Being Edged Toward War With North Korea

by David McReynolds

One feels a bit helpless trying to deal with Trump and his push toward war — who is listening? If you think the points I’m making should be shared, by all means share them widely.

There are three essential points, and many secondary ones.

First, Trump has made a major issue of the fact that North Korean missiles could carry nuclear weapons that could strike the continental U.S. That is true, but somehow missing from this effort at panic is the fact that both China and Russia have long had nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit any point in the U.S. with great accuracy. (As can the U.S. strike Russia or China). We have learned to live, without constant fear, with the Russian and Chinese missiles, and China and Russia have shown no panic over the North Korean missiles.

In short, the North Korean program is par for the nuclear age — not a new threat to the U.S.

During the height of the Cold War I once suggested that much money could be saved, and the nuclear reality made more obvious, if the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to nuclear missile sites built in each other’s capitals. Our sites in Moscow would be guarded by U.S. Marines, the Soviet site in Washington would be guarded by Soviet troops, and it would be understood that if either side set off its nuclear weapon, so would the other. Which, after all, was what Mutual Assured Destruction was about. In this case the deterrent (and danger) would be in plain sight and vast sums could be saved on developing new missiles.

There is nothing new about the Korean nuclear program. The only thing which is new is that North Korea has become a nuclear power, adding to those states which already possess such weapons (U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain, Pakistan, India and Israel).  I would note that the least stable of these powers is Pakistan, and that is the one which should occasion the most worry.

Second, North Korea would be utterly mad to launch a nuclear first strike at the U.S. Historians can go back to the brief period when the U.S. was the sole nuclear power and find that there was a serious discussion in the U.S. about a “pre-emptive strike for peace” against the Soviet Union to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon, but once the USSR had the bomb, that discussion ended. There has been no serious discussion since then about pre-emptive nuclear strikes. North Korea has lived under constant threat from the U.S. since the Korean War came to an undeclared end (there has never been a formal peace treaty). The U.S. maintains a large military force in South Korea (there are no Russian or Chinese troops in North Korea) and there are annual “defense drills” conducted by the U.S. and South Korea which frighten the North Koreans.

As a background to the tensions with North Korea, Americans should remember the Korean War, which caused massive civilian casualties, destruction of infrastructure, and, if one has a memory, took the U.S. very close to war with China, when General MacArthur moved so far to the North that he impinged on the Chinese border and a vast army of Chinese entered Korea and drove the U.S. troops far to the South. All of that is now ancient and, to Americans, forgotten history. But it is very real to the Koreans, who do fear a U.S. attack.

The third crucial point, which Trump does not grasp, is that in common with Vietnam, Korea was artificially divided after WW II. To Vietnamese there was never a “North Vietnam” and a “South Vietnam” — just the one nation of Vietnam. To Koreans, who as a result of WW II found themselves divided into a “North” and a “South,” there is only Korea, and a desperate hope for somehow uniting the two halves. (Given the difference in the economic and political systems of the two parts of Korea, it is hard to see how they can be united — but Americans must not underestimate the Korean longing for restoration of a united Korea).

The risk of war comes from the U.S. demand that North Korea “denuclearize” — give up its nuclear weapons. The U.S. has pretty openly considered a first strike, a possible assassination of the North Korean leadership, or other steps to end North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. Whatever the U.S. does, North Korea will not abandon its weapons — they view them as a guarantee that the West will not deal with North Korea as it dealt with Libya and Iraq.

We do not really understand the price North Korea has already paid to develop — ahead of schedule — its nuclear weapons and missile program. It is not a joke to say that many North Koreans have eaten grass, that real starvation has occurred, in order for the government to find the resources for the weapons program.

We also, as the U.S. contemplates a “first strike,” do not fully understand that the North Koreans have a massive deployment of heavy artillery along their Southern border and if they are attacked, their conventional artillery would destroy a good part of South Korea, including Seoul.

The recent moves by North and South Korea on the Olympic games suggests that both Koreas fear a war, and share an alarm at Trump’s military tweets. (And in the last South Korea election the candidate who wanted to ease relations with the North won.)

Things get more complex when we realize that China does not want North Korea to collapse, not only because of the flow of refugees into China, but also because it is assumed that the collapse of the North Korean government would mean the pro-U.S. South Korean government would then be right against the Chinese border. China does not want a U.S. military ally on its border. Neither does Russia.

Not widely discussed, but part of the complexity, is the history of Japan and Korea. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945 and Korean memories of that period are not happy — including the coerced use of Korean women as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.

U.S. opinion on Korea is divided. Steve Bannon, who had been close to Trump, was blunt in advising Trump that a military solution to the Korean problem was a non-starter (good advice from an unexpected source) but others in the administration think that economic and military pressure can persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program. 

The only realistic course is diplomatic engagement. This will not end the North Korean nuclear program but might result in some limit on the number of nuclear tests. In short, the U.S. must learn to live with North Korea, as China and Russia have, and to seek to normalize relations.

Finally, a word on the North Korean government (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — DPRK). This is not, in the usual sense, a Communist government. In those governments we call Communist — China, Cuba, Vietnam, Russia in the days when it was the USSR — the Communist Party held power. The head of the government was chosen by the Party, it was not held within a ruling family. North Korea’s government has had three successive heads of state from the same family, and it is the family, not the party, which holds power. There is also a virtual worship of the head of state, Kim Jong-un. I’ve talked with friends who have been to North Korea who believe that the people really do have a worshipful loyalty to Kim Jong-un.


Let’s remember that for most Japanese, until the end of World War II, the Emperor was worshiped as God, that Hitler would have won a free election until the tide of war turned against him — and that those loyal to President Trump seem immune to facts.


There are dissidents who escape North Korea, so the adoration isn’t total. And certainly there is no civil society as we know it. We should remember that change is the one inevitable fact of life. It happened to the Soviet Union; the China we deal with today is very different from the China of the cultural revolution. And with luck, the U.S. will recover from Donald Trump. After all, despite many racial problems, slavery was abolished, and Jim Crow is gone. There is more to be gained by trade and normalization than by increasing the punitive measures, which have not had a positive effect on North Korea.

David McReynolds, a member of NYC DSA, has long been active in the pacifist and socialist movements, is retired, and lives in Lower Manhattan.


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