There’s currently an easing in the escalation between the US and North Korea, coinciding with the latter’s anniversary celebrations of the Workers’ Party of Korea. This is a perfect time to revisit the potential conflict zone, take a breath, and reflect on America’s fascination with and manifestation of this bogeyman.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, impersonated by Hong Kong actor Howard, and US President Donald Trump, impersonated by US actor Dennis, pose outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong on January 25, 2017. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

History of US prejudice re North Korea

The US has been fixated on North Korea ever since the latter entered the Soviet sphere of influence. The policy of containing communism and the domino theory designated North Korea’s existence as an affront to US capitalist democracy.

North Korea’s ideology teetered on extinction had the Chinese not preserved the Hermit Kingdom as a buffer nation, to deter a US beachhead through a unified US-oriented Korea, awash with American troops on the Chinese border in the 1950s.

The US then had to suffer North Korea’s impertinent agitation against Western imperialism, fighting in the miniaturized, proxy hot wars in Cold War Africa, and participating in the liberation struggles in several African countries.

This led to US corporate media labeling North Korea as a threatening bogeyman to the United States. They had decades of North Korean rhetoric to reference, but omitted Western rhetoric until President Donald Trump began tweeting on the issue (corporate-media nemesis that he is).

The disinformation became so potent that a fabricated narrative ran about Kim Jong-un’s haircut being forced on his population. It originated from one anonymous source from Radio Free Asia, an intelligence-agency-sponsored project much like Radio Free Europe.

This discourse has culminated in hysteria over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, inflating the minuscule number of warheads and certifying a delivery system that is unlikely to be able to initiate a pre-emptive strike.

Objectively, North Korea has sought a nuclear deterrent against a nuclear superpower that has repeated threats of nuclear and conventional attacks, even prior to Trump.

What threats has the US made, you ask? Here are a couple:

  • In 2002, the George W Bush administration labeled North Korea a part of the “Axis of Evil”.
  • Colin Powell, when he was secretary of state under Bush, once warned North Korea that the US could turn it into a “charcoal briquette”.

Could these be among the reasons the North Koreans have ceaselessly pursued nuclear weapons? We should remember the US is a world hegemon, and North Korea is a reclusive pariah. Who controls the narrative? How many times have we heard about a North Korean threat versus a US threat?

Between 1945 and 1992, the US conducted 1,054 nuclear tests by official count, including 216 atmospheric, underwater, and space tests, and has used two atomic bombs. Yet the Americans are chastising the North Koreans, who have conducted six tests and are not obliged under international law to conform to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s ironic that the US is claiming a moral high ground.

Yes, we want a world without nuclear weapons, and that starts with being able to cease all further testing and then reduce the arsenal, but the US does not have the moral high ground. The rhetoric isn’t truly about a credible threat from the Korean bogeyman. It’s about misunderstanding a country the US finds an affront to its own identity, and a political ideology it failed to annihilate.

Skewed narratives 

Underestimating and misunderstanding North Korea have been detrimental to slowing this longtime collision course between the US and North Korea, and by extension China.

Underestimating North Korea has led to its progression under rigorous sanctions as a nuclear state, through creativity, and in spite of isolation. North Koreans may be subjugated and fearful, but their militarized nation is industrious, robust and flexible, and its people conformist. They have a military-first hybrid economic development policy, and the American perception of them as a backward people, with no technological ingenuity, is wrong and self-sabotaging.

Simultaneously, historic US labeling and the psychological creation of  Pyongyang as a bogeyman, as an existential threat, have only skewed the ability to understand North Korea. It has led the US establishment, and parts of its dumbed-down public, into misunderstanding North Korea’s perspective, because historically, the US is the aggressor, not North Korea.

US policy doesn’t see that the Kim regime, fearful of intervention without a nuclear deterrent, and his subjugated people share a collective psyche of generational performative fear, caused by the US scorched-earth strategy under General Matthew Ridgway, which killed 20-30% of North Korea’s population.

Americans don’t remember napalm, the yellow-brown grass indicative of chemical agents, and the 18 out of 22 cities destroyed, but North Koreans do. This collective memory of immense damage leaves the North Koreans feeling threatened, and allows Kim to harness that fear, molding it into a nuclear deterrent, an aegis against the foreign aggressor, America.

The North Korean regime wants to be credibly accepted into the global community, but the Americans impede it. This denial of credibility has probably fueled Kim’s paranoia. He looks at how Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein surrendering their nuclear deterrents, which left them open to proxy and special-forces deployment for the former, and full invasion for the latter. This means surrendering the nuclear program is seen as equivalent to the surrender of the dynastic Kim regime.

Any forceful policy won’t work, and even Leon V Sigal – the foremost expert on nuclear diplomacy in the region – has indicated that belligerent policies aren’t effective with North Korea. Threaten people and they defensively react; reach out and they reach back.

By not trying to understand North Korea, the US is continuing to fail in de-escalation.

Repeating action, expecting different results

The increasing US sanctions on the North Koreans haven’t succeeded, but have only stiffened their resolve, as I’ve already acknowledged. Yet the US continues trying to strangle Kim’s “royal court economy”, his private control of select state assets to buy the loyalty of generals with an array of lavish gifts. This parsimoniously bites into the already constrained revenue flows into North Korea.

China will maintain a monopoly on North Korea’s mineral resources, worth between US$6 trillion and $10 trillion and needed to produce smartphones and technological products for the Chinese consumer. This enables North Korea to evade sanctions and accounts for around 50% of its revenue stream.

North Korea has also accumulated major gold reserves to sustain the “royal court” economy, with its diplomats systemically using their immunity to smuggle gold through airports. Pyongyang has even used Macau, a special administrative region of China, as a nodal access point and exit point for laundering North Korean capital, and uses the drug trade, cyber-theft, bitcoin mining, and arms trading to circumnavigate  US sanctions. The North Koreans will do anything to sustain their nuclear deterrent.

US needs to end its chauvinism

The US doesn’t want to de-escalate its nuclear arsenal unless it’s on its own terms. Pyongyang has agreed to freeze its nuclear program if the US and South Korea freeze military drills and dry runs of attacking North Korea, but Trump has declined twice, and previously during the Six Party Talks, Bush reneged on the then preliminary successful deal, and assigned North Korea to the “Axis of Evil”.

So who’s really the aggressor?

North Korea has engaged in minor confrontations and has a horrendous plethora of human-rights abuses, but it’s not a threat to the US. The North Koreans have lived true to their Hermit Kingdom status, while the American establishment has gone on an imperialist rampage. After all, the US has invaded, destabilized, overthrown, installed dictators in, and droned more than 50 countries since the First Barbary War at the start of the 19th century.

That’s more than 200 years of nearly continuous violence and imperialism across the planet. That doesn’t make every conflict unjustified, such as World War II, but that inability to quit violence is a systemic cultural and economic problem for the US.

What’s needed isn’t just dialogue, but a guarantee of survival for North Korea. To solve this problem the US has to end its chauvinism, try to understand the North Korean perspective, and use an approach that has more carrot and less stick.

But can the US put down that long and bloodied stick?