PANMUNJON, Korean demilitarized zone – Panmunjom is the graphic symbol, frozen in time, of the absurdity of the separated Koreas. It’s all there: the table where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953; the copies of the armistice bound in red in both English and Korean; the fading black and white photos of the negotiations. A huge Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) flag flies on this side, a South Korean flag is visible in the distance. Troops are here en masse – but not visible – on both sides of the yellow demarcation line. And there is the requisite military guide spinning a story of blood, sweat and tears according to his script, whether in the DPRK or on the South Korean side.

The last graphic frontier of the Cold War does not exactly scream “reunification,” although, in a quirky Disney fashion, both sides organize their solemn military-conducted tours roughly the same way. In winter, South Korean soldiers no longer bother even to show up. The other side of the yellow border seems deserted. Only a few soldiers guard the DPRK’s side. Silence reigns, as if this was a weaponized version of a Buddhist shrine. That makes it the perfect spot to meditate on the folly of war and the folly of men.

As even the trees in Mt. Myohyang know, the Korean War (1950-1953) is still, technically, on. There was a ceasefire (though it was never signed by South Korea) and an armistice, but not a peace treaty.

The DPRK simply won’t do anything unless there’s a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War (that’s exactly what a military guide in Panmunjon says, when asked about the future of the six-party talks). Then there should be an end to sanctions; and then there will be negotiations over the DPRK’s nuclear program. This sequence of events is absolutely non-negotiable, as an official statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reiterated in January.

Another statement also made clear that the DPRK will take “all-out strong measures to foil the treacherous, anti-reunification and anti-peace moves of the riff-raffs to bring down the dignified socialist system … and destabilize it.” The DPRK is not a pushover a la Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Last year, Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-launched new ballistic missiles, and restarted plutonium production. United Nations sanctions became tighter. This spiral, though, is visibly leading nowhere.

Beijing now is deeply implicated, with Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei leading the Chinese delegation to the six-party talks which started way back in 2003, involving the DPRK, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US. Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a personal letter to the North’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Kim assured a visiting high-level Chinese delegation that the DPRK wants a nuclear-free peninsula. But he also stressed, once again, that the DPRK will not go back to the table unconditionally.

That’s classic Kim Jong-il, the stance already expressed in detail way back in 1982 in his book On the Juche Idea, when he wrote “we do not want war, nor we are afraid of it, nor do we beg peace from the imperialists.” The same was reiterated in 1993, when Kim, via a supreme commander order, stated that the nation would not beg for peace and have its dignity trampled upon.

So essentially the ball is now in the US/EU/Japan court.

Burning down the house

It’s absolutely impossible for Americans, Western public opinion and global public opinion to understand what’s at stake in the Korean nuclear dossier without understanding how the memory of the Korean war burns so vividly in Pyongyang among the old revolutionaries – and how it has been forever imprinted on the DPRK’s national security strategy. Israel can always get away – literally – with murder (“eliminations”) and maintaining a vicious occupation, not to mention keeping a “secret” nuclear arsenal. North Korea at least should be granted a fair hearing.

The US air war on North Korea was an incredibly vicious bloodbath. Washington bombed the DPRK with more napalm than it used on Vietnam – with even more devastating effects, because the DPRK had many more large urban centers (18 out of 22 were almost completely wiped out) and urban industrial infrastructure than Vietnam. In only four months, from June 1950 to October, B-29s discharged more than 860,000 gallons of napalm over North Korea.

Not surprisingly, and as in Iraq and AfPak decades later, the Pentagon hailed its “precision bombing.” When China stepped into the war, Washington’s air war went on overdrive, not only destroying most North Korean towns and cities but at the end of the war smashing huge dams that supplied water for no less than 75% of the DPRK’s food production.

With the Chinese allied to the DPRK in the battlefield, America’s General Douglas MacArthur dictated that the whole area between the front and the Chinese border would become a wasteland; that meant in practice the destruction of every “installation, factory, city and village.” MacArthur wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons (“The only passages leading from Manchuria and Vladivostok have many tunnels and bridges. I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb … Sweeten up my B-29 force”). President Harry S Truman also threatened to use nuclear weapons, and almost did in April 1951.

Later, in an interview to the New York Times on April 9, 1964, MacArthur said, “I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs … strung across the neck of Manchuria”; then, “spread behind us – from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea – a belt of radioactive cobalt.” In pure Dr Strangelove fashion, MacArthur was referring to cobalt 60 – which is more than 300 times more radioactive than radium.

And that was not all. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency were busy exploring new avenues for the weapons of mass destruction of the time, via what was called “Operation Hudson Harbor,” by dropping dummy atomic bombs in simulated runs. Civilian North Koreans feeling the thunder down there obviously didn’t know if that was a real atomic bomb or not. The Pentagon also considered employing a barrage of chemical weapons.

As Bruce Cumings, arguably the best American scholar on North Korea, observed, even “without the use of ‘novel weapons’ – although napalm was very new at the time – the air war nonetheless leveled North Korea and killed millions of civilians before the war ended. North Koreans will tell you that for three years they faced a daily threat of being burned with napalm … By 1952, just about everything in northern and central Korea was completely leveled. What was left of the population survived in caves.”

The painful folly of it all is more than evident at the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” in Pyongyang, including its “hall showing the captured weapons and defeat of the US imperialist aggressors” and most of all an amazing 360-degree depiction of a major battle in the war, with supposedly “1 million” hand-painted soldiers, which led, according to the official narrative, to “23,000 killed or captured” American troops.

North Koreans are as proud of their survival in this war against all odds as they are proud of the collectivization of land in the 1950s, when peasants were granted access to cooperative farms uniting an average of 275 households; and as they are proud of their current nuclear and ballistic missile technological savvy. This has all to be seen in the context of a small, developing, socialist, peninsular country sandwiched between great powers and which has suffered occupation (by the Japanese) and devastation (by the Americans), and fears this might happen all over again.

Washington seems to entertain the illusion that with the lure of massive aid it may be able to seduce the DPRK into abandoning its nuclear program. That’s not the point; the DPRK is about to get a massive boost from strategic partner China, and with no conditions attached, in terms of economic investments totaling US$10 billion. (See China buys some time in Pyongyang, Asia Times Online, February 19.)

Although the desire for reunification may be real across vast swathes of popular opinion in both North and South, essentially the major political players would prefer the status quo to be kept in the Korean Peninsula indefinitely. Japan fears a unified Korea. Washington needs a pretext to keep thousands of troops in northeast Asia. China prefers to keep a strategic ally very close to its borders over which it has some sway.

As for the six-party talks, they should drop the mask of hypocrisy. What matters for the DPRK is first and foremost a peace treaty to end formally the Korean War, as Kim Jong-il has made it clear over and over. Without formally ending what should have been ended almost 60 years ago, and then extensively discussing the North Korean nuclear capability, there’s no possible roadmap towards reunification. The DPRK does seem to want to finish having that yellow line crossing Panmunjom and the Cold War in the peninsula for good. But it’s a dangerous illusion to believe this will have to happen under Washington’s terms.