The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its dictator, Kim Jong-un, seem determined to demonstrate to the world, and particularly the United States, its nuclear weapons capabilities. With a possible hydrogen bomb test and two missile launches that have passed over Japan this month, tensions have been raised, with U.S. President Donald Trump implementing further sanctions and threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on the country.
But does North Korea pose such a threat with its ongoing testing? Why is the U.S. not considered a threat in similar terms? For one thing, it’s the only country to have actually dropped a nuclear bomb on a civilian population, two in fact, on Japan to supposedly to avoid a land invasion, save lives and bring about a “swift end” to the Second World War.
Yet this official narrative, pushed for decades, is being questioned by modern historians and no longer appears to hold up as it once did, especially as high-ranking U.S. officials themselves have questioned their use. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, said in his 1963 memoir, The White House Years: Mandate for Change:
“I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him [Stimson] my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.”
Chief of Staff to presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and former Chief of Naval Operations, William D. Leahy, also wrote in his 1950 Memoir: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons…”.
The authoritative United States Strategic Bombing Survey report, compiled by a board of impartial experts in 1946, also found that: “The Emperor, the Lord Privy Seal, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Navy Minister had decided as early as May of 1945 that the war should be ended even if it meant acceptance of defeat on allied terms”.
This conclusion was possibly influenced by a U.S. intercepted cable on May 5 1945, sent to Berlin by the German ambassador in Tokyo after he spoke to a ranking Japanese naval officer, it read: “Since the situation is clearly recognised to be hopeless, large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not regard with disfavour an American request for capitulation even if the terms were hard”.
In historian and journalist Edwin P. Hoyt’s 1986 study, In Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict, he explains why the Japanese were ready to surrender without the use of nuclear weapons:
“The B-29 firebombing campaign had brought the destruction of 3,100,000 homes, leaving 15 million people homeless, and killing about a million of them. It was the ruthless firebombing, and Hirohito’s realisation that if necessary the Allies would completely destroy Japan and kill every Japanese to achieve ‘unconditional surrender’ that persuaded him to the decision to end the war. The atomic bomb is indeed a fearsome weapon, but it was not the cause of Japan’s surrender, even though the myth persists even to this day.”
Historians have also argued that the bombs were dropped to send a message to Russia and ignite the Cold War. The U.S. understood the threat Russia and Communism posed to their expansionist plans to export their capitalist model globally.
General Leslie Groves, who directed the infamous Manhattan Project to build the Atomic Bomb, acknowledged : “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis. I didn’t go along with the attitude of the country as a whole that Russia was a gallant ally.”
And according to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, Secretary of State at the time, James F. Byrnes, understood the bombs main purpose was to “make Russia more manageable in Europe”. Winston Churchill, also understood this reasoning when he said: “we now had something in our hands which would redress the balance with the Russians.”
According to Tim Weiner in his book “US Spied on its World War II Allies”, a Venezuelan diplomat reported to his government after a May 1945 meeting that Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller had said U.S. officials were: “beginning to speak of Communism as they once spoke of Nazism and are invoking continental solidarity and hemispheric defense against it”
This insight questions the pervasive narrative and reasoning behind the dropping of the bombs on Japan in the Second World War. It also highlights that the possible reasoning behind their use was not to end the war but to contain Russia and the threat of Communism, which brings us to North Korea.
North Korea: where’s the historical context?
In 1945 Dean Rusk, a colonel at the end of World War II, joined the U.S. Department of State and became instrumental in the division of Korea into spheres of U.S. (capitalist south) and Soviet (communist north) influence. According to American historian Bruce Cumings, Rusk had “consulted a map around midnight on the day after we obliterated Nagasaki with an atomic bomb” and with no experts having been consulted, the country was split at the 38th parallel line.
By 1950 the U.S. was at war with North Korea. Known as the “forgotten war”, partly because it had a number of different names — President Truman called it a ‘police action’ so he could get it past Congress — but also because many people today are unaware of the scale of destruction and slaughter that was unleashed there. It’s been estimated that 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm were dropped on the country, more than had been in the entire Pacific Theatre of World War II.
By the end of the war more than three million Koreans were believed to have been killed, mostly in the north, which is more deaths than during the U.S. bombing and destruction of Japan. Head of U.S. Strategic Air Command at the time, Curtis LeMay, said afterwards “we went over there and eventually burned down every town in North Korea…over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of Korea”. For comparison, 2% of the UK population was killed during World War II. Dean Rusk also later stated in an interview that “between the 38th parallel and the frontier up there we were bombing every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved. We had complete air superiority. We were just bombing the heck out of North Korea”. For North Koreans the threat of “fire and fury” from the Americans isn’t a distant memory, but a reality that fuels their xenophobia and hatred of the United States.
The drive by North Korea and Kim Jong-un to obtain nuclear weapons has a historical precedent which is little discussed, or outright avoided, in mainstream discourse. With the ever present threat of nuclear weapons lurking behind the rhetoric, relevant and important context as to the current thinking of the DPRK and its leader appear largely absent from the debate.
This includes a history of the DPRK making attempts to promote dialogue with the U.S. In 2015 North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear weapons tests if Washington cancelled its joint annual military exercises with South Korea. The U.S., under President Obama, “rebuffed” the offer, stating it was “inappropriate” to link the nuclear tests to their military exercises just south of its borders.
In 2016 North Korea again attempted peace talks, as State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed “to be clear, it was the North Koreans who proposed discussing a peace treaty”. Again this was rejected on the grounds that North Korea refuses to “denuclearise”. But if nuclear weapons acts as a deterrent why would North Korea halt its nuclear weapons programme?
As President Trump’s current Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, recently stated, “Kim Jong-un has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability.” Former director of intelligence, James Clapper, also said that nuclear weapons were North Korea’s “ticket to survival.”
And who can forget George W. Bush’s famous 2002 State of the Union address where he labelled Iran, Iraq and North Korea as being part of an “axis of evil” and sponsors of terrorism, looking to seek weapons of mass destruction. The following year the United States, along with the UK, invaded Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. Its leader, Saddam Hussein, was ultimately hanged and today the country stands in ruins with civilians still being bombedby U.S. led forces and attacked by ISIS terrorists to this day. As Coates states, Kim Jong-un is “not crazy”.
Before the DPRK conducted its missile test over Japan, The U.S. and South Korea were, like previously, conducting their annual war games with one exercise apparently involving a “preemptive offensive against North Korea”. What would Trump’s reaction be if Russia and North Korea decided to conduct war games just over the border in Mexico? The operation, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, involved UN Command forces from seven sending states, including Australia, Canada, Columbia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
When it comes to nuclear weapons the UK government currently holds a position more extreme than the DPRK. Both Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Prime Minister Theresa May have openly statedthey wouldn’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a first strike option, meaning the death of potentially tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
Korea has a long history of being invaded and attacked by foreign enemies. Prior to the splitting of the country into north and south, and the Korean War, it spent 35 years under the oppressive colonial rule of Japan, where dissent and freedom of expression were routinely crushed. What impact has this history had on turning North Korea into one of the most repressive regimes in the world today? Why is this history ignored by mainstream media and the public instead flooded with dangerous binary narratives of good vs evil and questions of “what would a war with North Korea look like?” Where are the calls for restraint and dialogue?
If the argument for nuclear weapons is that they act as a deterrent, why are we not welcoming the fact North Korea has them, thereby making us all safer? If all countries have a right to defend themselves, why is it only some should have nuclear weapons while others should be attacked for trying to obtain them? Has Western interventions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria made the world less safe by sending the message that “If you don’t have them, get them” at a time when the world is working to prohibit them.
Today’s nuclear weapons are a thousand times more powerful than the bombs dropped in 1945 on Japan. The ‘Tsar bomber’ detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961 was 3,333 times more powerful than the bomb used on Hiroshima. Even a regional nuclear conflict today could lead to worldwide suffering and starvation. As the situation continues to escalate President Trump was asked whether he would attack North Korea, he casually responded “we’ll see”.