Cut through the propaganda about North Korea

Summary: North Korea’s latest missile test has Washington in a frenzy. Let’s review the facts, debunk the myths, and look at an alternative to sabre-rattling our way to a nuclear war.

North Korea missile launch - Sky News
North Korea missile launch Photo by Sky News.

(1)  “Pyongyang Fires a Second Missile Over Japan

Excerpt from Stratfor, 15 September 2017.

North  Korea shows no signs of stopping or even slowing down its attempts to achieve an effective nuclear deterrent. And neither will it cease test-firing projectiles on a ballistic trajectory over Japan. In late August, Pyongyang penetrated Japanese airspace for the first time in some years, a move that sparked international condemnation. With its follow-up test early on Sept. 15, North Korea launched another ballistic missile over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. The projectile travelled the equivalent distance from Los Angeles to Washington DC before dropping into the northern Pacific Ocean. The launch site — near Pyongyang International Airport in the city’s Sunan district — was the same as the Aug. 29 test.

Sending the missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido also echoes the previous test launch. Given its small geographic size and position, North Korea has few options for test-firing missiles along a full trajectory. Overflying Japan is one of the least provocative options available to Pyongyang, and Hokkaido was likely chosen because of its sparse population and low risk of accidental collateral damage.

In the interim period since the last test, North Korea carried out a controlled nuclear detonation, most likely of a hydrogen bomb. This is another step forward along the parallel track of developing a viable nuclear deterrent. In the wake of that nuclear test — and tougher sanctions from the United Nations — North Korea issued further threats directed against the United States and Japan. …

More prominently, the range enables Pyongyang to effectively reach Guam, and the strategic U.S. facilities there. …

North Korea: Pyongyang Fires a Second Missile Over Japan
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

Editor’s note: Journalists often say that NK missiles have violated Japan’s airspace (Stratfor carefully does not say this). There is little agreement about the maximum height of national airspace; numbers range from 30 to 80 kilometers. NK’s missiles fly at heights well over the high end of that range. This week’s missile reached maximum height of 770 kilometers (478 miles).


(2)  The rest of the story: why they fear us.

To learn why they hate and fear us, read “A Murderous History of Korea” by Bruce Cumings in the London Review of Books, 18 May 2017. Bruce Cumings is a professor of history at the U Chicago and the author of The Korean War: A History. See this excerpt…

“{A}s of this September, the DPRK will have been in existence for as long as the Soviet Union. But it is less a communist country than a garrison state, unlike any the world has seen. Drawn from a population of just 25 million, the North Korean army is the fourth largest in the world, with 1.3 million soldiers – just behind the third largest army, with 1.4 million soldiers, which happens to be the American one. Most of the adult Korean population, men and women, have spent many years in this army: its reserves are limited only by the size of the population. …

“US involvement in Korea began towards the end of the Second World War …They began to consider a full military occupation that would assure America had the strongest voice in postwar Korean affairs. It might be a short occupation or, as a briefing paper put it, it might be one of ‘considerable duration’; the main point was that no other power should have a role in Korea …Several of the planners were Japanophiles who had never challenged Japan’s colonial claims in Korea and now hoped to reconstruct a peaceable and amenable postwar Japan. They worried that a Soviet occupation of Korea would thwart that goal …Following this logic, on the day after Nagasaki was obliterated, John J. McCloy of the War Department asked Dean Rusk and a colleague to go into a spare office and think about how to divide Korea. They chose the 38th parallel, and three weeks later 25,000 American combat troops entered southern Korea to establish a military government. …

“For 25 years now the world has been treated to scaremongering about North Korean nuclear weapons, but hardly anyone points out that it was the US that introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, in 1958; hundreds were kept there until a worldwide pullback of tactical nukes occurred under George H.W. Bush. But every US administration since 1991 has challenged North Korea with frequent flights of nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace …

“North Korea now has more sophisticated mobile medium-range missiles that use solid fuel, making them hard to locate and easy to fire. …It isn’t clear that North Korea can actually fit a nuclear warhead to any of its missiles – but if it happened, and if it was fired in anger, the country would immediately be turned into what Colin Powell memorably called ‘a charcoal briquette’. But then, as General Powell well knew, we had already turned North Korea into a charcoal briquette. The filmmaker Chris Marker visited the country in 1957, four years after US carpet-bombing ended, and wrote: ‘Extermination passed over this land. …”

The Korean War: A History
Available at Amazon.

Professor Cumings describes the Korean War’s carnage in “Violet Ashes: A Tribute to Chris Marker” from Positions (a Duke University journal), November 2015 — Gated; open copy here.

“{A}n ostensibly minor “police action” turns into a vicious three-year air campaign, with a fundamental lack of proportion to anything that Koreans could do to us, and to any real American gain in this war. The air assaults ranged from the widespread and continuous use of firebombing (including oceans of napalm), to threats to use nuclear and chemical weapons, and finally, to the destruction of huge North Korean dams in the last stages of the war. It was an application and elaboration of the air campaigns against Japan and Germany, except that North Korea was a small third world country …

“After his release from North Korean custody, the highest-ranking American prisoner of war, General William F. Dean, wrote that ‘the town of Huichon amazed me. The city I’d seen before — two-storied buildings, a prominent main street — wasn’t there any more.’ He encountered the ‘unoccupied shells’ of town after town, and villages where rubble or ‘snowy open spaces’ were all that remained. A British reporter found communities where nothing was left but ‘a low, wide mound of violet ashes.’ Tibor Meray, a Hungarian correspondent, arrived in August 1951 and witnessed ‘a complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital,’ Pyongyang. There were simply ‘no more cities in North Korea’ …

“In the end, the scale of urban destruction quite exceeded that in Germany and Japan …. Friedrich estimated that the …total tonnage dropped by Great Britain and the United States reaching 1.2 million tons. The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea (not counting 32,557 tons of napalm), compared to 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. Whereas sixty Japanese cities were destroyed to an average of 43%, estimates of the destruction of towns and cities in North Korea “ranged from 40 to 90%”; at least 50% of eighteen out of the North’s twenty-two major cities were obliterated.”

Atomic bomb explosion

(3)  Why is North Korea building nukes?

From “Libya, WMDs, and Musa Kusa” by Paula A. DeSutter in National Review.

“What lesson will be learned {from Libya} in states considering pursuing or retaining WMD programs? If you have no WMD and cooperate with the U.S. on terrorism, but kill protestors, the U.S. and U.N. might enforce tough resolutions, announce that the leader ‘has to go,’ and initiate military action. But if you keep or pursue nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs, you have little or nothing to fear from the U.S. and the international community — even if you also aggressively support terrorists who kill Americans and others, and arrest, torture, rape, and kill protestors.

“The U.S. and the international community have demonstrated that WMD is a good insurance policy against interference and attack.

“I recall an unpleasant meeting I had early in the second Bush term with a senior foreign-service officer at the State Department. My goal was to explain why we verifiers were interested in moving forward on the positive/carrot parts of the relationship with Libya following the elimination of their WMD programs. We wanted more countries to make the strategic decision not to pursue WMD and to eliminate those programs they were pursuing. I believed it was important to demonstrate that Qaddafi was right when he said that WMD programs make a country less secure.

“The senior foreign-service officer disagreed, saying: ‘Libya is just a weak, unarmed country, and we can treat them any way we want.’ Apparently he was right.”

Paula A. DeSutter was assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance from 2002 to 2009, and had lead responsibility within the U.S. government for verifying and implementing U.S. participation in the elimination of Libya’s WMD programs.

(4)  What does North Korea want from us?

North Korea Poster
North Korea Poster.

Excerpt from a statement by the DPRK Government on 8 August 2017. They make some valid points. You would not learn that from the US news media reporting of this, which grossly misrepresented this statement. Most importantly, North Korea did not refuse to negotiate. They refused to negotiate while the US threatens them, which seems reasonable.

“The DPRK is taking measures to strengthen the self-defensive nuclear deterrence in order to counter the policy of extreme hostility and nuclear threat against it from the U.S., the biggest nuclear weapons state of the world. Terming these measures ‘a threat to international peace and security’ is a gangster like logic indicating that the rest of the world should either become U.S. colonies serving its interests or fall victim to its aggression.

The countries, that openly pursue their ambition to maintain permanent nuclear hegemony by conducting most of the nuclear tests in the world and launching ICBM whenever they please, are adopting illegal and unlawful ‘sanctions resolutions’ to incriminate the DPRK’s bolstering of self-defensive nuclear force and enforcing those sanctions over its alleged ‘violation’ of them. This constitutes the height of outrageous double standard.

As long as the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat continue, the DPRK, no matter who may say what, will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiation table or flinch an inch from the road chosen by itself, the road of bolstering up the state nuclear force.”

(5)  Conclusions

As usual, Americans see ourselves as angels and our foes as demons. That requires amnesia about our history — but we are good at that. As usual, US sabre-rattling serves the needs of our rulers — distracting public attention from serious problems and sparking a “rally-around-the-flag” boost in their popularity.

There are few good endings for the path we are on with North Korea. There are other solutions, such as William Lind’s insightful recommendation in “Misdefining the North Korea Problem.” — Stop threatening North Korea. Normalize relations. See what happens.

(6)  For More Information

Articles about North Korea.

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see these posts about atomic weaponsabout North Korea, and especially these…

  1. ImportantLooking ahead to the final chapter of the North Korea story.
  2. Should we expect another war in Korea?
  3. The real reason for America’s hostility to China.
  4. Stratfor: China builds a new Silk Road for the 21st century.
  5. Is North Korea or China the bigger threat to America?
  6. Martin van Creveld explains our phony war with North Korea.

21 thoughts on “Cut through the propaganda about North Korea”

  1. It seems to me that the official line of American Foreign Policy is designed to cloak its real objective- namely that of enforcing its economic policies. (ie as per “Confessions of an Economic Hit man).

    Despite being a wealthy nation that was focussing on supporting its citizens from its oil revenue, Libya was invaded and destroyed, and its leader killed- all on a false pretext.That would not have happened if Libya had nukes. Nobody would have dared to touch them.

    It is now 100% clear that no nation that does not have a nuclear deterrent can do anything in its domestic and economic policy that goes against against US foreign policy and survive. I hope it is clear that North Korea now has both nukes and a delivery system- and should be left alone. A first strike by the US would probably destroy their reputation internationally. A first strike by NK would be suicide – so hopefully it is all bound up with mutually assured destruction.

    As for the missile that went over Japan, a few hours ago- it was out of the atmosphere at the time it passed over Japan – so did not violate their territory.

    The alarmism is the biggest worry- as it looks like the US propaganda machine is working to ensure that a state of Fear and Loathing of North Korea exists– one that will allow the US to do whatever it likes.

    The whole subject is deeply interesting, as I have just returned from 2 weeks in China. I was surprised at what I saw – a country moving ahead economically, amazingly well organised in terms of infrastructure. We found that there was a strong emphasis on good family values (kids don’t go to childcare, the elderly are looked after lovingly), the traffic and pollution were far less than expected, the food was amazing.

    I know all about the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen square and was surprised that the Chinese we could talk to at length also knew about this history- though we were advised not to talk about it in Tiananmen square. So, don’t listen to what you hear second hand. I came away aware that China is on a very healthy path.

    It would be a great thing if we could have more cultural exchange with NK too – but this seems difficult now.

    I am of the opinion that the trade ties between China and other nations have opened up things to the point where serious political repression is not feasable.(I am aware of the internet restrictions but am of the view that they do serve to protect China from any unmonitored activity by NSA and CIA agents and other trolls.

    In short- the current trade restrictions with NK only increase that state’s isolation, and worsen an already difficult situation. It would be wonderful to see a shift from military leadership to moral leadership in the US. Is that too much to ask?

    1. Mindbody,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and your experience in China.

      Also, that’s an interesting point about North Korea’s missile passing over Japan. It reached a maximum height of 770 kilometers (478 miles). This is far above the highest guesses about the extent national airspace. From Wikipedia:

      “There is no international agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign airspace, with suggestions ranging from about 30 km (19 mi) — the extent of the highest aircraft and balloons — to about 160 km (99 mi) — the lowest extent of short-term stable orbits. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has established the Kármán line—at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) — as the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, while the United States considers anyone who has flown above 80 kilometres (50 mi) to be an astronaut. Indeed, descending space shuttles have flown closer than 80 km (50 mi) over other nations, such as Canada, without requesting permission first. Nonetheless, both the Kármán line and the U.S. definition are merely working benchmarks, without any real legal authority over matters of national sovereignty.”

  2. The NORKs need a nuclear deterrent from what? Who is going to invade that crap hole – South Korea? I agree there’s too much saber rattling, but to anyway suggest that the loon in NK is justified or we are the cause of his/their paranoia is just nonsense. We are the good guys, South Korea are good guys, Japan – good guys. NORK’s are bad guys. And this idea that because we had nukes on the peninsula in 1958 justifies NORK nukes now is apples and oranges.

    1. How about the US & South Korea stop holding exercises such as this and undercut the DPRKs deterrent argument:
      See also:

      Just a thought. Also, holding these exercises during harvest time (meaning that the mobilized NK soldiers cannot help bring in the harvest) may create additional aggravation in their leadership toward the US & ROK.
      BEIJING, March 8 (Xinhua) — China proposed “double suspension” to defuse the looming crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday.
      “As a first step, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises,” Wang told a press conference on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People’s Congress.

      Wang said the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is mainly between the DPRK and the United States, but China, as a next-door neighbor with a lips-and-teeth relationship with the Peninsula, is indispensable to the resolution of the issue.”

      They keep asking for this (Jan 2015, April 2016, March this year), but keep getting rejected.

      1. Aristonicus,

        Supporting your facts is looking at how sensitive the US is to foreign forces near our own. We routinely whine when Russian planes fly near our ships or aircraft in international airspace. Imagine Russia and China holding massive practice invasion exercises right off the US coast. We’d go mad, fast.

  3. Good analysis. There are, however, a few things I would like to comment on.

    Let me start by saying I’m very critical of the most recent American wars–Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen. Notwithstanding, I must admit I cannot bring myself to feel ashamed of US conduct during the original Korean War. I’ve read a little bit of the history, and it seems to have been a messy and complicated situation. The war itself was barbaric, and we certainly contributed our share of barbarism. But, once the war started, we were right to fight it. Probably the only way to avoid the war would have been to allow the Russians to occupy the entire peninsula from the get-go, back in 1945. Whatever we might think now with 20/20 hindsight, I definitely do not blame our leaders at the time for not simply surrendering the peninsula.

    Fast-forward to today, and I still have very little sympathy for the North Korean regime. I agree with Gute above–we and the South Koreans are the good guys in this situation, and we shouldn’t be shy about it. I don’t think the North Koreans should have nukes, no matter what. I don’t think we should have to capitulate from our previous positions and acquiesce to them having nukes.

    An attack on the North, however, seems to be the only way to achieve that now. And the consequences of such an attack could never be justified. So, as much as I don’t like it, I think we’ll have no choice but to back down. It will have negative consequences for our influence and standing in the region, but it will not be as bad as what would happen if we attacked the North. China has skillfully checkmated us in this game–and we have made it only too easy for them.

    So it looks like we’ll just have to eat some humble pie. And maybe study Mandarin.

    1. Also, I think your analysis of North Korea’s intentions is missing part of the picture. You quote some of their statements in which they frame their intentions defensively. This by itself proves little, as they would try to frame their intentions defensively no matter what. You also do not make mention of the fact that the Northern regime sees itself as the legitimate ruler of the entire peninsula, and considers a military invasion of the South as a perfectly legitimate way to achieve unification.

      I do agree with what you say in general, though.

      1. Matt,

        There are two reasons for the focus on their willingness to negotiate. First, because history shows almost all regimes are willing to negotiate — esp when as close to the edge of destruction as NK is (due to its internal collapse and loss of external support). The other factors you mention are probably trivial by comparison.

        Second, because this is not a complete analysis. Long books have been written about such subjects, about which reviewers still complain that this or that was not discussed. As the title says, this little essay “cuts thru the propaganda” to show key things not understood by many or most Americans.

    2. Matt,

      “I must admit I cannot bring myself to feel ashamed of US conduct during the original Korean War … I still have very little sympathy for the North Korean regime.”

      I am baffled by the emotional and moral lens that my fellow Americans see the world thru. Prudent geopolitics requires first seeing things clearly, and those cloudy deeply colored lens make clarity almost impossible.

      My guess (emphasis on *guess*) is this plays a big role in our sorry military record since WWII. War is one of those things requiring clarity above all, and it care not a bit for our moral judgments. Nor do, I suspect, the dead.

      “I think we’ll have no choice but to back down.”

      I think you mean “back down again.” As Cumings notes in his review, we’ve been threatening NK with fire and brimstone for years. He says, correctly, NK’s leaders have “taken our measure” — and continued their nuke program.

      That does not mean that our leaders’ bellicose rhetoric was wasted or failed. My guess (again, guess) is that its audience was at home — not in NK. So long as we thrill to hear our leaders threaten to kill millions and perhaps start WWIII, then they will do so (in words, at least). When we grow up, they will talk to us differently — as parents talk to adults differently than they do to children.

  4. The Man Who Laughs

    Let me say at the outset that I regard the North Korean regime as a horror. I have no problem calling them the bad guys. That having been said, what, as a practical matter, does anyone propose to DO?

    Recently a fellow assured me that if we struck North Korea, it wouldn’t be any sort of halfway measure, it would be with “Everything we have”. Alrighty, then. I feel confident a full of happy joy. But as soon as we strike them, they’re going to open up on Seoul with everything they have, and the problem will be to make the bombardment stop. Can we pinpoint the hundreds (thousand maybe) of artillery pieces, MRLs and ballistic missiles zeroed in on Seoul? If we can will our conventional bunker busters punch through enough rock, concrete or what have you to dig them out? If they will do we have enough munitions stockpiled to do the job? How long will it all take? And what will be left of Seoul by the time we finish?

    If we can’t shut down their artillery we’ll have two choices. Nuclear weapons, or a ground assault to push the Nork army out of artillery range of Seoul. That’s going to cost. I suspect that if the Norks launched a ground invasion of the SOuth we could stop them, or more likely, the South Koreans could stop them with little to no help from us. But what if they sit on the defensive and make us attack into their fortifications? Can they bleed us dry?

    I could easily exceed the FM website word limit with these kinds of questions. All I’ll say here is that anyone proposing to hit them with “everything we have” better be ready with some answers, and so far I haven’t heard any.

    No, I’m not a military professional or a credentialed expert. I’m an old line hex wargamer used to thinking about moves and countermoves.

  5. Libya and Iraq have been mentioned here before. One more example is Ukraine. At the dissolution of the USSR, the newly-independent Ukraine still had a large cache of Soviet nuclear arms. It was considered a great piece of diplomacy when they voluntarily transferred them to Russia in 1994.

    Fast forward to 2014, they’ve fallen out with their former puppet masters (Russia), who have now stolen Crimea and fight a proxy war using Donbass separatists with impunity.

    Maybe American nationalists’ feelings won’t be so hurt if we point out that *any* lesser nation that falls afoul of a great power is going to be steamrolled if it doesn’t have a strong deterrence like nuclear arms or a NATO alliance.

  6. The responses or responsibilities are more complex than you imply. Yes, the US gets very upset with others threatening, e.g. war games near our country or bases. The issue is that the US is essentially (still) the world’s policeman. It’s not serious to say we have “equal partners” in military issues/protection throughout the world (and that other countries’ commitments are equivalent to ours). The US still protects the whole world. So when the US is threatened, it gets very upset. Our blood and treasure is at stake. That’s the lack of fairness- and why some say “we are good/they are bad”.

    That is the problem.

    I suggest we do less of that policing/protecting, and thereby attract less attention, provocation etc. However, when many of us suggest that, we are called isolationists.

    Arm South Korea and Japan over the next several years and then leave. Then let them all have at it.

    I think people worldwide would be asking for the good old days when the US military was around.

    1. wkevinw,

      “The issue is that the US is essentially (still) the world’s policeman.”

      Wow. Who appointed us “the world’s policeman”? Under what global authority do we operate? Who pays to underwrite this valuable “service” we provide?

      Of course your claim is either bogus or mad, depending on one’s perspective. A large fraction of the world (perhaps a majority by population and area) pay to defend against the “world’s policeman.” The rest don’t pay, and would laugh at us if we asked them to pay for our “policing”. A few — a very few — pay a small fraction of the cost of US troops on their land to defend their own borders. Asking them to pay for our mad foreign wars would provoke a reply of “you’re nuts.”

      This is the American ego-centrism seen in Trump’s claim that Mexico will pay for the “wall.”

  7. As I said, fine. Let’s leave the rest of the world to have at it. I think there would be a lot of people who would wish for the good old days of de facto American policing.

    By the way, that (the US defends/polices) is not mutually exclusive with the observation that US gets involved in too many foreign wars, as your reply implies.

    Maybe you have forgotten the recent NATO meeting where the Europeans were quivering about the potential that the US might decide not to police so much; and to have the Europeans pay more for what protection the US does provide. I work with Europeans every day, and know that they don’t like it, but believe the US policing helps keep the peace (against many bad guys) in Europe.

    Let the refutation by saying claims are bogus, I am mad, childish, ego-centric, etc. begin!

    1. wkwvinw,

      Your comments are mostly just making stuff up.

      “I think there would be a lot of people who would wish for the good old days of de facto American policing.”

      What does that mean? “Good old day”? US interventions abroad are by many measures at all-time highs. “A lot of people” — such as whom? Not the billions in nations we’ve wrecked, or those who are arming themselves to defend against US interventions.

      “Maybe you have forgotten the recent NATO meeting where the Europeans were quivering about the potential that the US might decide not to police so much;”

      “Quivering”? Evidence please. No fantasy. Also, you confused “mutual defense” with “policing.” They are not remotely similar concepts.

  8. Mutual defense? Do you think some European country (the ones who might be able) would commit as much as the US has already in two world wars to defend us? And then in Asia? who is mutually defending with us? Japan?


    About the quivering- as I have suggested before, one way you can retain your confirmation bias/echo chamber is never to use Google for yourself. That’s not my job. It’s easy to find if you really want to.

    Oh, I know, I made all of that up.

  9. One of the more interesting proposal I’ve heard for a solution to the North Korean problem, is for the two Koreas to agree to a 100-year reunification plan, with specifics left intentionally ambiguous.
    The term would not be unlike Britain’s 100-year lease of Hong Kong, and the intentional ambiguity would be not unlike America’s ‘One China’ policy.
    Some broad framework might include things like trade agreements after 25 years, demilitarizing after 50, common currency after 75, and finally merging of government at the very end (leaving it intentionally unspecified which government is to take over), and also of course granting amnesty all leaders and their descendants.
    The long time frame and unspecific requirements would make it easy for all sides to agree.
    Obviously it’s not a whole solution, but the goodwill created could significantly change attitudes all around.
    In my opinion, it’s the most realistic and promising proposal I’ve heard.

    1. Todd,

      That’s creative thinking, the kind of out-of-the-box solution that might help with an intractable problem like North Korea.

      You might find of interest “Unification Studies”, the large literature from South Korea concerning the end game with the North: Looking ahead to the final chapter of the North Korea story. Those in the South find this a terrifying prospect. They would much prefer the North reform and evolve, with unification (as you propose) be deferred until some date beyond the foreseeable future.

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