20 June, 2020 — what’s left
By Stephen Gowans
“But peace cannot be hoped for on the basis of some making concessions and the others making none. Peace based on the demands of the other side is not peace, it is ignominious surrender, and no revolutionary country sells itself or surrenders.” Fidel Castro. 
North Korea recently blew up the “inter-Korean liaison office in the western border town of Kaesong,” an act The Wall Street Journal described, and other Western news media saw as, “provocative.” 
The liaison building, located in North Korea, opened “following a 2018 inter-Korean pledge to tone down military hostilities and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.” “At the 2018 opening ceremony, a large white-and-blue unification banner, showing the entire Korean Peninsula, was draped down the building’s front.” 
Now the banner, and the building, are gone. Hopes for peace between the two Koreas have, according to Western press accounts, dissolved in a puff of North Korean smoke.
In late April 2018 the leaders of the two Koreas, Kim Jong Un, from the north, and Moon Jae-in, from the south, met at Panmunjom, a village located in North Korea where the 1953 Armistice Agreement had been signed. The armistice brought the open hostilities of the Korean War to a close. Officially, however, the war continues, a peace treaty having never been signed.
At the ‘peace village’ Kim and Moon “solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there” would “be no more war on the Korean Peninsula” and that a new era of peace had begun. 
A little over two years later, the Panmunjom declaration is in shreds. North Korea no longer sees South Korea as a peace partner, but as an enemy.
What went wrong?
At Panmunjom both governments “agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict.” 
They also agreed to stop broadcasting propaganda through loudspeakers and through the distribution of leaflets, usually carried by balloons. 
Additionally, they pledged to embark on programs of mutual disarmament. 
In short, both leaders committed to refrain from provoking or threatening the other side. This presumably meant that the South Koreans would bring to a halt the war games they regularly conducted with the United States which the North Koreans regarded as dress-rehearsals for an invasion of their country.
Moreover, they would forbear from acquiring new and more lethal weaponry. In fact, they would do the opposite—reduce arms. And they would stop denigrating each other through broadcasts and the launching of propaganda balloons across their shared border.
Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech
On January 1 Kim Jong Un briefed his country on the status of peace talks with the United States, the other piece of the puzzle of how to bring about a new era of peace on the peninsula. The United States is, through the UN Command, a party to the Armistice Agreement, has nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, and has orchestrated the campaign to coerce North Korea into abandoning its nuclear arms.
Kim was frustrated. While Pyongyang had proposed that the two states engage in a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures, Washington was pursuing a campaign of maximum pressure, designed to strongarm Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons.  The campaign was, on the world stage, what Derek Chauvin’s knee on the neck of George Floyd was on the streets of Minneapolis—an act of suffocation designed to bring about submission, even death. Washington’s aim was to starve North Korea of oxygen by organizing a near-total blockade of the country, using occasional summits and meetings with the North Koreans as platforms for demanding a North Korean surrender.
Kim observed that while he had halted his nuclear tests, suspended his missile tests, and closed his nuclear-test site—measures taken to persuade Washington he was sincere in his intentions to work out a durable modus vivende with the West—Washington had done little in return. To the contrary, rather than acting to mitigate tensions, Washington had acted to escalate them. It continued to conduct joint military drills with South Korea (despite US president Donald Trump promising to suspend the exercises and Moon declaring at Panmunjom that all hostile acts against North Korea would cease.)
Washington had also escalated the military threat against North Korea by sending to South Korea state-of-the-art weaponry that far out-classed anything in North Korea’s conventional arsenal. Additionally, Washington had intensified its economic war on North Korea.
Kim said that Washington had evinced no commitment to peace and was simply buying time to allow sanctions to bring about North Korea’s surrender or collapse. Washington’s professed interest in dialogue and negotiations was pure theater, he said. North Korea had been played.
This, by the way, wasn’t the first time the United States had played North Korea. To dissuade the North Koreans from building nuclear weapons, after they had threatened to do so in the wake of the US Air Force announcing in the early 1990s that it was re-targeting some its strategic missiles away from the now dissolved Soviet Union to North Korea, the Clinton Administration promised to build two proliferation-safe light-water reactors in North Korea in return for Pyongyang shuttering its plutonium reactor. But Washington tarried on construction of the reactors, figuring that with the demise of the USSR, and the disintegration of the socialist bloc on which Pyongyang had depended for trade, North Korea would follow East Germany down the path of absorption by its capitalist neighbor. Why live up to the terms of the deal, when North Korea’s days were numbered? But when the prediction of an imminent North Korean collapse failed to pan out, Washington reneged on the deal, issuing a virtual declaration of war on the revolutionary government, listing it as part of an “Axis of Evil,” along with Iraq and Iran, two other countries that had also insisted on independence from the United States.
Kim acknowledged that North Korea urgently needed peace to afford the space, trade, and resources necessary to develop his country’s economy. That’s why he had agreed to talks. But he would not give up security for economic rewards.
The North Korean leader also observed that while the United States professed that its hostile actions were motivated by its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear arms program, the reality was that Washington had pursued a policy of unrelenting hostility to North Korea from the very first moments of the country’s birth more than seventy years earlier. Indeed, North Korea had built its nuclear arsenal as a response to US hostility. He reasoned that Washington would always find some fault with North Korea, and would never abandon its campaign to destroy the North Korean state qua state committed to achieving the freedom from foreign domination of Koreans as a nation.
As a consequence, North Korea must resolve, Kim said, to live with sanctions for as long as necessary. It would also expand its strategic weapons program to strengthen its ability to deter US aggression. North Korea’s goal, Kim said, was to build a national defense strong enough to deter any power from using its armed force against North Korea. We must be sufficiently armed, he declared, to keep hostile forces at bay so that they will never dare to undermine our sovereignty and security. 
Seoul’s failure to abide by the Panmunjom agreement
As Washington dissimulated negotiating peace with Pyongyang, Washington’s junior partner, South Korea, flouted the commitments Moon had made at Panmunjom. Seoul was buying advanced F-35A jet fighters from the United States, providing South Korea, already more advanced militarily than North Korea, with war-fighting capabilities light years ahead of anything North Korea could muster with its aging fleet of obsolete and frequently ground MiG fighters, acquired from the old Soviet Union.
At the same time, the South Koreans were allowing US pilots to fly strategic bombers through Korean airspace, rattling the North Koreans.
And while all this happened, Seoul continued to participate in war games with the United States. The exercises, as the North Koreans like to point out, are rehearsals for an invasion of their country.
Last year, North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, complained that South Korea “has persisted in the introduction of offensive weapons including F-35A and held more aggression war drills with outsiders … maintaining that ‘there is no change in military posture despite the south-north agreement in the military field’  – a reference to South Korea’s declaration at Panmunjom to “cease all hostile acts” that produce “military tension and conflict.”
The North Koreans further complained about the Janus-faced actions of their southern compatriots. As the South Korean military dismantled military posts and removed land mines from the Demilitarized Zone, it simultaneously carried out “military exercises with the foreign force and brought the latest military hardware aiming at [its] fellow countrymen” [i.e., North Koreans.] 
What’s more, despite explicitly committing at Panmunjom to end the distribution of propaganda leaflets, the practice continued. North Korean officials said balloons were released across the border 10 times in 2019 and three times in the first six months of 2020. 
When balloons were launched in June, Pyongyang had had enough.
A spark tossed upon the accumulated kindling
“Having seen that the balloons are still being launched and having observed reports that South Korea-US joint military exercises are continuing to take place at the battalion level and lower, North Korea” saw “South Korea as breaking the inter-Korean agreement,” explained Korean National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor Kim Joon-hyung. “There’s been discontentment building up over that, and it looks like it has now erupted over the balloon issue.” 
While talking peace, the United States and South Korea refused to depart from their hostile maximal pressure strategy. As always, the two countries cooperated to exert military, political, economic, and propaganda pressure on the Kim government—placing their conjoined knees on the DPRK’s neck—hoping the North Korean state would either surrender, or expire. Kim had grasped the open hands of Trump and Moon, at summits that had been billed as ‘historic’, but he finally had to concede that his interlocutors brandished knives behind their backs.
“When we say ‘imperialism is ferocious’,” Mao once observed, “we mean that its nature will never change, that the imperialists will never lay down their butcher knives, that they will never become Buddhas, till their doom. Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . until their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic. 
Despite their lofty words about peace, Trump and Moon have not become Buddhas.
This, however, isn’t the story told in the West. The Wall Street Journal says that “Seoul has long exercised restraint with its provocative northern neighbor, in hopes of drawing Pyongyang into peace talks,” and that Moon continues to encourage “the North to not give up on peace.” 
But a country that regularly carries out war games, incessantly expands its military budget, buys ever more deadly weapons systems, colludes with the world’s principal military power in incessant acts of intimidation against its neighbor, and continues to allow the scattering of propaganda leaflets denigrating its ‘peace-partner,’ can hardly be described as exercising restraint. Nor can such a country be described accurately as setting conditions favorable to the pursuit of peace on mutually agreeable terms.
So, rather than offering an account of the parties’ records in meeting their commitments, and then noting which party has succeeded and which has failed, we’re treated to an explanation of the breakdown of the Korean peace regime that lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the North Korean leadership. “North Korea’s near-term aim appears to be distracting its domestic audience from immediate economic challenges caused by U.S.-imposed sanctions and the spread of the coronavirus,” writes Andrew Jeong, The Wall Street Journal’s Korea reporter. “By labeling South Korea as an enemy, the North can blame any internal dysfunction on an external threat.” 
But wait. In creating economic challenges for North Korea by imposing ever more onerous sanctions, is the United States committed in any discernable way to peace on the Korean peninsula? Yes, if peace means elimination of an enemy. In Tacitus’s formulation, peace is the annihilation of the other side. And since North Korea’s economic challenges originate in Washington’s organizing a near total economic blockade of North Korea, fully supported and abetted by South Korea—to say nothing of the incessant US-South Korea military pressure which forces North Korea to divert scarce resources needed for economic development to its military—how could blaming “internal dysfunction on an external threat” be anything but a true and uncontroversial assessment?
If we believe the Western news media, by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office, North Korea has scorned hopes for peace on the Korean peninsula. But neither Washington nor Seoul were ever interested in peace, except on US terms, and US terms require North Korea’s surrender and its absorption into a hierarchy of nations in which the United States sits at the top.
North Korea has given its answer. It will not happen.
1. William R. Long, “Radicalism not necessary, Castro advises Sandinistas,” The Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1985.
2. Timothy W. Martin, “North Korea Blows Up Liaison Office With South, Seoul Says”, The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2020.
4. “Full text of Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” The Strait Times, April 27, 2018.
8. “Remarks of Vice President Pence at the 6th US-ASEAN summit,” November 14, 2018.
9. “Report on 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th C.C., WPK,” KCNA, January 1, 2020.
10. “KCNA commentary urges S. Korean authorities to be prudent,” KCNA, October 24, 2019.
11. “S. Korean Authorities Deserve Punishment: KCNA Commentary”, KCNA, June 19, 2020.
13. “Likelihood of N. Korea launching ICBMs or escalating military tensions is low, former S. Korean ambassador to Russia says”, The Hankyoreh, June, 15, 2020.
14. Mao Tse-tung, “Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle” (August 14, 1949), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 428.
15. Andrew Jeong, “South Korea Takes Harder Line After North Blows Up Liaison Office”, The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2020.