Category Archives: Korea

The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

The White House’s Flawed Korea Policies

Dispatches From the Edge

April 19, 2013

In the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula the Obama administration is virtually repeating the 2004 Bush playbook, one that derailed a successful diplomatic agreement forged by the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons? While the acute tensions of the past month appear to be receding—all of the parties involved seem to be taking a step back— the problem is not going to disappear and, unless Washington and its allies re-examine their strategy, another crisis is certain to develop.

A little history.

In the spring of 1994, the Clinton administration came very close to a war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel international inspectors, and extract plutonium from reactor fuel rods. Washington moved to beef up its military in South Korea, and, according to Fred Kaplan in the Washington Monthly, there were plans to bomb the Yongbyon reactor.

Kaplan is Slate Magazine’s War Stories columnist and author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

“Yet at the same time,” writes Kaplan, “Clinton set up a diplomatic back-channel to end the crisis peacefully.” Former President Jimmy Carter was sent to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea (DPRK) and the Agreed Framework pact was signed, allowing the parties to back off without losing face.

In return for shipping their fuel rods out of the country, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to finance two light-water nuclear reactors, normalize diplomatic relations, and supply the DPRK with fuel. The U.S. pledged not to invade the North. “Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain,” say Kaplan, “The same cannot be said for our side.”

The reactors were never funded and diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze. From North Korea’s point of view, it had been stiffed, and it reacted with public bombast and a secret deal with Pakistan to exchange missile technology for centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.

However, the North was still willing to deal, and DPRK leader Kim Jong-il told the Clinton administration that, in exchange for a non-aggression pact, North Korea would agree to shelve its long-range missile program and stop exporting missile technology. North Korea was still adhering to the 1994 agreement not to process its nuclear fuel rods. But time ran out and the incoming Bush administration torpedoed the talks, instead declaring North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, a member of an “axis of evil.”

Nine days after the U.S. Senate passed the Iraq war resolution on Oct. 11, 2002, the White House disavowed the 1994 Agreed Framework, halted fuel supplies, and sharpened the economic embargo the U.S. had imposed on the North since the 1950-53 Korean War. It was hardly a surprise when Pyongyang’s reaction was to toss out the arms inspectors, fire up the Yongbyon reactor, and take the fuel rods out of storage.

Kaplan points out, however, that even when Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 2003, the North Koreans “also said they would reverse their actions and retract their declarations if the United States resumed its obligations under the Agreed Framework and signed a non-aggression pledge.”

But Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, banking that increased sanctions would eventually bring down the Kim regime, were not interested in negotiations.

Ignoring North Korea, however, did not sit well with Japan and South Korea. So the White House sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang, where the North Koreans told him they were willing to give up nuclear weapons development in return for a non-aggression pact. Bush, however, dismissed the proposal as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they first agreed to give up the bomb, a posture disturbingly similar to the one currently being taken by the Obama administration.

But “the bomb” was the only chip the North Koreans had, and giving it up defied logic. Hadn’t NATO and the U.S. used the threat of nuclear weapons to checkmate a supposed Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War? Wasn’t that the rationale behind the Israeli bomb vis-à-vis the Arabs? Pakistan’s ace in the hole to keep the vastly superior Indian army at bay? Why would Pyongyang make such an agreement with a country that made no secret of its intention to destabilize the North Korean regime?

North Korea is not a nice place to live and work, but its reputation as a nuclear-armed loony bin is hardly accurate. Every attempt by the North Koreans to sign a non-aggression pact has been either rebuffed or come at a price—specifically giving up nuclear weapons—Pyongyang is unwilling to pay without such a pledge. The North is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Indeed, when the U.S. and NATO overthrew the Gadaffi regime in Libya, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News Agency that the war had taught “the international community a grave lesson: the truth that one should have the power to defend peace.” Libya had voluntarily given up nuclear weapons research, and the North Koreans were essentially saying, “We told you so.”

There are a number of dangers the current crisis poses. The most unlikely among them is a North Korean attack on the U.S. or South Korea, although an “incident” like the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is not out of the question. More likely is a missile test.

All of the parties—including China and Russia— know that North Korea is not a serious danger to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea. Which is why China is so unhappy with the U.S.’s response to Pyongyang’s bombast: deploying yet more anti-missile systems in the U.S. and Guam, systems that appear suspiciously like yet another dimension of Washington’s “Asia pivot” to beef up America’s military footprint in the region. Russia and China believe those ABM systems are aimed at them, not North Korea, which explains an April 15 accusation by the Chinese Defense Ministry that “hostile western forces” were using tensions to “contain and control our country’s development.”

While the western media interpreted a recent statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping as demonstrating China’s growing impatience with North Korea, according to Zackary Keck, assistant editor of the Asian-pacific focused publication The Diplomat, the speech was more likely aimed at the U.S. than at Pyongyang. Keck argues that China is far more worried about growing U.S. military might in the region than rhetorical blasts from North Korea.

The Russians have also complained about “unilateral actions…being taken around North Korea.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means.”

Tension between nuclear powers is always disconcerting, but the most immediate threat is the possibility of some kind of attack on North Korea by the U.S. or South Korea. Conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her military to respond to any attack from the North without “political considerations,” and the U.S. has reaffirmed that it will come to Seoul’s defense in the event of war. It is not a war the North would survive, and therein lays the danger.

According to Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press, coordinator of Dartmouth’s War and Peace Studies, current U.S. military tactics could trigger a nuclear war. “The core of U.S. conventional strategy, refined during recent wars, is to incapacitate the enemy by disabling its central nervous system…leadership bunkers, military command sites, and means of communication.” While such tactics were effective in Yugoslavia and Iraq, they could prove counterproductive “if directed at a nuclear-armed opponent.” Faced with an overwhelming military assault there would be a strong incentive for North Korea to try and halt the attacks, “a job for which nuclear weapons are well suited.”

Council of Foreign Relation’s Korea expert Scott Snyder says, “The primary danger is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences.”

The demand by the Obama administration that North Korea must denuclearize before serious talks can begin is a non-starter, particularly when the Washington and its allies refuse to first agree to a non-aggression pledge. And the White House will have to jettison its “strategic patience” policy, a fancy term for regime change. Both strategies have been utter failures.

There are level heads at work.

South Korea recently praised China for helping to manage the crisis, and Seoul has dialed back some of its own bombast. The U.S. canceled a military maneuver, and a “senior administration” official warned about “misperception” and “miscalculation,” remarks that seemed aimed more at South Korea than at the North. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also says Washington is open to talks with China and North Korea.

But such talks are predicated, according to the U.S. State Department, on Pyongyang proving “its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations.” In short, dismantling its nuclear program and missile research. Neither of those will happen as long as the North feels militarily threatened and economically besieged.

In a way, the Korean crisis is a case of the nuclear powers being hoist on their own petard. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was not aimed at just stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but, according to Article VI, at eliminating those weapons and instituting general disarmament. But today’s world is essentially a nuclear apartheid, with the nuclear powers threatening any countries that try to join the club—unless those countries happen to be allies. North Korea should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but then so should China, Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India.

As far as ending the current crisis, one could do worse than follow up on what basketball great Dennis Rodman said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told him: “Obama should call me.”

Good place to start.

 

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Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Four More Years: The Asia Pivot

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 26, 2012

In March 1990, Time Magazine titled an article “Ripples in The American Lake.” It was not about small waves in that body of water just north of Fort Lewis, Washington. It was talking about the Pacific Ocean, the largest on the planet, embracing over half of humanity and the three largest economies in the world. Time did not invent the term—it is generally attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Pacific commander during WW II—but its casual use by the publication was a reflection of more than 100 years of American policy in this immense area.

The Asia-Pacific region has hosted four American conflicts—the Spanish American War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—and is today the focus of a “strategic pivot,” although that is a bit of a misnomer, by the Obama administration. The Pacific basin has long been the U.S.’s number one trade partner, and Washington deploys more than 320,000 military personnel in the region, including 60 percent of its navy. The American flag flies over bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Marshall Islands, Guam and Wake.

It is one of the most perilous regions on earth right now, and, for the first since the collapse of the old Soviet Union, two major nuclear powers are bumping up against one another. As volatile as the Middle East is, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate on the planet are a scatter of tiny islands in the East China Sea, where China, Japan and the U.S. find themselves in the kind of standoff that feels distressingly like the Cold War.

Tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, however, is just one of several foreign policy challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, each with its own characteristics and history. Japan and South Korea are in a faceoff over an island that Tokyo calls Takeshima and Seoul calls Dokdo.  Moscow and Tokyo are at loggerheads over the Kurile islands, Beijing is throwing its weight around in the South China Sea, North Korea just launched a long-range ballistic missile (and is possibly considering a nuclear test), and Washington is recruiting allies against China, sometimes by turning a blind eye to serious human rights violations.

How the Obama administration responds to these issues over the next four years will go a long way toward determining whether the ocean lives up to its name—peaceful—or once again becomes an arena for tragedy. So far the record is not encouraging.

Washington has stumbled badly in the dangerous crisis over islands that China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku. The dispute over these uninhabited specks in the East China Sea islands goes back to the Sino-Japan War of 1895 when Tokyo wrested them from Beijing. In 1971, the Americans—caught up in the Cold war and refusing to recognize China— made the whole matter a lot more complex by ignoring two WW II treaties requiring Japan to return its conquests to their original owners, and instead handed the islands over to Japan.

When China protested, Tokyo and Beijing agreed to kick the can down the road and delay any final decisions on sovereignty to some later date. That all changed when Japan—pressed by rightwing nationalists—purchased three of the islands this past summer and altered the status quo. To make matters worse, the U.S. declared that it would stand by Japan in any military conflict, thus raising the ante from a local confrontation between two Asians giants to a potential clash between nuclear powers.

China sees the islands as part of its defensive parameter, not an unusual point of view considering the country’s history. China has been the victim of invasion and exploitation by colonial powers, including Japan, dating back to the first Opium War in 1839. Beijing is convinced Washington is surrounding it with potentially hostile alliances, and that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is part of a U.S. strategy to keep China down. There is an economic dimension to the issue as well. China would like to exploit oil and gas deposits, as well as fishing grounds, in the East China Sea.

Extending the U.S.-Japan mutual support treaty to the islands is a major mistake. China has no intention of attacking its main Asian trade and investment partner, and putting Tokyo under Washington’s nuclear umbrella around this issue has helped unleash a powerful current of nationalism in Japan. For instance, Tokyo is debating whether to put Japanese Self-Defense Forces on Yonaguni Island in the Okinawa or Ryukyu chain. That would put Japanese troops squarely in the middle of China’s first line of maritime defense. Yonaguni is a long way from Tokyo, but on a clear day you can see the mountains of Taiwan from its beaches. The island’s residents are opposed to the Self-Defense Force deployment.

The new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been particularly strident, openly talking of dumping Japan’s anti-war constitution and building nuclear weapons. He comes from a long line of military-minded nationalists. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a member of Japan’s wartime cabinet and considered a war criminal. Rather than going to jail, however, Nobusuke was “rehabilitated” after the war and became a prime minister in 1957. Abe has stonewalled demands by China and other countries in the region to apologize for its brutal policies during WW II.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Abe was asked if there was a “possibility that the two Asian powers could go to war.” According to the Times, “Mr. Abe just smiled and walked away.”

If that exchange does not give Washington pause, it should.

China has a strong legal case for ownership of the islands, and rather than rattling sabers, Washington should encourage the UN and the International Court of Justice to get involved. What it should not do is green light the politics of people like Abe, who might draw Washington into a confrontation with China. In 1914 Austria attacked Serbia. Russia mobilized, and Germany, bound by treaty to Austria, followed suit. That ended very badly.

The disputes in the South China Sea are very different than those in the East China Sea, although some of the actors are the same. Beijing claims that it owns a vast expanse of the Sea, that includes the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and numerous reefs and shallows, also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and the Philippines. At stake are rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits, as well as a considerable portion of the world’s trade routes.

The Chinese have been rather heavy handed in the dispute, refusing to negotiate with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and insisting on bilateral talks instead. China vs. Brunei is hardly a level diplomatic playing field. The standoff has given the U.S. an opportunity to intervene as a “neutral broker,” a posture that has pushed every paranoid button in Beijing. China has responded by stepping up its patrols in the South China Sea, even sabotaging joint Indian-Vietnam oil exploration near the Paracels.  New Delhi—which has its own tensions with China over its northern border—is threatening to send naval vessels into the disputed area.

The crisis is solvable, but a few things need to happen.

China must back off, because its current claim violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. A place to start is for ASEAN and Beijing to work out a “code of conduct” to resolve disputes peacefully. But Washington should stay out of this fight. Given the strong military component of the “pivot,” one can hardly blame China for assuming that U.S. involvement is not aimed at resolving disputes.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Washington has shifted naval forces into the Pacific and is in the process of putting 2,500 Marines in northern Australia. While 2,500 Marines are hardly likely to tip the balance of power in Asia, it seems an unnecessary provocation. The U.S. is moving air power into the region as well, including B-1 bombers, B-52s, and F-22 stealth fighters. In early November, 47,000 U.S. and Japanese forces carried out joint military exercises.

Washington is also re-negotiating its Mutual Support Treaty with Japan, which will include the deployment of an advanced anti-missile system (ABM). The ABM is ostensibly directed at North Korea, but China is unhappy because it could pose a threat to Beijing’s modest nuclear missile force. In general, ABM systems are destabilizing, which is why the ABM Treaty was negotiated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1972. The Obama administration should repudiate the Bush administration’s 2002 scrapping of the ABM Treaty and instead focus on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a promise made in 2008 but ignored ever since.

North Korea may be a threat to its own people, but it hardly poses a major danger to the U.S. or its allies, South Korea and Japan. Yes, the country has nuclear weapons, but any use of them would be tantamount to national suicide, and the North Koreans have always shown a strong streak of self-survival. What about the shelling of the South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean warship? Certainly dangerous acts, but the North does have legitimate grievances over how its coastal waters were divided after the Korean War, and, while Pyongyang probably sunk the ship, there are some doubts. If North Korea seems paranoid, it is partly because each year the U.S., South Korea, and sometimes Japan, carry out war games aimed at intervening in the advent of “instability” in the north.  U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons last year, hardly a strategy to get the Pyongyang regime to give them up.

North Korea mainly serves as an excuse for Japan and the U.S. to militarize the North Pacific and expand their ABM system. But it is a poor, backward country that has trouble feeding its own people. Hollywood’s latest version of the 1950s anti-communist classic, “Red Dawn,” features North Korean paratroopers invading Alaska. Really.

The White House should take a big deep breath, ignore the bombast, stop threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons, retire the war games, and restart aid programs. The only people hurt by the aid cutoffs are poor North Koreans.

Washington sees Indonesia is a potentially valuable ally in the alliance against China, as well as a source of valuable raw materials, and has thus given Jakarta a free pass on its human rights record. But for an administration that trumpets its support for democracy and says it has a moral view of the world, that real politique is unacceptable. The U.S. should finally own up to its role in the 1965 Indonesian coup that killed up to a million communists, leftists, trade unionists, and progressives. It should also halt all military aid to the Jakarta regime until the Indonesians prosecute those who committed atrocities in East Timor and West Papua. The U.S. should have nothing to do with training Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces unit that organized many of the East Timor massacres and is currently trying to crush an independence movement in West Papua.

Some of the White House’s actions have bordered on the petty. The U.S. is organizing an 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that was designed to exclude China, the big dog on the Asian-pacific block. In retaliation, China is encouraging the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that will exclude the U.S.

The U.S. is a Pacific power, but Asia is a very different place than it was two hundred years ago. You can’t dispatch “Chinese” Gordon and a couple of gunboats and get your way anymore. Nor can you deal with rivals by building alliances a’ la Cold War and threatening to use force. The world is too small, Asia is too big, and war would be catastrophic. The Pacific is no one’s “lake,” but an ocean vast enough for all.

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Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Asia’s Mad Arms Race

Dispatches From The Edge

May 18, 2012

Asia is currently in the middle of an unprecedented arms race that is not only sharpening tensions in the region, but competing with efforts by Asian countries to address poverty and growing economic disparity. The gap between rich and poor—calculated by the Gini coefficient that measures inequality—has increased from 39 percent to 46 percent in China, India, and Indonesia. While affluent households continue to garner larger and larger portions of the economic pie, “Children born to poor families can be 10 times more likely to die in infancy” than those from wealthy families, according to Changyong Rhee, chief economist of the Asian Development Bank.

This inequality trend is particularly acute in India, where life expectancy is low, infant mortality high, education spotty, and illiteracy widespread, in spite of that country’s status as the third largest economy in Asia, behind China and Japan. According to an independent charity, the Naandi Foundation, some 42 percent of India’s children are malnourished. Bangladesh, a far poorer country, does considerably better in all these areas.

And yet last year India was the world’s leading arms purchaser, including a deal that will spend $20 billion dollars on high performance French fighter planes. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying  multiple nuclear warheads, and buying submarines and surface craft. Its military budget is set to rise 17 percent this year to $42 billion.

“It is ridiculous. We are getting into a useless arms race at the expense of fulfilling the needs of poor people,” Praful Bidwai of the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace told the New York Times.

China, too, is in the middle of an arms boom that includes beefing up its navy, constructing a new generation of stealth aircraft, and developing a ballistic missile that is potentially capable of neutralizing U.S. carriers near its coast. Beijing’s arms budget has grown at a rate of some 12 percent a year and, at $106.41 billion, is now the second largest on the planet. The U.S. budget—not counting the various wars Washington is embroiled in—runs a little over $800 billion, although some have estimated that it is over $1 trillion.

While China has made enormous strides in overcoming poverty, there are some 250 million Chinese officially still considered poor, and the country’s formerly red-hot economy is cooling. “Data on April spending and output put another nail into hopes that China’s economy is bottoming out,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics told the Financial Times.

The same is true for most of Asia. For instance, India’s annual economic growth rate has fallen from 9 percent to 6.1 percent over the past two and a half years.

Tensions between China and other nations in the region have set off a local arms race. Taiwan is buying four U.S.-made Perry-class guided missile frigates, and Japan has shifted much of its military from its northern islands to face southward toward China.

The Philippines are spending almost $1 billion on new aircraft and radar, and recently held joint war games with the U.S.  South Korea has just successfully tested a long-range cruise missile. Washington is reviving ties with Indonesia’s brutal military because the island nation controls the strategic seaways through which pass most of the region’s trade and energy supplies.

Australia is also re-orientating its defense to face China, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith has urged “that India play the role it could and should as an emerging great power in the security and stability of the region.”

But that “role” is by no means clear, and some have read Smith’s statement as an attempt to rope New Delhi into a united front against Beijing. The recent test of India’s Agni V nuclear-capable ballistic missile is largely seen as directed at China.

India and China fought a brief but nasty border war in 1962, and India claims China is currently occupying some 15,000 square miles in Indian territory. The Chinese, in turn, claim almost 40,000 square miles of the Indian state of Arunachai Pradesh. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that “overall our relations [with China] are quite good,” he also admits “the border problem is a long-standing problem.”

India and China also had a short dust up last year when a Chinese warship demanded that the Indian amphibious assault vessel Airavat identify itself shortly after the ship left the port of Hanoi, Vietnam. Nothing came of the incident but Indian President Pratibha Patil has since stressed the need for “maritime security,” and “the protection of our coasts, our ‘sea lines of communications’ and the offshore development areas.”

China’s forceful stance in the South China Sea has stirred up tensions with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia as well. A standoff this past April between a Philippine war ship and several Chinese surveillance ships at Scarborough Shoal is still on a low simmer.

China’s more assertive posture in the region stems largely from the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits crisis that saw two U.S. carriers humiliate Beijing in its home waters. There was little serious danger of war during the crisis—China does not have the capability to invade Taiwan—but the Clinton Administration took the opportunity to demonstrate U.S. naval power. China’s naval build-up dates from that incident.

The recent “pivot” by Obama administration toward Asia, including a military buildup on Wake and Guam and the deployment of 2,500 Marines in Australia, has heightened tensions in the region, and Beijing’s heavy-handedness in the South China Sea has given Washington an opening to insert itself into the dispute.

China is prickly about its home waters—one can hardly blame it, given the history of the past 100 years—but there is no evidence that it is expansionist. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in February “No country, including China, has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” Nor does Beijing seem eager to use military force. Beijing has drawn some lessons from its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam.

On the other hand, Beijing is seriously concerned about who controls the region’s seas, in part because some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through maritime choke points controlled by the U.S. and its allies.

The tensions in Asia are real, if not as sharp or deep as they have been portrayed in the U.S. media. China and India do, indeed, have border “problems,” but China also describes New Delhi as “not competitors but partners,” and has even offered an alliance to keep “foreign powers”—read the U.S. and NATO—from meddling in the region.

The real question is, can Asia embark on an arms race without increasing the growing gulf between rich and poor and the resulting political instability that is likely to follow in its wake? “Widening inequality threatens the sustainability of Asian growth,” says Asian Development Bank economist Rhee. “A divided and unequal nation cannot prosper.”

More than half a century ago former General and President Dwight Eisenhower noted that “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…this is not a way of life at all…it is humanity hanging from an iron cross.”

Americans have ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Asian nations would do well to pay attention.

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Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Counterpunch

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 8, 2011

“On his recent trip to Asia Pacific, the President made it clear that the centerpiece of this strategy includes an intensified American role in this vital region,” Financial Times Nov. 28, 2011

–Tom Donilon, President Barak Obama’s national security advisor

“An Indo-Pacific without a strong U.S. military presence would mean the Finlandisation by China of countries in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore,” Financial Times Nov. 30, 2011

–Robert Kaplan, senior fellow Center for a New American Security and author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean the Future of American Power

Donilon is a long-time Democratic Party operative and former lobbyist for Fannie Mae and a key figure in the Clinton administration’s attack on Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Kaplan is a Harvard Business School professor and advisor on the Mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as current U.S. military intervention in the Horn of Africa.

Something is afoot.

Indeed, it is. The Obama administration is in the middle of a major shift in foreign policy—a “strategic pivot” in the words of the White House—in two regions of the world: Asia and Africa. In both cases, a substantial buildup of military forces and a gloves-off use of force lie at the heart of the new approach.

The U.S. now has a permanent military force deployed in the Horn of Africa, a continent-wide military command—Africom—and it has played a key role in overthrowing the Libyan government. It also has Special Forces active in Uganda, Somalia, and most of the countries that border the Sahara.

But it is in Asia that the administration is making its major push, nor is it coy about whom the target is. “We are asserting our presence in the Pacific. We are a Pacific power,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the National Defense University in August, “we know we face some long-term challenges about how we are going to cope with what the rise of China means.”

There is whiff to all this of old fashioned Cold War hype, when the U.S. pumped up the Russian military as a world-swallowing force panting to pour through the Fulda Gap and overrun Western Europe: the Chinese are building a navy to challenge the U.S.; the Chinese are designing special missiles to neutralize American aircraft carriers; the Chinese are bullying nations throughout the region.

Common to Clinton’s address, as well as to Kaplan’s and Donilon’s opinion pieces, were pleas not to cut military spending in the Pacific. In fact, it appears the White House is already committed to that program. “Reduction in defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” Donilon wrote, “There will be no diminution of our military presence or capabilities in the region.”

The spin the White House is putting on all this is that the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing China to throw its weight around in Asia. Donilon’s opinion piece was titled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules.”

It is hard to know where to begin to address a statement like that other than with the observation that irony is dead.

Asia and the Pacific has been a major focus for the U.S. since it seized the Philippines in the 1899 Spanish-American War. It has fought four major wars in the region over the past century, and, not counting China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it deploys more military personnel in the Pacific than any other nation. It dominates the region through a network of bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Marshall Islands, and island fortresses like Guam and Wake. The White House just announced the deployment of 2,500 Marines to Australia.

The American Seventh Fleet—created in 1943 and currently based in Yokosuka, Japan—is the largest of the U.S.’s naval fleets, and the one most heavily armed with nuclear weapons.

We aren’t “back,” we never went anywhere.

But the argument fits into the fable that U.S. military force keeps the peace in Asia. Kaplan even argues “A world without US naval and air dominance will be one where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and others act more aggressively toward each other than they do now, because they will all be far more insecure than they are now.”

In short, the kiddies will get into fights unless Uncle Sam is around to teach them manners. And right now, China is threatening to upend “the rules’ through an aggressive expansion of its navy.

China is indeed upgrading its navy, in large part because of what the Seventh Fleet did during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. In the middle of tensions between Taipei and Beijing, the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits. Since there was never any danger that China was going to invade Taiwan, the carriers were just a gratuitous slap in the face. China had little choice but to back down, but vowed it would never again be humiliated in its home waters. Beijing’s naval buildup dates from that crisis.

And “buildup” is a relative term. The U.S. has made much of China acquiring an aircraft carrier, but the “new” ship is a 1990 vintage Russian carrier, less than half the size of the standard American Nimitz flattop (of which the U.S. has 10). The “new” carrier-killer Chinese missile has yet to be tested, let alone deployed. Only in submarines can China say it is finally closing the gap with the U.S. And keep in mind that China’s military budget is about one-eighth that of the U.S.

If the Chinese are paranoid about their sea routes and home waters, it is not without cause. Most invasions of China have come via the Yellow Sea, and 80 percent of China’s energy supplies come by sea. China ships much of its gas and oil through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. With major suppliers based on the west coast of Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it has little choice. Those sea-lanes are controlled by the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and the Seventh in Japan.

China is also building friendly ports for its tankers—the so-called “string of pearls”—and why Beijing is suspicious about the sudden thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations. China plans to build a “pearl” in Myanmar.

Indeed, a major reason why China is building pipelines from Russia and Central Asia is to bypass the series of choke points through which its energy supplies pass, including the straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian and Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean pipelines are already up and running, but their volume is not nearly enough to feed China’s 11 billion barrels of oil a day appetite.

In spite of protests, the U.S. recently carried out major naval operations in the Yellow Sea, and Washington has injected itself into tensions between Beijing and some of its neighbors over the South China Sea. In part, China has exacerbated those tensions by its own high-handed attitude toward other nations with claims on the Sea. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

China’s initial arrogance on the issue has allowed the U.S. to wedge itself into the dispute and portray itself as the “protector” of small nations. Less than 40 years ago it was trying to bomb several of those nations back into the Stone Age, and Vietnam just recorded its 100,000th casualty since 1975 from explosives left over by the American war.

Beijing has since cooled its tone on the South China Sea and is backing away from defining it as a “core” Chinese area.

Why the “strategic pivot?”  Undoubtedly, some of it is posturing for the run-up to the 2012 elections. Being “tough” on China trumps Republican charges that Obama is “soft” on foreign policy. But this “pivot” is more than cynical electioneering.

First, China does not pose any military threat to the U.S. or its allies in Asia, and the last thing it wants is a war. Beijing has not forgotten its 1979 invasion of Vietnam that ended up derailing its “four modernizations” drive and deeply damaging its economy.

Part of this “China threat” nonsense has to do with the power of the U.S. armaments industry to keep the money spigots open. When it comes to “big ticket” spending items, navies and air forces top the list. An aircraft costs in excess of $5 billion, and the single most expensive weapons program in U.S. history is the F-35 stealth fighter.

But there is more than an appetite for pork at work here.

China is the number two economy in the world, and in sharp competition with the U.S. and its allies for raw materials and human resources. It is hard to see the aggressive U.S. posture in Asia as anything other than an application of the old Cold War formula of economic pressure, military force, and diplomatic coercion. From Washington’s point of view, it worked to destabilize the Soviet Union, why shouldn’t it work on China?

“If you are a strategic thinker in China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China.”

Since U.S. foreign policy is almost always an extension of corporate interests, squeezing China in Asia, Africa and Central Asia helps create openings for American investments. And if such a policy also protects the multi-billion dollar military budget, including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, so much the better.

It is a dangerous game, first, because military tension can lead to war, and, while that is an unlikely event, mistakes happen. “If we keep this up, then we are going to leave the impression with China that we are drawing battle lines,” Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Financial Times. In fact, the Obama administration has drawn up a plan called AirSea Battle to deny China control of the Taiwan Straits.

The consequences for those caught in the middle will be severe. China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it still has a ways to go. An arms race will delay that. For the average American, racked by double-digit unemployment, a vanishing safety net, and the collapse of everything from education to infrastructure, it will be no less of a tragedy.

—30—

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Playing With Fire In Korea

Playing With Fire In Korea

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov.8, 2011

Conn Hallinan

Why is the Obama Administration creating obstacles and throwing cold water on talks with North Korea, and why is it binding itself to right-wing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose politics just took a shellacking in the recent race for mayor of Seoul?

The answer seems to be a convergence of U.S. concerns over the growing power of China, a desperate battle by American arms manufacturers to fend off military budget cuts, and a fantasy by President Lee of a uniting the Korean Peninsula under the banner of the South.

Consider the following:

The day after Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special envoy on North Korea, described two days of talks in Geneva between the Americans and North Koreans as “very positive and generally constructive,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough. “I guess the word skepticism would be in order at this time as to what may or may not happen in those discussions.”

Panetta was in Seoul as part of a weeklong swing through Asia firming up U.S. alliances in the region. The Secretary not only blew off the talks, he threatened the use of atomic weapons. The U.S. he said “will insure a strong and effective nuclear umbrella over the ROK [Republic of Korea] so that Pyongyang never misjudges our will and capacity to respond decisively to nuclear aggression.”

Unless it is raining, President Lee is a dangerous guy to whom to hand an umbrella. According to the Guardian (UK), a Wiki leak cable from the U.S. Embassy says “Lee’s more conservative advisors and supporters sees the current standoff as a genuine opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve considerable brinkmanship.”

According to Peter Lee in the Asia Times, “Lee’s dream” is of “unifying the entire peninsula and its population of 75 million under the banner of the democratic, capitalist South in alliance with the United States, replacing Japan as the primary U.S. security and economic partner, and confronting China with the prospect of a major pro-western power on its doorstep while reaching out to the sizable Korean minority in China’s northeastern provinces.”

While at first glance Lee’s “dream” would seem more poppy-induced than policy driven, South Korean -U.S. joint maneuvers have war gamed scenarios that envision a North Korean collapse and a subsequent intervention by Washington and Seoul. In August of last year, an 11-day drill involving 56,000 South Koreans and 30,000 Americans—Ulchi Freedom Guardian— practiced exactly that.

According to the Korea Times, Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, the exercise was aimed at responding “to various types of internal instability in North Korea,” which is a rather different mission than the one that Panetta was talking about during his Seoul visit.

And the North is not the only target in these exercises.

During a visit to Italy in October, Panetta said, “We’re concerned about China. The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific—to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.”

Coincidently, naval forces, with their $5 billion aircraft carriers, numerous support vessels, submarines, and high tech aircraft are expensive, big-ticket items that arms companies are fighting to keep in the military budget.

The month before the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill, the U.S. and South Korea carried out a major naval exercise in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea that included the aircraft carrier George Washington Certainly China had no illusions about the objective of the war game. “In history, foreign invaders repeatedly took the Yellow Sea as an entrance to enter the heartland of Beijing and Tianjin,” said Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the Academy of Military Science. “The drill area is only 500 kilometers away from Beijing,” adding a metaphor from Mao that seems to lose something in the translation: “We will never allow others to keep snoring beside our bed.”

It was the second time in less than a year that an American carrier had taken part in maneuvers in an area China considers a “military zone.”

Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have continually put pre-conditions on any negotiations with the north, including ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and accepting responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in September, 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

This past January when Kim Jong-il said Pyongyang was “ready to meet anyone anytime anywhere,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that before any talks, North Korea “needs to demonstrate its sincerity” by getting rid of its nuclear weapons and admitting to culpability in the Cheonan incident.

A delegation to North Korea aimed at easing tensions, featuring former president Jimmy Carter, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, former Irish president Mary Robinson and ex-Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, was ignored by Washington and dismissed by South Korean Foreign minister Kim Sung-Hwan as a “purely personal” trip.

According to Seoul, the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, but that conclusion is hardly a slam-dunk. The team of “international experts” that examined the evidence was handpicked by the South Korean military, and Russian and Chinese experts who examined the evidence are not convinced. Indeed, a poll commissioned by Seoul University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies found that only 32.5 percent of South Koreans were confident in the findings.

North Korea is hardly going to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons while its two major enemies are designing war games to “stabilize” Pyongyang in the advent of major unrest. The recent NATO bombing of Libya certainly caught the attention of the North Koreans, who essentially said that it would never have happened if the Gaddafi regime had not abandoned its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Libya is “teaching the international community a grave lesson” an unnamed Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News, “The truth that one should have power to defend peace.”

South Korean President Lee and the U.S. have put the onus for current standoff with North Korea on China. “I think China can do more to try to get North Korea to do the right thing,” argued Panetta, while Lee said he hoped that “China will continue to play an important role in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and leading North Korea to reform and openness.”

According to the New York Times, President Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao that unless Beijing took a “harder line” toward North Korea, the U.S. would increase its buildup of military forces in Northeast Asia.

There is no question that Beijing has influence in Pyongyang—China is North Korea’s main trading partner—but the theory that the Chinese can simply dictate to the North Koreans is a myth. In any case, since China is convinced that the U.S. military buildup in Asia is directed at them, not impoverished North Korea, why would Beijing expend political capital to aid potential adversaries?

The North Korean regime is an odd duck, with a system of succession more akin to the 12th century than the 21st, and a penchant for bombastic rhetoric. But is it a threat to other countries in the region? By the terms of a 1953 treaty, the U.S. would come to South Korea’s defense if the North attacked, and the Pyongyang government is well aware of what would happen to it in a confrontation with the U.S.

If the U.S. is seriously interested in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, it should ratchet down its joint war games with South Korea and stop threatening to use nuclear weapons on China’s doorstep. The U.S. may view North Korea’s nukes as destabilizing, but it was not Pyongyang that introduced nuclear weapons into the region, but the Americans.

The six-party talks, which collapsed in April 2009, may or may not resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, but they are the only game in town. Instead of throwing up roadblocks, and casting its lot with the increasingly unpopular South Korean president, the Obama administration should be pressing to reopen the discussions as a way to dampen tensions in the region and bring the North Koreans to the table.

 

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Korean Ship Sinking: A Rush to Judgment?

Korean Ship Sinking: A Rush to Judgment?

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 15, 2010

The narrative around the Mar. 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy Corvette Cheonan, and the death of 46 sailors, seems pretty straightforward: the ship was sunk by a North Korean (DPRK) torpedo. That was the conclusion by a South Korean (ROK) panel of 47 military and military-research experts and three international  representatives. The only question left unanswered was the DPRK’s motive, with fallout from an internal power struggle holding the inside track.

But two researchers from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University are suggesting there may have been a rush to judgment, and that the evidence presented by the panel is deeply flawed. Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at Virginia, and J.J. Suh, an associate professor of Korean Studies at Johns Hopkins, have analyzed the findings of the Joint Civil-Military Investigation Group (JIG) and found them wanting. (japanfocus.org/articles/3382)

The JIG concluded that the Cheonan was ripped in two by an external explosion from a North Korean torpedo, which ROK naval units recovered. But according to Lee and Suh, those conclusions are “riddled with such serious flaws as to render the JIG’s conclusion unsustainable.” They even suggest that some of the X-ray data used to tie the torpedo to the explosion “may have been fabricated.”

Americans who watch television saw a sobering re-creation of the event in which an exploding torpedo’s powerful bubble destroyed a similar sized ship. But according to the two authors, the South Korean Navy has not been able to “produce a bubble simulation consistent with the information presented in the JIG report.” The simulations run by the JIG instead show a bubble forming, striking the ship, deforming the hull, and making a small rupture, not tearing the ship in half.

According to the authors, “If the bottom of the ship was hit by a bubble, it should show a spherical concave deformation resembling the shape of a bubble, as the JIG’s own simulation suggests, but it does not.” Instead, the damage seems more consistent with a “collision with a hard object.”

What is also missing is any sign of what is called the “pre-bubble shock wave,” nor does internal damage and crew casualties appear to be consistent with those inflicted by a shock wave.

Lee and Suh also take issue with the chemical and X-ray analysis of the residue on the hull that the JIG found to be consistent with the chemical signature of an explosion caused by the recovered torpedo. According to the authors, the “critical evidence” used by the JIG “to link the Cheonan sinking to the alleged explosion of the torpedo is scientifically groundless and perhaps fabricated.”

The two researchers also question the torpedo itself, and particularly a blue ink marking on the weapon spelling out “Hangul “in Korean. The torpedo’s deeply corroded surface is consistent with an explosion that would burn off the weapon’s protective paint. The only problem is that ink boils at a much lower point than paint, 150 degrees Celsius and 350 degrees Celsius respectively.  “This inconsistency—the high heat tolerant paint was burnt but the low heat tolerant ink was not—cannot be explained and casts serious doubt on the integrity of the torpedo as ‘critical evidence,’” write the two authors.

“While we emphatically note that our findings do not prove that North Korea did not do it, we conclude that the JIG has failed to prove that it did,” the authors argue. “The seriousness of the inconsistencies in fact casts doubt not only on the validity of the JIG conclusions but also on the integrity of its investigation.”

If North Korea didn’t sink the ship, who did? Maybe it was not a “who but a “what.” Some of the damage is consistent with a collision. Is there damage that might indicate an internal explosion? The DPRK certainly has a history of doing provocative things, but part of that reputation comes from the relentless demonization of Pyongyang. The North Koreans have always shown an affection for bombast, but they have been generally careful not to do something that would provoke a war.

It may turn out that the North Koreans did sink the Cheonan, but the evidence is hardly the slam-dunk it has been represented as in the media. And doubts about the DPRK’s guilt may well explain China’s reluctance to join in the pile-on condemnations of Pyongyang, as well as for the careful wording of the recent United Nations resolution that condemned the incident but avoided assigning blame.

What is clear is that in-house investigations are always open to suspicion. No matter what the Israeli’s handpicked panel to investigate the attack on a Turkish ship comes up with, it will have no credibility outside of Israel.

Lee and Suh conclude that “given the inconsistencies “ of the JIG investigation, the South Korean government should “re-open the investigation and form a new, and more objective” investigation. “The dead sailors deserve such a report. So does the international community.”

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Sowing the Wind

SF Examiner

Jan. 27, 2003


When the Bush Administration threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons last year, it did more than ignite the present standoff in North Asia, it opened a Pandora’s Box of proliferation.

The genesis of the present crisis goes back to the Administration’s 2001 Nuclear Policy Review (NPR), which proposed using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations, including Libya, Syria and North Korea. While the North Koreans have caught flak for withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, it was, in fact, the U.S. that violated the Treaty by making the threat in the first place.

Under the 1968 Agreement, signed by 188 nations, nuclear powers agreed never to threaten non-nuclear nations unless those countries were in alliance with another nuclear power. That pledge was the heart of the Agreement: signers agreed not to develop nukes so long as they were never threatened with such weapons by the major powers.

In spite of the insular and rigid nature of the North Korean regime—and anyone who describes its enemies as “beasts in human skin steeped in misanthropy to the marrow of their bones” is a tad odd—it is George Bush, not Kim Jong Il, who thumbed his nose at the international community. Washington, not Pyongyang, has dismantled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements, and is preparing to violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by testing its new “bunker busting” nuke.

How did this happen?

It happened because the spineless Democrats remained silent while the Bush Administration briskly demolished one treaty after another. And it happened because the United Nations Security Council is so cowed by the U.S. that it failed to challenge the Nuclear Policy Review as a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Where will this lead? How about a nuclear arms race in Asia?

North Korea is not the only proliferation problem on the Korean peninsula. In March 1994, the head of the South Korean National Security Planning Agency, Suh Su-Joong, revealed that former President Roh Tae Woo had approved a covert nuclear weapons program. South Korea has also successfully tested a mobile missile launcher and has more than 24 tons of plutonium on hand.

There are at least two other countries in Asia that can produce nuclear weapons within months if they so choose— Japan and Taiwan.

According to the CIA, Taiwan, Israel and the then apartheid regime in South Africa tested a nuclear weapon over the South Atlantic on Sept. 22, 1979. We can assume the Taiwanese didn’t throw away the blueprints from that test and can recreate it any time it wishes.

And in May of last year, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, said that Japan was considering abandoning its long-term opposition to nuclear weapons. In the face of Korean and Chinese alarm, the government backed away from the statement, but experts agree it would be easy for Japan to build nuclear weapons.

How about nuclear weapons in South America?

Early this month, Brazil’s Minister of Science, Roberto Amaral, said that Brazil could not afford to renounce any form of scientific knowledge, “whether the geome, DNA or nuclear fission.”

Brazil’s 1988 constitution forbids nuclear weapons, and the left-wing government of President Luiz Inacio da Silva quickly distanced itself from Amaral’s remarks. However, Brazilians are well aware of the inequality that the Non-Proliferation Treaty enforces on the world. Back in September, Da Silva himself said that “If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?”

Both Brazil and Argentina have nuclear programs dating back to the 1950s and, during the period of their respective military dictatorships, pursued nuclear weapons research. Both countries have also signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but Brazil has cause to be jumpy, given the Bush Administration’s attitude toward left-wing regimes in Latin America.

Republican heavyweight Rep. Henry Hyde, chair of the House International Relations Committee, calls Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela a Latin “axis of evil” and says Da Silva is a “pro-Castro radical.” Constantine Menges, President Reagan’s Security Director for Latin American Affairs and former National Security Council member, says this “new axis” is linked to Iraq and Iran.

Talk like that ought to make everyone nervous these days, particularly with right-wing extremists like John Bolton, Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams heading up the Administration’s Latin America policy.

If Brazil decides to take this “axis” stuff seriously, it may indeed decide to go nuclear. If Brazil builds a bomb, so will Argentina.

Sow the wind, reap the storm” goes the old dictum. The Bush Administration has been sowing nuclear threats since early last year, and we are reaping the results of that policy.

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No Gun Ri

SF Examiner

Jan. 5, 2001

No job is more important for the press in this country than to confront the amnesia of the powerful. When the lights go out in California, we need to look at who thought deregulation was such a great idea and, if they are still in office, suggest they pursue a different line of work. When Washington tells us that intervening in the Colombian civil war is in our national interests, the press should dust off the Pentagon Papers and the experiences of Vietnam and El Salvador, and remind people where such things are likely to lead. There are always people who want us to forget uncomfortable historical facts like slavery, Wounded Knee and My Li. But we in the press should know that we absent these things from our history at grave peril to our nation’s future.

Fifty years ago a terrible thing happened at a railroad culvert in the opening weeks of the Korean War. For three days American forces strafed, bombed, and machine-gunned hundreds of defenseless civilians at a place called No Gun Ri. While the event remained seared into the memories of both Korean and American survivors, it vanished from public knowledge until the Associated Press (AP) uncovered the story in 1999, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.

Score one for the press, right? Except that ever since the story broke in September, 1999, the most powerful newspapers in this country have campaigned to undermine the AP report and, rather than investigating the facts surrounding the tragedy, have joined with the powerful in obscuring U.S. responsibility for the massacre. In doing so, the press has revealed a deep undercurrent of racism and national chauvinism that is profoundly disturbing.

The AP story, initially generated by the wire service’s Seoul office, was reported by a team of three reporters, two in the U.S., one in Korea. The team researched U.S. military documents and conducted interviews with almost 50 U.S. veterans and Korean survivors.

When the story first appeared, the Pentagon denied everything: The unit involved, the 7th Battalion of the First Cavalry Division wasn’t at No Gun Ri (it was); There were no orders to fire on civilians (there were and AP produced them); there was no “massacre” (somewhere between 100 and 300 people died). Finally, the Army attacked the testimony of the GIs themselves. It turned out one of AP’s sources was never at No Gun Ri, and another might or might not have been. As for the Korean survivors? U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera dismissed their memories as “unreliable.”

Okay, so we have a good old-fashioned firefight here, made to order for the watchdog press, right? We know the drill: double check the documents, interview AP’s sources, and try to develop some independent material. Find out the truth. Is that what the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and New York Daily News did? No. Instead they focused on the GI who wasn’t there, and didn’t bother to interview a single Korean survivor.

Like the massacre 50 years ago, the victims were simply erased, this time with the concurrence of the press. Does the press really think that 78-year-old Lee Sok-Jo forgot the death of her son? That Chung Koo-ho, 61, doesn’t recall the death of her mother? Or that Park Sun-yong doesn’t remember she lost her five-year-old daughter and her two year old son? That Cho Byong Woo fanaticizes about being strafed by U.S. aircraft?

There is an old saw in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” a saying editors and reporters like to toss around to demonstrate their commitment to seek out the truth. So did the press go talk to the Lees, the Parks, the Chungs and the Chos? No, and the only conclusion one can draw from that is they didn’t because the sources are Koreans.

Can you imagine the press talking to the Serbian army, but not Kosovo Albanians? To SS soldiers, but not concentration camp survivors? To Hutus not Tutsis? But in the avalanche of articles attacking the AP story (U.S. News and World Report did a 10 page special titled “Doubts about a Korean “massacre’”), not a single reporter bothered to interview a Korean No Gun Ri survivor.

While the press puts quotes marks around it– the U.S. cannot even get itself to use the word massacre–Army Secretary Caldera said, “I think there was loss of life there, and that is regrettable,” says Army Secretary Caldera. When British troops killed five men on March 5, 1770, American historians had no problem calling it the “Boston Massacre.” Rather than apologizing and offering compensation, the U.S. is proposing to build a memorial to all civilian deaths in the three-year war and fund a scholarship in memory of the No Gun Ri victims.

The Koreans, to put it mildly, are more than a little unhappy. “There is only one truth,” says Chung Koo Do, a survivor and spokesperson for the No Gun Ri victims, “but they (the U.S.) are making two ‘truths’.”

Aided and abetted, I would add, but the nation’s leading print media.

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Korea, The US and China

SF Examiner

Conn Hallinan

Sept. 7, 2001

During1989 two events occurred in Asia that reveal a great deal about U.S. policy towards that region.

In early June, Chinese army units fired on students and workers in and around Tiananmen Square, killing and injuring anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people. The story was front-page news for weeks, and the event continues to cast a pall on U.S.-Chinese relations.

A few weeks before Tiananmen, the South Korean National Assembly asked the United States for materials on a very similar massacre nine years earlier in the South Korean city of Kwangju. In May 1980, South Korean troops had opened fire on demonstrators protesting a military coup by General Chun Doo-hwan, killing and wounding anywhere from several hundred to several thousand. Very few Americans every heard of the event.

The difference between the two incidents is that the Kwangju massacre could not have taken place without the direct involvement of the U.S.

Most Americans are unaware that up until 1994, the South Korean Army (SKA) was under the direct control of the U.S. military (in the event of war it still is). SKA units took part in military coups in 1961 and 1979 with U.S. approval. In 1980, when Kwangju residents poured into the streets to protest the military regime, U.S. Ambassador William Gleysteen, and U.S. military commander, General John Wickham, demanded that the authorities suppress the demonstrators and okayed the release of the SKA’s to crush the protests.

The request for information, including testimony by Gleysteen and Wickham, and the refusal of the Bush (senior) Administration to provide it, went unreported in the U.S. media, and to date most Americans have still never heard of Kwangju. But U.S. stonewalling on the matter has deeply angered Koreans and underlines the long and disquieting relationship between the U.S. and Asia, dating back to the 1898 Philippine War.

It is time Americans took a close look at the past century of U.S. involvement in the region, and to start asking—and answering—some very hard questions.

A good place to start this examination is with three books: Historian John Dower’s “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War”; Sociologist Chalmers Johnson’s “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire”; and “The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War” by Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza.

The Pacific Basin has long been America’s biggest market. Its importance is illustrated by the fact that the U.S. has fought three major wars in the area over the past 60 years, and still has over100,000 troops in the region.

What is not common knowledge, however, is how deeply the issue of race has driven U.S. policies in the area. Dower’s book is a searing indictment of U.S. racism vis-a’-vi Asia, tracing its origins back to 19th Century genocidal policies directed at Native-Americans. At times the two were directly linked. In 1854 Chinese were barred from testifying in court cases because it was decided that they were the same race as Indians, who were already barred.

But it was in the Philippine War that the U.S. laid the foundations for what was to be official and unofficial policy toward Asians. In its brutal suppression of Philippine independence, the U.S. military killed over 20,000 insurgents and at least 200,000 civilians (some estimates are as high as 800,000). It was in this long and bloody guerilla war that the American troops coined the word “goo-goo” for the native insurgents, a word that mutated into “gook” during World War II.

Abiding racism is the only explanation for the savage treatment of civilian populations in Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia by the American military, including the massive firebombing of Japanese cities, the “free-fire zones” and body counts of Vietnam, and the targeting of civilian refugees during the Korean conflict.

The most chilling description of the latter policy is “The Bridge at No Gun Ri,” which chronicles a three-day massacre of hundreds of helpless civilians cowering under a railroad bridge in the early weeks of the Korean War. Assaulted by machine guns, artillery and air power, the survivors tell a tale straight from Dante’s Inferno. The book clearly demonstrates that official U.S. military policy towards Korean civilians was, in simple language, to shoot, shell and burn anything dressed in white, the traditional garb of the peasants. Moreover, No Gun Ri was just one of many such massacres.

A warning: “The Bridge at No Gun Ri” is riveting reading, but it will chill your soul. There are times you have to put it down and take a deep breath. These are not nameless victims under that bridge, but people whom the authors have brought to life: 10-year old Choon-ja, teenager Chung-Koo-shik, and 13-year old Yang Hae-sook, the “Golden Girl.”

The Clinton Administration expressed “regret” for the loss of life at No Gun Ri, but blamed it on panic by green American troops, rather than policy and explicit orders. With the publication of the book Sept. 6, however, that posture will be hard to defend. As this work so amply demonstrates, No Gun Ri was no accident.

While the South Korean government has been circumspect about pressing the U.S. on Kwangju and demanding an apology for No Gun Ri, the survivors of the latter have filed a lawsuit and are demanding Congressional hearings.

The past two administrations argue that the future is in Asia. But if the U.S. is to be seen as anything but a racist, imperial power, it will have to begin the painful process of excavating its own shameful past. It can start with Kwangju and No Gun Ri.

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