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Ending the Korean War Teaching Initiative - Reverberations - Regional Militarization and Nuclearization


Regional Militarization and Nuclearization

Image: 2014 New York City rally against U.S. militarization in Asia and the Pacific. Photograph courtesy of Juyeon Rhee.


More than almost anyone in the world, North Koreans know intimately what it means to be in the crosshairs of the American war machine. In May 1951, British peace activist Monica Felton observed that in the course of her travels through North Korea as part of an international fact-finding delegation, “the same scenes of destruction repeated themselves over and over again.  …The destruction, in fact, is so overwhelming that if the war is allowed to continue—even for another few months—there will be nothing left of Korea. Nothing at all.” Felton’s description could have easily applied to South Korea, as well. The entire peninsula lay in shambles following the Korean War’s battle phase. Over the ensuing decades, both Koreas have been rebuilt. Wartime rubble has given way to high-rises, factories, hotels, and stadiums. Yet the threat of another apocalypse still looms, not only on the Korean peninsula but also throughout Northeast Asia. Alongside buildings and public spaces, military bases have emerged throughout the region, in urban centers and rural areas alike. For instance, the U.S. Eighth Army’s Yongsan Garrison occupied a huge swath of central Seoul (and only recently began returning the land to South Korea while shifting troops and materials to Pyeongtaek). Bases and nuclear aircraft carriers–in essence, mobile bases–are a physical manifestation of the looming threat that remains over the region. Often justified as critical for the protection of Korea and other host nations, U.S. military facilities instead heighten regional insecurity, making surrounding communities targets of military strikes and political pawns in “superpower” competition–for example, Trump’s threats of nuclear “fire and fury,” which if realized against North Korea would have devastated vast swaths of South Korea, including Seoul, not to mention neighboring China and Japan.


Scorched-earth policy

Nuclear imperialism

Nuclear racism

Nuclear club

Empire of bases


Study Materials

[Article] Cumings, Bruce, “On the Strategy and Morality of American Nuclear Policy in Korea, 1950 to the Present,” Social Science Japan Journal 1:1 (1998): 57-70

In this essay, working against the assumption that “the only nuclear threat involving Korea came from Pyongyang,” Korean War historian Bruce Cumings offers critical background and analysis of the American campaigns during the Korean War, focusing on largely unknown information on American nuclear policies in Korea since 1953. He further draws a structural through-line from U.S. war crimes against North Korea to the present day.

[Article] Tong, Kurt, “Korea’s Forgotten Atomic Bomb Victims,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 23:1 (1991): 31-37   

It is not commonly known in the United States that tens of thousands of Korean nationals were killed and injured in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the atomic bombings of 1945. It is even possible that President Harry Truman was unaware of the existence of Koreans in the target cities when he made the fateful decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. This final act of war engendered lasting misery for several thousands of the very people the United States was trying to liberate from Japanese domination. Many Korean atomic bomb victims survive today, scattered in rural villages in South Korea or in the slums of urban Japan. Hundreds are still burdened by physical or radiation-related injuries sustained four decades ago. How these people became casualties, and how they have managed since, is a complex story-but one worth telling, if for no other reason than to remind us of the way in which decisions of violence made in time of war have lasting effects far beyond what is intended.

[Book Chapter] Eckert, Carter, Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Introduction. 

Eckert’s book traces the Korean peninsula’s history of militarization during the 20th century. Rather than external forces (i.e., the Cold War), it finds the roots of the Park Chung Hee military dictatorship in the late Chosŏn and Japanese colonial period of Korean history. The book’s introduction outlines the book’s main arguments. It explains how Korea was militarized before the Cold War and discusses the social, political, and economic structures from which the postwar South Korean state emerged. Eckert’s analysis suggests that the militarization of Korea, and Japan’s other colonies, was not simply imposed by the United States during the Cold War. Instead, it represented the complex interplay between multiple waves of colonization and the agency of Koreans over successive generations.

[Book Chapter] Yoneyama, Lisa, “Ethnic and Colonial Memories” from Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). 

In this chapter, Yoneyama discusses the marginalization of Korean victims of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, and the politics of memory that pertain to the Korean victims’ memorial that stands outside of Hiroshima’s Peace Park. Tracing contestations over the significance of the memorial–as a symbol of the postcolonial and ongoing marginalization of ethnic Koreans living in Japan, as a paradoxical means of revalorizing the relationship between colonial Korean elites and imperial Japan, or as a site that surfaces intra-Korean struggles over the partition of peninsular north and south–Yoneyama’s work raises the question of how and for whom war is remembered, and on what grounds.

[Longform Political Analysis] Bae, Minju, “Demilitarization in the Time of Police Abolition: Korean A-bomb Survivors Demand Justice, positions politics: praxis, August 5, 2020. 

In this essay, Bae makes a call to link movements for abolition in the United States with demilitarization.

[Maps] Vine, David - Maps of Military Bases from Base Nation website 

This collection of multimedia maps explores the growth of the U.S. military’s worldwide base network. Part of anthropologist David Vine’s research into the global impact of U.S. military bases, the maps highlight just how ubiquitous US military bases became during the Cold War. The current U.S. base network began to take shape during World War II, when U.S. troops relied heavily on indigenous laborers to build bases and infrastructure throughout the colonial world (including the Caribbean, North Africa and the Pacific). But as historian Bruce Cumings argues, the Korean War played a key role in mobilizing political support and funding for the postwar expansion of the U.S. military base network. Over the course of the Cold War, the base network came to encompass much of the non-communist world and acted as key sites from which the United States projected military and economic power. South Korea remains one of the most important nodes of the U.S. military base network; the country still hosts nearly 30,000 U.S. service people.

[Interview] “Julian Aguon: U.S. Militarization of Guam Is “Nothing Less Than Cataclysmic,” Democracy Now, September 13, 2022

The geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China is reshaping life in the U.S. territory of Guam, where the already-massive military presence is set to expand as the Pentagon builds up its capabilities in the Pacific. “We are directly in the line of fire,” says Julian Aguon, a CHamoru writer and human rights lawyer, who describes the build-up of U.S. troops and military infrastructure on Guam as “nothing less than cataclysmic” for the Indigenous people. Aguon also talks about the ongoing fight for independence in Guam, which he says the United States has thwarted for more than a century. “The U.S. is a country that prefers, routinely, power over strength and living over letting live.” Aguon is the author of several acclaimed books, including, The Fire This Time: Stories of Life Under U.S. Occupation and What We Bury at Night: Disposable Humanity. His most recent book is titled No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies.

[Interview] “Joseph Han on U.S. imperialism, Korean ghosts, and Guy Fieri,” NPR, June 14, 2022 Nuclear Family (novel)

In 2018, a false emergency alert went out to the residents of occupied Hawai‘i warning that a North Korean ballistic missile was headed for the islands. Nuclear Family takes place in the months thereafter, following a fictional Korean family living in Hawai‘i after their eldest son, who moves to South Korea to teach English, attempts to cross the DMZ into north korea after being haunted by the ghost of his grandfather. Han’s novel connects the making of a transnational diasporic Korean family to the making of US empire in Hawai‘i and the Pacific and in Asia, linking the military occupation of Hawai‘i to the division of the Korean peninsula. In this interview, Han touches on themes of intergenerational haunting and ancestral inheritance, and how empire shapes our relationships with, and access to, home.

[Longform Political Analysis] Hong, Christine, “The Long, Dirty History of U.S. Warmongering Against North Korea,” The Progressive Magazine, April 25, 2017

Instability in Korea has, for several decades, lined the pockets of those who profit from the business of war. Indeed, the Korean War rehabilitated a U.S. economy geared, as a result of World War II, toward total war. Seized as opportunity, the war enabled the Truman administration to triple U.S. defense spending, and furnished a rationale for the bilateral linking of Asian client states to the United States and the establishment of what Chalmers Johnson called an “empire of bases” in the Pacific. General James Van Fleet, the commanding officer of UN forces in Korea, described the war as “a blessing” and remarked, “There had to be a Korea either here or some place in the world.” Fast-forward to the present: the portrait of an unpredictable nuclear-armed North Korea greases the cogs of the U.S. war machine and fuels the military-industrial complex, justifying the accelerated deployment of missile-defense systems in Guam and South Korea, the strategic positioning of nuclear aircraft carriers, the sales of military weapons, war exercises between the United States and its regional allies, and a forward-deployed U.S. military posture.

[Op-ed] Harden, Blaine, “The U.S. War Crime North Korea Won’t Forget,” March 24, 2015, The Washington Post

In 2015 op-ed, former Washington Post reporter and author of The Great Leader and the Figher Pilot Blaine Harden provides a brief history of US aerial bombing of North Korea during the Korean War and explains how this history shaped the outlook of North Koreans. Harden highlights the devestation of the US air campaign, calling it “long, leisurely, and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders.” He goes on to cite statements by Air Force General Curtis LeMay and Secretary of State Dean Rusk about the scale of the devastation caused by US bomber. Harden concludes the piece by suggesting that a US apology would go a long way to improving US-North Korean relations. Harden’s short piece provide a perspective that is rare US popular discourse–unlike most pieces that present North Korea as crazy or incomprehensible, this piece contextulaizes grievances of the North Koreans against the United States and US-led world order.

[Op-ed] Suri, Jeremi, “Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too LateNew York Times, April 12, 2013

During the Pacific pivot era, Jeremi Suri, a historian who holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at UT Austin, argued that President Obama should preemptively “destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched” and that doing so would be “an act of self-defense” necessary “to neutralize a clear and present danger.” Disregarding the fact that the Korean War is not over and serves as the basis for continuing U.S.-North Korean hostilities, Suri speculates that North Korea, in response to U.S. bombing, “might feel obligated to start a war to save face” and China conceivably would play a role in armed hostilities, but such cascading effects could be worth it if they “preserve the uneasy peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

[Video] “History of the North Korean ‘Nuclear Crisis’ with Hyun Lee,” YouTube, October 17, 2021 

This presentation by activist Hyun Lee (and accompanying Q&A session) explore the history of the North Korean “nuclear crisis.” Delivered to the NJ/NY Korea Peace Now Grassroots group on October 15, 2021, Lee’s presentation traces the history of the current nuclearization of the Korean peninsula to the Korean War. Lee argues that hostile U.S. foreign policy is the cause (rather than the solution) to the crisis.

[Video] Hashimoto, Isao, “1945-1998,” YouTube (2003) 

By Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, this 2003 visual art piece depicts the time and location of every acknowledged nuclear denotation between 1945 and 1998. Born in post-World War II Japan, Hashimoto grew up in an environment where memories and fears of nuclear weapons were pervasive. The artist explains, “This piece of work is a bird’s eye view of the history by scaling down a month length of time into just one second. No letter is used for equal messaging to all viewers without language barrier. The blinking light, sound and the numbers on the world map show when, where and how many experiments each country have conducted. I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave, but present problem of the world.” Hashimoto’s work makes clear not only the scale of nuclear weapons testing that has taken place but also their unequal geographic spread—nuclear detonations have been concentrated in regions with large indigenous or decolonizing populations and far from metropolitan centers.


  1. Please analyze the following statements:

    • “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population.” –General Curtis LeMay reflecting on the Korean War, 1984

    • “With respect to North Korea and Iran, they are playing with nuclear weapons. But they can’t use them, because only thing important to them is survival of their regimes. If they ever use one, in terms of Pyongyang, I would turn it into a charcoal briquette tomorrow.” –Colin Powell in 2017, reusing a phrase, “charcoal briquette,” he had used twenty-two years prior to describe North Korea’s fate if it ever dared use its nuclear weapons

    • “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” –Donald Trump, September 18, 2017.

  2. Placed in the “line of fire,” as CHamoru writer and lawyer Julian Aguon has stated, Guahan (Guam), as a launching pad for U.S. aggression in the region, may be in China’s and North Korea’s crosshairs, but it is not their enemy. To no small degree, however, externally imposed lines of enmity have been naturalized in the greater region. In 2014, for example, the Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit against the “nuclear nine,” including North Korea. This begs the question: how can solidarity be envisioned among regional peoples who have been situated on opposing sides of the U.S. imperial war machine? What is the material basis for a shared vision of peace? 

  3. How do we begin to understand the racism of nuclear imperialism?

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