Trump Is Bringing Us to the Brink of War with North Korea—Where Is the Anti-War Movement?

The only way forward on North Korea is peace. But first we need dialogue.

Christine Ahn October 3, 2017

President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand in the Oval Office of the White House October 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Ten­sions have been run­ning high between the Unit­ed States and North Korea since Don­ald Trump entered the White House. But the two coun­tries haven’t been this close to war since 1994, when the admin­is­tra­tion of Bill Clin­ton weighed a first strike on North Korea.

Pyongyang won’t even consider abandoning their nuclear weapons program as long as they are being threatened with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” as President Trump has forewarned.

The spark that con­fla­grat­ed the already incen­di­ary rela­tions between Wash­ing­ton and Pyongyang was Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s U.N. speech on Sep­tem­ber 19, when he called the North Kore­an leader Kim Jong-Un Rock­et Man” and threat­ened to total­ly destroy North Korea,” a sov­er­eign nation of more than 25 mil­lion peo­ple. In a revival of Har­ry S. Truman’s McCarthy­ism and George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil,” Trump cast North Korea, Iran and Venezuela as rogue regimes that Wash­ing­ton is pre­pared to con­front. He not­ed that Con­gress just hand­ed him $700 bil­lion, mak­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary the strongest it has ever been.”

Over the week­end, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said that the Unit­ed States has a few open chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with North Korea, mak­ing a nod towards poten­tial diplo­ma­cy. But Trump quick­ly under­mined his own Sec­re­tary of State when he tweet­ed that Tiller­son was wast­ing his time try­ing to nego­ti­ate with Lit­tle Rock­et Man.” The USS George Wash­ing­ton, a nuclear air­craft car­ri­er, is now bar­rel­ing towards North Korea, and strate­gic assets have been moved from U.S. bases in Guam and Oki­nawa to South Korea.

As the sit­u­a­tion spi­rals rapid­ly out of con­trol, three impor­tant points need remind­ing. First, Trump is mak­ing the moral cal­cu­lus that by engag­ing in dan­ger­ous brinks­man­ship, he is will­ing to endan­ger mil­lions of inno­cent lives in North Korea, South Korea and Japan — and pos­si­bly in Guam, Hawaii and the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States. Sec­ond, diplo­ma­cy with North Korea has suc­ceed­ed in the past, but it requires actu­al­ly engag­ing with North Korea, not fur­ther iso­lat­ing it by impos­ing more sanc­tions and forc­ing oth­er nations to cut ties. Third, Amer­i­cans must real­ize that we are mired in this con­flict because of the large-scale U.S. destruc­tion of North Korea dur­ing the 1950 – 53 Kore­an War. 

From war of words to poten­tial mil­i­tary conflict

In the sev­en-decade his­to­ry of the Unit­ed Nations, nev­er has a head of a mem­ber state threat­ened the total anni­hi­la­tion of anoth­er mem­ber state. If Char­lottesville was a moment when neo-Nazis took off their hoods, then Trump’s U.N. speech exposed the U.S. Empire’s unabashed dri­ve to aggres­sive­ly dom­i­nate those coun­tries it opposes.

When Trump threat­ened geno­cide on North Kore­ans, he failed to men­tion that the cri­sis we are in today stems from the fact that the Unit­ed States unleashed stag­ger­ing destruc­tion on North Korea dur­ing the Kore­an War. Some­times referred to as the For­got­ten War,” the U.S. onslaught killed mil­lions of Kore­ans in just three years. 

Kim Jong-Un fired back that Trump’s threats have con­vinced me, rather than fright­en­ing or stop­ping me, that the path I chose is cor­rect and that it is the one I have to fol­low to the last.” Trump tweet­ed in response, call­ing Kim Jong-Un a mad­man who does­n’t mind starv­ing or killing his peo­ple” and claim­ing the North Kore­an head of state will be test­ed like nev­er before.”

Trump quick­ly moved to turn his threats into a dis­play of mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. Dur­ing the night of Sep­tem­ber 23, the U.S. Air Force flew B‑1 Lancer bombers north of the Mil­i­tary Demar­ca­tion Line, tech­ni­cal­ly into North Kore­an ter­ri­to­ry, the far­thest north U.S. fight­er planes have flown in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Some spec­u­lat­ed that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion act­ed uni­lat­er­al­ly, when in fact Moon autho­rized the flight.

In response, a coali­tion of major peace orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing tens of thou­sands of South Kore­ans — includ­ing People’s Sol­i­dar­i­ty for People’s Democ­ra­cy, Young Women’s Chris­t­ian Asso­ci­a­tion and Women Mak­ing Peace — issued a state­ment on Sep­tem­ber 25 protest­ing the mil­i­tary action. The Moon Jae-in gov­ern­ment should have reject­ed such mil­i­tary protest,” the state­ment read. Jeong-ae Ahn-Kim of Women Mak­ing Peace told In These Times that mas­sive protests have been tak­ing place out­side of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul and will continue.

On Sep­tem­ber 25, as North Kore­an For­eign Min­is­ter Ri Yong-ho depart­ed New York, he announced that the Unit­ed States has declared war on our coun­try” and that North Korea has the right to defend itself, includ­ing the right to shoot down Unit­ed States strate­gic bombers even when they are not inside the air­space bor­der of our country.”

Play­ing with fire

Although a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion between the Unit­ed States and North Korea would be unimag­in­able, many are begin­ning to pre­dict how it will unfold. In a ter­ri­fy­ing arti­cle in The Los Ange­les Times, Bar­bara Demick looks at how a U.S. war with North Korea would be fought. Demick begins her fear­mon­ger­ing piece with, This is the way a nuclear war begins.” She quotes Rob Givens, a retired Air Force brigadier gen­er­al who was sta­tioned in South Korea, as say­ing: There is only one way that this war ends. With North Korea’s defeat — but at what cost?”

That is the moral quandary the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is — we can only hope — seri­ous­ly weigh­ing as it con­sid­ers mil­i­tary action against North Korea. When Mr. Trump threat­ens to anni­hi­late 25 mil­lion peo­ple in North Korea, he is endan­ger­ing 51 mil­lion South Kore­ans,” said Jeong-ae Ahn-Kim, of Women Mak­ing Peace in South Korea, in an email sent to In These Times. Mil­lions of South Kore­ans have fam­i­ly in the North. When he threat­ens them, he threat­ens us.”

Even top Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials acknowl­edge that U.S. mil­i­tary action would be cat­a­stroph­ic. It will involve the mas­sive shelling of an ally’s cap­i­tal, which is one of the most dense­ly packed cities on earth,” U.S. Sec­re­tary of Defense James Mat­tis warned Con­gress in June 2017 when asked why Wash­ing­ton would­n’t just go to war with North Korea to pre­vent it from acquir­ing the capa­bil­i­ty to strike the Unit­ed States. It will be a war more seri­ous in terms of human suf­fer­ing than any­thing we’ve seen since 1953.”

There’s no mil­i­tary solu­tion, for­get it,” Steve Ban­non told Robert Kut­tner of The Amer­i­can Prospect on his way out of the White House last August. Until some­body solves the part of the equa­tion that shows me that ten mil­lion peo­ple in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 min­utes from con­ven­tion­al weapons, I don’t know what you’re talk­ing about, there’s no mil­i­tary solu­tion here, they got us.”

Yet, admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials ulti­mate­ly are not pre­vent­ing Trump’s dan­ger­ous esca­la­tion. The day before Trump’s U.N. Speech, when asked if there were any mil­i­tary options that would not endan­ger Seoul, Sec­re­tary of Defense Mat­tis said, Yes there are. But I will not go into details.”

In recent weeks, there has been a deci­sive shift by Wash­ing­ton towards mil­i­tary action. Many were hope­ful that an off-ramp emerged as a pos­si­bil­i­ty dur­ing the August U.S.-South Kore­an Ulchi Free­dom Guardian” war drills, when the Unit­ed States reduced the num­ber of U.S. troops by 7,500 — a size­able cut from 25,000.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, accord­ing to vet­er­an jour­nal­ist Tim Shorrock, the key ele­ments of the exer­cis­es, includ­ing train­ing in decap­i­ta­tion strikes’ on the North Kore­an lead­er­ship, remained.” This led to a counter-reac­tion from Pyongyang in the form of two mis­sile tests, includ­ing over the Japan­ese island of Hokkai­do. On Sep­tem­ber 2, North Korea con­duct­ed its sixth nuclear test. It was then that McMas­ter start­ed speak­ing open­ly of a pre­ven­tive war,’” Shorrock explains, aimed at stop­ping North Korea from threat­en­ing the Unit­ed States with a nuclear weapon.”’

Threat of region­al escalation

Many ana­lysts believe the esca­la­tion is fueled, in part, by Japan, whose neo­con­ser­v­a­tive Prime Min­is­ter Shin­zo Abe has become Trump’s clos­est for­eign ally. In fact, the U.S. gov­ern­ment appears to be sidelin­ing South Korea, which is now head­ed by the lib­er­al Moon Jae-in, who insists that a con­flict on the Kore­an penin­su­la would not hap­pen under his watch.

Abe was Trump’s first for­eign dig­ni­tary invit­ed to his Mar-o-Lago resort, and it was dur­ing this vis­it that North Korea fired a mis­sile as a mes­sage to both Wash­ing­ton and Tokyo. As Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go his­to­ri­an Bruce Cum­ings said in March, basi­cal­ly, 70 or 80 years of his­to­ry is rep­re­sent­ed by that par­tic­u­lar mis­sile test.“ Abe’s grand­fa­ther was Kishi Nobusuke, a Class‑A war crim­i­nal from World War II who hunt­ed down, impris­oned and tor­tured Kore­an guer­ril­las fight­ing for Kore­an inde­pen­dence from Japan­ese colo­nial­ism. Among them was Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea and grand­fa­ther to Kim Jong-Un.

Pres­i­dent Moon came into office promis­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between the two Kore­as, not quite in align­ment with Trump’s strat­e­gy to choke off Pyongyang. This approach reflects pub­lic opin­ion: In sur­vey after sur­vey, eight out of ten South Kore­ans express a desire for peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with their neigh­bors in the north.

Yet, in real­i­ty, Moon has large­ly gone along with the Trump administration’s aggres­sion towards North Korea and Chi­na. He installed the U.S. THAAD mis­sile defense sys­tem in Seongju, despite ear­li­er promis­es to con­duct a year-long envi­ron­men­tal impact review.

At the same time, Moon has defied calls for com­plete iso­la­tion of North Korea by com­mit­ting $8 mil­lion to the U.N. for human­i­tar­i­an aid to North Korea. Moon has also vowed to review his impeached predecessor’s bilat­er­al agree­ment with Abe for­giv­ing Japan’s wartime sex­u­al slav­ery of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Kore­an, Chi­nese, Fil­ipino and oth­er women and girls. 

Yet, the Unit­ed States, South Korea and Japan are all on the same page when it comes to prof­it­ing from the ongo­ing Kore­an con­flict. On Sep­tem­ber 5, Don­ald Trump tweet­ed, I am allow­ing Japan and South Korea to buy a sub­stan­tial­ly increased amount of high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed mil­i­tary equip­ment from the Unit­ed States.” Mark Lip­pert, the for­mer U.S. Ambas­sador to South Korea, now heads gov­ern­ment rela­tions for Boe­ing, to ensure a steady stream of fight­er jets to Seoul.

Just as the Unit­ed States needs the ongo­ing Kore­an con­flict to sell more weapons, Japan is using the North Kore­an con­flict to jus­ti­fy elim­i­nat­ing its Peace Con­sti­tu­tion, includ­ing Arti­cle 9. Accord­ing to Kozue Akibayashi, Pro­fes­sor at Doshisha Uni­ver­si­ty in Kyoto, Japan, Abe is using the North Kore­an nuclear threat to jus­ti­fy more mil­i­ta­riza­tion, such as revok­ing Arti­cle 9, which threat­ens the secu­ri­ty of the entire region.”

Reviv­ing the U.S. Anti-War Movement 

The time is now for mass mobi­liza­tion and oppo­si­tion to Trump’s dri­ve for pre­emp­tive war on North Korea. Accord­ing to a poll con­duct­ed in Sep­tem­ber by The Wash­ing­ton Post and ABC News, two thirds of Amer­i­cans oppose a pre­emp­tive mil­i­tary strike against North Korea. Now, it’s the peace movement’s role to ensure that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is held to account and pur­sues gen­uine diplo­mat­ic engage­ment to resolve the standoff.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion will hope­ful­ly arrive at this con­clu­sion and agree to nego­ti­ate a non-aggres­sion pact that would reduce the threat of a North Kore­an counter-attack — and could freeze their nuclear and mis­sile weapons devel­op­ment. But first it must agree to talk with North Korea unconditionally.

The good news is that there is a viable pro­pos­al now to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and mis­sile pro­gram in exchange for a halt to the U.S.-South Kore­an mil­i­tary exer­cis­es. It was first intro­duced by Pyongyang and is now backed by Chi­na and Rus­sia. Accord­ing to Kye Chun-yong, the North Kore­an ambas­sador to India, We are will­ing to talk in terms of freez­ing nuclear test­ing or mis­sile test­ing … if the Amer­i­can side com­plete­ly stops big, large-scale mil­i­tary exer­cis­es tem­porar­i­ly or per­ma­nent­ly, then we will also tem­porar­i­ly stop. Let’s talk about how to solve the Kore­an issue peacefully.”

Even Pres­i­dent Moon’s senior advi­sor Moon Chung-in has pro­posed that South Korea con­sid­er scal­ing back the exer­cis­es to elim­i­nate the most threat­en­ing aspects. Many U.S. experts say such a move would be fair and do lit­tle — or noth­ing at all — to weak­en the U.S.-South Kore­an deter­rence capability.

A grow­ing num­ber of for­mer U.S. offi­cials sup­port the dual freeze pro­pos­al, includ­ing for­mer State depart­ment offi­cial John Mer­rill, who told PBS, A freeze-for-freeze option is the only remain­ing viable option to defuse the cur­rent cri­sis. It is action­able and car­ries rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle risk. If suc­cess­ful, the pay­off could be peace.”

There is a prece­dent for halt­ing U.S.-South Kore­an war exer­cis­es. In 1992, George Bush senior sus­pend­ed the Team Spir­it exer­cis­es, which led to North Korea allow­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency to inspect its main nuclear facil­i­ty, which in turn led to the dis­cov­ery that the North had a secret nuclear pro­gram. The war drills were re-start­ed in 1993, then planned but not exe­cut­ed dur­ing the 1994 nego­ti­a­tions that cul­mi­nat­ed in the Agreed Frame­work that froze North Korea’s nuclear pro­gram for more than eight years. Accord­ing to for­mer Sec­re­tary of Defense William Per­ry, North Korea could have pro­duced enough plu­to­ni­um to build fifty nuclear bombs a year.

Anoth­er action­able step the anti-war move­ment can take is to urge Con­gress to reign in Trump by lim­it­ing his abil­i­ty to autho­rize a first strike on North Korea with­out Con­gres­sion­al approval. Like the Markey-Lieu bill restrict­ing first use of nuclear weapons, this bill would pre­vent Trump from ini­ti­at­ing mil­i­tary action with­out Con­gres­sion­al authorization.

Time is not on the Trump administration’s side. Every time North Korea con­ducts a mis­sile or nuclear test, it is per­fect­ing its abil­i­ty to strike the U.S main­land as a deter­rent against a mil­i­tary inva­sion. Like Oba­ma acknowl­edged with Iran, Trump must real­ize that it is bet­ter to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and mis­sile pro­gram before it can reach Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive John Cony­ers, one of two sur­viv­ing Kore­an War vet­er­ans still in Con­gress, is spear­head­ing leg­is­la­tion to restrict Trump’s abil­i­ty to launch a first strike.

Final­ly, the U.S. peace move­ment must push for a final set­tle­ment of the unre­solved Kore­an War with a Peace Treaty. We are in this cri­sis today because a frag­ile cease­fire has been in place for 64 years. North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, and giv­en what hap­pened to Iraq, which did­n’t pos­sess weapons of mass destruc­tion, North Korea is not about to become vic­tim to anoth­er U.S. mil­i­tary régime-change inva­sion. Fur­ther­more, Trump’s threats to abro­gate the Iran deal aren’t help­ing per­suade the North Kore­an régime to de-nuclearize.

Pyongyang won’t even con­sid­er aban­don­ing their nuclear weapons pro­gram as long as they are being threat­ened with fire and fury like the world has nev­er seen,” as Pres­i­dent Trump has fore­warned. Peace and diplo­ma­cy is the only way for­ward, and the first step is dia­logue — unconditionally. 

Chris­tine Ahn is a pol­i­cy ana­lyst with exper­tise in Korea, glob­al­iza­tion, mil­i­tarism, women’s rights and phil­an­thropy. She is co-founder of the Korea Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (KPI), Korea Peace Net­work, and Kore­an Amer­i­cans for Fair Trade. She is the glob­al coor­di­na­tor for Women Cross DMZ.
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