What’s North Korea Afraid of?

“Peace” clubs in U.S. schools are likely to teach that a local bully is afraid and in need of help. They are much less likely to teach that about entities involved in the actual subject of peace (meaning the absence of war), such as — to take the example momentarily most prominent in U.S. propaganda — North Korea.

“Ignorance about the Korean war,” writes Blaine Harden, “has . . . led to the cartoonish ahistorical understanding many Americans still have of contemporary North Korea. They know that a family of clownish-looking dictators named Kim has created a hermit state armed with nuclear weapons. They know that it is wildly belligerent toward the United States. But most do not know that the fears of North Korea’s isolated citizens are firmly rooted in history: they are afraid that Americans might once again raze their country. Thanks to the bombs and napalm dropped by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, the Kim family is able to stoke anti-American hatred and perpetuate its rule, all while telling a terrifying, fact-based story that most Americans have never heard.”

The term “raze” could benefit from a bit of elaboration. The United States dropped 30,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, much of it after pilots began complaining about the “scarcity of strategic targets” left standing. The U.S., in addition, dropped 32,000 tons of napalm on the Korean Peninsula, principally targeting civilian human beings where they lived. Still not satisfied, the United States dropped insects and feathers containing bubonic plague and other diseases in hopes of starting epidemics. The U.S.-led war on North Korea may have killed some 20 to 30 percent of the population of the North, not to mention those in South Korea killed by both sides, and killed prior to the war in enormous government massacres in which the U.S. was complicit. Few North Koreans do not have relatives who were killed or wounded or made homeless. So, their government’s propaganda rings true and personal to them.

The quotation above comes from a new book called King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spy Master in Korea. In this book, Harden tells the story of Donald Nichols, an uneducated, self-indulgent, obese American who never attended college or high school, but who at a young age ruled over his own personal branch of the U.S. war effort in Korea, while following few rules, committing countless atrocities, yet being tolerated by the top officials in the  U.S. government for the value they perceived in his work. Reading this account, one comes to an appreciation of how U.S. society really has advanced in the past 60 years. Nowadays, such a man as Nichols would not be kept in such a position. Nowadays he’d be elected president.

Nichols was given license to kill, spy, cheat, steal. He sent countless Koreans to their deaths in hopeless or near-hopeless spy missions into the North. Harden describes such people as “disposable” to Nichols, who said his bosses “wanted the answers. And in some cases didn’t want to be told how I got them. They knew it meant lives, sometimes many.” Nichols also freely murdered anyone he concluded was a double agent.

Nichols’ career skyrocketed when he formed a tight friendship with Syngman Rhee, the U.S.-based U.S. puppet flown in by the U.S. to rule South Korea in the name of “democracy.” Prior to and during the war, Nichols attended mass-executions of suspected Communists ordered by Rhee. Rhee held a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University, a master’s from Harvard (“Chelsea-Manning-Free-Zone”) University, and a doctorate in international law from Princeton (which must be very proud).

Rhee’s government killed tens of thousands of South Koreans before its war with North Korea officially began. Nichols helped out with a truckload of rifles.

Glossed over in Harden’s telling is that Rhee also helped to begin the war with the North by sending forces on raids across the border and seeking to provoke the other side. In Harden’s telling, Nichols accurately predicted Northern aggression, while the rest of the U.S. military failed to see it or chose not to see it coming. It’s worth adding, perhaps, that the information Nichols was passing along to the U.S. was coming in significant part from Rhee, who was not simply observing. His ability to predict the war surely came in some part from the fact that he was trying to start it. While the North’s major invasion of the South is understood as the big initial phase of the war, which side actually kicked the thing off is far from clear.

When the North invaded, Rhee seized the opportunity to slaughter tens of thousands more of his own citizens suspected of communism, as well as to murder many more through incredible feats of incompetence, including blowing up a bridge in Seoul full of people and necessary for escape.

By Harden’s account, Nichols added a great deal of competence to the U.S. effort to kill large numbers of North Koreans. He unearthed the most useful information on the other sides’ targets and technology and personalities. He recruited defectors and elicited information. He trained guerilla fighters and saboteurs. He wrote brilliant detailed reports. (I haven’t seen these reports and wonder how they fit with Harden’s later account of Nichols hiring a teacher to assist him with “organization and grammar” when he wrote his autobiography.)

When the U.S. finally gave up on the war and called a 64-year timeout, Rhee visited Washington and demanded that the war continue. President Eisenhower then said something to him at the White House on July 27, 1954, that it might be useful for someone to say to both Trump and Russiagate promoters today:

“When you say that we should deliberately plunge into war, let me tell you that if war comes, it will be horrible. Atomic war will destroy civilization. It will destroy our cities. There will be millions of people dead. . . . If the Kremlin and Washington ever lock up in a war, the results are too horrible to contemplate.”

Nichols was known in North Korea and publicly tried there in absentia for his crimes. That this was never reported in the U.S. media, Harden attributes to numerous possible motives not including media obedience to the U.S. government. When the U.S. turned against Rhee it turned against Nichols. He was fired for unclear reasons — officially for things that had been tolerated for years. He was forcibly restrained, drugged, and electro-shocked, despite the absence of any evidence before or after of psychological illness. His treatment did not benefit him any more than what he had helped do to Korea benefitted Korea. The U.S. military used him for evil purposes, chewed him up, spit him out, and began working on ways to condition the public to reflexively “support the troops.” After all, another war in Asia might be coming, and Ken Burns wasn’t around yet to help.

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