Saturday, March 10, 2018

Kim, the Trumpster and Denuclearization

World news outlets were rocked this week by Donald Trump’s alleged agreement (the news was actually broken, rather strangely, by the South Korean delegation that brought the North Korean’s offer to the White House) to hold a meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Given Trump’s belligerent rhetoric of only a few months ago in which he threatened to rain “fire and fury” upon the North Koreans, it was surprising to say the least. But perhaps it was really not so surprising after all. For Trump clearly sees in this nuclear summit the prospect of great headlines throughout the world—and if there is one thing this global narcissist lives for, it’s headlines announcing a “first” for him (not to mention getting other less savory news off the front pages). Whether he’ll be able to pull something real out his toupe´ is something else again. For as usual, the headlines mistake what Kim Jong Un has offered. He did NOT say he was willing to give up his nukes. He said he is willing to discuss the “denuclearization of the peninsula.”  What does that mean? Not exactly clear. But one thing is certain: Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, wants to get out from under the American threat, both nuclear and otherwise. He wants to get a formal end to the Korean war (not just a cease-fire). He wants a halt to the joint military exercises put on twice a year by American and South Korean forces, including simulated nuclear strikes. He wants an end to punishing sanctions. So when he says, “denuclearization,” if he means it at all, he’s talking more about getting rid of American nukes (including those at the disposal of South Korea) than getting rid of his own. And he may just figure that if he can get Trump committed to a huge summit meeting, the president may be so rash as to agree to something that would be a huge victory for Korea. Already, in fact, Kim has gone a long way toward getting what he has long sought: using his nuclear testing to induce the United States to recognize him and his country as equal enough to deserve a summit meeting.
            But enough speculation. Here I would like to simply provide the background I adduced way back in September when the explosions from both sides were giving the world daily agita. This is important to keep in mind when, as no doubt will happen, our media outlets drum up the heart-stopping “US v THEM” dramatics should a summit actually take place. Hence, this blog, first posted on September 5, 2017. It’s titled, ‘Who’s ‘Begging for War?’

As North Korea ups the ante once again, this time with a massive nuclear blast that some observers (and the North Koreans themselves) are calling a hydrogen bomb, the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration gets more belligerent by the minute. As I noted in a previous blog, the two adolescent leaders—Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the U.S.—are engaged in a pissing contest. ‘My dick is bigger than yours; look how far my piss goes.’ Only it’s not piss that’s being compared; it’s weapons of such massive destructive power that most rational humans shudder to even contemplate their use. But not the Donald. “What’s a nuke for, if we can’t use it?” he once said. Most recently, Nikki Haley (who, before becoming our UN Ambassador, seemed semi-rational) has been uttering nutter phrases like “We have kicked the can down the road enough. There is no more road left…” No more road for diplomacy, is what she seems to mean, especially considering that she also said Kim Jong Un is “begging for war.” The President himself tweeted much the same thing, berating the South Koreans for their “talk of appeasement with North Korea,” which will “not work, they only understand one thing.” That is, violence of the nuclear variety.
            And as we all look on in horror as nuclear Armageddon looms ever closer, we have to ask: Just who is it that’s begging for war? Can the world really believe that North Korea, a nation of 24 million people whose economy seems permanently hobbled, and whose military, while large, would be no match for that of the United States and South Korea combined (the South itself may have nukes in its huge military arsenal supplied by the United States), actually wants a war? Or is it rather Donald Trump—he whose administration has lurched from one failure to another without a single legislative victory, with an approval rating that’s the lowest of any president in modern history—who is really searching for a ‘wag-the-dog’ solution to distract us all from his mounting problems?
            To really probe this question, especially the one concerning what exactly Kim Jong Un thinks he’s doing with his rockets and nukes, we need to know a bit about history (which most Americans, especially their idiot president, do not). My source is an article that appeared on last week: “How History Explains the Korean Crisis,” by distinguished historian William R. Polk. In it, Polk makes sense of North Korean belligerence by detailing the long history of invasions Koreans have suffered, starting in 1592 when Japan invaded and controlled the country for a decade or so. The Japanese invaded again in 1894, and this time set up a ‘friendly government,’ thereby ruling Korea for the next thirty-five years. It was in this period that many Koreans fled the country, including Syngman Rhee (the first president of the South) who fled to America, and Kim Il Sung (the first leader of the North) who fled to Russia-influenced Manchuria, where he joined the Communist party. By WWII Japan had reduced many Koreans to virtual slaves (thousands of Korean women became “comfort women” or concubines for the Japanese Army). But what’s fascinating to me is what happened to some of those Koreans who became rulers in the post-WWII period. Syngman Rhee, long resident in the United States and ‘Americanized’ (not to say ‘Christianized’), was set up as the first president of the new South Korea (North and South were vaguely established by the UN in 1945, but Rhee officially became the South’s ‘president’ with American help in August of 1948). He ruled basically as a U.S. puppet, with the United States military assuring his continuance by sending thousands of U.S. troops to support him, and American industry assuring the economic rise of his part of the country. According to William Polk, “Syngman Rhee’s government imposed martial law, altered the constitution, rigged elections, opened fire on demonstrators and even executed leaders of the opposing party.” His successor (via a military coup in 1961), Park Chung Hee, spent the war in Korea, but by collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (he apparently even changed his name to a Japanese one). His rule as President was so vicious that he, too, was overthrown (assassinated by his intelligence chief, 1979) and replaced first by Choi Kuy-hah, who was then deposed in a military coup by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who himself immediately imposed martial law that closed universities, banned political activities and throttled the press. A book I’ve read recently, Human Acts by renowned Korean novelist Han Kang, dramatizes the university and high school protests of 1980 in Gwangju that were savagely put down by Chun Doo-hwan, who ordered soldiers to coldly shoot over 600 young protesters and bury them in mass graves.
            By contrast, Kim Il Sung, who was to become the leader of North Korea after WWII for no less than fifty years, spent the war years as a guerilla fighter influenced by the Russians, where he led the resistance to the Japanese occupiers. His status as a hero was established there, and he soon became the first Prime Minister of the North, which he declared as a state in 1948, with ambitions to reunite North and South (Syngman Rhee had announced the same intention, as ‘reunification’). But when Rhee declared that the South was a fully independent state, Kim Il Sung saw it as an act of war, and (once China had agreed to take responsibility for the outcome) ordered his army to invade the South. Far better equipped and motivated than the southerners, Sung’s army took possession of Seoul, the South’s capital city, within three days, on June 28, 1950. By this time, the U.S. had persuaded the UN Security Council to protect the South, and organized 21 countries to send troops (though Americans made up the bulk of the forces in what was called a “police action”). Still, Sung’s military drove the southern army all the way south to the city of Pusan, where, by August, the southern army “held only a tenth of what had been the Republic of Korea.”
Here the situation was saved for the South only by the brilliant counterattack led by General Douglas MacArthur, who made a storied landing at Inchon, where, behind enemy lines, the Americans were able to cut off the Northern army from its bases. That led to a further attack by the South, which retook Seoul, and then moved across the 38th parallel (the dividing line between North and South) and drove nearly to the Chinese frontier. This brought China into the conflict, and, with what it called a 300,000 man “Volunteer Army,” overwhelmed the South Koreans and drove the Americans out of the North. At this point, General MacArthur urged President Truman to use fifty nuclear weapons to stop the Chinese, but Truman instead replaced MacArthur and continued the more or less conventional war. Except that it was not at all conventional for the North. U.S. carpet-bombing devastated the North with more tonnage (including chemical weapons) than had been used against the Japanese in all of WWII. Analysts today estimate that the North lost 33% of its population through this bombing—one of every three North Koreans perished. As Polk puts it, Korea proportionally suffered roughly 30 times as many people killed in 37 months of American carpet-bombing as these other countries (Britain, France, China and the U.S.) lost in all the years of the Second World War.” This may help explain why North Koreans generally favor their government’s stance to repel invaders at all costs: most have experienced the utter devastation of war firsthand.
            Finally, the North agreed to negotiate a cease-fire to end the stalemate (the state of war between North and South still exists), with the country divided at its 38th parallel by a demilitarized zone to keep the armies separate and to keep ‘new’ (i.e. nuclear) weapons out of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the United States, in 1957, violated article 13(d) of the agreement:

In June 1957, the U.S. informed the North Koreans that it would no longer abide by Paragraph 13(d) of the armistice agreement that forbade the introduction of new weapons. A few months later, in January 1958, it set up nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Moscow and Peking. The U.S. kept them there until 1991. It wanted to reintroduce them in 2013 but the then South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won refused (Polk op. cit.).

Thus, we see that it was the United States that decided to introduce nuclear weapons to the Korean conflict. But what about the North Koreans and their nukes? Even here, Polk points out, both the South and North had agreed to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement (1975 and 1985 respectively), but both violated the agreement (South Korea covertly from 1982 to 2000; North Korea in 1993, withdrawing totally in 2003.) Polk also adds that the precipitating event for the North’s withdrawal and its underground testing begun in 2006, was George W. Bush’s January 2002

Axis of Evil speech, in which he demonized North Korea. Thereafter, North Korea withdrew from the 1992 agreement with the South to ban nuclear weapons and announced that it had enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about 5 or 6 nuclear weapons (Polk op. cit.).

            This brings us to today. As noted in a recent article (Mel Gurtov, “Echoes of Reagan: Another Nuclear Buildup,” 9.3.2017), the United States currently has about 6,800 nuclear weapons (roughly 1,400 strategic weapons deployed, the rest stockpiled or retired). Among these, the 920 missile-launched nuclear warheads deployed on 230 invulnerable submarines, are alone “enough to destroy an entire country and bring on nuclear winter.” By comparison, North Korea may have about a dozen nuclear weapons (some analysts say they could have as many as 60), most of them about the size of the ‘paltry’ nukes that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also has the still fairly rudimentary missiles it has been launching with frequency this year, very few with the ability to strike the United States or anywhere near it. So what is this business about the North “begging for war?” It is an absurdity. What the North is really after is simple: survival; a resolution of the South-North war, which has been ongoing since the armistice in July 1953; and, related to that, an end to the huge and provocative war games that have been carried on for the last three weeks. These ‘games’ go on twice a year, and are clearly designed to threaten the North by simulating an invasion of North Korea and a “decapitation” operation to remove Kim Jong Un. What would the United States do if Russia were to carry on war games from Cuba or Mexico? We already know the answer to that. Yet despite the continuing pleas of the North to the U.S. and South Korea to cease these provocative military exercises, the U.S. and its protégé have persisted and even expanded them ever since the end of active fighting. In addition to these regular war games, recently the United States has sent groups of F-35B fighters, F-15 fighters and B-1B bombers on military operations over a training range near Seoul, where they dropped their dummy bombs to simulate a nuclear strike. According to Mike Whitney (, 9.4.2017, “What the Media isn’t telling you about North Korea’s Missile Tests”),
The show of force was intended to send a message to Pyongyang that Washington is unhappy with the North’s ballistic missile testing project and is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the North if it fails to heed Washington’s diktats.

That’s it exactly. For this is the way the world according to American empire works: we can hold threatening war games, we can surround you with nukes from submarines and bombers and missile launchers, we can insult you and threaten you and starve you and humiliate you and refuse to end our war against you, but if you dare to stand up to our bullying, we will destroy you. And it’s your own fault for defying our ‘rule of law.’
            But of course, the North sees through this. Kim Jong Un may be a clown in a funny haircut who’s trying to prove he’s a big boy now, but he’s no dummy. His nuclear response to the threats from the United States, when considering his people’s history, and his knowledge of recent history, is perfectly rational. As Mike Whitney points out, “Kim has no choice but to stand firm. If he shows any sign of weakness, he knows he’s going to end up like Saddam and Gaddafi.” To remind you, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya finally decided to take the West at its word, and give up his nuclear plans. He was thereafter the victim of an invasion by western powers and ended up publicly violated in a gruesome death, mocked by American leaders like Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.” Ditto Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose country is in ruins. Kim Jong Un would clearly like to avoid that fate. He and his people would like to avoid being bombed back into the Stone Age, again. And so they are gambling that the blustering primate in Washington will either run true to his cowardly form, or be persuaded by calmer and more rational minds to see if there might not be an opening for negotiations. In fact, we all have to hope that this is the case. China and Russia also hope that this is the case, proposing once again (as they did in March and often before that) that in exchange for a halt to the military exercises by American and South Korean forces, North Korea could be persuaded to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Surely, there is the germ for a diplomatic agreement here. Even South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in has just reiterated his offer to hold peace talks with North Korea (, 9.5.17) in what he has called his “Sunshine Policy.”
The only real question is whether the United States, and especially its wacky president, will ever agree to stop the war games. Because, after all, we are the Americans, the big dogs, who don’t back down, don’t negotiate unless it’s totally on our terms. Which in this case, means: do what we say not what we do, give up your nukes, and we can discuss the terms of your unconditional surrender. Anything short of that is “begging for war.”

            Addendum, Mar. 10, 2018. Since writing the above, I have read Min Jin Lee’s novel, Pachinko. In it, Lee narrates a saga of a Korean family that, during the pre-WWII period, moves to Osaka, Japan to seek its fortunes there. What we learn is the agonizing plight of Koreans in Japan (and in Korea under Japanese colonization) who are always and everywhere discriminated against as “lazy” and “morally defective,” even when successful and allowed to become Japanese citizens. This helps to explain both the never-healed antagonism between Koreans and Japanese, and the never-outgrown defensiveness of Koreans that pertains to this day—including, perhaps, some of the behavior of Kim Jong Un himself.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, February 19, 2018

How Our Government Segregated America

The above title is the subtitle of Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright: 2017). It is a book that both fascinated and infuriated me. That is because the myth that most Americans have been fed, especially by the Supreme Court in its school-desegregation rulings, is that most segregation in America is de facto—that is, the result of established housing patterns that were the unintentional  product of economic or cultural choices—and therefore legitimate. Opposed to this is de jure segregation—that carried out purposely by government policies, and therefore, illegal. What Richard Rothstein sets out to demonstrate in stunning detail, is the fact that segregation in American housing was, in fact, “a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century” (xii). Basically, de jure from top to bottom. That is to say, federal, state and local governments all unconstitutionally denied to African Americans the right and the means to live in integrated neighborhoods, thus creating the racist system of unequal schools, neighborhoods, suburbs and central cities that we see in the United States to this day. What is perhaps most astonishing is that it was not just the former Confederate states that have been responsible for this, but the most liberal governments of the last century like the Roosevelt administration.
            Consider one of the chief culprits in this story, the FHA or Federal Housing Administration created by Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1934 to help solve the housing and banking crisis of that time. What the FHA did was to insure bank mortgages covering 80% of a home’s purchase price, thus removing much of the risk of default from shaky banks. Grand idea. But the FHA required the appraisal of any property it insured, and its “standards included a whites-only requirement” (64), allegedly because it judged that properties in racially-mixed neighborhoods would be too risky to insure. Rothstein cites from the FHA’s Underwriters Manual:
“If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values” (65).

The same government manual warned appraisers against the “infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups” and against areas where children are “compelled” to attend schools with pupils from “lower level(s) of society,” code for African Americans. Now it should be said that Franklin Roosevelt was under severe constraints to get his New Deal legislation passed, most specifically from southern Democrats who were determined, the Civil War notwithstanding, to maintain segregation in America; so he was forced to tailor New Deal legislation so that it would pass this congressional roadblock. But it is nonetheless stunning to realize that, in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment and several Supreme Court decisions against both public and private laws or covenants imposing racial segregation, the U.S. government created both the FHA and the earlier HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) that, in effect, either maintained or created new segregation in the United States. The HOLC, for instance, formed in 1933 to take over existing mortgages subject to foreclosure (as many were in the Depression), and issue new mortgages to save homeowners and banks from ruin, started the practice of assessing “risk” in neighborhoods where it intervened. It used real estate agents to assess these risks, and since these agents had to abide by their ‘national ethics code to maintain segregation,’ the HOLC ended up considering the racial composition of all neighborhoods, and thereby created the “color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation,” with “safe” neighborhoods colored green, and “risky” neighborhoods colored red. Again, “risky” and “red” are clear codes for “Black,” leading directly to the practice of “redlining” that has persisted to this day.
            Rothstein provides endless examples of how this government-sponsored segregation worked in practice. To begin with, it should be noted that in the post-war years, both the FHA and the VA (Veteran’s Administration) were insuring fully “half of all new mortgages nationwide,” so their influence was huge. Consider a 1958 case, in my former Berkeley neighborhood, the Elmwood, where a teacher named Gerald Cohn purchased a house with an FHA-guaranteed mortgage; but since he wasn’t quite ready to move in, he rented it to a fellow teacher, Alfred Simmons, who was black. This so alarmed the chief of police, that he inquired “how Mr. Simmons had managed to get into this all-white community” (66) and notified the FBI. Though the FBI and the US Attorney refused to prosecute (perhaps because they understood the Constitution), the FHA was not so kind; it blacklisted Mr. Cohn, informing him that “he would be denied the benefits of participation in the FHA insurance program” ever again. For this was clear FHA policy: no mortgage guarantees to African Americans or even to whites who tried to rent or sell to African Americans. When we consider another case, involving the iconic suburban development called Levittown on Long Island, we can see what this meant. Vince Mereday was a U.S. Navy veteran of WWII, honorably discharged. Working after the war for his uncle Robert who had a contract to deliver building materials to Levittown but couldn’t buy there, Vince decided, as a Black veteran with a solid job, to try his luck in buying a Levittown home. Veterans who bought in this way could buy a three-bedroom home for $8,000, with no money down, thanks to the low-interest VA and FHA-guaranteed loans. But there were racist restrictions in these government programs: no insured mortgages for developments that included any African Americans. Indeed, developers could not even get loans to begin developments until they assured banks that their new suburbs would be racially segregated. Unsurprisingly, Vince Mereday was turned down, and had to settle for an alternative: a home in nearby Lakeview, an all-black suburb near Levittown. It cost him, like all African Americans deprived of FHA loans; for he had to make a large down payment, get an uninsured mortgage from a bank, and that meant a far higher interest rate and monthly payment. This became a pattern nationwide, not least in the suburban subdivisions that, after the war, completely changed the American landscape. Entire suburbs throughout the nation, thanks to FHA requirements, became racially-exclusive white enclaves. Indeed, Rothstein shows how “the growth of California and the West in the decades following World War II was financed on a racially-restricted basis by the federal government” (73). Developments in Milpitas CA, Westlake south of San Francisco, Lakewood south of Los Angeles and Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley were all FHA-guaranteed whites-only projects. And where, as outside of St. Louis, a developer did create a subdivision for African Americans, he could not get FHA financing. The result was that
the construction was shoddier and the house design skimpier than in St. Ann (the developer’s previous all-white project guaranteed by FHA). Because potential buyers were denied FHA or VA mortgages, many homes were rented (73-4).

And, as Rothstein explains elsewhere, having to scramble to make rent or mortgage payments, many African Americans resorted to renting out rooms or crowding more family members into homes, thus creating conditions that led to deterioration—for which they were and still are, routinely blamed. In summary, the federal government’s programs designed to help Americans become homeowners, specifically applied only to whites, and this, in turn, “spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities” (75), leaving inner city neighborhoods to deteriorate. In response, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights came to this conclusion:
the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing…Government and private industry came together to create a system of racial segregation” (75).

            Unfortunately, and infuriatingly, this was only the beginning of a continuing, and still-existing system of racial segregation in the United States of America. Rothstein’s book is full of more details—zoning laws that forced industries, often polluting industries, to settle in African American neighborhoods, literally creating unhealthy slums; routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or condemn African American neighborhoods altogether; turning a blind eye to racist mobs rioting in response to attempts by African Americans to buy into segregated neighborhoods (in one instance in a Louisville KY suburb, there were cross burnings and bombings but no indictments of the rioters until a grand jury indicted the sellers, Carl and Ann Braden, for “conspiring to stir up racial conflict by selling the house to African Americans” and sentenced Mr. Braden to fifteen years in prison for his “crime,” until he won release on appeal), and using the tax code to add to the already-overwhelming burden African Americans had to face in trying to own a home. It is a story that casts in an entirely new light upon the constant criticisms of deteriorating and high-crime neighborhoods (recall the racist remarks candidate Donald Trump made about inner-city slums), because what it demonstrates is that these “deplorable conditions” were essentially created by government fiat and business policies (such as private covenants that excluded sales to African Americans). When one adds the concerted legal maneuvering to deprive African Americans of anything approaching the job opportunities available to whites (the minimum wage laws were deliberately created [again, at the behest of southern Democrats] to exclude jobs in agriculture and domestic service-- jobs typically held by African Americans), one begins to wonder how any person of color ever manages to survive at all.
            Let me cite one more case from Rothstein’s book, this one involving the Techwood Homes in Atlanta, opened in 1935. This was a project of the Public Works Administration (PWA), which, despite its good intentions, “segregated projects even where there was no previous pattern of segregation” (21). Amazingly, the head of the new PWA was Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP. Nonetheless, though he ensured that the PWA did build publicly-financed homes for African Americans, he maintained segregation as the PWA's dominant mode (of 47 projects, 17 were for African Americans, while 21 were for whites only). In Atlanta, this meant that the Techwood Homes, built on “land that was cleared by demolishing the Flats, a low-income integrated neighborhood adjacent to downtown that had included 1600 families, nearly one-third of whom were African American” (22), became a project with 604 units for white families only. This was bad enough. But what the PWA project did was to force low-income African American families out of the formerly-integrated Flats into the only places they were allowed: overcrowded “neighborhoods where African American were already living.” This meant doubling up with relatives or renting rooms made available by other African Americans subdividing their houses. Rothstein summarizes the effect of this program ostensibly meant to alleviate inadequate housing for lower and middle-income families:
A result of the government program, therefore, was the increased population density that turned the African American neighborhoods into slums (22).

Think about it: the federal government’s program not only turned what had been an integrated neighborhood into a whites-only project, but, as a direct result of its efforts, made existing African American neighborhoods worse, turning them into slums.
Such is the legacy of racism and segregation in the United States of America. It is a tale that, despite making one ashamed of being American, should be studied by everyone, not least the allegedly well-informed members of our Supreme Court, our Congress, our White House, and certainly, the children in all of our schools.

Lawrence DiStasi