It didn’t take long. After all the talk about stopping US involvement in expensive foreign wars, a new target has emerged – North Korea, the one country no one wants to pick a fight with because you never know what it is likely to do.
Trump’s team say they are going to “turn up the volume” on North Korea as a result of its nuclear testing. Like most of what goes on in this isolated Communist state the nuclear tests cannot be confirmed to have taken place, although South Korean seismologists recorded credible tremors in the north at the time North Korea said it conducted the tests. Therefore the only way the US will be able to gain the required international support for any attack on North Korea, whether it is diplomatic or military, would be to use the tried and trusted propaganda of “rogue regime, brutal dictator, sponsor of terrorism” etcetera.
The problem with applying this rhetoric to North Korea is that everyone has always known this to be true. When the likes of Saddam or Assad are made into the new Western bogeymen it is often asked why they are being described in this way, however accurately, when nothing is being done about the North Korean leaders. If the US really cared about these things the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would have been first on the list since at least the fall of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor, regardless of the US embarrassment at failing to win the Korean War.
The US has achieved precious little with its policy of sanctions on the one hand and diplomatic outreach on the other. For over twenty years it has been trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme, only to see the stockpile grow larger and more sophisticated with no political movement on the part of the Kim dynasty. In fact North Korea claims that its weapons are so advanced it could destroy the mainland US if Trump attacked it.This may be fanciful, but no one knows exactly how fanciful, and after all the claims Western governments also made about the need for nuclear deterrence and the value of such weapons, they are not going to convince the public there is nothing to fear.
So why does the US suddenly care that North Korea is the hideous rogue state it has always been? Because political changes in the West have made North Korea into a country the US can understand. Previously its values and practices were so far removed from what Westerners could fathom that it was very difficult to engage with the country, other than dismissing it as a black hole best kept in darkness. Now Americans have voted for something disturbingly similar, for analogous reasons.
North Korea is no longer an ill-defined threat because it is different. It is a genuine threat because it is increasingly the same, and the US wants to destroy it before it has to admit that similarity.
Oh yes you are
Freedom-loving Americans would cavil at the idea that their country is anything like North Korea. But not only is it becoming so, it has chosen to take that path, whilst at the same time pretending the opposite, which is another very North Korean characteristic.
As the world’s last bastion of theoretical socialism, North Korea has always been tightly controlled by a tiny elite, as there is no other way to make a theoretical system work. Anyone who visits the country is accompanied by a state-appointed guide wherever they go, is only allowed to see and do what the North Korean government allows and is expected to pay their respects at the huge bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the country’s first two presidents, regardless of what their own politics might be.
The US may not force people to genuflect in front of statues of George Washington. But just like North Korea, it tirelessly promotes the superiority of its own ways and increasingly wants to impose them on everyone else, as the “reconstruction programmes” in the states it has sent its armies into testify. At one time part of this “American Way” was upholding the right of everyone to dissent, McCarthyite witch-hunts notwithstanding. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Trump’s campaign for the presidency was long treated as a joke even by his fellow Republicans, as it was based on a divisive rhetoric they assumed would alienate more people than it would attract. His message was simple: I want to put America First, and if you don’t agree with me you are not an American, and should therefore not be part of the debate. As with Brexit in the UK, those who disagree are seen as enemies of the state, who the “right-thinking” people can do anything they like to to, protect their beloved country
This principle is being applied in office. The Trump healthcare bill cannot pass Congress, so Trump blames the Democrats for this. As Republicans control both houses it is Republicans who are refusing to pass the bill. But Democrats must have done it because they are the opposition party, and as such traitors to “America”, which is whatever Trump happens to think this morning.
North Korea claims to have no political prisoners, yet it is known that it does indeed imprison people in inhuman conditions for their alleged political views. Furthermore, in order to ensure loyalty to the regime it does not simply punish the “offender” but three generations of their family, who are declared guilty by association even if they have no connection with the “crimes” or views of the accused individual.
The US is happy to preach human rights all over the world. At the same time it denies that practices such as water boarding, or infecting black US prisoners with diseases to observe the effects (as revealed by the late Gerry Brown when he worked on The National Enquirer), are human rights abuses and are being committed officially by the US government.
The Trump Administration is also making repeated attempts to impose a travel ban on people from certain Muslim countries, on the grounds that these individuals are threats to national security. Some of these individuals have visited the US many times before, and have family members living there. But all these people are guilty by association with terrorism due to accidents of birth, and are kept in detention centres on these political grounds, despite their only crime being to travel to or from the US as they have always done.
In order to justify their eternal rule the three North Korean presidents, three generations of the Kim family, are presented as almost superhuman beings whose magical qualities make them uniquely fit to rule. North Koreans are told that Kim Jong-il shot the lowest round of golf in history, and that he invented the hamburger. Current president Kim Jong-un is shown on TV helping pilots land planes, though he has no known pilot’s training, and North Korean schoolbooks now say that he began driving cars at the age of three and won a yacht race aged nine.
Donald Trump similarly presents himself as a superhuman being to whom the usual laws of nature do not apply. He ascribes his business success to some fantastic trait within himself which has helped him conquer multiple bankruptcies and get away with defrauding thousands of people and stiffing contractors, a trait he does not claim other people have. When asked his qualification for being president, he resorted to saying what wonderful words he used in his speeches and that because he was Donald Trump the whole political system was irrelevant, a stance which won him a lot of votes from the disaffected.
There are many more examples of Trump’s America becoming more like North Korea than it would ever admit. North Korea would welcome such comparisons, as they would be presented as showing the world how far its superiority was recognised. The US never would, but has to take action before too many of its own people see where it is headed.
We just do it openly
North Korea does not want the rest of the world seeing too much of it. Information about the country and its people is strictly controlled, and whatever is released is a hymn of praise to its semi-divine leaders. But in this it is merely following another long established US trait, that of inventing convenient enemies to prevent people seeing the US’s own failings.
It was the Western powers who made the Pahlavi dynasty the Shahs of Iran; they did not emerge from the people. They were never to shake off the perception that all their power and wealth, and human rights violations were a foreign imposition on the Iranian people. But Khomeini’s Iran was made into a pariah because the US didn’t see his revolution coming. The US couldn’t admit its mistake, so the country which pointed it out by its actions had to be the enemy, and its government called a brutal dictatorship by the same US which gave torture training to other brutal dictatorships it supported.
Bashar al-Assad has a number of human rights violations to his name, and many detractors even amongst those who agree with him politically. Yet he is still in power, even though his political movement, Baathism, was thrown out of Iraq on US initiative. Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and when he was bashing Khomeini he was presented as the good guy. So to justify the invasion of Iraq all Baathists must be evil, sponsors of terrorism and oppressors of their people, and the last remaining one is an anomaly whose continued existence weakens this case.
This the US method of doing what North Korea does: cloaking its problems under a veil of secrecy. If the US is challenged over such actions, we are expected, like the North Korean public, to automatically accept that the US must be right and well-intentioned and have better values than the enemy it is opposing.
The US is right in thinking that most people around the world share its professed values of freedom, democracy and human rights. But even after long experience it cannot understand on an official level that it is taken at its word, and alienates people precisely because it acts contrary to those values in the real world. On the basis of what we have seen of Trump, who promised to drain the swamp, this situation is only likely to become more extreme, and therefore the US will be ever more tempted to act against any reminder of its own errors.
From brick wall to mirror
North Korea’s blind confrontation with the rest of the world over its nuclear weapons programme is a genuine issue. It has had a military first policy since the collapse of the USSR pulled the economic plug and there was no other way it could show it was doing anything of value. The Western enemies North Korea has identified, who it claims are occupying South Korea, are not going to get anywhere by negotiating about weapons with a regime which has these weapons because the enemy insists on having them too.
There is no real opposition in North Korea because everyone’s life is tightly controlled. Even if people think things against the regime they do not have the practical possibility of doing them. The only way it will collapse is from within, if no one believes in the system anymore, but this doesn’t appear to be happening.
North Korean defectors to China during the Great Famine of the 1990s were not all hostile to their government or its repressive social system, and many went home after earning enough money. Though successive high profile defectors have described a regime in crisis it has still convinced enough locals to remain in power, at least for now.
So if the US wants to be belligerent towards North Korea it will find a regime determined to go down with all nuclear warheads blazing. It is not going to play by the rules, that’s only for pussies or Democrats. There is no point appealing to its better nature because everything it does is automatically right, like the Trump White House. The people must support the government because they elected Kim Jong-un with 100% of the vote, just like Trump was elected with the greatest ever Electoral College win by a Republican, or so he says even when it is not so.
The US has finally got round to addressing the horrors of North Korea because now it gets what the country is about. No longer is it an impenetrable place with an impenetrable system, it is what the US is itself choosing to become. Not only has the US made multiple mistakes to allow North Korea to become such a threat, it has adopted the same logic without realising it. This, rather than North Korea’s weapons, is what the US will ultimately be unable to face.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.