Okay, here we go again. In a culture dominated by retro products and movie remakes, hitting the replay button on the same old wars seems as natural as driving a 2011 Mustang.
But we’re not really hitting the replay button in Korea. The Korean War, which claimed more than two million lives between 1950 and 1953, never actually stopped. The 1953 armistice, while predating the peak of the tailfin era for cars, didn’t end the war. It just put most of the war’s drama on hold. And that’s where it stayed for 60 years—on ice, frozen in time. Maybe it’s global warming thawing out the Cold War, or, as the dominant narrative would have it, simply the unhinged hyperkinesia of a nuclear-armed madman. Imagine Carl Paladino with the bomb.
To understand what could, by next week, be a full-fledged nuclear war, we need to examine the pieces of this puzzle. First off, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with a capital “D” for “democracy.” We call it “communist.” It’s neither. It’s militarist. Its starving population is enslaved in service to a military dictatorship that steals their labor. The fruit of their toil is expressed as demented performance art—one of the poorest malnourished nations on earth parading one of the mightiest military machines. It’s like looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror. It’s a military-industrial complex fantasy—the ultimate security state. It’s the guy across the street who beats his wife and kids—the guy nobody wants to talk to.
North Korea is the bastard child of the US-Soviet Cold War. It’s a living archeological artifact left to remind us just how insane the Cold War was. When the Iron Curtain finally fell, when Nike colonized Vietnam and China bought the US economy, North Korea was left festering like an ugly sore no one wanted to remember they had. Apart from the North’s periodic assassination attempts against South Korean government officials and whatnot, the Korean War lingered, out of sight, for 61 years, as 11 successive US presidents sidestepped the contentious issue of resolving it.
As the new millennium began in 2000, a bit of sanity shined over the dueling Koreas, as both countries signed a joint declaration to seek a final and lasting peace. US Secretary of State Madeline Albright even paid a courtesy call on the North Korean dictator. Things got a bit hot on the peninsula, however, after George W. Bush, in his childish 2002 State of the Union address, prodded the DPRK with a hot poker, terming it a member of his “Axis of Evil.”
This rhetorical attack against North Korea, while key to Bush’s Little Man Machismo act, didn’t play well with the DPRK’s even littler and more machismo Kim Jong-il. A few months later, Kim fired up his nation’s mothballed nuclear reactors. Bush didn’t lighten up with his Korea-Axis shtick, which was made even more threatening by the fact that the US actually invaded another so-called Axis of Evil nation, Iraq. And so, in 2003, Kim Jong-il pulled his country out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and George W. Bush called him a “pygmy.” In 2006, the “pygmies” exploded a nuclear bomb, perhaps sealing George W. Bush’s historic legacy.
Fast-forward to this year. In March, North Korea sank a South Korean Navy ship. Then, the nuclear-armed DPRK, in what the US media generally terms an “unprovoked attack,” launched a missile attack against a South Korean island, primarily shelling a military base. Unlike the naval attack, which the North denies they committed, they’re taking full responsibility for the missile. And unlike previous incidents, this one leveled homes and killed two South Korean civilians. Suddenly, 60 years after the armistice, the Korean War once again has become hot. Only now, the stakes are so much higher, with North Korean missiles able to deliver nuclear bombs to Seoul, Tokyo, and even possibly, the US president’s hometown of Honolulu.
The “unprovoked” nature of the recent attack on South Korea makes the whole scenario even more frightening. Normally, when someone is pissed at the US, we can usually figure out why. Hence, we usually have the option to mitigate their anger by ceasing to do whatever it was that offended them—or not. The point is, we’re used to having the ball in our court. An unprovoked attack is a different story, limiting our options for a peaceful resolution. And it’s easy enough to believe this was an unprovoked attack, since Kim Jong-il appears to be mad as a hatter.
But it turns out this latest bit of Korean Peninsula insanity wasn’t exactly unprovoked. It was a radical over-response to South Korean artillery practice on the maritime border shared by the two Koreas.
The South Korean artillery fire was practicing in preparation for joint “war games” the US and South Korea are holding this week—off the coast of North Korea. Now maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem to be the best place to go and play war, especially in the wake this year’s naval attack. The DPRK, armed to the teeth and dying of famine, doesn’t really seem very playful. And have y’all noticed that the North Korean leadership is a bit nuts? They’re also paranoid, which is never good pathology when combined with “armed.” But their paranoia isn’t without cause, given the “Bush Doctrine,” and an ensuing US foreign policy centered on the oxymoronic notion of “preventive war”—what in oldspeak we termed “unprovoked war.”
With all of this in mind, perhaps peace games would have been a more appropriate activity this week. You have to stretch your imagination to even wrap your mind around such an alien concept. Sending a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier into a hot war zone, ostensibly as a threat to a belligerent party, is like responding to a fire with a tanker full of gasoline. But this is more than just stupid. On the part of the Obama administration, this ill-conceived use of force is also cowardly. This is because anything other than reckless force would be condemned by the fire breathing right as “appeasement” by a Kenyan-born sissy. It’s sad that we let our corporate punditry reduce our politics to this, but it’s still no reason to recklessly flirt with nuclear war.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.