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Saber Rattling in Korea: Cui Bono?

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North Korea has announced plans to restart a nuclear reactor that will enable production of weapons-grade plutonium. The announcement coincides with Pyongyang ratcheting up its rhetoric, issuing threats to wage atomic war against South Korea and Japan, and even to target American cities with long-range nuclear missiles it does not yet possess.

For decades, North Korea has used its ramshackle nuclear program and the threat of war to wring concessions from the West. This latest round of saber rattling is probably designed to do just that.

Of course, it would help matters a great deal if the United States ceased flying B-2 stealth bombers and B-52 heavy bombers over the region. Such military exercises are particularly provocative given what occurred during the Korean War (1950–1953), when the United States carried out massive carpet-bombing raids against the North.

Now, despite all this chest beating, war is still very unlikely. None of the concerned parties have any interest in a shooting war resuming on the Korean Peninsula (technically, South Korea and North Korea are still at war). Nevertheless, hostilities could still break out from a mistake or miscalculation, and this has been the case for the past 60 years.

It should be pointed out that North Korea does not have the military power to back up its bellicose rhetoric. Her military, while large, is a generation or two behind South Korea’s and does not have the capacity to wage a war of any significant duration. South Korea has 30 to 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North; she is more than capable of defending herself. Moreover, Chinese economic aid is probably the only thing preventing the North Korean regime’s collapse. Beijing has a strong interest in propping up the hermit kingdom as a buffer state, and therefore it can be relied on to keep Pyongyang on a short leash.

The United States, for its part, could promote peace in the region by withdrawing all 28,500 ground troops, lifting all economic sanctions against the North, and finally granting Pyongyang diplomatic recognition. The time has long since passed for Washington to abrogate its mutual-defense treaty with Seoul. And given the deplorable state of the U.S. government’s finances, such a “grand bargain” would make eminent strategic and economic sense.

But then again, it would be naïve to impute pure intentions to Washington. Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula provide a pretext for the continued deployment of U.S. military forces to the region. This enables the United States to project hard power in Asia under the pretext of promoting peace and stability. Seen in this light, the Korean standoff could be part of the 21st century’s variation of the Great Game, in which the United States struggles to maintain its global primacy by checking China.

Perhaps this is also how we should look at the history of U.S. intervention in Korea. The popular view of the 1950–1953 Korean War is that America responded to protect South Korea against an unprovoked surprise attack by the North. But there are reasons to doubt that narrative.

Could North Korea really have mustered a large-scale invasion without it being detected? The border separating the North and South had been the scene of multiple skirmishes, with raids by both sides, ever since the country was divided in 1945. Therefore, an attack from either side could hardly had been a complete surprise (nor completely unprovoked).

Jay Hauben considers the question of the North Korean “surprise” in his review of I.F. Stone’s revisionist book, The Hidden History of the Korean War. As Hauben points out, Stone presents evidence indicating foreknowledge by American intelligence of an impending attack by the North.

Hauben writes,

Stone gathers contemporary reports from South Korean, U.S. and U.N. sources documenting what was known before June 25 [the date of the attack]. The head of the U.S. CIA, Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenloetter, is reported to have said on the record, “that American intelligence was aware that ‘conditions existed in Korea that could have meant an invasion this week or next.’” Stone writes that “America’s leading military commentator, Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times, a trusted confidant of the Pentagon, reported that they [U.S. military documents] showed ‘a marked buildup by the North Korean People’s Army along the 38th Parallel beginning in the early days of June.’”

Stone’s book argues that certain U.S. policymakers saw a conflict in Korea as an opportunity for the then-fledgling national security state to spread its wings. North Korea’s invasion would galvanize America behind a foreign policy to “commit the United States more strongly against Communism in the Far East.”

While Stone provides no smoking gun, the opportunistic response by reactionary forces within the United States to the Korean conflict is grounds for suspicion. Indeed, how does one reconcile U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech in January 1950, where he seemed to place the Korean Peninsula outside America’s defense perimeter, with the Truman administration’s immediate military response to North Korea’s attack in June 1950?

Was Acheson’s speech intended to coax the North into invading?

In early 1950, the Truman administration was having difficulties getting its Cold War agenda past a skeptical Congress. The outbreak of war in Korea presented the cold warriors with an immediate opportunity. North Korea’s “surprise” attack was portrayed in the West as an act of Communist aggression and a prelude to further conquests by the red menace.

In 1954, Acheson, recollecting on how he and his fellow cold warriors overcame domestic opposition to their interventionist policies, said the crisis in Korea “came along and saved us.”

With U.S. troops committed to battle in Korea, Congressional opposition to Truman’s military-budget proposals and his interventionist foreign policy melted away. Military spending shot from $13 billion in 1950 to $55 billion in 1952, and the Cold War stayed on for the next 40 years.

Today, the North Korean boogeyman has once again proved a godsend to Washington’s imperial schemers. Pyongyang’s bellicose bluster provides U.S. policymakers with the excuse to deploy some of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated and expensive weapons systems to a region that just so happens to be on China’s doorstep.

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.