Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power ~ By A.B. Abrams
(Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2020, ISBN #978-1-949762-30-3)
Review by Bill Drucker (Winter 2021 issue)
Author A.B. Abrams presents a fascinating, 70-year study of how the U.S. and North Korea arrived to the precarious diplomatic predicament that exists today. The tone is revisionist, with many sharp criticisms. The size of this study is massive, almost 700 pages. Yet, this very contemporary book is highly readable, cutting through the official story and getting to the heart of many issues with clarity and in-depth research.
Abrams addresses the untold or denied aspects of the U.S.-North Korean conflicts: An ongoing state of war, and of U.S. failed Korean policies. Surprisingly, North Korea’s calculated successes have made it a recognized world power because of its resiliency and its becoming a nuclear power. Third leader Jong Eun Kim achieved the recognition that his father and grandfather sought.
The author is a noted specialist on the topics of Asia-Pacific politics and security. He holds Master’s degrees from the University of London, and speaks Korean, Chinese and other regional languages.
The author writes how, after World War II, the U.S. in the south and the Soviet Union in the north moved toward self-regulation, with both sides positioning the future leaders of their choice. Korean independence movement leader Syngman Rhee was the choice for the U.S. for the South, and Il Sung Kim, who fought the Japanese occupiers in China, was the choice for the North. Neither the U.S. nor Russia liked their choices, however, both the U.S. and the Soviets thought their hand-picked leaders could be contained and controlled.
By the end of the war, Rhee and Kim had consolidated power, but not enough to dismiss their military allies. Both Russia and the U.S. saw the value in staying in Korea, and the leaders saw the benefits in having foreign help. Russian aid helped rebuild North Korea into a Soviet style communist state. Rhee got U.S. aid and a steady military presence.
Despite the later so-called miracle economy of rapid industrialization and trade expansion under President Chung Hee Park, the expansion of prostitution of Korean women for the U.S. military, begun by Rhee, remained a sore issue. The author observes that military camptown prostitution has the same degrading and violent roots as the World War II-era forced prostitution (the comfort women) under Imperial Japan, this time with the South Korean and U.S. sanctions.
Once the Korean War began, it was brutal in its victimization of civilians, and for the troops battling difficult terrain, and searing summers followed by unrelenting winters. The war was characterized by armament innovations such as napalm, which rained down on civilians, and firebombing which leveled buildings and infrastructure in North Korea. In the South, Rhee took to slaughtering civilians by the hundreds because they were thought to be communist sympathizers, including children. The nuclear option was discussed in Washington DC.
In the second part of his study, Abrams examines the Cold War years following the Korean War, in which Communism was the new enemy. There were hot conflicts between North and South along the DMZ, particularly from 1966 to 1969. A U.S. spy ship, the USS Pueblo and crew were captured in 1968. Rather than kill the crew, North Korean humiliated them on live TV.
Under terms the Reagan administration negotiated, Russia dismantled its nuclear programs. However, Reagan was hawkish and nearsighted in dealing with China and North Korea. The Clinton administration nearly went to war with North Korea, and, after the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks of Saudi Arabians on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea (none of which were the 9/11 attackers) as the Axis of Evil. Western interventionism and religious fervor fueled North Korea’s military escalation in response. When a North Korean ambassador blurted out North Korea had nuclear weapons (a state secret until then), the landscape completely changed.
In the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and its formerly powerful economy was considerably reduced. North Korea was cut off from its main supply line for economic aid, and subsequently endured hardships including internal famines that killed millions.
The third of four parts of Abrams’ study examines North Korea’s remarkable survival, and President Trump’s art of the deal with the DPRK. North Korea endured the 1990s, famine, drought, and pressure from U.S. The death of second leader Jong Il Kim in 2011 gave the western pundits every reason to believe that the country would fall, and that the young, inexperienced son would never take power. However, Jong Eun Kim did seize power and established a nuclear missile system.
The new nuclear system created an effective stalemate. Even if Korean missiles couldn’t reach American shores, they had the potential to catalyze a disastrous response by the U.S. from its bases in Asia. The nuclear option was no longer a bargaining chip. In January 2017, businessman/ celebrity Donald Trump became president. The inexperienced Trump Administration surprised the experts by initiating face-to-face Trump-Kim talks. In 2018, Trump and Kim met in Singapore. The same year, delegates from the two Koreas met in Panmunjom. In 2019, the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi abruptly ended with Kim walking away. In June of 2019, Trump, Kim, and South Korean President Jae In Moon met at the DMZ.
As the Trump presidency ends, and the Moon administration closes in 2022, only Kim is left to move forward with a long-term view. He is reportedly open to talks of lifting sanctions, friendly relations, foreign aid and nuclear disarmament.
In the fourth segment, Abrams looks at the U.S. and western hostilities toward North Korea. As the U.S. imposed its interests and values on Japan and South Korea, the strength of the influence is not exactly democracy, but capitalism, which has made the two countries rich, stable global players.
North Korea has refused such interventionism. Withstanding western pressure, even losing Russian and Chinese support, North Korea has stood firm. At every turn, western think-tanks consistently failed to predict the future of North Korea, Abrams points out. The country did not collapse, bend or yield, and no triggers to rebellion and pro-democracy are forthcoming. Its military skirmishes were protested but never reciprocated. Korea’s missile defense is a global threat, not by launches, but by selling the technology to other rogue nations. North Korea has learned to deal with outside pressure by applying equal pressure of its own.
The U.S. effectively made North Korea, as well as South Korea, by war, western interventionism, militarism and capitalism. South Korea submitted to westernization. North Korea did not, and by refusing, has become a global power and a perceived threat.
Abrams urges that it is the U.S.’s turn to initiate talks, and not for disarmament. Lifting sanctions, and offering economic and other developmental aid has to be the new course. The days of John Foster Dulles saber-rattling diplomacy is obsolete and ineffectual.
The three appendices at the end of this study reprise the open conflicts of the U.S. and DPRK. One topic is the 2016 arrest and imprisonment of American student Otto Warmbier. He was jailed and charged with hostile acts against the state, amounting to petty theft. He died under suspicious conditions. Another appendix topic is the murky fate of Jong Eun Kim’s half-brother Jong Nam Kim, who was assassinated by inhaled poison in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in broad daylight.
Not since David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter (2007), has there been as comprehensive and deeply-researched study of the complex issues of U.S.-North Korean relations. This is a big, informative and engaging read, an excellent reference for anyone needing an up-to-date current study of U.S.-North Korean history and regional tensions. For readers with knowledge of Korean affairs, this book offers fresh perspective, critical analysis and revisionist insights. For first time readers, this is a very current reference.
Written clearly and with fact-based criticism, this book lays out a thorough picture of the miscalculations and misguided U.S. policies towards North Korea, and of North Korea’s rise as military and political power on the global stage.