There isn’t a danger that any time soon a war could start between the US and North-Korea (except accidently, a possibility which can’t be entirely excluded). But the very fact that leaders of these countries openly threaten to use nuclear weapons, to engage in total warfare and cause the destruction of an entire people is significant. To hear such furious language from the North-Korean regime is not surprising. It has been covering up its weakness with bluster as far as we can remember. But it’s rather alarming that its sounds not surprising that the government of the US affirms the possibility of the total destruction of a country. Some eyebrows were raised of course, but there was no massive global outcry over the sheer madness of this scenario.
No nuclear war is imminent but the war of words with North-Korea serves to inoculate us against the idea that it is inconceivable. We’re getting used to the idea that “the national interest” may require it, that those who resist it are “bleeding hearts” or traitors. It’s one more sign of the increasingly destructive trajectory of world capitalism.
Like a school-yard brawl, the conflict will de-escalate. But it will not go away. The position of North-Korean ruling class is defensive, expansion of its territory or markets is not its aim, but it wants to stay in power. Its power depends essentially on terror, on the militarization of the whole society and its enforced isolation from the outside world. But not on terror alone: nationalist pride and the David-versus-Goliath myth play an important cohesive role. To maintain it, the North-Korean regime has to stay in the David position, which means it has to continue to challenge Goliath (the US). Its missile tests thus have a double function: it’s a spectacle to make the homefront cheer and a warning to the US that North-Korea is no Iraq. Of the two, the first one is probably the most important.
Economic sanctions are imposed on North-Korea but, as usual, they will starve the starving, make the poor even poorer and cause little inconvenience for the ruling class. The latter is apparently accepting the price of losing a third of its export (if indeed it turns out to be that much) for maintaining the David-myth. Which, on the other side of the ocean, is the myth of the crazy dictator who wants to destroy us, which gives our rulers the right to do “whatever it takes” to protect us. Kim Jong-un needs a foreign enemy but Trump needs one too, to justify the military build-up and to distract us from the emptiness of his promises.
Thus the spectacle will continue, but will it remain just a spectacle? The underlying dynamic of world capitalism, in crisis and confronted with a growing tension between the accumulation of capital and social reproduction, is leading us to ever more violence and destruction, of the natural environment as well as of its (for capital) useless inhabitants. The cause of this goes deeper than the state of mind or the politics of the leaders in charge; it is to be found in the very logic of capitalism. Not the madness of Kim and Trump is the issue but the madness of the system itself, which must be defeated to prevent such wars of words from becoming wars of mass destruction.