By Michael Drohan
The division of the Korean Peninsula into two Koreas is a tragedy of external meddling in the Korean affairs. Imperial messing in the Peninsula began at the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, when the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910 and instituted a brutal colonial regime.
During the 2nd World War, the Japanese enslaved thousands of Korean women as sex slaves known as “comfort women.” As World War 2 was ending, the then Soviet Union entered the war against Japan in August 1945 and liberated the Koreans. The US, however, was having none of this and entered the Korean theater of war, declaring Korea South of the 38th Parallel to be under US control.
The Americans brought a conservative Korean émigré back to Korea, Syngman Rhee, and had him installed as President, along with some collaborators of the Japanese. It was in effect a reinstitution of colonial rule but now under the aegis of the US.
In Northern Korea a different political, social and economic culture emerged. Thousands of Koreans who had fought as guerillas for the Chinese in their struggle for liberation now poured back into the northern part of Korea. One of these returned émigrés, Kim Il Sung, a socialist closely allied to the Soviet Union and China,emerged as the leader of the northern part of Korea.
The Korean War
The Korean War began officially on June 25, 1950 when the Korea People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th Parallel and attacked the South. In short order, they practically overran the entire south and were it not for the entry of the US army the country would have been united under a kind of socialist regime. During the Korean War, the US conducted something of a scorched earth policy. General Curtis LeMay, the then Chief of the US Air Force, is reported to have wanted to burn down every city in North Korea. On July 11, 1952 Pyongyang was bombed by 1,254 air sorties by day and 54 B-52 attacks by night. In June 1953, the US bombed most of the dams in the North, ending the supply for water for the irrigation of the rice paddies. At the end of the war, North Korea had become a bombed out shell with few structures remaining. Even though the Korean War ended almost 70 years ago, the destruction wrought on the land and people of North Korea by the US is still vivid and hard to forget.
The Post War Period 1953-2018
Despite the might and size of the US army, it failed to prevail against the North Koreans and the war ended in a stalemate on July 27, 1953, with an armistice declared. In a very real sense the war never ended and to this day the US has 28,500 troops in South Korea and an array of threatening missiles. Together with Japan and South Korea, the US conducts annual war games simulating attacks on North Korea. The North Koreans make the argument that their development of a nuclear program is as a deterrent against the armed colossus that threatens its extinction. Given the historical experience of Iraq and Libya in this century, their claims carry a good amount of validity. With the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US, the rhetoric of belligerence and threats of destroying North Korea escalated. In response to the launching of ballistic missiles by the North, Trump threatened them “with fire and fury such as the world has never seen” and launched a barrage of demeaning insults on Kim Jung Un, the leader of North Korea.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
In the midst of these threats of the annihilation of North Korea and the imposition of crippling sanctions by the US, the North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and the South Korean Prime Minister, Moon Jae In announced they were going to meet on April 27, 2018 at the demilitarized zone between the two halves of the country. They duly met on that date and conducted friendly talks on the future of the Peninsula. They produced a kind of blueprint for a comprehensive agreement between the two sides.
This development is extraordinary and as yet we do not understand its genesis and full significance. My speculation is that faced with the threat of mutual annihilation by a war initiated by the US, the leaders of the two Koreas took the fate of the Peninsula in their own hands and marginalized the US. Furthermore, they did all this while stroking Trump’s ego, letting him take credit for the entire affair. It was a masterful act of diplomacy, defusing one of the most volatile situations on the planet. It is not inconceivable that the two Koreas may continue this process and rid the Peninsula of all foreign forces and domination.
Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and of the Board of the Merton Center.