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Satire - And the Unknown North Korea

The historic resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba could be (and should be) a precedent for a new approach to North Korea - a country three times larger than Cuba, perhaps more strategically sensitive than the latter and involving a nuclear potential that demands serious diplomacy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, surrounded by soldiers of a women's artillery unit in North Korea's southeastern province of Kangwon.,EPA/KCNA

North Korea has long been an easy target for satire well before Sony's sophomoric junky film, "The Interview." The principal targets have been the stodgy Kim family members that have governed North Korea since 1948. The founding leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung has been exalted in a personality cult of deification that has often fueled attitudes in the West ranging from burning contempt to disbelief dipped in lampoonery. (The comic Margaret Cho is the latest to do an unfunny spoof, this time at the Golden Globe Awards.)

An unsurprising feature of such satire is an abysmal ignorance of Korean history and culture - ignorance that has fed and compounded racist stereotypes.

Little understood is the extent to which an unsettling hagiography is grounded in Korean history - especially in Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945. Kim Il Sung and his family joined the struggle against the Japanese in the early 1920s, painfully building an inclusive alliance with fierce and unyielding political will. A disparate population straining under Japanese occupation, composed of brutalized workers, struggling farmers, small merchants, some collaborators with the Japanese, roving bandits, nationalists and Communists was fused into a cohesive force that brooked no deviation and no dissent.

Since the twenties the North Koreans have defined their politics within a lethal milieu of war with Japan and then with the United States. The wars were punctuated by unspeakable bloodletting that fell heaviest on the North.  The preeminent historian of Korea, Bruce Cumings, has written in his synthesis of decades of study ("The Korean War," 2010) that the North Koreans in perpetual crisis and suffering fought throughout the twentieth century with crudeness, illiberality and murderous resolve. With little or no relief from western hostility, those hard-fisted rudiments seeped into the country's political culture.

The elevation of Kim to near-deity had some grounding in North Korea's tormented history. He had a lustrous resistance pedigree based on early engagement in long and bloody struggle against foreign intervention. Kim's father died largely from the debilitating effects of his imprisonment in the mid-1920s for "anti-Japanese activities," His brother died at age twenty in Manchuria while jailed by the Japanese. His uncle served thirteen hard years in Japanese prisons.

Beyond the Kim family, the coterie of veterans of guerrilla struggles that formed the core of North Korea's leadership around Kim suffered the losses of brothers and sisters by execution, by death on the battlefield and losses of mothers and fathers to starvation. Thousands of a next generation flowed into special schools for orphaned children whose parents perished in the struggle against the Japanese and in the Korean War. Many then entered governmental leadership, constituting an orphan "family state" out of the debris of two incredibly destructive wars.

During the Korean War, North Korea suffered from massive bombing that made no distinctions between military and civilian targets causing incalculable material damage and deep psychic wounds.

Napalm had been invented at the end of World War II. It was widely condemned as a weapon of unspeakable horror in the Vietnam War. Yet, more napalm was dropped on North Korea with more populous cities and industrial centers than on North Vietnam. The storied film of a naked Vietnamese child with skin torn away from napalm was preceded by greater numbers of such tragic scenes in the Korean War. B-29 bombers incinerated scores of towns and villages, dumping great amounts of napalm on secondary targets when primary targets were not available. A British journalist described an obliterated village, similar to many others, as "a low wide mound of violet ashes." Even supreme cold Warrior Winston Churchill complained to Washington that napalm was not supposed to be "splashed" over civilian populations.

All this went on while Air Force sources reportedly joked about misleading the press with tales of "precision bombing" and military analysts such as Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times ruminated about the alleged Asian propensity to consider human life as cheap and disposable.

When the Chinese entered the war in November 1950, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the creation of a virtual wasteland between the Chinese border and the battlefront, including bombing "every factory, city and village" over thousands of square miles. On a single day, 550 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on the city of Sinuiju, reducing it to rubble.  In January 1951, the capital Pyongyang was hit by incendiary bombs with the aim of "burning the city to the ground." At the war's end, only two of the capital's modern buildings remained standing.

While Kim and his staff were holed up in bunkers near Manchuria, the Air Force sought destroy the North Korean leadership by carpet-bombing the tributary route that ran from Pyongyang to the Chinese border.

In all, United States planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs principally on North Korea, including 33,000 tons of napalm. Damage assessments confirmed that 18 to 22 major cities had been half or more demolished. By the end of the war, dead and wounded, mainly northern, approached three million, possibly 12 to 15 percent of the population of North Korea.

With all the intense bombing and burning the greatest threat of mass annihilation - atomic bombs - loomed over North Korea from the outset. Two weeks into the war, MacArthur asked the Joint Chiefs for atom bombs. Consideration was given to sending ten to twenty bombs if that did not compromise Washington's Cold War strategic arsenal. MacArthur's grand ambition was to drop "30 or so atomic bombs, strung across the neck of Manchuria," forming "a belt of radioactive cobalt" to prevent Chinese Communist reentry into North Korea for generations.

In November 1950, in the wake of Chinese intervention, President Harry S. Truman threatened to use the atomic bomb while Pentagon brass issued orders to the Strategic Air Command to "be prepared to dispatch without delay" bombs including those with "atomic capabilities."

In March 1951, MacArthur pressed the White House for a "D-Day atomic capability" as the Chinese massed fresh troops on the Korean border. By the end of March atomic bombing pits were being loaded at the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. In April, the Joint Chiefs ordered instant "atomic retaliation" against Manchurian bases should new Chinese forces enter the war. Again, in June 1951 Pentagon considered using tactical atomic weapons on the battlefield.

Ultimately, the Joint Chiefs could not find North Korean targets large enough for atomic incineration. Five years after Hiroshima there was concern about a public opinion backlash. There was also growing confidence that the tide of battle could be turned by conventional warfare.

Three years of relentless B-29 assaults and threats of atomic annihilation had a shattering impact on North Korea. Korean expert Charles Armstrong sums it up: "The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated. The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the war's end."

To this day, nearly sixty-two years after an armistice, 30,000 US military forces are still in South Korea and are annually engaged with that country's military in provocative war games along North Korean borders.

Far greater than pique over a stupid movie, North Korean paranoia is grounded in a rational fear that it is besieged and threatened. It has used precious resources to build its military forces and has woven a deliberately unclear implication that it seeks a nuclear deterrent.

Much less known than its military buildup, North Korea has sought to build an edifice of common security with Washington and other western powers. The lampoonery aimed at North Korea, much of it self-inflicted by an insular monarchical political culture, has obscured North Korea's assiduous though tough-minded pursuit of normalized relations with the West. Most of its proposals and concessions have been met with goalpost-moving counter-proposals or outright rejection.

An armistice ending hostilities was signed in July 1953. However, a peace treaty between the warring sides was never signed - despite repeated calls for a formal treaty by North Korea and China.

In December 1985, North Korea agreed to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a condition for meeting the safeguards requirements of the treaty (administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency), North Korea demanded the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea. In September 1991 (six years later), George W. Bush removed 100 tactical nuclear weapons based in the South. In 1992 North Korea ratified the IAEA safeguards agreement and revealed the existence of seven nuclear sites. In 1994, North Korea agreed to allow inspection of those sites, excluding a nuclear processing plant at Yongbyon.

In October 1994 (after a visit to North Korea by Jimmy Carter), North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium-processing program and allow special inspections in exchange for energy assistance from Washington, including construction of light water nuclear reactors.

North Korea maintained the freeze of its plutonium production until the agreement collapsed in 2002, when George W. Bush delayed required talks on missile reduction and included North Korea in his infamous "Axis of Evil" declaration in his State of the Union Address.

Washington also declared that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program (denied by North Korea) and unilaterally suspended energy shipments. In response, North Korea nullified the 1994 agreement, withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and began plutonium reprocessing.

In September 2005, negotiations resumed.  North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program, and return to the NPT in exchange for food and energy assistance from Washington and five additional signatories to the agreement. The agreement collapsed almost immediately. The absence of a clear time line for delivery of food was seized upon by Washington to drag its feet on promised deliveries. Further, Macau froze millions in North Korean assets after the Bush administration accused the Koreans of money laundering.

The hardening of relations between North Korea and Washington led to a North Korean underground nuclear test in October 2006. The UN Security Council imposed a wide range of sanctions on North Korea. Six-party and US-North Korean talks resumed in February 2007 leading to an agreement by the Koreans to shut down their Yongbyon facility and declare all nuclear programs. In return, the US would terminate sanctions; remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list and along with the five other parties would provide fuel to the Koreans.

The IAEA in June 2007 confirmed the shutdown of the Yongbyon plant. By February 2008, eight of eleven nuclear disablement steps had been completed by North Korea. Bush suspended sanctions, but reinstated many of the restrictions by executive order on the very same day.

Despite such undercutting, US observers were invited to witness the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor. In October 2008, North Korea was finally removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. However, it complained about the failure of the six parties to deliver fuel as promised. The year 2008 ended in deadlock.

The incoming Obama administration initially assigned a low priority to North Korea. In April 2009 Pyongyang launched a multi-stage rocket. The administration immediately announced sanctions on North Korean companies involved in nuclear programs. A second test in May brought strengthened sanctions by the UN Security Council. In March 2010 a South Korean corvette broke apart killing 46 South Korean marines. North Korea strenuously denied torpedoing the vessel. However, the Obama administration expanded sanctions and conducted a series of provocative military exercises with South Korea aimed at sending a message that North Korea's "aggressive behavior must stop."

During the first Obama administration, skirmishes between North and South Korea persisted, reflecting long-term disputes over territorial waters. An October 2010 exchange of artillery fire led to an aggressive 4-day US-South Korean naval exercise in the Yellow Sea.

The Obama administration, in the face of a truculent right wing-dominated Congress, has adopted a typically schizoid approach to North Korea - expressing strong doubts about the latter's interest in nuclear disarmament, engaging in a series of high-stakes military exercises with the South, summarily rejecting northern proffers of cooperation - while at the same time voicing (through Secretary of State John Kerry) an interest in the resumption of bilateral nuclear talks.

The administration has summarily rejected a North Korean offer to jointly investigate the Sony hacking. Days ago North Korea proposed that it will suspend all nuclear tests if Washington temporarily suspends its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. The offer was formulated as a "crucial step" in promoting dialog on the future of the divided Korean Peninsula.

To this moment, Washington has rejected that proposal and all proposals from the North aimed at reducing tensions. In the meantime, the House has passed an amendment barring certain funds for food aid to North Korea.

The historic resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba could be (and should be) a precedent for a new approach to North Korea - a country three times larger than Cuba, perhaps more strategically sensitive than the latter and involving a nuclear potential that demands serious diplomacy.

It is unlikely in the near term for much of a positive nature to happen without the clamorous voice of the peace movement that has been largely silent on the Korean issue. Nor will much happen without a degree at least of public awareness of the tragic history of Korea - well beyond the stereotypes and lampoonery.

The most effective way to address concern about human rights in North Korea is to work for peace and mutual security. In our own interest we need to understand the sources of North Korean paranoia and anxiety. We need to help create and seize opportunities to forge peaceful, constructive relations with North Korea. Peace in Asia and the Pacific is at stake. And with that - world peace is at stake.

[Mark Solomon is currently an Associate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is a past national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.]