces, working side by side with the South Korean army and using bases in Japan, would quickly destroy the North Korean army and the North Korean regime. But unlike Desert Storm, which was waged in the Arabian Desert, the combat in another Korean War would take place in Seouls crowded suburbs."

Perry and Carter admitted that "the price would be heavy, estimating that "thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops would be killed, and millions of refugees would crowd the highways. North Korean losses would be even higher. The intensity of combat would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War." It should be recalled that 4 million Koreans lost their lives in the Korean War of 1950-1953, and a new war waged with modern weapons held the potential of sowing death on a massive scale.

South Korean president Kim Young-Sam then phoned President Clinton and argued with him for 30 minutes. "I told him there would be no inter-Korean war while I was president," Kim said. "Clinton tried to persuade me to change my mind, but I criticized the United States for planning to stage a war with the North on our land." According to another official in the State Department at the time, "It went down to the wire. The American people will never know how close we were to war. Had [North Korea] not accepted, we had 50,000 troops on the [border]. We were hell-bent about stopping them."

Official negotiations between the two sides opened on July 8, 1994 in Geneva, and led to the signing of the Agreed Framework on October 21. Under terms of the agreement, North Korea was obligated to freeze its graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon and halt construction of two more reactors. The freeze was to be monitored by the IAEA.

In return, the United States agreed to "undertake to make arrangements for the provision" to North Korea of a light water reactor as well as the importation of oil.

If we fast forward to October 2002, President Bush upped the ante by issuing a classified executive order granting U.S. special forces authority to operate clandestinely in nations with which the U.S. is not at war and to destroy "arms supply lines" to terrorists and the three nations comprising the so-called axis of evil.

Far from seeking to assuage North Korean fears, on December 10, 2002 the Bush Administration released a new strategy document calling for pre-emptive military and covert action against nations possessing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. High priority was given to stopping shipments of weapons components both into and out of the borders of target nations, and the document re-emphasized the U.S. commitment to regard the use of nuclear weapons as a viable option in any conflict

Two days after the Bush Administration unveiled its latest strategic document, North Korea announced its intention to resume construction and operation of its graphite-moderated reactors.

On March 2, 2003 a US spy plane confronted by 4 North Korean MIGs. The US says this occurred over international waters but North Korea disputes this. The month before the incident, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered 12 B-52 bombers and 12 B-1 bombers to Guam, within striking range of North Korea. Throughout the month of February, U.S. spy planes conducted a total of 180 flights in the region. According to North Korea, from February 21 through the end of the month, an RC-135 plane flew over territorial waters between the Musudan and Hodo peninsulas, and on February 26, an EP-3 electronic spy plane flew directly over North Korea. The following day, a U-2 plane approached within 30 km of North Korean territory.

Immediately after the incident, President Bush announced that if diplomatic efforts to isolate and pressure North Korea failed, then "theyll have to work militarily." Despite a one week pause after the confrontation, the number of espionage flights actually increased in March, for a total of 222. Once again, North Korean airspace was repeatedly violated by the spy planes, including multiple flights over North Korean islands on March 11 and 13 and again on March 24 and 27 and yet again on the 28th.

The aggressive verbiage from North Korea is a response, and an understandable one, to consistent and unprovoked US aggression. According to former CIA intelligence analysts Strategic Forecasts (www.stratfor.com):
In order to gain maximum leverage against the United States, leaders in Pyongyang feel they must move now to take advantage of the military situation in Iraq. Thus, the North Korean regime has withdrawn from military liaison talks with the United States, warned that "no one can vouch that the U.S. will not spark the second Iraqi crisis on the Korean Peninsula," and moved vehicles around its nuclear and missile facilities -- in plain view of U.S. satellites. Pyongyang also has delayed talks with Seoul and threatened that the upcoming Japanese satellite launch will only ensure Japan's destruction.

Let there be no doubt: In terms of hostile US-North Korean relations, on every occasion since the collapse of the USSR, America has been the aggressor. Any aggressive language from North Korea has been a response.

Lie 2. North Korea have broken their earlier commitments with the US

Under the 1994 agreement, the US delivered oil to North Korea up until October last year. However, the light water facilities that were also part of the agreement were never delivered. Less than four years after signing the 1994 Geneva agreement, in the spring of 1998, U.S. warplanes based at the Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina conducted a mock exercise to simulate a long-range mission to drop nuclear bombs on North Korea. According to Brigadier General Randall K. Bigum, "We simulated fighting a war in Korea, using a Korean scenario" that "simulated a decision by the National Command Authority about considering using nuclear weapons& We identified aircraft, crews, and weapons loaders to load up tactical nuclear weapons onto our aircraft.

After North Korea withdrew from nuclear non-proliferation treaty (a treaty also broken by Israel, India and Pakistan) in October 2002, George Bush ordered the U.S. military to deploy the first 10 missiles of a missile defense system at Fort Greeley, Alaska by 2004 and an additional 10 missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by 2005. Included in the deployment are six radars, bringing the initial cost to $30 billion. Plans call for the anti-missile defence shield to eventually encompass 250 missiles, 15 radars and as many as 30 satellites.

The move followed Washingtons abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) early in 2002.

Once again America are lying when they say North Korea broke the 1994 agreements and the NPT. The US broke the 1994 agreement and the ABMT. It is the US who talk about using nuclear weapons in tactical first strikes against so-called rogue states. Again, North Korea are responding to US aggression.

Lie 3. North Korea are a nuclear threat

It is no secret that North Korea have wanted some kind of nuclear program for some time. But the question is: why?

The demise of the USSR and the loss of trading partners in Eastern Europe had a devastating impact on North Korea, which saw its economy contract by 30 percent in the five years following 1991. Lacking any reserves of oil or natural gas, North Korea must rely entirely on imports. While the USSR had furnished North Korea with oil at subsidized rates, post-Stalinist Russia would supply oil only at commercial market rates.

Thus, North Korea was hit by the crisis that inflicted the other state capitalist regimes in Russia and the Eastern Bloc.

By 2000, the various sectors of industrial output stood at 11 to 30 percent of their 1990 levels. In the six years following 1990, road freight fell 70 percent and rail by 60 percent, placing further burdens on the manufacturing sector. The annual supply of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil by the United States accounted for only two percent of North Koreas total energy and 8 percent of its fuel supply.

The power shortage in North Korea is already severe," noted Kim Kyoung-Sool of the Korea Energy Economics Institute in South Korea. "Factories are operating on a rotational basis and even government officials have held talks by candlelight in a top-class hotel. One or two months of delay might be okay, but a complete suspension of the oil deliveries would be a fatal blow." Due to the shortfall in fertilizer production, agricultural operations operate at only 20 to 30 percent of their previous levels of land fertilization - the most significant factor in diminishing crop yields.

There has been a 70 to 80 percent reduction in the use of tractors and other machinery. A United Nations mission reported in 1998 that "the entire rice crop is being managed this year employing only hand labour or animals, apart from an initial primary tillage operation", and "the entire maize crop is being produced employing only hand labour or draught animals"

The urban population must devote 75 to 85 percent of its earnings for the purchase of food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 13.2 million people in North Korea are now malnourished. This is over half the total population.

One incident confirms the diplomatic opportunism of the US. On December 3, 2002, the World Food Program issued an appeal for $201 million to fund its program in the North for 2003, warning that without additional funding it might be compelled to close down its operation. Sensing opportunity, the Bush Administration responded almost immediately to the appeal by the WFP. On December 6, Washington announced that it would cease donating to the program unless North Korea allowed monitors for the 13 percent of recipients who live in areas where Western monitors are not currently permitted.

According to one aid worker, "The situation in the northeast is worse than the Horn of Africa or Chechnya. I have never seen children suffering so badly from malnutrition. The growth of children has been stunted to such a degree that eleven-year-olds look like six-year-olds. Generations of North Koreans will be mentally retarded."

According to another report in January from the Asia Times:

These days the agencies don't pull their punches. Here's how the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), in its latest appeal issued in December, sums up what's wrong with North Korea:

A lack of locally produced inputs and the resources to purchase them has contributed to nationwide deterioration in the socio-economic infrastructure, including (although not confined to) transportation, energy, health, education, and welfare sectors. This is exacerbated by deforestation, soil erosion and overall land degradation. Poor environmental practices have contributed to heavy water pollution and there are insufficient amounts of potable water. The country is prone to flash floods, landslides, tidal waves, storms and drought."

A government survey published in Seoul in March revealed that last year South Koreans threw away more food than North Koreans ate. Two million tons of vegetables, a million tons of meat and fish, half a million tons of grain, and 200,000 tons of fruita total of 4 million tons, costing $300 million to dispose of. Meanwhile, Northerners had 3.9 million tons to eat in total.

Ambitions to acquire nuclear power by the North Korea regime flow from the deep economic crisis that has gripped their economy since the collapse of the Stalinist Bloc.

It is not clear exactly how many spent fuel rods North Korea possesses at Yongbyon. Reports that they have up to 8000 may be plausible. However, as of yet there is no proof the rods can be used in weapons-grade processing.

South Korean nuclear experts also say that even if North Korea resumes operations at Yongbyon, it would be over a year before waste fuel rods could be extracted. The reactor would have to run at full power 75 percent of the time for four years in order to produce enough plutonium for a single nuclear weapon. Furthermore, once the Yongbyon facility eventually produces a sufficient quantity of plutonium, North Korea may be incapable of converting it to military purposes. That process, pointed out a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Nuclear Energy, requires "large production facilities which the country lacks." Russian nuclear safety analyst Sergei Kazenov reported that "converting peaceful atoms to military use is a special problem" and that "North Korea lacks the necessary components, including the detonating systems and some others.

Even if it turns out North Korea is capable of producing even one nuclear warhead, this is hardly a parallel with the number of warheads controlled by America and other nuclear powers. Nor does it make it a nuclear threat on anywhere near the same level as the US.

Why is America being so aggressive towards North Korea?

This is a really important question. Surely, some might argue, they could look at incorporating North Korea into the global economic system, as they have attempted to do by allowing China to join the World Trade Organisation. After all, what British socialist Alex Callinicos calls free market imperialism is part of their global strategy.

However, the US have shunned such a strategy, claiming that North Korea is completely isolationist. But is this totally true? Again, lets look at the facts.

In February 2002, a European Union team visited North Korea to explore economic cooperation and in April the Dutch arrived with an agenda said to include power facilities exports. In July a 10-member British delegation visited Pyongyang until Saturday to assess business opportunities.

In the other direction, a North Korean mission went to Italy in March 2002 seeking investment in steel and textiles. In June, it was Spain and Belgium to buy machinery. Most recently, in September 2002 North Korea's vice trade minister Kim Yong-Jae and 14 colleagues spent a week in the Bayern (Bavaria) region of Germany, with a wide agenda. No fewer than 57 companies, including such big names as Siemens, Alstom and Corning, attended a seminar promoting trade and investment in a wide range of sectors: railways, aviation, energy, telecoms, and textiles. This followed a visit to Pyongyang in May 2002 by a 30-strong Bavarian government team, led by a state minister, which agreed to set up the seminar and form a joint economic committee.

While the North Korean economy is still modeled on the old command economy of the USSR, making it at odds with the vast bulk of countries incorporated into the fold of globalisation, it would seem that, like other surviving Stalinist regimes such as Castros Cuba or to a much greater extent China, the North Korean government is willing to explore greater integration into the world market. It is the aggressive foreign policy stance of the US that is blocking such attempts.

To understand why the US seems uninterested in economic integration and focused solely on ousting the North Korea regime, we need to understand the nature of imperialism. Imperialism takes two inter-connected forms: economic and military. Part of the economic wing of imperialismmore usually referred to as globalisationinvolves imposition of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

But part of it also involves economic rivalry spilling over into geo-politica rivalry between nation states. The East Asian region has enormous geo-political significance for the US because it is also bordered by two potential military rivals in Russia & China.

The leading American analyst of international relations John Mearsheimer wrote recently:

Another way of illustrating how powerful China might become if its economy continues growing rapidly is to compare it with the United States. The GNP of the United States is $7.9 trillion. If China's per capita GNP equals [South] Korea's, China's overall GNP would be almost $10.66 trillion, which is about 1.35 times the size of America's GNP. If China's per capita GNP is half of Japan's, China's overall GNP would then be roughly 2.5 times bigger than America's. For purposes of comparison, the Soviet Union was roughly one half as wealthy as the United States during most of the Cold War... China, in short, has the potential to be considerably more powerful than even the United States.15

On the basis of this projection, Mearsheimer goes on to construct a grim scenario for north east Asia and indeed the world:

Not only would China be much wealthier than any of its Asian rivals...but its huge population advantage would allow it to build a far more powerful army than either Japan or Russia could. China would also have the resources to acquire an impressive nuclear arsenal. North east Asia...would be a far more dangerous place than it is now. China, like all previous potential hegemons, would be strongly inclined to become a real hegemon, and all its rivals, including the United States, would encircle China to try to keep it from expanding.

This assessment was strikingly expressed by deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz in an essay he wrote under the Clinton administration. There he compared the post-1989 triumphalism about the victory of liberal capitalism and the 'end of history' to the view widely held at the end of the 19th century that economic growth and international integration had made war obsolete:

The end of this century resembles the end of the last in another important way, one that puts a question mark over the great hopes for continued peace and prosperity as we enter the 21st century. Alongside the remarkable and peaceful progress that was taking place at the end of the last century, the world was grappling with--or, more accurately, failing to manage--the emergence of major new powers. Not only was Japan newly powerful in Asia, but Germany, which had not even existed before the end of the 19th century, was becoming a dominant force in Europe.

Today the same spectacular economic growth that is reducing poverty, expanding trade and creating new middle classes is also creating new economic powers, and possibly new military ones as well. This is particularly true in Asia... The emergence of China by itself would present sizable problems; the emergence of China along with a number of other Asian powers presents an extremely complicated equation. In the case of China, there is the obvious element of its outsider status. To hark back to the last turning of a century, the obvious and disturbing analogy is [with] the position of Germany, a country that felt it had been denied its 'place in the sun', that believed it had been mistreated by the other powers, and that was determined to achieve its rightful place by nationalistic assertiveness.

The fact that such a key strategic thinker in the US administration can make an explicit link to the inter-imperial stalemate that led directly to the First World War tells us something about where our world is going if US imperialism is left unchallenged. Part of this grand strategy is the imperialist encirclement of China. This is one of the highest long term priorities of the current US administration.

As part of this ambitious and dangerous plan, the stability of the East Asian region is critical. Hence the importance of the US having friendly regimes on the Korean peninsula. And the current North Korean regime appears to be a barrier to this strategy, just as Saddam Hussein was.


Some have argued that the tensions with North Korea are really about power politics. During his visit to Australia in July, US deputy secretary of state, John Bolton dismissed North Korean statements that it would view any interdiction of its shipping as an act of war as bluster.

According to Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (who were also the architects of Australias imperialist intervention in the Solomon Islands) (aspi.org.au) we need to recognise that North Korea is not the next target for unilateral pre-emption in George Bush's war on terror, and the "proliferation security initiative" is not a pretext or a provocation for war. It is much more an old-fashioned diplomatic ploy in a traditional game of power-politics.

Such positions are quite wrong. The first open indication that military force was contemplated occurred on December 23, 2002, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared in answer to a question about North Korea, "We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts. Were capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly in the case of the other. And let there be no doubt about it."

This might seem a foolish statement given Americas current problems in Iraq. However, they are a portent for the future if the global anti-war movement is unable to combine with Iraqi resistance in forcing a speedy withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

To understand what is at stake, let us think for a moment what war on the Korean peninsula would mean. Let us go back to the Korean War. In the first year of the war, on November 5, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the destruction of "every means of communication, every installation, factory, city and village" in an area stretching from the Yalu River to the battle line. The first city to be levelled was Sinuiju, and U.S. warplanes soon began to employ napalm during bombing raids against civilian targets. Over 2,300 gallons of napalm were dropped on Pyongyang in one raid alone, in July 1952. Mass fire bombings systematically wiped out one town after another and U.S. planes also targeted power stations and irrigation dams that supported rice fields. As irrigation dams were destroyed, villages downstream were swept away in the resulting floods, inflicting enormous death and destruction. At various times during the war, the U.S. even considered using tactical nuclear weapons.

4 million Koreans died as a result of this war. In 1994, William Perry and Ashton Carter said that the price of war would be heavy in Korea. Today, with the US prepared to use its nuclear arsenal against those that stand in its way, the prospect of war in East Asia is truly terrifying.

The response of the peace movement has to be to principally oppose US imperialist aggression in the region, and against North Korea in particular, just as we did against the US invasion of Iraq. In the longer term, the movement has no choice but to begin to confront the global capitalist system that is creating this incessant drive to war and suffering.

Main sources:
Alex Callinicos, The Grand Strategy of the US Empire
Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University, England. (Asia Times)
The Nuclear Frame-Up of North Korea by Gregory Elich, www.globalresearch.ca (July 2003)
J J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, 2001)
P Wolfowitz, 'Bridging Centuries: Fin de Siècle All Over Again', The National Interest 47 (1997) (online edition)

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