This year’s delegation trip to the DPRK occurred during a time of high military tension between the DPRK and the ROK. One example of this tension is that on our first full day in Pyongyang, we heard (leaked from the AFP) that Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Jong Un’s photographs were being used for target practice by members of the ROK military. One military official responded—almost as if to shrug away how serious of an insult this was for North Koreans—that this was done merely to “boost battle spirit.”
Over the past two centuries, military tensions on and surrounding the peninsula have been constant, from the guerilla fighting that occurred along the Manchurian/Korean border during Japanese colonialism, the “precision bombing” campaign that decimated the peninsula during the Korean War, to the ongoing military tensions between the DPRK and the ROK/US. Nuclear weapons have loomed as a significant source of military tension, as North Korea’s possession of them has often been blamed as one of the main reasons for international sanctions, as well as for the US’s consistent refusal to resume peace talks.
During this year’s delegation trip, we had two lectures that raised the topic of DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons. The first lecture, given by a researcher from the National Reunification Institute, focused on the ideological stance of possessing nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology. He described the fraught negotiation process between the DPRK and the US, as the US has repeatedly rejected any possibility of talking without the DPRK denuclearizing: “Denuclearization has always been the prerequisite for peace talks with the US. But what the US has to realize is that nuclear weapons is the result of a dual-process of aggravation and aggression.” Professor Jong Ki-Poong, from Kim Cholju Teacher’s College on History and Division, gave another lecture (broadly, on Korean history) that, when it came to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, also emphasized a dual process of aggravation and aggression. As Professor Jong Ki-Poong stated during his lecture, if denuclearization is the US’s first and foremost prerequisite for resuming peace talks (which would, notably, proceed the full disarmament of US forces on the peninsula), it suggests an underestimation of the legacy of US military violence on the peninsula. It also assumes that no one thinks that what happened to Afghanistan and Iraq would happen to the DPRK.
Another haunting provocation, traced along and within the country’s landscape: in the midst of bombing campaigns during the Korean War, a US military officer described the napalmed scenery of cities in the North (including Pyongyang) as ashed-over, “open, snowy spaces.”
The DPRK has, in some ways, built a military-defined society because the memory of war is that the
war never ended.
In interviews published posthumously, MacArthur said he had a plan that would have won the war in 10 days: “I would have dropped 30 or so atomic bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria” (ibid).
This excerpt from MacArthur’s memoir suggests why North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is not without provocation. Perhaps to be able to contextualize and understand North Korea’s position on possessing nuclear weapons (distinct and different from supporting the production of nuclear weapons, in the abstract) is, then, to make a peace movement possible. It is to move away from the question of nuclear weapons—emphasizing a dual process of aggravation and aggression—to the question of US occupation. It is to re-contextualize and historicize DPRK’s political maneuvering in order to make eventual denuclearization on the peninsula possible.