The quest for North Korea
As President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Hanoi for their second summit I began thinking about the roots of American and North Korean hostility. Having grown up in a world with two Koreas, it’s easy for most of us to forget that not only does the Korean Peninsula have a rich history but the Joseon dynasty kept the country united and flourishing from 1392–1910 when, after many failed attempts, Japan finally conquered its neighbor and ruled over Korea until the end of World War II. I must admit that as a teenager my only knowledge of Korea came from the TV show M.A.S.H. which ran for eleven seasons, giving me the spurious impression that the war between north and south Korea was not only long but steeped in age old animosity.
The truth is that with the defeat of Japan at the end of WWII the Korean people were eager to take control of their destinies once again; the logical outcome to a war against Fascism. When the Allied Powers divided the country in 1945, setting up a “trusteeship”, it was done as a very temporary measure, just until a new Korean government could be established and bolstered. To lead the transition in the north Stalin picked Kim Il-sung, a long time Korean Communist who was very popular among Koreans for his resistance to Japanese supremacy. In the south President Truman chose Syngman Rhee, a Korean activist who had been imprisoned and tortured as a young man for trying to oust King Gojong (last in the Joseon line) and later spent over 40 years in the U.S. where he earned a PhD from Princeton University and formed many close relationships with American statesmen.
When talks between the U.S. and the Soviets broke down in 1947 the once temporary, and quite random, 38th Parallel became a permanent line in the sand and one of the most fortified in the world. At 73 years old Rhee became the President of the Republic of South Korea while Kim Il-sung, at just 37 years old, took control of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. Apparently, the two interim leaders of the divided Korean Peninsula had very little in common, other than a maniacal ambition to unite the country and rule as they saw fit without playing puppet to the U.S. or Soviet Union. While both leaders used brutal force to quell protests and enlisted the help of their benefactors, it was North Korea, buttressed by the Soviet Union, that quickly grew more powerful and in June, 1950 Kim Il-sung decided to invade South Korea in attempt gain full supremacy.
Northern troops quickly captured Seoul and occupied most of the South until the UN sent troops under U.S. General MacArthur to push back the Communist threat. It’s important to remember that the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR was still in its infancy and the “Containment policy” was thought to be the only way to keep the world safe for democracy. The Korean War became the first in a long series of satellite conflicts between the superpowers of east and west. During the summer of 1950 it appeared that UN forces would overwhelm the north and unite Korea once again, but when China surprised everyone by sending thousands of troops to aid North Korea the dividing line was again pushed back to the 38th Parallel and has remained there ever since.
The Korean War ended with the Armistice of 1953 and no formal peace treaty has been signed, an important detail which North Korean leaders have often used as a rationale for creating a militarized state. While 33,000 Americans lost their lives in the conflict Korea lost millions, many of which were civilians. Throughout the war the U.S. dominated in the air and carried out more bombings than in WWII, reducing much of North Korea to rubble. With a deep understanding of psychology, Kim Il-sung took advantage of the fact that every surviving North Korean knew someone who had been killed by U.S. bombs and went on to create a nation based around state sponsored protection. As North Korea became more isolated the government moved to monitor all aspects of life and limited information from entering. North Koreans were indoctrinated at a young age and taught they were the luckiest people on earth even if they went hungry.
By the mid-1990’s South Korea’s economy was booming while the North went through a period of near collapse. With the crumbling of the Soviet Union in December of 1991 North Korea lost its most valuable ally and their energy imports fell by 75% while their food imports also dropped unexpectedly. The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, the reliance on the Soviets, as well as massive flooding in 1995 put the precarious nature of the state run system into sharp focus and for the first time many citizens questioned the disinformation they were getting. North Koreans scoured the land for food and were forced to subsist on pine bark and rice roots. An estimated one-million people died of starvation or related issues over the course of four years, a period that the Koreans call the Arduous March.
The current Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, inherited the title from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011. There’s a bit of irony in the fact that it was the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that first brought his grandfather to power and today it is the North Korean nuclear program that has created many international sanctions against the country as well as the summit with President Trump. Many have questioned why North Korea, still plagued with so many economic difficulties, is so determined to remain a nuclear power despite international uproar. There are many possibilities including: the survival of the current regime, leverage in negotiations with foreign superpowers, and international prestige. Another likely motivation, however, is that ever since WWII ended North Koreans have felt separate and isolated from the rest of the world and the government has strived to create a system based upon self-reliance; thus far without success. A large scale nuclear program reduces the need for a large standing army while also making the country impossible to ignore.
The talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un collapsed after only two days when the North Korean leader asked for sanctions to be lifted before commencing denuclearization. No one knows if Kim Jong-un will ever abandon his nuclear ambitions or why it is so important to him in the first place, but we can easily guess why so many North Koreans mistrust the U.S. and other western powers. Rather than viewing the allied powers of WWII as liberators, most North Koreans considered them an Imperialist replacement for Japanese occupation. Today many still imagine that the U.S. has propped up South Korea and continues to be the main impediment to a united Korea. And lastly, the scars of the Korean War have not been able to heal when every administration uses it as grounds for autocratic rule and complete control of the media. These stark differences in culture serve as an important reminder to all people that an outspoken and energetic press is one of the most vital features of any democracy. Agreement is not necessary, but absolute freedom of the written word is fundamental. #northkorea #worldwarII #summit #americanhistory#koreanwar #nonukes #korea #koreansummit#coldwar