It’s Not Genocide When We Do It
Amnesia and denial in the North Korea narrative
Just two months ago, President Trump found himself in an online shouting match with Kim Jong-un regarding whose nuclear button is bigger. A few months before that, Trump threatened to reign down “fire and fury” on Kim’s isolated nation. But this rocky relationship may be changing. The reality TV star-turned American Nightmare recently received on-air criticism from MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow for his alleged plans to meet with the North Korean leader. Maddow seemed befuddled by the notion of these two hot shots coming together, partly due to an evident lack of preparation, but also because no sitting U.S. president has previously met with a North Korean head of state (although the U.S. has had countless passionate love affairs with other dictators all over the world).
Liberals and conservatives often engage in rigorous debate regarding issues like gun control, abortion, and healthcare. But, over the years, American pundits and politicians have been relatively consistent in their mutual condemnation of the North Korean regime, regardless of which “Kim” is in charge. Folks from all across the mainstream political spectrum have denounced the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as an evil, vile, irrational, and dangerous nation that wants to nuke the entire world for literally no reason. There’s even a slap-stick comedy about assassinating Kim Jong-un, brought to you by some of the most lovable chucklefucks in Hollywood. In the Land of the Free®, we don’t all agree on much, but North Korea certainly is the country Americans love to hate.
But the full scope of this rivalry might be a little more nuanced. To better understand modern relations between the U.S. and the DPRK, consider the following metaphor:
Let’s say there’s this unstable, narcissistic man with a history of violence and domestic abuse. This man also happens to be an alcoholic who collects firearms. Let’s call him Sam, and let’s say he has more fire power than the under-funded local police department, so he and his band of goons are effectively above the law.
Sam is a tall and handsome man with a rugged, weathered face, a five o’clock shadow, and silver streaks in his wavy, flowing hair, and he’s constantly sweating. But not from hard work or exercise. This avid perspiration is a result of poor dietary habits and paranoia. Sam’s newfound power has gotten to his head, and now he’s roaming around with a few glocks, checking up on other folks in the neighborhood — sometimes even spying on them.
Across the street lives a man named Joe, who also happens to collect weapons (although he never amasses anywhere near the quantity that Sam does, and poor Joe later declares bankruptcy after being sucked into a gang-related turf war by Sam, but that’s another story).
One day, Sam sees Joe down the street at the residence of a woman named Karen. Karen is a single mother who lives in a duplex with her six children. Sam just knows they’re up to something fishy, and this stalwart individual doesn’t like it one bit. A few days later, Joe gets word that Karen broke into the neighboring residence in her duplex.
That’s when Sam snaps. He grabs two AR-15s, runs down the street, busts down Karen’s front door, and mows down two of her children in cold blood.
The tragedy was unspeakable, and Karen never fully recovers. Years later, Sam is still a free man, and still patroling the streets of the neighborhood. Eventually, Karen adds steel bars to her windows and doors, and purchases a revolver to protect her family. Regardless of the trauma Karen and her family experienced in the aftermath of the atrocity, Sam continues to occasionally taunt and threaten Karen and her family, insisting she must give up her gun if she wants to be safe.
This metaphor is intended to represent a conquest we love to forget about — the Korean War. Hostilities began in 1950 when the North invaded the South, evolving into a proxy conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union until fighting ceased in 1953. The American role was relatively simple: bombing the living fuck out of every square inch of North Korean territory.
As Branko Marcetic of Jacobin explained:
“The 635,000 tons of bombs dropped on Korea over three years exceeded the tonnage of explosives during the entire Pacific theater in World War II.”
“The Korean War proved a fertile testing ground for a variety of sadistic new weaponry, including cluster bombs and nerve gas. There’s even evidence that the U.S. military attempted to use biological warfare.”
“By the end of hostilities, the U.S. had coated the country with 32,000 tons of napalm.”
An Air Force general during the war later casually mentioned that “over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” and a former secretary of state said the U.S. bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After witnessing the aftermath of the war, Supreme Court justice William Douglas said, “I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe; but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea.”
As with most conflicts, it’s difficult to pinpoint the death toll of the Korean War. Estimates for North Korean deaths range from about 12% to 30% of their total pre-war population. But what is indisputable is that, between 1950 and 1953, the U.S. military unleashed “fire and fury” on North Korea, killing millions of innocent people.
Killing millions of innocent people, huh?
Why does that sound familiar? Oh yeah — because it sounds like genocide.
The Rwandan bloodbath of 1994 left between 500,000 and 1 million dead, and is universally recognized as a genocide. The Indonesian government’s 1965–1966 campaign of mass murder had a similar death toll, and is often considered a genocide. The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s left 1.5 to 3 million people dead. But there’s more to genocide than sheer body count.
According to the United Nations, “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The U.N. explanation of genocide continues:
“The intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, that makes the crime of genocide so unique. In addition, case law has associated intent with the existence of a State or organizational plan or policy, even if the definition of genocide in international law does not include that element.
Importantly, the victims of genocide are deliberately targeted — not randomly — because of their real or perceived membership of one of the four groups protected under the Convention (which excludes political groups, for example). This means that the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals.”
North Koreans, a “national group,” were certainly “deliberately targeted” en masse by the U.S. bombing campaign, which satisfied two or three of the criteria listed above. But what was the American military’s intent?
Regardless of the specifics of each “mission”, most generals and other war hawks will insist they are trying their darnedest to “avoid civilian casualties.” But when you’re constantly bombing heavily populated residential areas, you (at best) clearly don’t give a flying fuck who you’re killing. This lack of fuck-giving is interpreted by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky as possibly morally worse than actively targeting civilians, since it completely dehumanizes the victims, viewing them merely as ants being crushed.
In lieu of a philosophical discussion, let’s give the American Empire the benefit of the doubt and assume its atrocities in North Korea were morally comparable to those of Pol Pot, the Hutus, and the Indonesian government. After all, the situation on the ground is unchanged by stated intentions; merciless killing is merciless killing. In cases like Vietnam and Korea, “intent” and indifference may be functionally synonymous.
Should we start calling the “Korean War” the “Korean Genocide” instead?
I admit this rebranding is unlikely to catch on. I’m sure you’ve heard the famous American slogan, “It’s not terrorism when we do it.” Well, our collective view on this topic is quite similar: “It’s not genocide when we do it.” Now imagine Sam saying this, confidently, in a deep and soothing voice, maybe while wearing an Armani suit and smoking a fat cigar. He exhales a sexy gust of smoke as he runs his ring-clad fingers through his beautiful head of salt and pepper hair. Pretty convincing, huh? American involvement in the Korean War wasn’t genocidal because of good old fashioned flag-sucking jingoism and delusional American exceptionalism. We’re the good guys, God damn it! (And, even judging by the official U.N. definition, the difference between a genocide and simply killing millions of people might literally be the perpetrators saying they didn’t “intend to destroy” the group in question.)
When we are exposed to endless propaganda regarding the DPRK’s scary rhetoric and nuclear capabilities, we should stop to recognize the troubling history of this conflict. The mass slaughter we refer to as the “Korean War” is ingrained in the psyche of the Korean people, much like the Nazi Holocaust is ingrained in the psyche of the German people, the Jewish diaspora, and countless others around the world. They won’t easily forget the way millions of their loved ones were wiped out, just as a mother wouldn’t forget the brutal deaths of her children. Now consider this, dear reader: If your children were murdered, and the killer was still on the loose, still armed, and still making threats, would you simply submit to the demands of an infamous criminal, or would you try to protect your family by any means necessary?