Why the U.S. Is a Bigger Threat Than North Korea

Decades of military adventurism have done more to destabilize the world than any of the “rogue states” the U.S. targets.

Vijay Prashad, Alternet

Kim Jong-Un may be a dictator—but much of the blame for the region's unrest lies with a history of U.S. violence. (KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

This piece first appeared at Alternet.

The idea that the Bad is always bad and that the Good is always good resurfaces with predictable regularity.

A few years ago, I asked a retired Iraqi Air Force offi­cer what it felt like to be bombed peri­od­i­cal­ly by the Unit­ed States in the 1990s. When­ev­er U.S. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton felt irri­tat­ed, I joked, he seemed to bomb Iraq. The offi­cer, a dis­tin­guished man with a long career serv­ing a mil­i­tary whose polit­i­cal lead­er­ship he despised, smiled. He said with great light­ness — When our lead­er­ship said some­thing threat­en­ing those words itself were tak­en to be ter­ror­ism; when the Unit­ed States bombs, the world does not even blush.”

To me this is an intu­itive statement.

I was think­ing about it as I watched the parade in Pyongyang (North Korea) to cel­e­brate the birth of Kim Il-sung. The imagery from North Kore­an tele­vi­sion was grand — the vast Kim Il-sung Square packed with sol­diers as the mas­sive arse­nal of North Korea was parad­ed past its lead­er­ship. On Twit­ter, ama­teur arms experts gave a run-down of this under­sea mis­sile and that trans-con­ti­nen­tal one. It was breath­tak­ing to watch the per­for­mance and feel the anx­i­ety in the West­ern media that North Kore­an would launch an attack on some­one, some­where. North Korea watch­ers poured over the sights, build­ing fan­ci­ful the­o­ries based on what was being pre­sent­ed. Bel­liger­ence, it seemed, was on dis­play here.

It is always the rogue state” that is the threat to the world order — Iraq here, North Korea there. And in that rogue state” it is always the dic­ta­tor who com­mands the entire mon­stros­i­ty. Mock­ery is the guise with Kim Jong-Un as it was with Sad­dam Hus­sein. These men have no taste: Sad­dam with his gar­ish dis­co mus­tache and anachro­nis­tic mil­i­tary uni­form and Kim with his New Wave hair­cut and his strange­ly out of pro­por­tion laugh­ter. Threats are made to emanate from them — they itch to attack and are only held back by the demo­c­ra­t­ic role of the Unit­ed States, who sanc­tions the coun­tries till they starve or patrols their waters with mas­sive war ships to intim­i­date them into sur­ren­der. But the Unit­ed States is not a threat. It is mere­ly there to ensure that the real threats — Iraq then, North Korea now — are kept in check.

The author, in oth­er words, is always the East­ern Despot.

Amne­sia is the mode of thought in the Unit­ed States. Clue­less­ness about its bel­liger­ent his­to­ry is now gen­er­al. It would sound strange to ask why the North Kore­ans feel such pal­pa­ble threat from the Unit­ed States. Odd to raise the fact that it was the Unit­ed States that bru­tal­ly bombed North Korea in the 1950s, tar­get­ing its towns and cities as well as farms and dams. The data is inescapable. The Unit­ed States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea. This includes 32,557 tons of napalm — essen­tial­ly a chem­i­cal weapon. As a com­par­i­son, it is fit­ting to see that in all of the Pacif­ic sec­tor of World War II, the Unit­ed States dropped a mere 503,000 tons of bombs. The Unit­ed States, in oth­er words, dropped more bombs on North Korea dur­ing the ill-named lim­it­ed war” than it dropped dur­ing the entire engage­ment against Japan dur­ing World War II. Three mil­lion Kore­ans died in that war, the major­i­ty in the North.

North Korea has nev­er attacked the Unit­ed States.

Pro­fes­sor Charles Arm­strong of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, one of the lead­ing experts on the Kore­an War and on North Korea, writes that the U.S. bomb­ing cam­paign against North Korea more than any oth­er sin­gle fac­tor, gave North Kore­ans a col­lec­tive sense of anx­i­ety and fear of out­side threats, that would con­tin­ue long after the war’s end.” In fact, this anx­i­ety and fear lasts into the present. It is easy to dis­miss the North Kore­an atti­tude as one of brain­wash­ing by the gov­ern­ment. But if one looks seri­ous­ly at the con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry of the North and the dev­as­ta­tion caused by the U.S. bomb­ing of the 1950s, then one would ask not of the brain­wash­ing inside North Korea but of the brain­wash­ing inside the Unit­ed States.

Imag­ine what it must have been like in North Korea to hear that anoth­er U.S. bat­tle group — the USS Carl Vin­son and its allied ships – was mov­ing to ren­dezvous in the Sea of Japan with Japan­ese naval ves­sels? It must have been chill­ing to hear U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump say­ing that Kim Jong-un got­ta behave,” the full mean­ing of the ver­nac­u­lar only avail­able in the audio where Trump’s spe­cial men­ace is reserved for the word got­ta.” If they don’t behave, he sug­gests with the snarl, then the cruise mis­siles on the USS Carl Vin­son and the MOAB bombs are ready.

Lit­tle won­der that North Korea’s Vice-For­eign Min­is­ter Han Song-ryol told the BBC that if the U.S. vio­lat­ed North Kore­an sov­er­eign­ty, then all-out war” would result. More chill­ing­ly, he said, If the U.S. is plan­ning a mil­i­tary attack against us, we will react with a nuclear pre-emp­tive strike by our own style and method.” These state­ments — in light of North Korea’s his­to­ry — sound less like threats of war and more like threats of preser­va­tion. The North Kore­ans are not fool­ish. They look towards North Africa and see Libya, which had giv­en up its nuclear pro­gram to its per­il. It is the nuclear shield that pro­tects them and it is one that they will hold up to the light as often as pos­si­ble. In any actu­al mil­i­tary exchange, North Korea would be pul­ver­ized. This they know. But they also know that this is their only armor.

The idea that the Bad is always bad and that the Good is always good resur­faces with pre­dictable reg­u­lar­i­ty. The rogue states” are always bad. That is self-evi­dent. When they kill their own peo­ple,” then it is worse. That has been the stan­dard with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. What makes him worse, say the pun­dits in the U.S. media and polit­i­cal class, is that he kills his own peo­ple.” The chem­i­cal attack south of Idlib is the lat­est exam­ple of his men­dac­i­ty. Inves­ti­ga­tions are irrel­e­vant. It was evi­dent to the media and to the polit­i­cal class in the West that only Assad could have autho­rized such an attack. This was a sce­nario that did not need expla­na­tions. A chain of asso­ci­a­tions was enough: chem­i­cal attack, chil­dren and Assad. No more detail was necessary.

It was more com­plex when the rebels” bombed a con­voy leav­ing the besieged towns of al-Foua and Kfraya, out­side Alep­po, killing at least 126 peo­ple — includ­ing about 80 chil­dren. It was not Assad who did this attack, but the rebels” which makes out­rage sud­den­ly unavail­able. There was no out­rage, indeed, when U.S. air­craft killed 30 civil­ians on Mon­day in a bomb­ing run on the vil­lage of al-Buka­mal near Deir az-Zor in east­ern Syr­ia. Three homes were flat­tened by the U.S. air­craft and civil­ians — includ­ing chil­dren — from six fam­i­lies were killed. There was no hue and cry, no denun­ci­a­tions in the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, no hash­tag, no media cam­paign for the Unit­ed States to take action against the per­pe­tra­tors. Ivan­ka Trump did not rush to her father with pic­tures of the dead chil­dren, awak­en­ing in him a con­science few knew exist­ed. In at least one of the cas­es, the Unit­ed States was the one that did the killing. Silence met these tragedies.

I have been trav­el­ing around the Unit­ed States these past few weeks, talk­ing about my book—The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Rev­o­lu­tion. At each event, some­one asks the hon­est and heart­felt ques­tion, What can we do about Syr­ia?” What this ques­tion implies, it seems to me, is that the Unit­ed States is not doing any­thing about Syr­ia and that the Unit­ed States is capa­ble of act­ing in a help­ful way in these con­flicts. There is no sense in this ques­tion that the Unit­ed States is already an actor here, and is often the author of these tragedies with threats from Wash­ing­ton pro­duc­ing anx­i­ety from North Korea to Iran. There is lit­tle sense here that it is the Unit­ed States that has been sell­ing — to great prof­it — arms to all sides of these con­flicts, inflam­ing ani­mosi­ties with greater weapon­ry. There is even less con­cern here that the Unit­ed States has bombed Syr­ia almost eight thou­sand times, with numer­ous of civil­ian casu­al­ties in its ledger. Inno­cence is the mode of self-regard. To change that atti­tude is per­haps the great­est step for­ward towards world peace. A lit­tle more out­rage at U.S. actions, not U.S. inac­tiv­i­ty, might help push an anti-war move­ment forward.

The Iraqi offi­cers state­ment should say a lot to an Amer­i­can nation­al. Or at least it begs the ques­tion of who is the real threat and why its bel­liger­ent actions are not con­sid­ered to be the most dan­ger­ous prob­lem fac­ing the plan­et. It is easy to see them” as the prob­lem — the rogue states” that are almost seen to be genet­i­cal­ly pre­dis­posed to be errat­ic and dan­ger­ous. Far more dif­fi­cult to accept that the his­to­ry of U.S. vio­lence against North Korea or the mal­ice unfold­ing in West Asia is not the source of the great dev­as­ta­tion that tears across the planet. 

Vijay Prashad is pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al stud­ies at Trin­i­ty Col­lege in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut. He is the author of 18 books, includ­ing Arab Spring, Libyan Win­ter (AK Press, 2012), The Poor­er Nations: A Pos­si­ble His­to­ry of the Glob­al South (Ver­so, 2013) and the forth­com­ing The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Rev­o­lu­tion (Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2016). His columns appear at Alter­Net every Wednesday.
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