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North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation

Vinay Lal ( is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

What is transparently clear is that political discussions in the United States around North Korea remain oblivious of the psychological effects of the war that persists into the seventh decade after its end. The advantage in political, social, cultural, and educational terms that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as something of a concentration camp, is also not realised.

If there is anything that has been established with absolute veracity since the ascendancy of Donald J Trump to the White House, it is that the American President is a consummate liar. He has made liars of others as well, which is not a lesser offence. The Washington Post of 10 October reported that, in the 263 days since he had held office, Trump had advanced 1,318 false or misleading claims. Senior members of his own party, whose own ideological disposition tends towards the extremely conservative, have castigated him as wholly unreliable and a minuscule few have taken the step of declaring him as unfit for office. His last Republican predecessor, George W Bush, had once appeared to most liberals as a nightmare. Barack Obama, we have only to recall, received the Nobel Peace Prize merely for not being Bush. Given how the winds are blowing, it is not inconceivable that Trump may a few years hence receive the Nobel Peace Prize, merely—no mere mere, this one—for not having initiated the nuclear annihilation of another nation state.

Tragically, some liberals—it is not difficult being a liberal in the United States (US), even in these rugged times, if one accepts that minimally it only requires that one not be intellectually deranged and morally bankrupt—are now beginning to think of the 43rd President, who has recently attacked Trump without mentioning him by name as someone who is leading the country into a precipitous decline as a respected world power, as a “decent” man. They have evidently forgotten, or think it of no consequence, that Bush and his cohorts celebrated bombing Afghanistan, as they would say, into oblivion. If this savagery was not enough, the fiction of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was deployed to enlist “the international community” in an illegal war against Iraq, the consequences of which can be seen in the incessant turmoil into which Iraq and much of West Asia has been plunged since early 2003 and the birthing of that Frankenstein monster called by various names, among them ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.

It says something about the US that the war-mongering George W Bush has now been rapidly elevated as a voice of moderation and prudence. However, whatever the supposed differences between Bush and Obama, or between the Republican establishment and what is commonly and mistakenly described as its radical “fringe” which, it must be said unequivocally, is far more than a fringe comprised of white supremacists, xenophobic nationalists, militarists, and Tea Party ideologues there are a number of issues on which there is an unanimity of opinion. None of these issues are as important as the threat that North Korea is purported to represent to the US.

True, a great many American politicians and commentators have criticised Trump for his intemperate use of language in discussions around North Korea, and some thought his use of Twitter to threaten war against a sovereign state was injudicious. Why Trump should have been expected to display more restraint in this matter than in any other is something of a puzzle, unless of course one holds to the view that on the matter of North Korea Trump ought to have been more calculating since the stakes—outbreak of nuclear war—are infinitely higher than on the other matters in which Trump has chosen a path of conflict. There is thus a current of feeling that Trump would be better advised to negotiate rather than issue naked threats. But none of this signals any substantive difference of opinion even among Trump’s critics and detractors about the existential threat that North Korea is thought to pose to the US or world security, or the characterisation of North Korea as a wholly “rogue” state run by a bellicose madman.

Iteration of a Long Simmering War

The present escalation of the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un commenced after a series of missile tests over the summer by North Korea. Since 12 February, North Korea has fired 22 missiles during 15 tests. On 12 May, Kim presided over the launch of a Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of 3,000–5,500 kilometres; the same missile was tested again on 29 August and 5 September, launched over Japan on both occasions (Berlinger 2017). Kim Jong-un is nothing if not unmindful of the place of 4th July, which marks Independence Day, in the American political imaginary. He chose that day to launch the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile which has a range that exceeds 5,500 kilometres and that Kim boasts could reach anywhere in the world.

Trump took the bait. On 19 September, at his maiden address before the United Nations General Assembly, he issued a warning to a small band of “rogue states” that the US would not stand by idly as they violated the rights of their subjects and the sovereignty of other nations. Had he only condemned “the depraved regime in North Korea” for the “starvation deaths of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more,” Trump would have been following in the footsteps of other American Presidents; but he chose to go beyond, caricaturing Kim thus: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.” The United Nations was set up, in greater part, to enhance the prospects for global peace and cooperation: and it is from this platform that Trump unabashedly declaimed on the possibilities of a legitimate genocide: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” (Trump 2017).

Kim took little time in responding in kind. He ridiculed Trump as “a gangster fond of playing with fire,” adverting to the “totally deranged behavior of the US President.” The “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, one of the many epithets by which the country’s despot, the “Dear Respected Comrade” and the “Beloved Father,” is known, has his own way with words: he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” This missive would send Trump, who commands a vocabulary which is as small as his mouth is big, scurrying for the dictionary—only to find that “dotard” is nothing more than an old person, especially one who is weak and senile. And if there is anything that Trump ferociously dislikes, it is the suggestion that he is “weak.” Promptly Trump tweeted back: “Kim Jung Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”

A Nation under Occupation

What has made possible an American consensus on North Korea such that its leader is never anything but a madman, a ruthless dictator who cares little for his people and even less for the rest of the world, and who may be “loony” enough to initiate a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or—if the technology facilitates such an outcome—the US? What is elided in representations of Kim as the very picture of irrationality? The Korean War is commonly described in the US as “the forgotten war,” though it lasted three years, from 1950 to 1953, and led to upwards of 36,000 American casualties; it certainly takes a back seat in public discussions and collective memory to the Vietnam War. The latter lacerated American society and led to upheavals, the reverberations of which are felt to the present day. It is from Vietnam that one of the many enduring myths which have since informed American military intervention emerged, namely the idea that the war was only lost because the generals were compelled by supine politicians to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs.

The Korean War, on the other hand, has always appeared to have something of the insipid and the indecisive about it in American common understanding: three years after the fighting commenced, the status quo was affirmed. The Cold War had gone hot; it would revert to being cold. In these cold-blooded calculations, nothing is made of the immense loss of lives on the Korean side. No American monument to the dead in Vietnam, not even Maya Lin’s celebrated national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, even mentions that some 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, including two million civilians on both sides; but much worse is the national apathy about the Korean War, where the civilian count was higher, at around 2.73 million, and that too over a much shorter period of time.

The history of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and, likewise, the history of the American bombing of North Korea are both germane to the present situation. For well over a thousand years, Korea remained a unified country. Japanese incursions into Korea began around 1870, but Great Power politics enabled the Koreans to stave off colonisation for a few more decades before Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910. Resistance to Japanese rule intensified with the advent of communism, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 led to the declaration of Korean independence. The Soviet Union was not a force in the Pacific theatre of war; it had played no direct part in the liberation of Korea. However, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August, and a day before a second nuclear weapon incinerated Nagasaki, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The consequence was that the spoils of war were, upon Japan’s surrender on 15 August, now to be divided between the victorious Americans and Russians, who carved out zones of influence. Korea might well have remained a unified country, had either the US or the Soviet Union lavished any real attention on it; but Korea was, at that time, not part of the calculus of global domination and neither country paid much attention to Korea (Lindqvist, Paras 237–38, 244–45). Unlike Germany, Korea did not appear to have any strategic importance for either superpower; as one historian has written, “American and Russian forces remained there more to restrain each other than from any strong conviction, in either Washington or Moscow, that the territory itself was significant” (Gaddis 1998: 70). It was along the 38th parallel that two countries came into existence in 1948: the American zone became South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital in Pyongyang, was formed in North Korea.

A History of Bombing

The commonplace narrative of the Korean War renders the North’s surprise attack on the South on 25 June 1960 as a desperate attempt at land-grabbing and unification by a ruthless dictatorship. Such accounts obfuscate a number of critical developments between 1945 and 1950. The Russians quit North Korea in late 1948; the Americans did likewise, leaving South Korea around the same time. Forces from both Koreas frequently violated the border, and a series of incursions into North Korea from the South preceded the North’s invasion of 25 June. Thoughts of unification were ever present among political leaders both in the South and the North. As Kim il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and the founding father of the country’s political dynasty, wrote in January 1950 to the Soviet Ambassador to his country, “Lately I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country” (Gaddis 1998: 73). South Korea, for its part, was determined to seek unification on its own terms. More importantly, the allegedly democratic regime installed in South Korea was scarcely less dictatorial than the one in the North. The leading American historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cummings, speaks of the ferocity of anti-communist sentiment and “an orgy of state violence” in the South, suggesting that “between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands of either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces.”

“In short,” he has written, “the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work—and were then put back into the power by the Americans” (Cummings 2017). It is not difficult to understand, however opaque such considerations may be to successive American administrations, why North Korea fears the axis of South Korea–Japan–US, and why the Kim dictatorship appears to the subjects of the North Korean state as the heroic champion of revolutionary nationalism that slayed the dragon of Japanese imperialism.

If much is occluded in the commonplace narratives of Korea’s history between 1945 and 1950, the pulverisation of North Korea from the air during the war constitutes perhaps the most gruesome chapter in the global history of aerial bombing. The “US dropped 6,35,000 tonnes of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm”; in comparison, 5,03,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped by the US in the Pacific Theatre, an area vastly greater than North Korea, in four years during World War II (Armstrong 2009). On “an average good day,” according to an US Eighth Army chemical officer quoted in a recent study of napalm, American pilots dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm, which US Marines cheerfully nicknamed “cooking oil,” over North Korea (Neer 2013). The sadistic Curtis LeMay, one of the architects of the American fire-bombing of Japan and the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, quite casually admitted some years later, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population” (Rhodes 1995). Secretary of State Dean Rusk described what may be thought of as the formula that the US put into practice in choosing targets: “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another” (Harden 2015). According to the North Koreans, as reported by one historian, “by the end of the war” there were “only two modern buildings” that “remained standing in Pyongyang,” and by the fall of 1952 “every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed” (Armstrong 2009: 1–2).

Perpetual Threat of Nuclear War

The “forgotten” war, when it is at all remembered, still remains in the American imagination a “limited” war. North Korea, however, experienced it as a “total” war, a war of genocidal intent. A handful of journalists and scholars have mustered the courage to speak of American war crimes in Korea, but no one has thought that the Kim dynasty in any manner stands exonerated of its own unspeakable crimes in North Korea. Indeed, a recognition of the American role in killing close to three million civilians, the greater majority of them in North Korea, in wiping out the industrial base in North Korea, and in making impossible for some years agricultural production beyond subsistence levels, should not preclude one from recognising the stranglehold that the Kim family dictatorship exercises over the lives of common people. What is transparently clear is that political discussions in the US around Korea remain spectacularly oblivious both of the psychological effects of the war that persists into the seventh decade after its end and the purchase—in political, social, cultural, and educational terms—that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as something of a concentration camp.

Beyond all this, however, is the one unpalatable truth that is not recognised in the laws and conventions that govern relations between states and shows how much further international law still has to evolve if the notion of being “civilised” is not to remain a sham. To threaten a sovereign state with genocide and nuclear annihilation, and that too under the roof of the United Nations, should itself be construed as a crime against humanity. It is an indubitable fact that the US has on several occasions, since the end of World War II, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons. In November 1950, President Truman had revealed at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea had always been “under consideration” (Gaddis 1998: 106). Ever since, North Korea has lived under the shadow of that threat: it is an intolerable burden for any country to shoulder.

There is but no question that calls for dialogue and negotiation must be heeded, but the admission that constructive conversation, or whatever other anodyne term one prefers, is an indispensable requirement for ensuring that the Korean peninsula is not engulfed in unquenchable flames may not have much traction in the years ahead unless the notion that no country has a legitimate interest in nuclear weapons is seriously entertained. Nuclear weapons ought not to be a matter of inheritance; if countries insist on that privilege that alone should be enough to render them into pariahs.


Armstrong, Charles K (2009): “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950–1960,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 7, 16 March, pp 1–9.

Berlinger, Joseph (2017): “North Korea’s Missile Tests, By the Numbers,” CNN Online,, accessed on 24 October 2017.

Cummings, Bruce (1984): “Ending the Cold War in Korea,” World Policy Journal, 1, No 4 (Summer), pp 769–91.

— (2005): “Nuclear Threats against North Korea: Consequences of the ‘Forgotten’ War,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 3, No 1, 13 January, pp 1–6.

— (2017): “A Murderous History of Korea,” London Review of Books, 18 May.

Gaddis, John Lewis (1998): We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, New York: Oxford University Press.

Harden, Blaine (2015): “The US War Crime North Korea Won’t Forget,” Washington Post, 24 March.

Lindqvist, Sven (2001): A History of Bombing, trans, Linda Haverty Rugg, London: Granta Books.

Neer, Robert M (2013): Napalm: An American Biography, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Rhodes, Richard (1995): “The General and World War III,” New Yorker, 19 June, pp 47–59.

Trump, Donald J (2017): “Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly,”, accessed on 23 October 2017.

Updated On : 20th Nov, 2017


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