What Does North Korea Want?

As of this writing, North Korea continues to fire test missiles in a barrage of defiance aimed at the U.S. and its regional allies, belligerently declaring its right to do so and threatening anyone who stands in its way with unspecified "physical" harm. What, one has to wonder, do the rulers of the Hermit Kingdom want?

Our clueless president claims it’s hard to read Pyongyang’s motives in all this, but that is disingenuous, at best, even for someone who makes a virtue out of his own ignorance. Surely Bush has noticed that there are presently some 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, allied with a well-armed South Korean force, facing off against a North Korean army of 700,000. No doubt he realizes, even if only vaguely, that his administration has consistently refused to engage in bilateral talks with the North Koreans, instead seeking to cloak negotiations in the context of "six-party" talks involving Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia. And perhaps he is even aware, to some degree, that the U.S. has stood directly in the path of North-South reunification efforts, actively discouraging the democratically elected government of South Korea from pursuing negotiations with the Pyongyang regime.

The flurry of missile tests proved at least one point that advocates of engagement have been making: North Korea represents no credible threat to the U.S. The much-vaunted long-range missile launched by the North Koreans crashed after only a few brief moments airborne. So much for all those screaming headlines about Pyongyang’s plan to target San Francisco with a nuclear-tipped Taepodong-2.

The real threat, if one exists, is to Japan, first and foremost, and to South Korea, where millions would be instantaneously incinerated if the North ever attacked, including those 30,000 American troops. But the fiercely nationalistic Koreans – and, make no mistake, the lords of Pyongyang are Koreans first, and communist ideologues second – would hesitate a good deal before launching such a ruinous attack on what is, after all, their own country. This constraint, coupled with the fact that the North is a rapidly unraveling economic basket case, pretty much rules out an unprovoked assault on the South. Let the Korean commies lob all the missiles they want into the Sea of Japan – they aren’t about to attack Tokyo, either. Unless, that is, the U.S decides to pick a fight. So what and where is the big danger?

In 2002, on the eve of South Korea’s presidential election, Richard Perle – the Darth Vader of the neoconservative movement, and then chief of the president’s defense advisory board – declared that war with the North might be necessary. This helped tip the election to the more conciliatory Roh Moo-Hyun, who, following in the footsteps of Roh Tae-Woo, pursued the path of national reconciliation and eventual reunification. Washington, however, opposed the newly elected president’s peace initiatives. George W. Bush pointedly refused to even talk directly to the North Koreans, labeling their regime part of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Saddam’s Iraq. This effectively put the kibosh on the desire of South Koreans to end the half-century-old conflict and rid the country of foreign occupiers once and for all.

This is the real question at the heart of the Korean standoff: what are American troops still doing there, nearly 60 years after Harry Truman dispatched them without congressional approval and in violation of the Constitution? The American troop presence is a testament to the permanence of all such "temporary" emergencies.

The American occupation of South Korea grates on our "allies," the South Koreans, almost as much as it does on the commies of the North. Numerous incidents involving crimes against South Koreans committed by U.S. troops have caused significant tensions between Washington and Seoul, and the current president of the ROK came to power vowing not to "kowtow to the Americans." This goes far in answering the question posed at the beginning of this column: the North Koreans want pretty much what the South Koreans want, and that is the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the reunification of the country.

One very much doubts that the Pyongyang regime envisions a united Korea under Kim Jong-Il, the eccentric heir to the throne bequeathed to him by his father, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean communist state. The South Korean economy is several times the size of the North’s, and the "workers paradise" that makes Stalin’s Russia look almost easygoing is seemingly on its last legs. An aerial view of the Korean peninsula at night shows the North plunged in near-total darkness, while the South shines with the brightness of capitalist prosperity. Famine plagues the North Korean dystopia, and one wonders how an army of 700,000 will fight if half the population is starving to death.

The political response to this ratcheting-up of the Korean "crisis" is going to be very interesting. There is every indication that the Democrats will take up the cry of "appeasement!" in response to the Bush administration’s "inaction." In a crazed op-ed piece for the Washington Post, former Clinton administration defense secretary William J. Perry and Ashton B. Carter, former assistant secretary, write:

"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of ‘preemption,’ which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.

"Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched."

The Perry-Carter scenario is based on the premise that Pyongyang’s test of the Taepodong-2 was bound to be successful, and that the North Koreans would then train their nuclear sights on U.S. targets. Now that we know they have no such capability, does this mean war can or should be averted? Of course not: the Democrats, you see, are determined to out-hawk the Republicans on this one. Having adopted the doctrine of preemption for their very own, Perry and Carter can certainly make the argument that success or failure doesn’t matter – as long as the potential for a successful test exists, then it is necessary and prudent to take out the North Koreans before they become a threat.

What is especially weird is the particularly dippy way in which these two Clintonites go into the details of just how this "precision" strike would occur.

"In addition to warning our allies and partners of our determination to take out the Taepodong before it can be launched, we should warn the North Koreans. There is nothing they could do with such warning to defend the bulky, vulnerable missile on its launch pad, but they could evacuate personnel who might otherwise be harmed. The United States should emphasize that the strike, if mounted, would not be an attack on the entire country, or even its military, but only on the missile that North Korea pledged not to launch – one designed to carry nuclear weapons. We should sharply warn North Korea against further escalation."

Imagine if North Koreans dispatched a demolition team to the U.S. and took out a military base where nuclear weapons are stored – would even the completely deluded propagandists of the North Korean regime utter such blatant nonsense to justify their brazen aggression?

"Comrade Americans, we aren’t attacking you – oh, no! And you can ignore that ominously glowing cloud hanging over most of your major cities – it’s nothing but a capitalist mirage to distract you from the truth, which is that we were just attacking an instrument of imperialist aggression. Long live our Glorious Leader, Kim Jong-Il!"

The rulers of the last stronghold of Stalinism and the American foreign policy elites inhabit the same Bizarro World: it isn’t just the neocons and the denizens of this administration who believe that they create their own reality – with words and armies. They’re only attacking the missile – is that what they plan on telling the Iranians?

If I were a Democrat, I would not make too much of a partisan play here. After all, the opposition can’t raise the question of just why this administration is relatively "soft" on the North Koreans, while it’s willing to go to the mat over Iran’s quest to join the nuclear club. The answer, of course, is that if Israel had been situated somewhere in North Asia, Pyongyang would today be a smoking ruin, along with much of the south. The world might be minus a few Japanese cities, but, once again, it would be made safe for Israel – and that, as John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt point out in their excellent Harvard University study, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," is really the starting point for policymakers of both parties.

The Democrats, of course, can’t afford to have this come up, because they’re equally culpable when it comes to our Israel-centric foreign policy, and so – if they’re "smart" – they’ll just confine their arguments to proving how the "national security Democrats" can apply the policy of imperial preemption far more creatively and decisively than those Republican pikers.

The solution to the Korean "crisis" is to recognize that Pyongyang is not a threat to the U.S., or, really, to anyone. They are mostly a threat only to themselves. The regime is on its last legs: desperate for cash, they have commandeered trains used by the Chinese to send much-needed aid – and have refused all Chinese demands to return the trains forthwith! The last Stalinist regime on earth is not long for this world: the irony is that our war threats provide the regime with its only basis for popular support.

The people may be starving, but, in the Korean case at least, they’d rather starve than be occupied or dominated by a foreign power. The intensity of Korean nationalism is often derided as "isolationism" – the entire "juche" concept that serves as the basis of the official ideology is based on the idea of national "self-reliance" – but it tends to come in handy when Koreans are faced with a foreign enemy.

The supreme arrogance of the Perry-Carter proposal is underscored in that the authors feel absolutely no obligation to consult the South Koreans: we are only to warn them, as well as the North Koreans, and then patiently explain with a sigh that we had no choice. Oh, and sorry about all that radiation. We’ll be glad to send over a clean-up crew and lots of Geiger counters.

Instead of allowing the Communist regime to implode and meet the fate of its former sponsors in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Bush administration has been exacerbating tensions between North and South, threatening Pyongyang, and doing everything to inflame Korean nationalists on both sides of the DMZ. We should have withdrawn from the Korean peninsula long ago. Instead, as in Japan, we are still guarding the Pacific perimeter of our Asian empire on the pretext of "defending" allies against nonexistent threats – or, rather, against threats largely created and maintained by a foreign policy seeking American hegemony in every region of the world, including North Asia.

What does North Korea want? Pretty much what South Korea wants: to be left alone. Is that really so bad? Yes, the North Korean regime is something out of George Orwell’s worst nightmare. But, as I said above, it can’t last much longer. Surely the advocates of "regime change" will agree that a peaceful Atlas shrugging – as in the case of the German Democratic Republic – would be preferable to a bloody war of "liberation" that could easily go nuclear.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].