Research and study of ideologies of social and national emancipation and their application to conditions within imperialist society

The nuclear issue on Korean peninsula. Speech delivered at a public meeting held organised by the Coordinating Committee of the Friends of Korea. Marx Memorial Library, London. 5 December 2006. [Some references lost — refer back to the original in New Worker, 9 February 2007.]


The purpose of my talk this evening is to attempt to provide information and to set out some of the factual background to the present nuclear crisis, which played a prominent role in the international news headlines over the last couple of months – to try and put that into some kind of historical and overall political context.

In setting out the background to the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, I want to say first of all that this represents three parts of unfinished business and one harbinger of possible future international development. The Korean issue represents the unfinished business of the national liberation movements against colonialism that played a huge part in the history of the 20th century; possibly the only part of the unfinished business of the World War Two struggle against fascism and Japanese militarism; and also the unfinished business of the Cold War. It also represents a harbinger of the possible future scenario for the development of international relations in the 21st century, namely a possible intensified rivalry or even clash between the United States and China in the future.

The historical context

In summary, Korea fell victim to imperialism like most parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 19th century, with various imperialist powers contending to establish their domination over Korea – the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, for example, was largely fought over the Korean issue. At the beginning of the 20th century, Korea finally became a Japanese colony. The Korean resistance to colonisation by Japan was continuous throughout history and the main form that it came to take was that of a guerrilla struggle under communist leadership led by Comrade Kim Il Sung. But as part of the post Second World War international settlement it was agreed that Korea would be divided, as was the case in Vietnam, except that this would be a temporary division pending the calling of democratic elections to form a united independent state.

It was agreed that Korea would be temporarily divided into a Soviet zone in the north and an American-occupied zone in the south. Those moves towards the reunification and independence of the whole country did not take place because as everybody knows the end of the Second World War was followed almost immediately by the onset of the Cold War by US and British imperialism, in particular, which froze the division of the Korean peninsula. In 1950 the Korean War broke out.

The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 – a war of unparalleled barbarity by US imperialism and its satellites. Some four million Korean people were killed in the course of this conflict. Every city and town in the whole of Korea was destroyed by US aerial bombardment. The US used chemical and bacterial warfare, and also threatened to use nuclear weapons against Korea and against China in the course of the Korean War [I will say more on this aspect in a minute]. It was also, and this has recently been confirmed by the opening up of official US documents, official US policy to fire on and kill any columns of refugees the US forces saw coming their way.

US nuclear threats against DPRK since 1950

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall, Korea, which was a victim of World War Two and not a perpetrator, remains the only country divided as a result of the outcome of that conflict. According to the western media, the nuclear tests carried out by the DPRK a couple of months back are presented as being an unprovoked or inexplicable provocation carried out by an unstable or dangerous regime of some kind. That is what we have to cut through because, for the DPRK and for the Korean people as a whole, the nuclear issue is not something to be understood as today’s crisis. The nuclear issue is about a half-century and more of threat that the Korean people have had to live with every day.

In its September/October edition, an American academic publication, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, identified four occasions on which they say that the United States has verifiably threatened the DPRK with nuclear attack. This publication states the following four threats:

Threat number one: “One of the first instances of a US threat of nuclear use came just five years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. With the United States mired in the Korean War, in November 1950 a reporter asked President Harry S Truman whether UN forces might cross the Yalu River into Manchuria. Truman responded, ‘We will take whatever steps are necessary to meet the military situation, just as we always have’. Asked whether that included using atomic bombs, Truman responded: ‘That includes every weapon we have’. A few minutes after the press conference ended, the lead of the United Press wire story read, ‘President Truman said today that the United States has under consideration use of the atomic bomb in connection with the war in Korea.’ [7]”.

Threat number two, this Bulletin goes on to say is: “Nearly three years later, Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, also wielded the threat of US nuclear use. In May 1953 Eisenhower authorised an expanded Korean bombing campaign, prompting the North Koreans and Chinese to respond by increased ground action. As part of the heightened military activity, the Joint Chiefs presented six different scenarios for ending the war, ‘most envisioning the possible use of atomic weapons,’ according to an official Pentagon history. ‘After the NSC reached a seeming consensus on 20th May to employ atomic weapons both strategically and tactically – that is within and outside the Korean Peninsula – the administration communicated its resolve to the Chinese and North Koreans. . . . Both Eisenhower and [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles believed the message had the desired effect’ of ending the war, the history reads. [8]”

The third incident identified here, they go on to say is: “In what later became known as the ‘Tree-Trimming Incident’, US forces in Korea again threatened the use of nuclear weapons when they were placed on DEFCON 3 on 19th August 1976. The alert, which was ordered in response to a fatal skirmish between US and North Korean border guards over US attempts to trim a tree in the demilitarised zone, involved deployment of nuclear and other forces in operations that signalled preparations for an attack on North Korea. [9]. The US display of force included nuclear-capable B-52 bombers flying ‘from Guam ominously north up the Yellow Sea on a vector directly to . . . Pyongyang,’ noted Major General John K Singlaub in his book, Hazardous Duty. [10]”

And the final threat listed in this article: “Most recently, during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, the United States nearly launched a conventional strike against the North’s nuclear production facilities. Although nuclear threats were not reported to have been part of the effort, US Strategic Command (Stratcom) did apparently study the nuclear option in 1995. And during 1997 congressional hearings, General Eugene Habiger, commander of Stratcom, confirmed that indeed the United States had threatened the North with nuclear weapons during the crisis. Asked ‘what sort of deterrence’ he thought US nuclear weapons played in preventing WMD from being used by rogue states, Habiger responded, ‘In my view, sir, it plays a very large role. . . .[The threat of US nuclear use] was passed to the North Koreans back in 1995, when the North Koreans were not coming off their reactor approach they were taking.’ [11] Habiger subsequently explained that the message passed on to North Korea had been explicit. [12]”

Personally, I think that one can identify considerably more than these four occasions on which the US clearly threatened the use of nuclear weapons against the north of Korea, but those are four examples from an impeccable establishment US source. It is also worth noting that the Quadrennial Review adopted by the Pentagon in 2002 singled out the DPRK, along with six other countries as being explicitly countries which are in US military thinking possible targets for a US first strike.

The Geneva Accord 1994

As we have seen, during what some people call the recent years’ history of the nuclear threat to Korea, the Clinton administration in the US actively considered the use of nuclear weapons against Korea in the first half of the 1990s. Instead, as we know, former president Jimmy Carter put himself forward as a mediator and went to Pyongyang and at that time secured an agreement with President Kim Il Sung for a resolution of what was called the nuclear issue. Some people say President Carter somewhat wrong-footed the Clinton administration by going live on CNN from Pyongyang and announcing it before the White House had had a chance to shoot down the deal, and putting them in a politically difficult situation in terms of being able to get out of it.

As a result of that visit a series of discussions concluded with an agreement signed between the US and the DPRK in October 1994 – known as the Geneva Accord. The basic premise of the Geneva Accord was that in exchange for the DPRK not going ahead with its threats to withdraw from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for permitting IAEA inspections and freezing the development of its own nuclear power facilities at Yongbyong, which used prior-enriched uranium, the US would first of all establish and lead an international consortium which would design, build and provide for the DPRK two light water reactors to meet its energy needs. In the interim period the US would supply fuel oil to the DPRK in order to make up for its energy shortfall; the US would progressively lift its sanctions which had been in place against north Korea since 1950; and the two countries would gradually move towards, firstly, the establishment of representative offices in their respective capitals, and finally to full normalisation of their diplomatic relations.

As a native American chief once noted, Americans never signed a treaty with another country which they did not immediately set out to try and break. Predictably enough the Geneva Accord was no exception. The US took no substantive measures to improve its overall relations with the DPRK: the delivery of the fuel which they were committed to provide was late and in short supply, and they totally dragged their heels on the building of the light water reactors so that several years after the starting date and just before what was supposed to be the completion date there was little more than two holes in the ground. Apart from the obvious reason that the US always does this, there were essentially two specific reasons why the US did this.

As a result in October 2000 Vice-Marshall Jo Myong Rok, the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK, which is chaired by Comrade Kim Jong Il, paid a visit to the US for discussions with President Clinton. That visit resulted in a joint communiqué agreed between the US and the DPRK on 12th October 2000. The joint communiqué is a very interesting document. It is well worth reading in full. In order to save time, I will just read an example to summarise the points:

“Building on the principles laid out in the 11th June 1993, US-DPRK Joint Statement and reaffirmed in the 21st October 1994, Agreed Framework, the two sides agreed to work to remove mistrust, build mutual confidence, and maintain an atmosphere in which they can deal constructively with issues of central concern. In this regard, the two sides reaffirmed that their relations should be based on the principles of respect for each other’s sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and noted the value of regular diplomatic contacts, bilaterally and in broader forums.

“The two sides agreed to work together to develop mutually beneficial economic cooperation and exchanges. To explore the possibilities for trade and commerce that will benefit the peoples of both countries and contribute to an environment conducive to greater economic cooperation throughout Northeast Asia, the two sides discussed an exchange of visits by economic and trade experts at an early date.”

This communiqué goes through a whole series of areas of concern to the US and the DPRK and sets out a constructive way of dealing with them. It concluded: “It was agreed that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will visit the DPRK in the near future to convey the views of US President William Clinton directly to Chairman Kim Jong Il of the DPRK National Defence Commission and to prepare for a possible visit by the President of the United States.”

A visit by US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang took place at the end of October 2000, and again in the course of that visit a considerable consensus of views was reached between the two sides. At that time it was proposed that after further rounds of discussions between experts from the two sides, President Clinton would, at the close of his presidency, make a visit to Pyongyang.

Towards the end of Madeleine Albright’s visit she gave a press conference in the Koryo Hotel [the transcript of the press conference is still available on the US state department web site which I looked at this afternoon]. This transcript bears careful reading. I will quote just a couple of examples of what Madeleine Albright had to say at that press conference:

“I explained to Chairman Kim America’s vision for relations between our countries free from past hostility, relations which contribute to peace and stability throughout the region, and which support the process of reconciliation between the North and the South. …

“Chairman Kim and I had serious, constructive, and in-depth discussions of proposals on diplomatic relations, missile restraint, and security issues”.

Towards the end of the press conference she was asked: “You told us that you had lengthy discussions with our Chairman Kim Jong Il. I’d like to know what are your impressions of the Chairman, and also what kind of discussions did you have?”

To which Secretary Albright replied: “I have to say that I was very gratified by the length of our discussions, by the fact that we took up all the subjects of importance to our side and presumably to his, and I found him a very practical and decisive listener and interlocutor.”

One can say that that point was the high point of any prospect for any positive relationship between the US and the DPRK and we were looking (which seems strange now in the present situation) for a possible visit by President Clinton and a full normalisation of US-DPRK relations. That visit did not take place because of the chaotic last days of the Clinton administration with the Appeals in the Supreme Court and so on, and also because Clinton took a decision that he would prioritise trying to kick-start the Israel/Palestine talks rather than go to the DPRK. In an interview she gave to the Financial Times a few months ago, Madeleine Albright said that in retrospect she considered this to have been a mistaken decision by herself and President Clinton not to proceed with the Pyongyang visit.

The reason I have laid a considerable amount of stress on this is because we tend to lose sight of the process through which US-DPRK relations have been, and the willingness that the DPRK has shown to move towards a resolution of these problems for so long as they had a dialogue partner in the US who in some way can be defined as reasonable.

All this takes place against the background of the fact, as I have said, that the US in a period of three years murdered four million Koreans and then a period of the occupation of south Korea with constant nuclear threats against north Korea subsequently.

So, it is not surprising that there is a huge and deep feeling of mistrust and hatred of the US in north Korea; therefore to build the momentum towards any kind of resolution of the issues that are faced is a complicated and a difficult process. It is one which is characterised by lack of trust, and that trust can only be very painstakingly built up.

To reach the point that was reached in the last days of the Clinton presidency in US-DPRK relations was not easy. You have to understand the difficulties of reaching that point in order to put into perspective exactly how the DPRK side and the Korean people feel about the policies that were adopted towards them by the Bush administration.

The Bush administration took office when there had been the best ever, not easily secured, prospect for normalisation of the US-DPRK relationship, which for the Korean people is important because it is the normalisation of that relationship that opens the way to the peaceful reunification of Korea and for the Korean people to be allowed to get on with what they want, which is to build up their own modern independent state on the basis of self determination.

The Bush administration comes in. And, although Colin Powell at first showed some indication of wanting to continue with the line of the Clinton administration, he on this as on other issues was largely isolated by the neo-cons – the Rumsfelds, Cheneys and so on. The first thing the Bush administration does is freeze and rip up every piece of the agreements that the US and DPRK had reached. It placed the whole process of the US-DPRK dialogue in the deep freezer. Then for about a year we get a situation where the only US policy towards the DPRK appears to be the uttering of puerile personal insults by Bush and others against Kim Jong Il and the Korean leadership, culminating in the now world famous, notorious “Axis of Evil” speech. The “Axis of Evil” speech was then followed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In other words the US picked out three victims – Iraq, Iran and north Korea – and then began to tick them off with the Iraq war. It was against the background of having a carefully built up relationship reduced to nothing, of being insulted, of then being threatened, of seeing the US put its threats into practice in the case of Iraq, and of assessing this prospect, that the DPRK decided that it had no alternative but to resume developing its independent nuclear deterrent for self defence.

Six parties sign Joint Statement September 2005

Once the US-DPRK bilateral process had been completely sabotaged, the Chinese put forward a proposal to organise six-party talks which met in Beijing periodically. These talks proceeded very fitfully without making any particular progress until September 2005, when the fourth round of the six-party talks resulted in an agreement to which all six parties signed up on 19th September. Essentially this Joint Statement, which bears careful study, took us back to more or less what had been already agreed in the Geneva Accord of October 1994. In other words, 11 years had gone by and we were simply back to where we were.

Besides outlining a way to deal with the nuclear issue, there are other clauses in it, for example, as follows, the significance of this I will come back to in a moment, “The Six Parties undertook to promote economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment, bilaterally and/or multilaterally”. On paper this Joint Statement dealt with more or less all the aspects of the nuclear issue. The problem with the statement was, as we have seen, that there is a complete lack of trust between the DPRK and the US. Essentially this Joint Statement contains a set of aspirations on the part of all sides. In this situation of a lack of trust, there was verbal agreement of what the ultimate outcome should be, but there was no agreement on the order and sequence of events – who would move first.

In fact the US was very reluctant to sign the agreement at all – they hesitated for about two days after all the other parties had signed and it was only after some very heavy arm-twisting by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the US agreed to sign at all. The person who signed the agreement for the US was the US chief negotiator in the six-party talks, Christopher Hill. Immediately after signing this agreement, Hill came under quite strong attack from neo-cons in Washington having allegedly given away too much to the DPRK.

The day after the agreement was signed, the White House press spokesperson, Sean McCormack, made a statement in which he basically talked down the agreement that the Americans had signed and really went back to the position the Americans had been pushing for before. He said the US would only do this when the DPRK completely, verifiably and irreversibly, and so on gave up all its nuclear programmes. This was emphatically not what the Joint Statement said. The agreement may not have spelt out the sequence or the timing, but it emphatically did not say what McCormack said it said. It was in response to McCormack’s US press statement that the DPRK Foreign Ministry the next day issued its statement in which it reaffirmed its position that it would not unilaterally give up its independent nuclear deterrent. Here the western media always, 999 times out of 1000, presents it by saying “north Korea signed the deal and the next day it ripped it up”. This is not what happened. The agreement was signed and it was the Americans who ripped it up. And it was in response to that that the DPRK outlined its position.

US instigates new economic sanctions against DPRK

However, as the Americans were not happy at signing the agreement, less than one month after that they manipulated the international banking system to force a hitherto rather obscure bank in Macao, called the Banco Delta Asia, to freeze all the accounts of DPRK businesses and foreign businesses doing business with the DPRK or banking there – one of them is British American Tobacco (of which Kenneth Clarke is a director – not anybody in the DPRK!).

These accounts were frozen using the excuse of one of the hoary old DPRK scare stories that bubble away in the media for year after year. This one was about the DRPK’s supposed “manufacture of counterfeit currency”.

The point about this US action has really nothing to do with the counterfeit issue. What has to be understood about this action is (a) the timing – coming less than a month after the hard won agreement that had essentially taken 11 years to get back to square one, and (b) it goes against the spirit, and I would argue also the letter, of the agreement, namely, the point that I previously quoted from the six-party agreement concerning the promotion of “economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment, bilaterally and/or multilaterally”.

Instead of doing that, the US instigated new sanctions on the DPRK’s international trade and finance and indeed on people doing international business with the DPRK. The US then proceeded to pressurise a whole series of other countries, banking institutions in east Asia and elsewhere to follow suit and to impose their own sanctions on the DPRK, using a threat to those countries and institutions that they will freeze them out of the US economy and the international banking system if they did not follow their diktat.

As a result of this pressure, since those sanctions were brought in (October 2006) all the DPRK international business and foreign trade has either been frozen or has been seriously circumscribed.

However since the US made the allegation, more than one year ago, they have declined to offer any proof whatsoever. They have declined to offer it bilaterally to the DPRK. After the US imposed these sanctions, the DPRK asked to have discussions with the US and sent its representatives to the US. The Americans in their typical way said: we won’t negotiate with you, we will give you a list of demands of what you should do.

On that occasion the DPRK even said: allow us to open accounts with US banks in the US and then you can supervise the money that comes in and out and you can see whether it is honest or not. The US refused to negotiate, refused to present any evidence to the DPRK and, needless to say, refused the DPRK’s proposal. The US has never offered a scrap of proof either bilaterally or in the wider public domain.

The US has however persistently offered contradictory accounts of the reasons for its actions against Banco Delta Asia and other institutions. On the one hand the US sometimes says it is a “policing matter” or a “matter for the treasury” with no bearing on other sections of the government or on the six-party talks.

On the other hand they openly say that this is an excellent method of trying to bring about “regime change” in the DPRK. The US sometimes says that the place to discuss this is at the six-party talks – the very same six-party talks that they say it has nothing to do with! At more or less the same time, the US says it can and cannot be discussed.

Certainly what the US has said is that these sanctions have been more effective than even they expected, and the US increasingly hopes to use these as a model for further sanctions. For example, there is a law going through the US Congress which will make illegal (and they seem to think that their law should be applied in every country of the world) for any bank any where in the world to have any financial dealings with the government of the Palestinian Authority for so long as the PA is led by Hamas. They are also attempting to bring in a similar law with regard to Iran.

In the last couple of months they have put pressure on the Union Bank of Switzerland and a number of Swiss banks, as a result of which the Swiss banks have frozen their business dealings not only with Iran but also with Cuba on the grounds that the Swiss banking system is not safe from US pressure unless they take these measures. Since the sanctions on Banco Delta Asia were brought in, the DPRK has made it a pre-condition for its return to the six-party talks that these sanctions be lifted.

Finally, after the nuclear test there were private talks in Beijing between the US, the DPRK and China where it was agreed, although there is as yet no publicly announced date for their resumption, to resume the six-party talks soon within the context that this issue of the sanctions will be discussed and resolved within the first session.

DPRK Nuclear Test October 2006

We have seen the long history of US hostility, and nuclear threats, to the DPRK and the 11 years of attempting to normalise the DPRK-US relations, which the US has consistently sabotaged. This brought us finally to some prospect of a resolution of the situation with the Joint Statement last September which the US immediately sabotaged, just as they have sabotaged everything else in the past.

Then, to bring us up to date, we come to the missile tests in the summer carried out by the DPRK and finally the nuclear test. Two days after the nuclear test the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry of the DPRK made a statement which was reported on KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) in which he said: “Although the DPRK conducted the nuclear test due to the US, it still remains unchanged in its will to denuclearise the peninsula through dialogue and negotiations.

“The denuclearisation of the entire peninsula was President Kim Il Sung’s last instruction and an ultimate goal of the DPRK.

“The DPRK clarified more than once that it would feel no need to possess even a single nuke when it is no longer exposed to the US threat after it has dropped its hostile policy toward the DPRK and confidence has been built between the two countries” (11th October 2006).

Hence the nuclear test carried out by the DPRK is a huge setback for the US, and in particular for the foreign policy of the Bush administration. It arises from more than 50 years of nuclear threats by the US against the DPRK; it could have been avoided if Bush had carried on from where Clinton had left off; it could have been avoided if the US had not sabotaged last year’s agreement; and it could still be solved if the US lifts its sanctions and returns to the negotiating table in good faith. This is the point that has been reached now and we are waiting to see what will happen.

Bush in his “Axis of Evil” speech and elsewhere says that states like Iran, Iraq and north Korea must be prevented from developing nuclear programmes. As he said in his “Axis of Evil” speech: “We will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons”.

As a result of Bush’s policy: Iraq, no longer has a nuclear programme and is destroyed and in chaos and the Iraqi resistance is entrapping the US army; Iran, a few days before the DPRK carried out a nuclear test, refused the UN Security Council demand to suspend its own uranium enrichment programme and Iran described the DPRK nuclear test as “a reaction to America’s threats and humiliations”. Finally the DPRK itself has clearly demonstrated that it is a nuclear power.

In completing my speech tonight, it is interesting to refer back to the article from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, quoted from earlier, which ends with the words of a former defence minister of India, who concluded that after the 1991 Gulf War: “Never negotiate with the United States unless you have a nuclear weapon”.

REFERENCES given in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

  1. Particularly in regard to the delivery of fuel, the Clinton administration lacked a majority in the Congress and in the Senate and the Republicans were (a) opposed to this agreement in principle which they saw as appeasement, and (b) wanted to use it in their domestic political game against the Clinton administration.
  2. More fundamentally, as several leading members of the Clinton administration have openly said, the US calculation at the time was that the DPRK regime was going to collapse within a few years, therefore they could afford to drag their feet because they would never be in a position where they were held to account for their broken promises. Imperialism has continually longed for the collapse of the DPRK, but this hoped for collapse has singularly failed to materialise, which gives the imperialists a kind of dilemma as to what they should do.

7.David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 821-822.

7.David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 821-822.



  1. Richard M Leighton, Strategy, Money, and the New Look 1953-1956, vol III of the History of the Office of the Secretary of Defence (Washington, DC: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2001), p2. The same message was conveyed to Soviet Foreign Minister VM Molotov on 3 June. The armistice was signed on 27 June 1953.
  2. Richard A Mobley, Revisiting the Korean Tree-Trimming Incident, Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 2003, p 110, 111. Mobley states that the August 1976 DEFCON 3 was “the first time it was changed in response to activity in North Korea”.
  3. John K Singlaub, Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century (New York: Summit Books, 1991), as cited in Richard A Mobley, Revisiting the Korean Tree-Trimming Incident, pp 111, 113-114.
  4. US Air Force General Eugene E Habiger, Stratcom commander, statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Authorisation for Appropriations Hearing for Fiscal 1998 and Future Years Defense Programmes, Senate Hearing 105-37, 105th Congress, 13 March 1997, p. 654.
  5. Habiger, conversation with Hans M Kristensen, 12 August 2004.


Writings of Keith Bennett