Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Question of War with North Korea

The Question of War With North Korea
By Devon Bowers

This was originally published on

The summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un while photo worthy, was a disaster. Yet, it wasn’t due to Trump ‘getting played’ as so many in the media would have one think, but rather was due to the US wanting to make demands without offering any concessions.

North Korea released a statement early July 2018 in which they “accused the Trump administration on Saturday of pushing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization’ and called [the meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] ‘deeply regrettable.”[1] More importantly, after the summit, President Trump went and said that North Korea was still an “extraordinary threat,”[2] despite the whole intention of the summit being to lower tensions between the two nations. Given the fact that war between the two (and allied nations) may still break out, it would be pertinent to discuss what such a war would look like, starting with interested parties.

The United States

The US has been deeply involved in the Korean peninsula for the past nearly seven decades and currently has around 28,000 personnel deployed there.[3] While times have changed, the US still retains major interests with regards to the peninsula.

Generally, US concerns with NK include “verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,” the halting of “nuclear or ballistic missile proliferation,”[4] and reduction of tensions with Japan.

The US is especially concerned with North Korea’s nuclear program, as can be seen in their training exercises. In December 2017, US troops trained in exercise Warrior Strike IX which “[putting] them on North Korean soil, with the objective of ‘infiltrating’ and ‘removing weapons of mass destruction.”[5] Such exercises are nothing new, as in March 2013, the US began its Winter Wargame in which they simulated “how many American troops would be needed to go in and secure North Korea's nuclear arsenal if Kim's regime collapsed.”[6]

Collapse is also a concern as it “would have severe implications for trade and the regional—if not global—economy” and “the potential for major strategic consequences (including control of the North’s nuclear arsenal) and a massive humanitarian crisis, not to mention long-term economic and social repercussions, loom large.”[7] Such drills are of major concern for the North Korean leadership which has always condemned such exercises and sees them as dangerous and provocative.

Nuclear weapons are extremely important for the North Korean government as not only are the drills seen as a threat, but, looking around the world, they have right to be concerned. In private meetings, North Korean officials “have often stated that they do not intend to become ‘another Iraq’ or ‘another Libya’– countries that, in the North Korean view, succumbed to the United States because they did not have a ‘nuclear deterrent.”[8] This is further supported by that fact that Donald Greg, US ambassador to Seoul under President Obama, was told by the North Koreans, “we noticed you never attack anyone with nuclear weapons so that's why we developed them” and issued a statement after the attack on Libya, which read, in part:

The situation in Libya is a lesson for the international community. It has been shown to the corners of the earth that Libya's giving up its nuclear arms, which the U.S. liked to chatter on about, was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country by sugarcoating it with words like 'the guaranteeing of security' and 'the bettering of relations.[9] (emphasis added)

Despite the government being labeled such things as ‘insane’ and ‘crazy’ they are acting quite rationally using their nuclear program as a deterrent from unwanted US interference and invasion.

The reliance on nuclear weapons makes sense, given past incidents involving the US, such as the Chenonan incident in 2010, where the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, sunk and blame was immediately laid at the feet of North Korea.[10] This is despite some people questioning the evidence being presented to the public[11] and questions being raised even in South Korea’s own official reports.[12]

There was also the Sony hack in December 2014. North Korea was accused of hacking the corporation when they released The Interview, a comedy film that was critical of the North Korean government. As soon as the hack occurred, NK was already being blamed, with the FBI saying that “it determined North Korea was responsible based on an analysis of the malware involved and its similarities to previous attacks the U.S. government [attributed] to North Korean-allied hackers, including an assault on South Korean banks and media outlets in 2013.”[13] In response to the hack, the US placed sanctions on NK.[14] However, what is interesting in regards to all of this is that it is quite questionable if North Korea was in fact the source of the hacking.

If you are a victim of hacking, especially on a national level, it can be quite difficult to determine who is responsible. Bruce Schneier, a fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, noted in an Atlantic article:

Ordinarily, you could determine who the attacker was by the weaponry. When you saw a tank driving down your street, you knew the military was involved because only the military could afford tanks. Cyberspace is different. In cyberspace, technology is broadly spreading its capability, and everyone is using the same weaponry: hackers, criminals, politically motivated hacktivists, national spies, militaries, even the potential cyberterrorist. They are all exploiting the same vulnerabilities, using the same sort of hacking tools, engaging in the same attack tactics, and leaving the same traces behind. They all eavesdrop or steal data. They all engage in denial-of-service attacks. They all probe cyberdefences and do their best to cover their tracks.[15] (emphasis added)

Due to many different actors utilizing similar tactics and techniques to obtain information, quickly pointing fingers seems to do a disservice.

While the military realm of North Korea has been aggressive, the diplomatic realm has been something of a mixed bag.

President Obama’s main goals with regards to NK were to 1) keep Six Party Talks open, however, with the caveat that NK take ‘irreversible’ steps to denuclearize first, 2) insist that the Talks be preceded by an improvement in relations between the two Koreas, and 3) respond “to Pyongyang’s provocations by tightening sanctions against North Korean entities, conducting a series of military exercises, and expanding U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral cooperation.”[16] This was a policy of ‘strategic patience’ which was essentially a carrot-and-stick approach of handling North Korea, where talks and deals could be made in times of peace, but when problems mounted, sanctions would come into play. There were some major problems with this, as rather than focusing on denuclearization of North Korea, the Obama administration seemed more concerned about non-proliferation of WMDs. This is supported by statements from US officials such as “Jeff Bader, former Senior Director on the East Asian Affairs in the National Security Council, [who] stated in an interview that while pursing bilateral talks with North Korea, the United States would focus on reducing, delaying and freezing the North Korean nuclear program, leaving complete denuclearization in the hands of history.”[17]

Obama’s strategy didn’t work from the get-go as North Korea left the six party talks after “Pyongyang test-fired a modified Taepo Dong-2 three-stage rocket, ostensibly as part of its civilian space program” to which the UN Security Council “issued a presidential statement April 13 [2009] calling the test a violation of Resolution 1718, and expanded sanctions on North Korean firms shortly afterwards.”[18] Furthermore, this focus on proliferation rather than denuclearization allowed North Korea to make gains in its program, most notably, by conducting “two underground nuclear explosions and several banned missile tests”[19] in April 2013.

Relations deteriorated further in April 2016 with President Obama stating that “we [the US] could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our [nuclear] arsenals.”[20] This was in the context of increased tensions as just a month earlier (March 2016) the US and South Korea launched two military drills, one of which was Operation Key Resolve which tested “the new U.S.-South Korean military strategy operation plan, Operations Plan 5015, which aims to deter North Korea's possible use of weapons of mass destruction by preemptive attack.”[21] From NK’s perspective, the exercise was “offensive rather than defensive and is aimed at occupying [North Korea] by preemptive strike.” It was further noted:

The aggressive nature of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises is also apparent in setting their targets, like examination of feasibility of operations like “removal of the leadership,” “occupying Pyongyang,” “regime change,” “preemptive nuclear strike” and “decapitation raids,” which can never be found in other countries’ joint military drills.[22]

While idea of war was in the background, the US 2016 presidential elections brought someone who, at least at first, seemed to strike a different tone on the matter.

The 2016 elections saw the explosion of unlikely presidential candidate Donald Trump, who brought some unconventional thinking to the political arena. In May 2016, Trump said that he would be “willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program, proposing a major shift in U.S. policy toward the isolated nation.”[23] The following month, he said that he would be willing to have Kim Jong-Un come to the White House, arguing "What the hell is wrong with speaking?”[24] This was not just a “major shift” from US policy, it was utterly unheard of.

Unfortunately, these ideas weren’t to last as when Trump became President he began to condemn North Korea, saying that “the ‘greatest immediate threat’ to the US is North Korea and its nuclear program”[25] In August 2017, in a war of words between the two leaders, President Trump said to reporters that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States” and that “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”[26] Such comments only aided in further straining already tense relations between the two nations, but the even larger problem seems to be the people who are surrounding him, namely John Bolton.

John Bolton isn’t just known for his role in promoting the 2003 Iraq War, but is generally known as a major foreign policy hawk with neoconservative credentials. Not too soon before becoming National Security Adviser to President Trump, he penned an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” where he says, in part:

The threat [from North Korea] is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation. (emphasis added)


Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different than in the age of steam. What was once remote is now, as a practical matter, near; what was previously time-consuming to deliver can now arrive in minutes; and the level of destructiveness of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is infinitely greater than that of the steamship Caroline's weapons cargo.[27]

It is interesting to note that despite the title, no actual legal argument is made in the article. Still, Bolton argues that due to the idea that at some point in the future North Korea is going to engage in a military, possibly nuclear, attack on the United States, that the US thus has the right to attack North Korea.

Thinking such as this should worry everyone as this is the kind of person who is giving President Trump advice and there is no one to seriously push back on it for the most part. While Steve Bannon and his cohorts aren’t good people by any means, at least they represented something of an anti-interventionist front, especially when one looks at Bannon’s comments regarding the North Korea situation and how it could only be solved politically.[28]

Relations between the two countries seemed as if they might improve slightly with the summit in June 2018 between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. However, as aforementioned, this went awry due to US demands without concessions. What should be noted, however, is the media’s response to the summit, with articles such as Kim Jong Un has played Trump like a Stradivarius by Max Boot in the Washington Post and How Donald Trump Got Played By a Ruthless Dictator by Andy Kroll of the Rolling Stone. Many in the media, in print and television, were incessantly talking about how President Trump was going to ‘get played’ by Kim. Effectively, the arguments revolved around 1) by even meeting with Kim, Trump was putting North Korea on the same level as the US, 2) that diplomacy with North Korea won’t work due to them having reneged on such efforts in the past 3) that Trump ‘got nothing’ from the summit, and 4) it was a mistake to stop the war games. Each of these arguments should be examined in more detail.

Addressing the first point, that talking to North Korea legitimizes them, such an argument doesn’t make sense. The United States and rest of the world already recognizes NK as a sovereign nation, thus giving them legitimacy. However, this argument is more about how the US shouldn’t legitimize the North Korean government and the horrid things it has done. To rebut that, one only has to look at who the US allies itself with, such as Saudi Arabia. People are hand wringing about acknowledging NK, when they are silent about how the US is buddy-buddy with Saudi Arabia, a nation that is currently bombing the ever-loving hell out of Yemen to the point where the Yemeni people are starving[29] and Saudi Arabia is said to have committed war crimes[30] and, some speculate, is possibly engaging in genocide.[31] On top of that, the US has a history of and continues to provide aid to dictators.[32] Thus, the argument that due to Kim Jong-Un’s government oppressing the North Korean people means the US shouldn’t talk to him doesn’t hold water as the US is fine talking to and even aiding oppressive governments around the world.

The idea that diplomacy won’t work with North Korea reneging on deals in the past is quite plausible, however, ignores certain details. The only time the US made major gains with North Korea was when engaging in serious diplomacy, as President Bill Clinton did. In 1994, the US and North Korea settled upon the Agreed Framework.

Just four pages long, the agreement said that North Korea would shut down its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, abandon two others, and seal fuel that could potentially be used to create a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the U.S. would provide oil to make up for the fuel lost from the dismantled plants and would build two new “light fuel” plants from which it would be harder to extract nuclear materials. If North Korea did try to get fuel out of the new plants, it would be easy for nuclear watchdogs to identify—and hard to hide. In addition, the agreement promised that the U.S. would lift economic sanctions and its diplomatic freeze on North Korea and agree that it would not use nuclear weapons of its own on North Korea.[33]

This represented a major milestone of progress in US-North Korean relations and proved that diplomacy with North Korea actually worked. Unfortunately, the US Congress refused to provide funding for the project and thus the light fuel plants were never built. Some may bring up the fact that North Korea continued its uranium enrichment program and thus broke the deal, however, that’s not entirely accurate. “The Agreed Framework covered only North Korea’s plutonium program; it said nothing about uranium enrichment. North Korea maneuvered around the agreement but didn’t violate it”[34] and they did this only after four years of the US not holding up its end of the bargain.

The position that President Trump got nothing from the deal is true, but not for the reasons people are arguing, such as him ‘getting played’ by Kim Jong-Un. From the get-go, the US wasn’t making concessions. Specifically, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said before the summit that “the United States [had] not made any concessions to the regime and will continue to hold firm until Pyongyang takes ‘credible steps’ toward denuclearization.”[35] The US retained this stand even after the summit as Pompeo said that the US wouldn’t ease sanctions on North Korea until they denuclearized.[36] During the entire situation, as Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen notes:

Trump made no real concessions in Singapore. He did not lift sanctions, unfreeze North Korean assets or send secret planes loaded with hard currency to Pyongyang. He did not sign an agreement ending the Korean War or offer Pyongyang diplomatic recognition. All the president did was, as a goodwill gesture, suspend military exercises with South Korea — a decision he can easily reverse.[37] (emphasis added)

Demands without concessions, diplomacy does not make.

With regards to the war games, as was just noted, it is something that can be reversed without much hassle. It is important as the North Korean government sees these war games as provocative and that the US and South Korea are preparing to invade it. By not having them, it helps to create an environment where the two parties can begin to discuss and talk out the situation, without the ever-present specter of war behind them.

While far away, there are much closer nations that are quite interested in the peninsula, namely, China, Russia, and Japan.


China not only borders North Korea, but has a long history with the nation, going back to their intervention in the Korean War on the side of the North. While the times have changed, China still remains heavily invested in North Korea.

Generally, the Chinese main priority is stability on the peninsula, especially with regards to the North Korean leadership and the country as a whole as they see North Korea as a buffer between them and the American-backed South Korean government. North Korea’s stability is vital to Chinese interests as there would be major political, economic, and humanitarian ramifications were to North Korean government to be destabilized or collapse altogether. “However unpredictable and annoying the North Korean government may be to Beijing, any conceivable scenario other than maintaining the status quo could seriously damage PRC interests.”[38] To this end, “China’s food and energy assistance can be seen as an insurance premium that Beijing remits regularly to avoid paying the higher economic, political, and national security costs”[39] of a collapse or war.

On the question of nuclear weapons, China is rather wary of North Korea’s nuclear program as they are worried that it could potentially create a nuclear arms race of sorts, inspiring nations such as Japan and Taiwan to pursue their own nuclear weapons/deterrents in doing so put the entire region on edge. Additionally, the Chinese government wants to avoid such proliferation as it could result in nations being more able to defend their national interests when engaged in conflicts with China, such as debates over the South China Sea.[40]

China supports the reunification of the Korean peninsula, however, they favor a peaceful environment to first be fostered without the interference of outside nations such as the United States. They support this via “ direct dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation between the two [Koreas] and [encourage] economic cooperation and prosperity as key factors in achieving unification,”[41] furthermore, to these ends, they don’t favor increased sanctions on North Korea as the view is that doing so creates a more hostile environment. On top of all this, reunification allows for a war to be avoided, which, if initiated by the US or South Korea, would force China’s hand as China is bound to aid North Korea under the “1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance which states that China is obliged to defend North Korea against unprovoked aggression.”[42] Furthermore, a war would harm Chinese investments and put their buffer zone at risk.


Russia, while seemingly far away, actually holds an eleven mile border with North Korea and thus is paying close attention to and attempting to influence the situation.

They too, see North Korea as an important buffer. The Russian National Committee of the Council of Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific noted that “the most relevant objective is not attaining a predominate position in Korea, but rather the prevention of the entire peninsula falling under the influence of another state, especially one that is not on truly friendly terms with Russia”[43] and thus it is to their advantage that North Korea act as a buffer state to US interests.

Russia is concerned about NK’s nuclear program, however it doesn’t have the primary prominence that it does for the United States or South Korea. Rather that lies with increasing Russian influence in North Korea and their military concerns.

Specifically, Russia wants to maintain and grow its relationship with North Korea, primarily in the economic and cultural exchange areas. Such views affect their support for sanctions as promoting them could negatively affect Russia’s long-term interests.[44] Russia’s economic interests prevent it from honoring its United Nations commitment to economically sanction Pyongyang as it would interfere with their access to North Korean markets and diminish their influence on North Korea.[45] With regards to economics, Russia wants to woo North Korea away from their intense dependence on China, utilizing their special economic zones, such as Rason, which is a home for foreign investment. Like the Chinese, they also want stability in North Korea as it would “ open up opportunities to tap into the energy market on the peninsula itself, and further establish regional economic partnerships,”[46] possibly allowing Russia to slightly blunt some of the sanctions put on it after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Militarily, they are worried about the US’s National Missile Defense plan, which “ if fully implemented, would enhance US nuclear superiority over Russia’s smaller, less sophisticated nuclear arsenal”[47] and so the Russians want to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program as it gives the US justification for continuing to develop and deploy missile defenses which could potentially give the US an upperhand and even dominance with regards to nuclear superiority vis-à-vis Russia.

There are also concerns about a collapse of the North Korean government which could potentially “increase the likelihood that its nuclear weapons–grade material would end up on the black market, available to transnational criminal organizations as well as terrorist networks.”[48] This is of major concern for the Russians given their bloody history with Chechen terrorists which engaged in an act of radiological terrorism in the 1990s,[49] in addition to their terrorist acts more generally.[50] Therefore, it is in Russian interests to work to limit North Korea’s access to nuclear material and ensure that access is in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.


The Japanese have had long-standing problems with North Korea, specifically with regards to North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens, an issue that remains unresolved.

“From 1977 to 1983, several Japanese citizens living in coastal regions disappeared under strange circumstances,”[51] with the truth being revealed in 2002. That year, then-Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, met with then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il to address outstanding problems between the two countries, which resulted in the Pyongyang Declaration which dealt with several problems, everything from the historical, such as Japan apologizing for the harm done during its colonial rule of Korea to the status of Korean nationals living in Japan. Plans were made to continue talks in October 2002. Unfortunately, things went south when “Pyongyang revealed that 13 Japanese nationals had been taken from Japan and eight of them had died in North Korea”[52] and, post-summit, announced that the five survivors would be temporarily allowed to return to Japan.

The survivors returned to Japan on October 15, 2002 and were greeted with massive enthusiasm from the Japanese public. Initially, it was reported that they would stay for only two weeks, but then the Japanese government allowed them to permanently stay in Japan, after advocacy from the families of the survivors and politicians. Pyongyang was furious at this announcement, as they viewed it as Japan backing out of sending the survivors back to North Korea.

Despite this, the October 2002 talks continued as scheduled, yet focused purely on the abduction issue. When Japan pressed North Korea for information regarding the deaths of the eight other abductees, they were rebuffed. In response, Japan suspended negotiations for nearly two years, resuming them in May 2004, when Koizumi visited Pyongyang again to restart talks, yet nothing of value was gained.

This entire issue launched political careers, such as with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, of the Liberal Democratic Party, who assumed position in 2006 and, along with his allies, made the abduction issue front and center.[53] He has pushed for major changes to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which doesn’t allow the nation to have a military that can engage in offensive operations. In order for it to go through, the measure would have to pass by a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and be subject to a referendum. Currently, there are problems as “it’s unclear if Mr. Abe’s coalition partners would back the proposal, and [Liberal Democratic Party] leaders acknowledge they don’t expect to win support from major opposition parties” and much of the public is “wedded to the country’s pacifist ways, and polls suggest a majority aren’t ready for Article 9 to change.”[54] If Japan’s constitutional change were to go through, it would allow Japan’s military to acquire cruise missiles and long-ranged air launched missiles which would let Japan attack military bases in North Korea from a distance.[55]

The military threat of North Korea is quite real to the Japanese, who have already had to deal with North Korea missiles being fired near them. Conventionally, there is “the threat posed by North Korea’s guerilla incursions, incursions into Japanese territorial waters as well as attacks on Japanese nuclear power facilities along the coast of the Sea of Japan.”[56] In terms of missiles, while Japan “continues to invest funds and other resources for the development of a regional missile defense system in order to protect the Japanese territory from North Korean rogue missiles,”[57] there are still problems as “the 22 ballistic missiles [North Korea] has tested since February [2017] have all been fired toward Japan, whose capital Tokyo lies just 800 miles from Pyongyang.”[58] Such a situation leaves the public and government seriously concerned about both North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

In order to confront concerns about North Korea, not only is Japan increasing its military[59] , but it is also changing its military organization.

Specifically, the Ground Self-Defense Force is going to be put under a single, unified command and the establishment of an amphibious brigade. Michael Green, the senior vice president for Asia and the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that this is in response to a reinterpretation of Article 9 in which Japan’s military can be used for ‘collective self-defense’ which “will allow Japanese forces to plan for and potentially participate in joint military operations with the U.S. beyond Japan’s home island” and let Japan “engage in anti-submarine warfare, missile defense or other missions in close support of the United States.”[60] This is all being done in response to the North Korean missile threat, but also China’s probing of Japanese waters.

Given all this, the question must be asked: What would a war with North Korea look like on some level?

As to why a war would start, it would most likely be accidental, with either North Korea or South Korea/the US misinterpreting the moves of the other party[61] and while therefore unlikely, is still a possibility and thus should be examined.

In terms of numbers, North Korea’s military is as follows:

● 1,190,000 active, 6,300,000 reserve and 189,000 paramilitary personnel[62]
● “[A]bout 820 combat aircraft, 30 reconnaissance aircraft, and 330 transport aircraft”[63]
● 4,300 tanks and 2,000 special forces soldiers[64]
● 4,000 armored fighting vehicles, 13,000 artillery pieces, 4,500 self-propelled guns, and 5,000 rocket artillery pieces[65]
● 967 naval assets, mainly based in submarines (86) and patrol craft (438)[66]

While some may lambaste the North Korean military as not being a serious threat due to the US and South Korean militaries being better trained and equipped, it doesn’t mean that they still can’t do damage. As has been noted in the past, NK’s artillery could do massive damage to Seoul[67], the South Korean capital, especially if they utilize chemical weapons that North Korea is thought to possess.[68] There are also the special forces soldiers, which are trained to “cover infiltration into the forward and rear areas to strike major units and facilities, assassinations of key personnel, disruption of rear areas and hybrid operations.”[69] Thus, in case of a war, major havoc could be wrought in terms of physical destruction and the targeting of political, economic, and military sites.

Furthermore, the actual conditions of war for North Korea would be different. The likelihood of North Korea initiating a war is extremely slim, given the fact that they wouldn’t want to have to go up against both the US and South Korea without aid from Russia or China, as China noted in 2017 that engaging in aggressive acts would forfeit Chinese support.[70] Therefore, any war would be initiated by the US and its allies, thus turning it into a defensive war. North Korea’s goals would be simply to survive and push back the invasion, with nuclear weapons being used as a last resort, where as the invading nations would have to either do an incursion into North Korea or more likely a toppling of the North Korean government and post war occupation, something that would be much more difficult and costly in terms of money, lives, and material.

In terms of logistics, a North Korean-started war is questionable as well as it isn’t even particularly known if they have the capabilities to maintain supply lines far into South Korea. The United States, on the other hand, would have serious logistical problems supporting a war on the peninsula as they already “[don’t] have the ability to evacuate [their] own anticipated wounded quickly,” with the New York Times noting in February 2018 that the US has “limited ability to evacuate injured troops from the Korean Peninsula daily — a problem more acute if the North retaliated with chemical weapons.”[71] Thus, there could be serious problems with resupply, which would hamper fighting effectiveness. This doesn’t take into account that current war plans have the US mobilizing “nearly 700,000 US soldiers [that] would be mobilized alongside 160 ships, 1,600 aircraft,”[72] all of which would take time to prepare and actually put into theater.

There is also the question of outside nations. In case of a war, China would activate anti-missile systems near their border with North Korea and provide humanitarian aid, however, Song Zhongping, a military expert, and a TV commentator, noted that “defensive action could lead to engagement if US action on the Korean Peninsula threatens China's core interests.”[73] Russia, too, is prepared militarily. In 2017, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev stated that “Russia was getting ready for a military standoff between its unruly neighbor and other states around the world” and “We are assessing this and preparing ourselves. We will not be taken by surprise.”[74] Thus, it seems everyone is getting prepared for a possible battle.

While the situation with North Korea seems to have stabilized for now, as we know, the situation can change at a moment’s notice. The question of war still lingers in the air.


[1] Gardiner Harris, Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Criticizes ‘Gangster-Like’ U.S. Attitude After Talks With Mike Pompeo,” New York Times, July 7, 2018 (

[2] BBC, Trump says North Korea still 'extraordinary threat', (June 23, 2018)

[3] Tom Vanden Brook, “Pentagon bases about 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea,” USA Today, June 5, 2018 (

[4] Emma Chanlett-Avery, Dick K. Nanto, North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis, Congressional Research Service, (January 22, 2010), pg 13

[5] Alex Diaz, “US commandos train to capture North Korean nukes,” Fox News, December 20, 2017 (

[6] Colleen Curry, “U.S. Wargames North Korean Regime Collapse, Invasion to Secure Nukes,” ABC News, March 29, 2013 (

[7] Emma Chanlett-Avery, Mi Ae Taylor, North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation, Congressional Research Service, (May 6, 2010), pg 2

[8] Evan J. R. Revere, Facing the Facts: Towards a New U.S. North Korea Policy, The Brookings Institute, (October 16, 2013), pg 12

[9] Geoffery Ingersoll, The Iraq Invasion Convinced North Korea That It Needed Nukes,” Business Insider, April 3, 2013 (

[10] Jack Kim, “North Korea torpedoed South's navy ship: report,” Reuters, April 21, 2010 (

[11] David Cyranoski, Did a North Korean torpedo really sink the Cheonan?, Scientific American,

[12] Barbara Demick, John M. Glionna, “Doubts surface on North Korea's role in ship sinking,” LA Times, July 23, 2010 (

[13] Alex Altman, Zeke J. Miller, “FBI Accuses North Korea in Sony Hack,” Time, December 19, 2014 (

[14] Zeke J. Miller, “U.S. Sanctions North Korea Over Sony Hack,” Time, January 2, 2015 (

[15] Bruce Schneier, “We Still Don't Know Who Hacked Sony,” The Atlantic, January 5, 2015 (

[16] Emma Chanlett-Avery, William H. Cooper, Mark E. Manyin, Mary Beth Nitikin, Ian E. Reinhart, U.S.-South Korea Relations, Congressional Research Service, (February 5, 2013), pg 9

[17] Dongsoo Kim, “The Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea: the causes and consequences of strategic patience,” Journal of Asian Public Policy 9:1 (December 2015), pg 40

[18] Arms Control Association, The Six Party Talks At A Glance,

[19] Matt Spetalnick, Anna Yukhananov, “Analysis: North Korea tests Obama's 'strategic patience,” Reuters, April 19, 2013 (

[20] David Blair, “'We could destroy you,' Obama warns 'erratic' North Korean leader.” The Telegraph, April 26, 2016 (

[21] Kent Miller, Jeff Schogol, “315,000 U.S. and South Korean troops begin massive exercise as North threatens war,” Marine Corps Times, March 5, 2016 (

[22] Jon Min Dok, Suspend the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises for peace, NK News, (March 15, 2016)

[23] Emily Flitter, Steve Holland, “Exclusive: Trump would talk to North Korea's Kim, wants to renegotiate climate accord,” Reuters, May 17, 2016 (

[24] Jeremy Diamond, “Trump says he would host Kim Jong Un in U.S..” CNN, June 15, 2016 (

[25] Wolf Blitzer, Jeremy Diamond, Jake Tapper, “Top source: Trump believes North Korea is greatest threat,” CNN, February 28, 2017 (

[26] Peter Baker, Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea if It Endangers U.S.,” New York Times, August 8, 2017 (

[27] John R. Bolton, The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First, Gatestone Institute, (March 2, 2018)

[28] Robert Kuttner, “Steve Bannon, Unrepentant,” The American Prospect, August 16, 2017 (

[29] Zeeshan Aleem, “Saudi Arabia’s new blockade is starving Yemen,” Vox, November 22, 2017 (

[30] Rasha Mohammed, Rawan Shaif, “Saudi Arabia Is Committing War Crimes in Yemen.” Foreign Policy, March 25, 2016 (

[31] Randi Nord, “Is What’s Happening in Yemen Really Genocide?” Mint Press News, June 4, 2018 (

[32] Rich Whitney, “US Provides Military Assistance to 73 Percent of World’s Dictatorships,” Truthout, September 23, 2017 (

[33] Erin Blakemore, Bill Clinton Once Struck a Nuclear Deal With North Korea,, (April 17, 2018)

[34] Fred Kaplan, “Sorry, Trump, but Talking to North Korea Has Worked,”Slate, October 10, 2017.

[35] Karoun Demirjian, John Hudson, “Pompeo promises ‘zero concessions’ to North Korea until ‘credible steps’ are made,” Washington Post, May 23, 2018 (

[36] The Mainichi, US: No sanctions relief before North Korea denuclearizes, (June 15, 2018)

[37] Marc A. Thiessen, “On North Korea, Trump deserves more latitude and less attitude,” Washington Post, June 15, 2018 (

[38] Dick K. Nanto, Mark E. Manyin, China-North Korea Relations, Congressional Research Service, December 28, 2010, pg 7

[39] Ibid. pg 9

[40] Ibid, pg 8

[41] Walter Diamana, Strategic Alliance: China-North Korea, International Policy Digest, (July 2, 2015)

[42] Ibid

[43] Russian National Committee of the Council of Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, “The Korean Crisis Management: A Russian Perspective,” Korea Review of International Studies 13:2 (2010), pg 83

[44] Ibid. pg 85

[45] Anthony V. Rinna, “Russia's Relationship With North Korea: It's Complicated,” The Diplomat, February 1, 2018 (

[46] Jacqueline Westermann, Australia, don’t underestimate Russia’s interests in Korea, The Strategist, (May 9, 2018)

[47] Geetha Govindasamy, Chang Kyoo Park, Er-Win Tan, “The Revival of Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula,” Asian Perspective 37:1 (2011), pg 141

[48] Ibid

[49] Jeffrey Bale, The Chechen Resistance and Radiological Terrorism, Nuclear Threat Initiative, (April 1, 2004)

[50] Preeti Bhattacharji, Chechen Terrorism (Russia, Chechnya, Separatist), Council on Foreign Relations, (April 8, 2010)

[51] Adam Edelman, “Japanese citizens simply vanished. North Korea had abducted them. But why?” NBC News, June 11, 2018 (

[52] Tsuneo Akaha, “Japanese Policy Towards The North Korean Problem,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 42:3 (2007), pg 302

[53] Norimitsu Onishi, “Japan Rightists Fan Fury Over North Korea Abductions,” New York Times, December 17, 2006 (

[54] Byron Tau, “Abe’s Window of Time for Amending Japan’s Pacifist Constitution Narrows.” Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2018 (

[55] Kosuke Takahashi, “Japan Needs Constitution Change to Have Capabilities to Strike Enemy Bases,” Japan Forward, December 23, 2017 (

[56] Emma Chanlett-Avery, William H. Cooper, Mark E. Manyin, Weston S. Konishi, Japan-US Relations: Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, November 25, 2009, pg 9

[57] Ibid

[58] Charlie Campbell, “'This Is All We Can Do': How the Japanese Are Preparing for a North Korean Nuclear Attack,” Time, September 20, 2017 (

[59] Tom O’Connor, “North Korea Crisis: Japan is Growing Its Military For The First Time Since World War II Because Of Kim Jong Un,” Newsweek, September 21, 2017 (

[60] World Politics Review, Japan Aims to ‘Lock’ the U.S. in Asia With a Sweeping Military Revamp, (April 11, 2018)

[61] Elias Groll, Dan De Luce, Jenna McLaughlin, Armageddon by Accident, (October 18, 2017)

[62] Defense-Aerospace, North Korea's Military: How Does it Actually Stack Up?, (September 5, 2017)

[63] Alex Lockie, “North Korea has a massive air force — here's why it's basically a joke,” Business Insider, June 21, 2018 (

[64] Dave Majumdar, North Korea's Army by the Numbers: 4,300 Tanks and 200,000 Lethal Special Forces, The National Interest, (February 1, 2018)

[65] Armed Forces, Korean Armed forces,

[66] Global Firepower, 2018 North Korea Military Strength,

[67] Stratfor, How North Korea Would Retaliate, (January 5, 2017)

[68] Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea, (April 2018)


[70] Simon Denyer, Amanda Erickson, “Beijing warns Pyongyang: You’re on your own if you go after the United States,” Washington Post, August 11, 2017 (

[71] Robert Beckhusen, The U.S. Military Is Not Prepared to Hunt This Many North Korean Missiles, War Is Boring, (March 5, 2018)

[72] Robin Harding, Bryan Harris, “US rhetoric on North Korea runs into logistical reality,” Financial Times, December 27, 2017 (

[73] Deng Xiaoci, “China should prepare to defend against war in Korean Peninsula: expert,” Global Times, December 17, 2017 (

[74] Dan Falvey, “Russia plan for military intervention in North Korea to stop a nuclear apocalypse,” Express, December 2, 2017 (

Friday, June 15, 2018

When Fellow Workers Can No Longer Find Work: A Talk with the Long-Term Unemployed

When Fellow Workers Can No Longer Find Work: A Talk with the Long-Term Unemployed
By Devon Bowers

The following is an email interview with three individuals - Cayla, Carlos, and DR - who have been long-term unemployed. They talk about how their unemployment has affected them mentally and emotionally, and also question the idea of work being so deeply linked to a person's identity.

1.If you are okay with saying, what led to your long-term unemployment?

Cayla: Well, my unemployment wasn't intentional. I am a student. I have been since I left the Army in 2011. I was in the middle of working on a bachelor's degree when I got sick. I am schizoaffective. So, I had to take some time off school. I'm going back in the fall. Because I am a veteran, I get free education and a monthly stipend while I attend school, so I have no need to work.

Carlos: I work in an industry that has a very short span guarantee of employee, I work in the non-profit industry (for a lack of a better term). In the region that I live, South Texas, there are a good number of nonprofits which provide invaluable services to the community. Especially for an area with high poverty rates as those on the Appalachian region and Native American reservations.

Funding for non-profits is usually tied to the funding source, which can be from local to national government grants, foundations, or university grants. The life span of grants usually range from one to five years and it is never guaranteed to be refunded. So as much as I love working in community organizing or community-building work, it is very tenuous employment. The times I was unemployed was because my service to a nonprofit ended due to no more funding or end of funding of program. The longest I have been unemployed was about 10 or 11 months.

DR: In 2014, I was working as a salesperson for a regional chain furniture store. They prided themselves on being "family friendly" and their ability to work with staff in arranging or adjusting schedules as needed or in case(s) of a family emergency. This was one of the main reasons I had been so happy to be hired there, as I was the main provider of my two young daughters at the time and in the midst of a somewhat messy custody dispute.

According to their records I was laid off because my sales were below target, but at the time my sales seemed to be on par with just about everyone else's, and the only real difference I could see was that I was the most recent hire. Also, it should be pointed out that at the time I was laid off, I was just shy of the end of my 6-month trial period, after which I could begin receiving benefits. You can draw your own conclusions from this.

Not long after I was hired my ex-wife moved approximately 2,000 miles away to Tennessee, leaving both children in my care, which meant I immediately went from being the main provider to the sole provider of my daughters - something I obviously had no say in.

As a newly single father I desperately needed that job, especially as I couldn't even afford childcare as things were. Once let go, I was forced to be even pickier for which jobs I applied. I could no longer accept any other job like say, fast food work, or another minimum-wage or part-time job… that is, unless they knew my story beforehand and were willing to work with me and possibly whomever else also took a chance and hired me, which was already not likely.

Plus, given the large amount of teenagers and retirees in my town who obviously made much better part-time or minimum-wage workers than me, this was basically impossible. Let me tell you, though, I tried and I tried with gusto - my children's livelihood was/is on the line. I could not and can not afford to feed my kids on California's minimum wage. California, as I'm sure you're aware, is one of the highest cost-of-living states.

So, after everything I just detailed, I enrolled in CalWorks - California's form of general assistance. I was already receiving SNAP (food stamps) while working at the furniture store, because again, even with minimum-wage plus commission, I could still not afford food for my family.

2. I was recently listening to a podcast where it was mentioned that the idea of personhood has been linked to work, that in working, we in a way prove that we are people. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that on a societal level that's true? Do you still accept that notion or have you moved on and if so what made you start to reject the idea that work equals personhood?

Cayla: I think our society stresses the notion of work = personhood because we are capitalist. We worship the dollar bill, therefore we associate exploitation with identity. None of us are what we do, we just spend a large part of our day being exploited. I don't need to be exploited to feel like a whole person.

Carlos: This is an idea that you can trace to most ancient societies once they settled into economic classes. The idea of what you do (work, skills) is who you are. In the United States, this is drilled into our psyche. Not only does work reflect us, but the idea that you must be working in or be employed in order to have worth as a person. Fortunately, for me, I am a red diaper baby. So my parents inculcated in me with a different view of the world than the one schools, peers, institutions promote.

DR: Let me say this, the idea that personhood equals value, with value equating work, is absurd. You are a human being, and therefore have intrinsic value because you exist. Not the kind of value that says whatever you can contribute to others equates to what kind of person you are; how you should be treated or where you fall on the scale of who matters and how much.

As Human Beings, we are entitled to life, liberty, and property. Property falls under the label of labor; labor is property. Life includes healthcare -- ALL healthcare: mental and emotional care is the upkeep of our minds and brain; teeth and eyes are parts of our physical body that need upkeep, therefore mental, emotional, dental, and eye care are included in healthcare as well. Life also includes education, childcare, food, clothes, and shelter - these all contribute to the upkeep of our lives.
Last but certainly not least, liberty is (but should be so much more than just) the choice between working to receive what is little more than a slave wage or starving. Which, in all actuality, is not liberty because the idea that it's a choice is a joke in the worst form. It is not a choice, and it is not liberty.

The idea that value equals work which equates to personhood is ridiculously able-ist in construct. There are many, many people who cannot physically work… does that take away their personhood? What an archaic, classist, able-ist construct of thinking. This isn't 10,000 years ago, I believe we can and SHOULD evolve from that ancient, unreasonable, dusty form of "Social Darwinism" or "Natural Selection." We are modern humans living in the modern age. I wholeheartedly believe that "from each according to their ability to each according to their need" is fundamentally the best idea and construct for our society and ourselves.

The entire time I have been unemployed, I have not remained idle. I have labored. Intensely. I have: raised my children, grown gardens in my backyard in a step towards self-sufficiency, I have worked my family member's land and houses. I have done handiwork in my own home. I have constructed things. I have educated people, adults and children on a multitude of different issues. While on CalWorks, I have gone to college, increasing my own knowledge, and working towards my goal of becoming an educator; a history teacher to be specific.

 I have volunteered with countless organizations, including Western Service Workers Association (WSWA), which is a mutual aid organization and a "para-union", or a union for non-unionized workers, like IHSS workers or farmworkers. I am currently a coordinator for their food procurement program, which entails me going to different grocery markets and taking donations for our food bank, so that it may be fully stocked and ready to help other families and individuals in need. I have become an organizer for the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA).

I have organized protests against the DAPL and other such pipelines. I have organized demonstrations in support of universal healthcare. I have organized demonstrations of solidarity with the LGBT community when our local mega-church Bethel openly declared themselves a hate group in support of conversion therapy and told their congregation to vote against a CA Assembly bill which would grant members of the LGBT community greater access to healthcare and would ban the practice of billing people for conversion therapy.

I have organized food drives and supply drops for the homeless, and poor working class families like ours. Most importantly, I have been the in-home caretaker of my partner, and mother to our new son, who suffers from PTSD, agoraphobia, and panic disorder, due to rape-trauma, multiple sexual assaults, including while she was a child. I have witnessed the ableism she has encountered- from her own family no less. We are currently in the process of having me added as an official IHSS worker on payroll, which would end my long spell of unemployment. I have been working this entire time. I am proud of the work I have done.

3. What are some of the psychological and emotional effects that have been caused by your long-term unemployment? Have any of these problems spilled over and started affecting you physically?

Cayla: My psychological problems are likely caused by my disorder, but I experience a lot of boredom. I have a severe lack of motivation, so even the simplest chores are hard work for me. This has led to a feeling of emptiness that may be associated with a lack of direction or an existential crisis. Anyhow, not working can become boring, if you don't engage in some kind of hobby. I gained weight, though, again, this could be the schizoaffective disorder and the meds I have been put on. My health has suffered, my Dr. gave me some bad news: pre-diabetes and high cholesterol.

Carlos: It is a very stressful time when you are unemployed. Even more so when you have a family. Not only do you depend on your livelihood, but also your spouse and child. When I was unemployed, it created a lot of stress. Each & every day. Not knowing how you are going to pay for rent, utilities, etc.

Knowing that you need to keep your core of living expenses to make sure you can make it through. For example, making sure you have enough to pay the phone bill so you can still be connected for interviews, etc. From when you wake up to when you go to bed and hoping you were able to survive that day. And physically it's even worse since you lose your health insurance and you're a diabetic like me. Meds become a luxury, but knowing you need them in order to get to old age.

DR: The psychological and emotional effects of my long-term unemployment have mostly been encountering the ableist and classist constructs of people in society who do believe that as long as I am not officially "working" that my life and myself are meaningless. There is anger. There is resolve and determination to keep working towards the abolition of such a cruel, self-serving, greedy, hateful society.

4. What are your thoughts on universal basic income? Do you think it could provide something of a cushion for you?

Cayla: I think it's a wonderful idea, though I'm unsure how effective it would be in practice. I've read that it may be ineffective because if it were ever put into place, the resulting price increases would basically render it useless. I have a pension from the VA, so I know how wonderful it can be to have a bit of security. I wish this for everyone, though I'm not sure that a universal income is the way to get there. While I have my doubts, if I were forced to choose now, I would give everyone a universal income. I want everyone to have the opportunity to pursue their passions and chase their dreams.

Carlos: Honestly, I do not know much about the movement or proposal. I have read different variations of it. As a quick reform, it sounds promising. I do think in the immediate, what we would need is to make sure we a) fund unemployment insurance better, b) make sure that the level of unemployment insurance is of a level good enough to live on while also making sure that it is there as long as the person is looking for a job, and c) making sure the unemployed have access to health insurance. I would add that as a democratic socialist, a UBI still doesn't do away with the exploitation of the capitalist on the working class. The end goal is not to reform capitalism, but to birth a new society not based on class exploitation.

DR: Universal Basic Income can only be a good idea if it does not come in place of free healthcare, or education, or food stamp benefits. As it is now, proponents of UBI are suggesting $1000. If you live in CA, you'd be lucky if that even covered rent, let alone food and other necessities. The fact that big CEO's like Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk, and more are starting to come around to UBI should be alarming to the working class. They say it will be necessary because automation will replace countless jobs.

Now if those jobs are gone forever, you can't call UBI supplemental, it will be the only source of income for working class families to live off of. I've even seen some republicans come around to it, but saying they'd want it to replace food stamps and medical coverage. So UBI by itself, or replacing other benefits would ultimately be destructive to the working class. I would, however, support a UBI that a working class family could actually live on. Along with Universal Healthcare for all, free education from Preschool through College for all, a Job Guarantee for those who are able to work, cost of living controls, and a minimum wage that could sustain a family, and a maximum wage of no more than 10x the minimum.

Then, and only then, would UBI be a good idea. Technology has the opportunity to free us from work for necessity, and could free us to working for passion and fulfillment, only if it is hands of the People, and not the elites.

5. What do you think of a federal job guarantee?

Cayla: Again, I'm not very well versed on the subject, but with my limited knowledge, I would choose to have one. I don't know how effective they have been in the past, but the idea sounds great. I am disabled from the Army. That's how I receive my pension. I am limited as to how many hours or how physically demanding a job can be. It would be nice if the government could guarantee me a good part-time job with benefits. As I understand it, some countries are moving to shorter work days, due to overproduction. We don't need to be constantly working and producing so much. We are destroying the planet doing it. Perhaps if the gov't guaranteed everyone work, we could limit our own work days. If everyone worked together, rather than competing, we could all work less.

Carlos: I think a federal job guarantee should be tied in closely with the aforementioned response. I do think this reform is more viable and easier for mainstream folks to understand and back. This is one proposal from Sen. Sanders, but has been around since the '70s.

DR: As I stated above a Federal Job Guarantee would be useful, if coupled with the following services; UBI, Universal healthcare for all, free education from Preschool through College for all, cost of living controls, a minimum wage that families could live on, and a maximum wage of no more than 10x the minimum. These reforms must exist together if they are to truly benefit the working class.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Touring The Struggle Depot: An Interview with Kate and Sally

Touring The Struggle Depot: An Interview with Kate and Sally

By Devon Bowers

Below is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with Katherine Heller and Sally Tamarkin, hosts of the podcast TheStruggle Bus, where we discuss the creation of the podcast and mental health.

1. What made you want to create The Struggle Bus?

Sally: We started TSB kind of on a whim. Katharine and I had recently met and become fast friends. A lot of our conversations in the beginning of our friendship were about how we were doing with Life, mental health, etc. So when Katharine, who already hosted a great podcast called Tell The Bartender, suggest we start an advice show, it seemed like the perfect way to hang out together and do what we do best—talk about mental health and share our feelings and opinions!

Katharine: I was so excited when I met Sally and wanted an excuse to hang out with her. We talked about doing a podcast together, monthly, just for fun. At some point she used the term “Struggle Bus” and I’d never heard it, and thought that it would be a good name for a podcast.

2. How do you go about giving advice? Is it off the cuff or do you plan and research beforehand?

Sally: For me it’s kind of a mix of both. The way I prep is: I read the questions we’re answering that week a few times. I make some notes in my Notes app of things that the listener’s email made me think about and I come up with a few points that I think I want to make. I also spend some time trying to determine what, if anything, I am projecting onto the questioner because one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s VERY easy to give advice from a me-centric point of view and I have to make a conscious effort to not put too much of myself and my experiences into the way I respond, because then I think it just becomes Here’s What Sally Would Do In This Situation Or Has Done In Similar Situations, which does not center the person who’s asking us for advice at all. Once I have spent some time with the questions in my head and making notes, I stop thinking about them because I know that once I hear how Katharine responds, it will make me think about the email in a new way and I’ll have new/different things to say. My objective is to be prepared but not to be scripted because I think a lot of the best advice we give comes from Katharine and I sort of collaborating as we respond.

Katharine: I read the emails ahead of time, and if there’s anything I need to know, I do some research. For example, if I don’t know an acronym for a medical condition, I’ll look that up. There have been times when I wanted to ask a professional to be sure we handled something sensitive in the right way. An example of this is when we got an email from a sexual molestation survivor who had rape fantasies, but would never act on harming a child. I know from personal experience that it was totally normal, but since we’re NOT professionals, I wanted to be sure I had more information before talking about it. Other than that, I don’t plan anything because based on my improv background, I feel that honest, in the moment conversations are the best and Sally makes that easy.

3. The fact that the two of you seem to have fostered an atmosphere of genuine concern and caring from the podcast to online and even real life spaces (ie Struggle Bus Live) is quite interesting.  Does this help you  to recharge on a personal level?

Sally:  Trying to maintain an atmosphere of caring and concern on the podcast, in our FB group, and in live shows has been important to my mental health, especially recently. It’s helped me realize that spaces that feel truly caring and open, where people can feel safe being vulnerable, are pretty rare. To try to create and maintain a space like that, particularly since the 2016 election has felt like pretty important work to me, and that, in turn, is recharging. Before TSB I don’t think I was consciously aware of how many spaces we occupy day in and day out that are about performing OK-ness and hiding vulnerability. The community around TSB (whether it’s Katharine, or people who write in, or buddies in the FB group, or guests and audience at the live show) inspires people to think about vulnerability and boundaries kind of simultaneously and it’s definitely a kind of feedback loop because what Katharine and I put out there we get back tenfold from listeners, social media followers, and FB group members. I really feel like we’re all stewards of this dope ass community.

Katharine: This podcast has helped me in so many ways. For me, helping people makes me feel good, and I legitimately feel compassion for every person who writes in. I feel less “alone” with my mental health problems, and I like knowing other listeners help each other as well. I’ll sometimes go on the FB group when I’m feeling down because it’s a good reminder that it’s ok to be sad/mad/scared. Plus, people post the best animal photos and gifs. The weeks when I’ve been unable to record are very sad for me, because I love doing this show. AND it makes me check in with myself about my own self care.

4. In what ways do you care for your own mental health as you help others tackle their own problems?

Sally: I have learned that doing a segment every week called A Thing We Did (For Self-Care) makes you hyper aware of that fact that if I don’t take time for myself every week and pay close attention to my mental health, I won’t have anything to say into the mic. So, I make sure to do all my regular stuff—I go to therapy every week, I journal for about 2 minutes each night, I work out, sometimes I meditate. Another thing I try to be very aware of during the podcast recording and prep is what certain emails might be bringing up for me. So many of our experiences are universal or at least relatable and there are times that someone writes something in that really activates me; it pushes on a bruise I have or reminds me of something shitty I’ve gone through, etc. In those moments I try to think through what’s happening with me, breathe, and think about how I can ask Katharine to support me through the part of the show when we address that email. I might ask her to be the one to read the email or allow me to be the one to read it. I might ask to stop recording so I can breathe and think and organize my thoughts, etc. That is very specific to the time we’re recording, but it’s a big part of my self-care.

Katharine: While I love therapy and recommend it to everyone, there are some weeks when I just don’t want to go. So then I remember that I need to practice what I preach, and that gives me motivation to keep going. Also, I have learned I have limits and it’s ok to vocalize that. If an email is upsetting to me, I’ll as that Sally read it. Ultimately, I know I have to take care of myself first because if I can’t, there would be no show. So it’s helped me maintain my mental health work. The segment A Thing We Did For Self Care has been surprisingly important to me, and I’m grateful I have a show/space where I’m consistently reminded that I have to do the personal work.

5. Do you think now is the time for a podcast such as yours since mental health has become semi prevalent in the media?

Sally: I couldn’t be more in favor of the fact that mental health is more and more present in mainstream conversations. I think it’s always the time for more openness about the fact that life is hard, being a person is difficult, and relationships take a lot of work. I feel like I grew up thinking that there was something majorly wrong with me or my experience of the world, because I was always so worried and anxious and full of dread, even as a kid. Yet what I was seeing and learning through pop culture and what adults were modeling is that Life Is Just Fine. Growing up and realizing that basically everyone (at least in my world/experience) is having or has had a rough time to get through, survive, recover from, etc. has made me feel like a secret of the universe has been revealed to me. In conclusion, yes, but also I feel like it was always the time.

Katharine: Pre podcast/internet, one of the most popular categories of books was self help, so I think since the history of time people have sought out help to understand themselves and those surrounding them. I feel podcasting allows that conversation to continue, and I’m so happy this kind of content can be offered for free. It’s wonderful to see so many great mental health podcasts, and that hopefully, the stigmas are fading. I never see another mental health podcast as “competition”, I am filled with joy that so many exist.

6. What apps or programs would you recommend to working people who may not be able to afford therapy?

Sally: I’m hesitant to recommend any apps because I haven’t personally tried any. I’ve heard some great things and some mixed things about some of the services out there. I think one great resource is the crisis text, chat, and phone lines that various places have. For example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24-7, as is The Trevor Project, which is a hotline for LGBTQ people who are in crisis or feeling suicidal. The National Eating Disorders Association has a similar service. These are obviously for acute intervention in times of crisis, but the fact that they’re there and free and can provide help in a crisis and direct you towards longterm resources is great. The other thing I’d recommend is doing some research to see if there’s a community clinic or university in your area offers free or very low-fee therapy. I don’t know if people realize that although there is DEFINITELY not enough affordable, accessible, culturally competent mental healthcare available out there, there’s more stuff out there than just those $350/hour therapists who don’t take insurance.

Katharine: I recommend looking into a school with a PHD program for therapists because they need to accrue a certain number of hours and offer low-fee sessions. Also group therapy, in person or online, is usually available and inexpensive. It’s not the same as talk therapy, but it’s a good option until you can make therapy happen. Online support groups during crisis are helpful, for example RAINN has a chat room with a counselor 24-7.

7. How can people support your work?

Sally: People can listen to TSB and tell their friends about us! Also, write us a review on iTunes! Also write in to us—ask us for advice, tell us what we should do more of, etc.

Katharine: Rate and review on iTunes, tell your friends, encourage major publications to run a story about us, become a Bonus Member, or just donate money to us!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Retail Work and Customer Relations: An Interview

Retail Work and Customer Relations: An Interview
By Devon Bowers

This is the transcript of an email interview I did with former UK retail worker Helen Howard in which we discuss retail work, relations between customers and workers, and where the US retail industry is headed.

1. How did you wind up working in retail?

I started at the age of 16 in 1997, and by the next year I needed a weekend position to help me out financially. I was given four hours on a Sunday afternoon working in the music/video section of the store my brother worked at, with the opportunity to work extra hours during the week to fit in around my studies. Once I left college in 2001 I decided to stay on as I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career. I worked for the one company in various branches for 16 years, then left to enter education in 2013.

2. You stated in our discussion that you went all the way from a regular worker to an asst manager. In what ways did you see the personality differences and attitudes towards workers change as you moved up the ladder? Did you internalize some of these attitudes?

As members of my family had worked in the same store, I was pretty well known anyway and it was always assumed I would have most of the answers to questions. The store I was working at was unlike most other high street stores, giving all members of the store team the authority to solve most issues without having to call a supervisor. As I grew in confidence I dealt with most things myself and soon noticed that my weekend colleagues would turn to me to help them out. I discovered I was good at solving problems and when I was given a new member of staff to train up, I was able to help her settle in and eventually empower her to make her own decisions over refunds etc. I was given the promotion to supervisor in another store when I left college.

I soon gained a reputation as a 'fix-it' person, and was sent by the area managers to other stores that needed support in getting back on track with tasks. I only met with negativity in one particular store, but the whole attitude of the store team was not as it should be, and although I got a few people onside it was not a big success, and I left soon after. I didn't take these attitudes on board, as I knew the problems in that store ran deeper than I could fix.

3. When the internet first came into existence, how did that affect workers and what was the industry concerned about, if they were concerned at all?

We first noticed that people were starting to question why something was cheaper online than in stores, not something we were prepared for. When people then said, "Oh well I may as well get it online then," we knew we had a problem.

This grew when the cuts to overtime came in. Then we noticed that we were increasingly left with fewer and fewer colleagues around, and that people who had left were not getting replaced. When the large, two-floor store I used to work at was reduced to one floor in the early 2000s: that was when the alarm bells started ringing.

The company saw takings fall and knew it had to increase footfall into their stores and away from the internet so there was a huge increase in promotional activity in the store. Confectionery and stationery companies now do deals with the company to push their merchandise. This was by far and away the biggest change. Bigger signage, more cardboard display stands, more hanging signage, more pre-orders on books and videos were introduced. The pressure increased on workers to offer exemplary customer service, give out vouchers, keep displays filled and push certain confectionery lines at the tills. Stores in the 1990s were clear, tidy and quite open plan. By the 2000s, they were filled with colour, huge signs and displays everywhere to the point where they now look cluttered and visually 'noisy.'

4. You did a study in which you examined interactions between retail workers and customers. What were your findings and how do they relate to the alienation people experience in the workplace and larger society?

I had long been fascinated by the reactions some customers would have when told they couldn't have a refund, even though I remained calm and explained the store policy very clearly. This led to me deciding to explore this when I went back to university to study a degree in Psychology. I interviewed both customers and my colleagues at the store I was working inat the time. I compared their responses, and discovered something rather interesting. I saw that both the customers and sales assistants had a 'them and us' mentality. The customers saw the assistants not as individuals, but as faceless representatives of the company, and the assistants saw each customer as just one of many people they would serve that day. Significantly, both sides saw themselves as unique individuals. When this view was challenged by the other side, that's when the high negative emotions began to emerge.

Additionally, it should also be understood that human beings have a strong need to belong and to feel safe in a collective. Customers would band together and support each other against the assistant in a refund dispute, and so would the assistants. This effect would heighten the more serious the dispute. (I would theorise that if something extraordinary happened such as armed gunmen coming in to the store, the customers and assistants would then band together against the gunmen as it would make them feel safer.) This all relates to social identity theory, which aims to explain how people behave and feel in society. Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem.

Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. So customers would see fellow customers as their 'in-group,' and the assistants as the 'out-group.'I understood from my study that the best customer service was when a customer was made to feel their uniqueness and individuality, particularly when an assistant would make an extra effort to solve an issue or query. An assistant would always remember and appreciate a customer who would smile and be pleasant to them, perhaps offering a compliment or something. On each occasion, the customer or the assistant would have their sense of individuality recognized and appreciated, rather than just be treated as 'one of the out-group.'

As a supervisor in a large store (as I was in around 2004), I was effectively Assistant Manager although the official title was almost obsolete by then. I knew that team morale was lead by the store manager and myself. I could sense that when there was conflict between us, the store team was unsettled and uneasy. When we were having a laugh and the store was doing well, the team was happy and worked very well together. If any member of my team felt unhappy or alienated, I would do my very best to talk to them and identify what the problem was. It was essential to make every person feel they were valued, respected and that I was grateful for every contribution they made.

5. Retail work many times is manual labor. Why do you think society looks down on retail as not a so called real job, but simultaneously admires manual laborers?

Twenty to thirty years ago, a career in retail was admirable and respectable. Nowadays this is not the case.

I would say that the main reason that retail is looked down on by most in other professions, is because there are no real qualifications needed to start, and many store managers have risen up the ranks by experience alone. (We do have some qualifications in the UK to assist in a career in retail, such as a BTEC or NVQ in Business Management, but these are not necessary.) The skills needed in retail (common sense, practical thinking, solution-focused problem-solving, numeracy and literacy, stress and time management amongst many) are not taught in a course but developed over time and mostly learned on the job.

Even though not everyone can develop these skills, they are still not valued as much and are therefore not as well paid. Most people in other professions would have taken a Saturday job in order to bring in a bit of pocket money, so it would be seen as a stop-gap job and not taken seriously.
People admire manual labourers such as builders, plumbers, electricians etc, because there are necessary courses to take to learn how to perform these jobs and a lot of money can be made. To most people, fixing a car or their central heating system is completely beyond them and therefore those that can, are respected and admired.

6. In the US currently, many retail stores are shutting down due to folks shopping online. Is there a same affect in the UK?

Yes, absolutely. We have lost many beloved high street stores over the past twenty years, particularly record and electronic shops and have also seen many companies buy each other out. However the various pound shop chains are alive and thriving.

For those that remain, store staff has been reduced to a skeleton and pressure exists to cut even more. Branches have been closed down with staff either made redundant or forced to relocate. Self-service checkouts have been introduced to attempt to cut queues. As a side-note, this further exacerbates the feeling of 'de-individualisation' of customers by the company, as they are not even served by a real person!

I think in the future, the convenience of shopping online will slowly bring back the desire to be treated as a human being and people will return to shopping in actual stores. People have never liked using automated systems such as telephone banking or choosing options on a phone keypad and really appreciate more than ever a personal service.