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Trump’s Strangelovian Nuclear Presidency
Christine Hong - November 2017
By Christine Hong. In recent months, the American public has engaged in rare self-reflection with regard to US foreign policy. With the US mainland now theoretically within North Korean nuclear striking range, it has for the first time ventured to look at itself through North Korean eyes and, much to its consternation, seen Donald Trump. The days when Americans exercised cavalier disregard with regard to US regime-change policy toward North Korea—even as that disastrous policy has defined the official US posture from the Korean War’s hot fighting days to the present—now appear to be largely over. The key question is whether this reckoning comes too late.
On August 8, Trump astonishingly appeared to draw a line at North Korean speech acts. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he ranted to the media and, to underscore his point, followed up with a description of retaliatory consequences, “They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen.” That his own threat to obliterate North Korea fell around the anniversary of the atomic catastrophe the United States had visited on Japan some seven decades earlier and echoed Harry Truman’s warning to Imperial Japan did not go unnoticed. Since Trump’s drawing of the line, however, North Korea has fired two ballistic missiles over Japan, conducted a sixth nuclear test of what it stated was a hydrogen bomb, and threatened an “unimaginable strike at an unimaginable time” on the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier which has been engaged in joint strike drills with the South Korean navy in the waters just off the Korean peninsula. At least thus far, Trump’s annihilationist rhetoric toward North Korea has amounted, as Korean War historian Bruce Cumings recently noted in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” Yet given the ricocheting potential of his words to signify untold death and environmental ruin not just “over there” but “here,” few can afford to ignore them. Indeed, every off-the-cuff comment and tweet as well as carefully vetted statement from Trump have sent ripples of alarm through an increasingly unnerved American public and, with the arguable exception of the Japanese right under Shinzo Abe, distressed US allies around the world.
North Korea may long have been described by North Korea watchers as opaque, with ex-CIA Seoul station chief and former US ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg dubbing it as “the longest-running intelligence failure in the history of espionage,” yet it is a curious feature of our contemporary moment that the speculative business of tea-leaf-reading has shifted to the pressing task of deciphering Trump’s North Korea policy. For those seeking to crack the code of his ultimate intentions toward North Korea, the relationship of words to deeds when it comes to his potentially Strangelovian nuclear ambitions has been hard to determine. Is he truly “locked and loaded,” ready to rain down “fire and fury,” willing to “totally destroy” North Korea and take out its leadership? Has he seriously entertained the Pyrrhic prospect of denuclearizing North Korea by way of nuclear means, a measure that he surely realizes would devastate regional allies and rebound in harm onto the United States? Will his theatrical threats materialize in the form of apocalyptic action? Whereas few doubt North Korea’s resolve to remain a nuclear power—since 2012, it has affirmed its status as a nuclear state in its constitution—less clear are the lengths to which Trump is willing to go to achieve his stated goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
On top of what media commentators have inadequately referred to as a “war of words” between Trump and Kim Jong Un, both the United States and North Korea have continued to flex their military might, with spectacles of force substituting for dialogue in this bleak moment. On October 22, the Pentagon announced that the US Air Force’s fleet of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers would be placed on indefinite 24-hour alert status. This is just the latest escalation in what might be called a war of the spectacle, a back-and-forth exchange of publicized strategic measures, missile tests, and staged military maneuvers that have stopped short of direct military engagement. (Here, we should recall that Trump and his administration made clear that the US attack on a Syrian airfield and its “mother of all bombs” strike in northern Afghanistan this past spring were meant to double as object lessons for North Korea.) If warfare between nuclear powers has emerged as a virtual affair—as cultural theorist Rei Chow states, in order to “terrorize the other, one specializes in representation, in the means of display and exhibition”—the fact remains that the line between the show of force and the use of force is all too thin.
Whether the words of Trump, who commands the world’s most powerful military, prove to be bluster by a former reality-TV star, he has left little room for face-saving exit possibilities. Taken on the whole, his words have suggested a disdain for dialogue and an itchy-fingered willingness to trigger a “military option.” His autocratic sensibilities, coupled with growing awareness of the profoundly undemocratic scope of US presidential war powers, have fostered a climate of national and global insecurity. On September 19, standing before the United Nations, Trump unabashedly declared a genocidal willingness to wipe out North Korea, signaling to the world what human rights scholars have described as “his criminal intent in advance.” Exacerbating the intensifying sense of doom, nuclear weapons experts have assessed Trump’s presidency to be a “nightmare.” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a one-time staunch Trump ally, likewise sounded the alarm in a recent interview with the New York Times. In Cassandra-like fashion, he condemned Trump’s bellicose threats as potentially hurtling the United States down “the path toward World War III.”
Championing surprise as a signature feature of his foreign policy, Trump has not been averse to fanning the flames of fear. On multiple occasions, he has hinted darkly at what lies in store for North Korea. In an interview with Fox News, Trump acknowledged that his baiting phrase, “calm before the storm,” which he used following his October 5 conference with top military officials, was specific to what has amounted to be his “you’ll find out” North Korea policy. That he has also kept the political establishment in the dark can be discerned from the frantic flurry of legislative activity aimed at checking his capacity to start a nuclear war. In recent days, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for legislation that would curb the president’s unilateral power to launch a nuclear first strike. Representative Ted Lieu and Senator Edward Markey have introduced a bicameral, Democratic National Committee-backed “First Use of Nuclear Weapons” bill that would require Congress to declare war before the President could authorize a nuclear strike. Democrat John Conyers, a Korean War veteran, and Republican Thomas Massie will soon be introducing a “No Unconstitutional Strike on North Korea Act” that also aims to forestall any unilateral move toward nuclear war by Trump.
Fearful that the President’s prerogative of launching a nuclear war, if exercised, will rebound in consequences, including to the point of origin, Washington policymakers have belatedly sought to reform a nuclear kill-chain process that, in our present moment, arrogates apocalyptic power to Trump. Yet while seeking to avert the worst-case scenario of Trump making a bad call, few elected officials have conceded the imperialist nature of US foreign policy risks, as a structural given, the very real possibility of war. In other words, what Trump’s presidency has exposed is the dangerously undemocratic nature of US foreign policy. As Seymour Melman, a longtime critic of the military-industrial complex, observed, US foreign policy, like all “major policy orientations of US governments since World War II,” has “required the active use of military power.” Absent thus far from the conversation is reckoning, moreover, with the fact that current US-North Korea tensions stem, in the first instance, from the historical reliance of the United States on catastrophic military power to underwrite its coercive foreign policy on the Korean peninsula. Rather, on the alarmist basis of Trump’s erratic temperament, figures who previously voted for US military interventions and green-lighted Barack Obama’s trillion-dollar renovation of the US nuclear arsenal are likely to support measures that restrain or delay only the most egregious exercise of US unilateral aggression without viewing the latter as symptomatic of a policy orientation predicated on military force.
Although North Korea’s recent strides in nuclear weapons technology have challenged the terms of US-North Korea relations, on the level of substance, the measures Trump has adopted toward North Korea are difficult to differentiate from Obama’s pursuit of crippling sanctions that aimed to bring North Korea to heel; his refusal to suspend annual joint war games with South Korea that simulate the invasion and occupation of North Korea and the “decapitation” of its leadership; his undemocratic regional deployment of US missile defense/surveillance systems, including the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system; and his rejection of direct dialogue to end the as-yet unresolved Korean War. Obama, this is to say, maintained a hard line toward North Korea, and Trump is following suit. Yet with their strenuous insistence that “the era of strategic patience is over,” Trump and members of his administration have rhetorically sought to distance his North Korea policy from that of his predecessor. Their intimation is that Obama’s “strategic patience” policy failed because it was passive or weak. In promoting this revisionist interpretation, the Trump administration willfully overlooks the fact that Obama’s posture toward North Korea—unlike his policies toward Iran and Cuba—was premised not only on non-engagement but also on the vast remilitarization of the Asia-Pacific region under an aggressive “pivot” policy that ideologically mobilized North Korea as an indispensable enemy.
In the Shadow of Obama
In 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the July 27, 1953 Korean War armistice agreement that halted active fighting but did not usher in peace on the Korean peninsula, Barack Obama addressed an audience of American veterans, US military officials, and South Korean dignitaries in a joint US-South Korean ceremony in Washington, DC. Even as he attempted to frame the Korean War’s mostly desegregated frontlines as a watershed in the civil rights struggle, his core message was notable for its sheer illiberalism. Disquietingly, he maintained that the Korean War’s lasting lesson was that “the United States will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always.” In a plug for his militarized “pivot” policy to Asia and the Pacific, the region his administration had identified as “the dominant arena of strategic interaction” in the twenty-first century and America’s economic future, Obama represented what had been several decades of unending war between the United States and North Korea as a long, vibrant era of peace and stability: “What our allies across the Asia Pacific know—as we have proven in Korea for sixty straight years—[is] that the United States will remain a force for peace and security and prosperity.” Consistent in deflecting what it described as “come home” advocacy by Americans tired of chronic US military involvement in Asia, his administration reaffirmed, at this event and elsewhere, the US determination “to remain engaged and to lead” in the Asia-Pacific region. The Korean War “was no tie,” Obama insisted in his speech, skirting the fact the Korean War was not over. Countering conventional historical wisdom, he startlingly declared, “Korea was a victory. When fifty million South Koreans live in freedom—a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North—that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.” Perpetual war, it would seem, was good for something after all.
Indeed, it was under the Obama presidency that the militarized contours of a neo-Cold War structure, one aimed at China’s containment, emerged into view in the Asia-Pacific region. Against an economically ascendant China, Obama harnessed the portrait of an unpredictable nuclear-armed North Korea as the pretext for a heavily militarized US presence in the greater region—and in the process, lined the pockets of those that profit from the business of global instability and war. As Jang Jinsook, Director of Planning of South Korea’s new left-progressive Minjung Party, has pithily noted, “The US-North Korea crisis is a bonanza for the military industrial complex.”
During Obama’s two terms in office, the jingoistic image of an unhinged North Korea justified the accelerated deployment of missile-defense/surveillance systems in Guam and South Korea; the strategic positioning of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers throughout the region; the sales of military weapons to allies; amplified war exercises between the United States and its regional partners; and the entrenchment of the forward-deployed US military posture. It was specifically by exploiting the volatility of US-North Korea relations consequent to the Korean War’s irresolution that Obama achieved the vast re-militarization of the Asia-Pacific region, one of his signature foreign policy accomplishments. As Kang Jeong-Koo, professor emeritus of Dongguk University in South Korea, observed with regard to Obama’s Korea policy, “To reverse its loss of power, the United States has targeted global weak points: the divided Korean peninsula and the Middle East. […] From the perspective of U.S. foreign policy, the divided Korean peninsula offers a flexible occasion for a staging of power transitions within the arena of global politics. Korea can serve as a facilitator or a delayer, a weakener or a strengthener.”
Few people have trouble recognizing Trump, with his businessman’s approach to the military-industrial complex, as a merchant of death. His “America First” policy depends on the stripping down of social welfare programs, environmental protections, and diplomatic infrastructure while boosting military spending by hundreds of billions of dollars. His first weapons sale was a $1.42 billion arms package to Taiwan. With the specter of nuclear North Korea in the background, he announced in early September the easing of restrictions to enable Japan and South Korea “to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States.” Yet in hawking weapons to US allies in Asia, he follows a well-worn pathway forged by his predecessor. Trump and Obama, to adapt Alain Badiou’s critique, are “two forms of the same world,” the “world of globalized capitalism, of imperialist wars, and of lack of any idea concerning the destiny of human beings.” Obama may have come into office promising to “extend a hand” to those “willing to unclench [their] fist,” yet he refused to engage at all with North Korea, let alone conclude a lasting peace agreement. His administration slapped repeated rounds of sanctions on North Korea and denied the nation humanitarian aid, even when it made a direct appeal, in the hopes that the longstanding US foe would collapse. His unyielding and shortsighted posture contributed to North Korea’s determined pursuit of nuclearization as a guarantee of its survival. This is the legacy that his successor inherits.
Tragedy and Farce
In the Trump era, Western media caricatures tend to reduce the crisis between the United States and North Korea to a monumental clash of personalities, a farcical mudslinging contest between laughable yet monstrous figures: Mentally Deranged Dotard and Rocket Man. The implication is that these opponents make for an unlikely match of equals, with the one as rash, egomaniacal, and trigger-prone as the other. Yet in suggesting equivalence between the United States and North Korea, this smackdown narrative ignores the structural asymmetry that has conditioned US-North Korea relations from the unrestrained US air campaign against North Korea at mid-century to the present day. By lampooning North Korea’s defensive crouch against the world’s greatest military power as incomprehensible belligerence by a thin-skinned madman, this facile and ultimately jingoistic portrait inverts cause and effect, enabling the present-day consequences of the Korean War’s irresolution, including North Korea’s defensive steps to nuclearize, to be decontextualized as “provocations” that justify catastrophic “preemptive” violence.
The demonization of North Korea is, of course, nothing new. Donald MacIntyre, former Seoul bureau chief for Time magazine during the George W. Bush “axis of evil” years, noted that by adhering to a “demonization script” and “dehumanizing the other side,” Western media played its part in priming the public for war with North Korea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, although 65 percent of US voters, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, want Trump to negotiate with North Korea, a plurality of Republicans support the prospect of a US first strike. In this regard, “Rocket Man,” Trump’s derisive epithet for Kim Jong Un, serves as a warmongering device. By separating North Korea’s leader from the people and thus figuratively decapitating North Korean society in advance, it allows for the soothing fiction that US wars of intervention are surgical strikes against isolable bad guys rather than far-reaching humanitarian catastrophes. With its whiff of antiquated technology, “Rocket Man” casts North Korea as a throwback to the Cold War, diminishing its acquisition of nuclear weapons technology. Yet, it paradoxically also exposes Trump’s weakness, his militarized hubris and ahistorical failure to recognize that the US military, fresh off victory in World War II and technologically unrivaled in the world, proved no match for North Korea’s and China’s peasant armies during the Korean War.
It is no coincidence that post-Cold War, regime-change narratives routinely feature burlesque versions of tinpot dictators. Instead of viewing these figures, and the societies they reference, as intimate relations—what Arundhati Roy has described as “America’s family secret […] sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy”—Americans all too often perceive them as distant and inexplicable dangers that call out for further US war violence. Racist personifications of societies deformed by US war power soothe the American conscience and they do so by pitting the presumed illiberalism of incomprehensible social worlds against the freedoms of home. In this regard, it is revealing that US presidents insistently refer to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the world’s most heavily militarized border, as “freedom’s frontier.”
Yet the dictators that feature in America’s regime-change pretexts are incomprehensible because our relationship to those societies remains shrouded in a persistent fog of war. As a nation, the United States is afflicted with what Chalmers Johnson described as the amnesia of imperial powers. Few Americans realize that at the root of the present US-North Korea crisis is the unresolved Korean War, a remarkably dirty war that set the paradigm for subsequent US wars of intervention. Fewer still understand the key role Korea played in consolidating US war power by justifying the creation of a formidable crisis-generating, self-perpetuating, institutional architecture—the national security state, the military industrial complex, and the perpetual war economy. From mid-century onward, this is to say, the Korean War, although cushioned in a self-serving regime of forgetting, has been crucial to US imperial state-building and global capitalist hegemony. For those of us in the United States, the postwar peace “masks a reality in which we are all a product of Korea whether we know it or not.”
Yet in the shadows of the long postwar American peace are societies structured by the profound memory, indeed mass consciousness, of apocalyptic ruin—societies with the misfortune of knowing firsthand what it means to be on the receiving end of devastating asymmetrical US wars of intervention. For them, “fire and fury” is not an off-the-cuff bombastic comment, and “they won’t be around much longer!” is not a chest-thumping tweet. For North Koreans, the genre of war is tragedy, not farce.
The United States reduced North Korea to rubble during the Korean War, taking out even civilian infrastructure in heedless violation of international humanitarian law. Sven Lindqvist describes the war as “an unreal war”: “The US had absolute domination of the airspace over Korea, and the heavy bombers […] rained down death and destruction on the Koreans without ever having met a Korean in real life.” As he points out, less than half a year into the US bombing campaign of North Korea, “there was nothing left worth the bomb to blow it up.” Indeed, it was during this juncture that North Koreans learned to live underground. Chinese statistics suggest that North Korea lost thirty percent of its population. Of the four million Koreans killed during the hot-fighting phase of the war, seventy percent were civilians. French filmmaker Chris Marker visited North Korea as it was engaged in rebuilding its society from the ashes of the Korean War. His was a supple eye that perceived a supple reality. In Coréenes, he dwells on the suffering perceptible behind the hustle and bustle of a society in full reconstructive swing and observes, “Extermination passed over this land. Who could count what burned with the houses?”
North Korea does not weigh on the American conscience, though it should. With the election of Trump, the world may indeed be hurtling toward World War III, yet the danger of the present, which his presidency has exposed, resides in the structure of US power—its unilateralism and asymmetrical relationship to the rest of the world. The US president’s expanded war powers, including his unilateral nuclear-launch capacity, and the forward deployment of the US war machine did not arise with Trump. In the current tendency to exceptionalize the Trump presidency, however, may be a seed of hope. Just as Americans have for the first time seen fit to view the United States through North Korean eyes, so too have we been forced to defamiliarize our gaze toward North Korea. As Marker noted in his travels through North Korea, “The gaze of the victor, perhaps alone among all the gazes captured in Korea, seems lacking in modesty.” In the hubris of Trump’s gaze on North Korea, we might extract a powerful and broad argument, one that moves people to action, for peace at last on the Korean peninsula.
 “Invaders, Provokers Will Meet Most Miserable Death,” Korea Central News Agency, October 19, 2017; Bruce Cumings, “Americans once carpet-bombed North Korea. It’s time to remember that past,” The Guardian, August 13, 2017.
 Quoted in Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (New York: Basic books-Perseus Books, 2001), p. 60.
 Rei Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 33.
 Ben Kiernan and David Simon, “Donald Trump just threatened to commit genocide,” Washington Post, September 26, 2017.
 Jeffrey Lewis, “I’m a nuclear weapons expert. Trump’s presidency is my personal nightmare,” Washington Post, August 24, 2017.
 Jonathan Martin and Mark Landler, “Bob Corker Says Trump’s Recklessness Threatens ‘World War III,” New York Times, October 8, 2017.
 See “Asked to explain ‘calm before the storm’ remark, Trump talks North Korea,” Reuters, October 11, 2017; Andrew Prokop, “Trump’s odd and ominous ‘calm before the storm’ comment, not really explained,” Vox, October 7, 2017.
 See Mike Lillis, “Pelosi urges new law to limit president’s use of nuclear weapons,” The Hill, October 12, 2017.
 Seymour Melman, The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline (New York: Touchstone-Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 284.
 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice,” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, July 27, 2013.
 The description of the Asia-Pacific region is that of Kurt Campbell, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from June 2009 to February 2013. See transcript of “The Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia: A Conversation with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell,” The Foreign Policy Initiative, December 13, 2011.
 Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011.
 Jang Jinsook, “Honoring the Candlelight Revolution in a Time of Looming War in Korea,” trans. Hyun Lee, The Korea Policy Institute, October 11, 2017.
 Quoted in Christine Hong, “The First Year of Peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 11, 2012.
 Donald Trump, tweet, September 5, 2017, 8:36am, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/905047095488516098.
 Alain Badiou, “Alain Badiou: Reflections on the Recent Election,” VersoBooks,com, November 15, 2016.
 “Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” New York Times, January 20, 2009.
 Donald MacIntyre, “U.S. Media and the Korean Peninsula,” in Korea Witness: 135 Years of War, Crisis, and News in the Land of the Morning Calm, ed. Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun (EunHaeng NaMu, 2006), p. 405.
 See “U.S. Voter Support for Gun Control at All-time High, Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; Trump Helped Texas, Florida, Not Puerto Rico, Voters Say,” Quinnipiac University Poll, October 12, 2017.
 Arundhati Roy, “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” The Guardian, September 29, 2001.
 Cumings, War and Television (London and New York: Verso, 1992), p. 148.
 Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, trans. Linda Haverty Rugg (New York: The New Press, 2000), p. 127.
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