Dangerous provocations: North Korea’s missiles and the risk of war

The Korean conflict is much more nuanced than the black and white way it’s usually presented.


“There is a good a military option: to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself.” —Sen. Lindsey Graham on NBC News

On October 20th, 2011, Col. Muammar Gaddafi was brutally murdered by rebels after he was discovered hiding in a drainage pipe near his home town of Sirte, Libya. Responding to the news, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, famously laughed and paraphrased a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, telling a television news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.”

Half a world away, in Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK), the news of Gaddafi’s fall likely wasn’t received in the same way, but it did offer proof of something that the country’s leadership probably long suspected.

In 2003, Gaddafi had given up his chemical and biological arms and abandoned his country’s fledgling nuclear program. Despite the praise he received in Western capitals at the time, less than 10 years later his country became a target for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ from which it has yet to recover.

As explained by the current Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, in an unusual moment of candor at the Aspen Institute Security Forum, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, “has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability… The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes… is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.” ()

This, and the earlier removal of Saddam Hussein, who had also surrendered his arsenal of WMDs, sent a dangerous message to countries that might find themselves targeted by Washington’s hawks. A message that the DPRK’s young leader, who took power less than a year before Gaddafi’s fall, has responded to in recent months with a renewal of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.

Predictably, this has caused some panic among American policy makers and media who have quickly disseminated the belief that North Korean missiles can now hit the continental United States.

Escalating the war of words

Taking to his favorite social media platform after North Korea’s second ICBM launch on July 29th, President Trump tweeted that China, one of the country’s only diplomatic and trading partners, could “easily” solve the problem of the DPRK’s nuclear program. This ignored North Korea’s long history of jealously guarding its independence, as true of the country’s relations with the USSR during the Cold War as it is of the country’s relations with powerful neighbors China and Russia today.

Besides, as Ron Forthofer, a former Green candidate for Governor of Colorado put it on Counterpunch just days after the launch, “it is criminally irresponsible to continue tit-for-tat provocations with North Korea. Russia, China and North Korea have offered a solution that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs in exchange for a freeze on joint war games by the U.S., South Korea and now Japan that alarm North Korea with the possibility of nuclear attack.”

Regardless of this little publicized possible resolution to this impasse, in a rare show of unified messaging, Trump’s opinion was seconded by his U.N. Ambassador, Nikki Haley, who used her international platform to say, in regards to the DPRK, “The time for talking is over.”

The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, risking his boss’ wrath by publicly contradicting him, seems to have wavered from this hard line in recent days, telling reporters at a press briefing, “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans: we are not your enemy, we’re not your threat but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.”

The problem with this imminent threat narrative, still there in Tillerson’s remarks but presented in a much more cautious way, is that the test was in significant ways another failure for the country’s missile program, as video footage appears to show the missile breaking up on re-entry.

Further, according to Jason Ditz of Antiwar.com, the missile was an ICBM in name only, “At its core, these missiles are just medium range missiles with an extra stage of fuel that makes them seem like they’d go farther.”

This isn’t to say that these missile tests aren’t of concern, just that the hysteria surrounding them is counterproductive and that there’s more than one side to this story. No country would easily accept annual military exercises on its doorstep, in the case of the DPRK, the inclusion of Japan, the country’s former colonizer, is at the very least a propaganda victory for Pyongyang.

Even if the DPRK overcomes the hurdles presented by its missile technology in the short term, this doesn’t mean the country will be able to produce the miniaturized nuclear warheads the ICBMs will require, another technical feat for which there is no guarantee of success.

Making sense of Kim Jong-Un (and the DPRK)

While North Korea is officially a “People’s Republic”, Marxism isn’t really at the core of the country’s nationalist politics (although the imagery used in much of the country’s propaganda could still be called Stalinist). The worship of the Kim family and a belief in Korean superiority lies at the heart of a kind of civic religion called Juche, that posits mythical origins for the Kim dynasty, saying that Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is “descended from the nation’s mythical founder, Tangun.”

Contrary to the general perception in the U.S. and other Western countries, the era of mass starvation in North Korea ended some time ago and the country’s economy grew almost 4% in 2016, not spectacular by regional standards but respectable nonetheless, a sign that international sanctions, the first resort to punish recalcitrant nations in the modern era has failed to produce the expected result.

This hasn’t stopped the U.S. Congress from drafting more. Rather than engaging in diplomacy, the United States and its allies seem to prefer economic punishments that Kim and others can then use to distract their citizens from any discontent they may be feeling about their own authoritarian government.

As in many contemporary conflicts, the rhetoric of pundits and politicians has been completely personalized, with almost all the mainstream coverage focusing on the DRRK’s leader Kim Jong-un who, like his Father and Grandfather before him, is portrayed as irrational and even insane.

The standard take on North Korea’s young leader is that he’s ‘crazy’ and, lacking any real information, it’s understandable that most people believe this. Educated in Switzerland and remembered as a student who kept to himself, Kim was not very studious (perhaps due to the fact that his education was in French and German rather than his native language) but had a keen interest in sports, especially basketball. Since taking power, he has shown a ruthlessness in ensuring his own survival, removing anyone who might oppose him, usually through execution, including his own uncle.

While the pace has been slow, perhaps inspired by their Chinese neighbors, the government has begun shown some interest in reform, allowing farmers to keep an increasing share of their harvests and some small businesses to operate. China has supplied phones and other technology that is becoming more commonplace in the country. It isn’t saying much, but life appears to have gotten a little better under Kim than it was under his father.

By making their unelected leader the center of the story, the Western media conveniently ignores the more than 25 million North Koreans so easily consigned to their fate by Lindsay Graham in the quote that opened this.

There is also the fact that the Asian allies who would really bear the brunt of any conflict on the Korean peninsula are themselves almost entirely absent from the discussion in the American media. Over the past week, countless former military men, think tank intellectuals and hawkish politicians have been called onto the cable news networks to discuss the DPRK’s saber-rattling, I have yet to see a single South Korean.

The Korean conflict is much more nuanced than the black and white way it’s usually presented. Judging by what we’ve seen from the Trump Administration thus far (and in the Congress for years) American policy makers don’t believe in the possibility of a negotiated settlement to allay North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the truth of the matter is it has been years since diplomacy has been tried.


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