Friday, April 5, 2013

What Is the Sound of One American Flip-flopping?

Of course I've been watching the situation on the Korean peninsula, though not all that carefully.  I'm worried about my friends there, but it's hard to take most of the US coverage seriously.  It's the usual mixture of hysteria and posturing, but I know I should take it more seriously because the US is a threat to peace in Korea, as well as in Asia -- well, in the world -- generally.

When people I know have posted stuff on Facebook about this, I've mostly made fun of it.  On the one hand, the corporate media have been telling us (and my friends dutifully swallow it), North Korea is a clown show as well as a failed state.  Kim Jong Un is a fat nut, a joke, and so on.  But North Korea is also an imminent threat -- to the United States.  Most American journalists, and most Americans, don't care about South Korea.  They're worried that the North Korean army will flood across the Korean/US border, and conquer us without firing a shot.  Kim has threatened to fire missiles at us!  With nuclear warheads!  Never mind that as part of the clown-show coverage, most Americans probably are well aware that North Korea doesn't have missiles that can get very far off the launching pad, never mind fly the thousands of miles to get to us.  They could reach South Korea, but most Americans are vague about where that is, don't know much about it ("Gangnam Style" is about the limit) or world geography in general (as we're often told), and don't much care what happens to people in other countries.  I've seen the same pattern often over the years: US propaganda about Vietnam took much the same form, and more recently the US propaganda about Iraq.

I said as much in comments under a posting by a former Bloomington acquaintance who's been teaching English in South Korea for several years now.  (On occasion he's expressed contempt for his Korean students, which doesn't endear him to me.)  He replied peevishly that as a resident of Seoul, he had reason to be worried about the North.  But, I pointed out, he hadn't posted about the threat to Seoul, he'd posted about North Korea as an immanent threat to the United States -- and never mind that he'd been posting lots of clown-show material about Kim Jong Un.  (Making fun of Kim's weight, for example, which my acquaintance is in no position to cast the first stone about.)  He justified that as dark humor, given the circumstances, which I suppose was fair enough.

But his embrace of US and right-wing South Korean propaganda is not fair enough.  This acquaintance has never, to my knowledge, taken any notice of the ways the US has tried to destabilize the Korean peninsula.  I said most of this, and was intrigued by some of his friends' responses to me.  One assumed that I didn't know anything about Korea, had never been there, and didn't care what happened to Koreans.  I set him straight on that, mentioning my numerous friends there and my desire to live there someday.  In fairness, he doesn't know me personally, and couldn't have known of it; but he showed what happens when you assume.  He also took issue with my pointing out the flipping between treating North Korea as a laughable failed state on one hand, and a powerful, menacing threat on the other: he claimed that I'd made this up out of my "miserable imagination", though my English-teaching acquaintance's postings were a perfect example of this pattern.  It reminded me of the time a gay American soldier stationed in Korea demanded angrily where I'd heard the "propaganda" that South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship for over twenty years; from Korean history, I told him, and from Korean friends.

Hell, on my last visit to Korea I had a conversation on this very subject with a Korean, a middle-aged salaryman who approached me in the COEX mall in Seoul.  This was right after a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was sunk with some loss of life under circumstances that remain murky: the South Korean and American governments claimed the cause was a North Korean mine, but that has been questioned by sensible people.
After asking me the usual biographical questions -- where was I from, what brought me to Korea, what did I do back home in America -- he asked what I thought about the sinking of the Cheonan. Didn't I think that America would help Korea, as Mrs. Clinton had promised? I made a face, and told him I wouldn't rely too much on American promises. What, he asked, is she a liar? She is, I told him, and so is Obama: think of what they have said about Iran and numerous other countries. Besides, didn't he remember that in the Korean Civil War, the US had promised to help the South if the North attacked -- yet when that attack happened, there was no help until the South was almost entirely conquered?

He conceded that unhappily, but then he brightened and declared that there was nothing to worry about, because the North is very weak. There is no danger that they could do much damage to the South. I thought about that for a moment, then asked him why, if the North is so harmless, President Lee and the Americans are saying that the North is a deadly threat? That took him aback too. We chatted for a few moments more, and then we shook hands and he went on his way.
No, I wasn't making this up out of my miserable imagination.  I encountered similar confusion among other South Koreans, especially those who came from political and/or military families.  And within a day after my exchange on Facebook I found some useful links confirming my reading of American corporate media coverage of North Korea.   I've mentioned before the naval base the US has been building, against intense local resistance, on Jeju Island.  Its primary purpose is to "contain" China, but it will be even closer to North Korea.

FAIR, as usual, had a couple of excellent articles, demolishing the US stance of innocence.   This one describes joint US/ROK military "exercises," an ongoing form of entertainment ever since the Korean Civil War ended by truce in 1953.
So there are "exercises" right next door, conducted by the world's most powerful military, which possesses thousands of nuclear weapons; and then there's menacing saber-rattling.

While North Korea's apparent threats are obviously troubling, one doesn't have to be paranoid to take offense at those military drills. As Christine Hong and Hyun Lee wrote (Foreign Policy in Focus, 2/15/13):
The drama unfolding on the other side of the 38th parallel attests to an underreported escalation of military force on the part of the United States and South Korea. In fact, on the very day that Kim visited Mu Island, 80,000 U.S. and South Korean troops were gearing up for the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian. For the first time in its history, this war exercise included a simulation of a pre-emptive attack by South Korean artillery units in an all-out war scenario against North Korea. Ostensibly a defensive exercise in preparation for an attack by the north, the joint U.S./South Korea war games have taken on a decidedly offensive characteristic since Kim Jong Il's death. What’s more, a South Korean military official discussing the exercise raised red flags by mentioning the possibility of responding to potential North Korean provocation with asymmetric retaliation, a direct violation of UN rules of engagement in warfare.
In other words, there are some real world events that might bother North Korea's leadership–no matter what one might think about the level of North Korean paranoia. On much of the U.S. television coverage, the threats are virtually all coming from one side, without any explanation, and the United States is merely on the scene to bring down the level of tension. 
[P.S.  FAIR also did a segment on North Korea for their weekly broadcast Counterspin, which aired on Friday.  You can listen or download the podcast here.  Their guest was Tim Shorrock, whose excellent article on the background of the conflict went up at Salon on the same day.]

Imagine, as someone else suggested, that China was conducting military exercises in Mexico.  Remember, for that matter, how graciously the US welcomed Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, which were very plausibly there as a deterrent against US aggression against Cuba.  (This was right after the US had tried unsuccessfully to overturn the new Cuban regime by an invasion.)  As another source quoted by FAIR put it, both North and South Korean leaders are fulminating about what they say they'll do in retaliation if they're attacked.  The North, then, doesn't seem to be threatening to make the first move, though in the current overwrought situation, something could happen anyway.

Another FAIR post today reports how CNN brought in a retired American general to sketch out, at some length, what could happen if hostilities break out between the Koreas.
Well, this is all starting to sound pretty alarming. Until they get to the end of the discussion:
FOREMAN: But you don't think this will happen?
MARKS: Not at all.
Oh. Sorry to waste everybody's time, then.
This is CNN, mind you, not Fox.  Which is why you really have to bypass the corporate media almost entirely to get sane coverage of Korea.  Or of anything, really, but Korea's my subject today.

According to Democracy Now! yesterday, the Obama administration is "reconsidering" its bellicose stance toward North Korea.  A good idea, for the sake of all Koreans.