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Nuclear Confrontation in Korea – Some Historical Background

With respect to Korea, what Americans get from their mainstream news media abounds with crucial omissions and misleading distortions resulting in a false portrayal of the geopolitical realities.

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Imperialism and the Fight for National Independence

Korea was unified as a nation by the 10th century, and remained mostly independent until the 20th century.  During the last half of the 19th century, multiple invasions by foreign powers (U.S., France, Britain, and Japan) forced the country to allow foreign capital to enter and operate in Korea. [1]

In 1905, imperial Japan subjugated Korea as its Protectorate.  Then in 1910, imperial Japan annexed Korea which it ruled until 1945.  While Japanese capital exploited the labor and natural resources of the country, the Japanese state banned use of the Korean language and customs in an attempt at forced assimilation. [1]

In 1919 the Korean independence movement organized mass rallies involving some 2,000,000 protestors demanding independence from Japan.  Japanese police and military forces crushed these protests with repressive violence causing some 7,000 fatalities.  Independence leaders then established the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea [PGRK] which then obtained some limited international recognition and served until 1945 as coordinating center for the independence movement. [2]

Between 1935 and 1945, the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army [NAJUA], led by the Communist Party of China [CPC], conducted guerrilla operations against Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea.  From 1935 until 1940, Kim Il-sung, then a member of the CPC, obtained some distinction as an effective and popular division commander in the NAJUA.  Japanese countermeasures forced Kim’s division, by the end of 1940, to escape into Soviet territory where they were retrained by the Soviet army.  Kim became an officer in the Soviet Red Army and served therein until the end of the War.  Thenceforth, he was not involved in the War against Japan until Soviet forces moved into Korea in 1945 August. [3, 4]

Militarism and Forced Sexual Prostitution

During World War II, Japan forced hundreds of thousands of Korean women (along with many more from other occupied countries) into sexual slavery to serve Japanese soldiers.  During the Korean War, the South Korean government re-established this system of forced sexual prostitution to serve South Korean and allied soldiers, the victims being conscripted almost exclusively from the ranks of the disempowered classes.  This system persisted into the 21st century as a for-profit industry with sexual prostitution in “camp towns” (organized and regulated by the U.S. and South Korean military authorities) around military bases. [5]

How Did Korea Come to Be Divided?

The liberation of Korea from Japanese rule began in 1945 August.  Pursuant to prior agreement with its Western allies, the USSR joined the War against Japan on August 08.  Fearful that Soviet forces would occupy all of the Korean peninsula, the U.S. proposed on August 10 that Korea be divided at the 38th parallel into northern (Soviet) and southern (U.S.) occupation zones.  Wanting a cooperative post-war relationship with the West, the Soviet Union promptly agreed to this proposal which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement until the removal of Japanese forces and the establishment of an independent government for the whole country.  Actual liberation began on August 14 with Soviet Red Army amphibious landings in the northeast of the country.  Soviet forces reached Pyongyang on August 24.  U.S. forces did not enter the south until September 08. [4]

During 1945 August, People’s Committees affiliated with the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence [CPKI] arose throughout Korea.  This organization was led by members of the PGRK including: center-left independence activist Lyuh Woon-hyung, and veteran Christian nationalist Cho Man-sik.  On August 28, the CPKI announced that it would function as the temporary national government of Korea.  On September 12, activists from the People’s Committees, meeting in Seoul (U.S. occupation zone), established the People’s Republic of Korea [PRK] to govern the country. The PRK program included: confiscation of lands held by Japanese and their Korean collaborators; distribution of that land to peasants; rent limits on all leased land; nationalization of major industries; guarantees for basic human rights and freedoms (speech, press, assembly, faith, etc.); universal adult suffrage; equality for women; labor law reforms (eight-hour day, minimum wage, prohibition of child labor, etc.); good relations with U.S., USSR, China, and Britain; and opposition to foreign interference in affairs of state.  While Soviet authorities in the north recognized and worked with the People’s Committees and PRK, the U.S. Army Military Government [USAMGIK] in the south suppressed them by military decree and armed force. [6]

While governing authorities instituted progressive social reforms in the north, the U.S. put rightwing former Japanese collaborators in key power positions in the south and repressed reform advocates.  Popular protests and localized rebellions followed.  By 1948 state repression in the south under USAMGIK had killed some 100,000 dissidents.  The U.S. also chose rightwing anti-Communist, Syngman Rhee, as their man to govern the country.  With the U.S. and USSR deadlocked in disagreement on the content of a government for a united Korea, the U.S. (on 1948 August 15) established the Republic of Korea [ROK] with Rhee as President. Authorities in the north responded by establishing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] on September 09 with Kim Il-sung as Premier. [7, 8, 4]

What Happened to Democracy?

In the south, Rhee’s authoritarian regime brutally persecuted Communists and other dissidents with detention, torture, assassination, and mass murder – victims numbered in the tens of thousands.  Repressive authoritarian rule persisted in the south (with one brief reprieve) until 1987 when replaced by a liberal “democratic” regime with some semblance of civil liberties.  However, government under this regime remains dominated by competing political parties all representing factions of a ruling capitalist class.  Consequently, its “democracy” is illusory. [8, 9]

In the north, while the People’s Committees constituted popular democratic institutions, and operated freely during the first years; by 1948, the (Communist) Workers’ Party had begun monopolizing political power [4]. Under Kim Il-sung the DPRK devolved into a regime ruled by a privileged bureaucratic elite.  Kim also purged other leading Communists, promoted a personality cult around himself, and created a hereditary dynastic autocracy [10].  Bureaucratic rule, self-serving purges, personality cult, and dynastic autocracy are clearly incompatible with both Marxism and popular democracy, which is a prerequisite for genuine socialism.

Who Bears Responsibility For The Korean War?

Both governments claimed the right to rule all of Korea.  From 1949, there were border skirmishes, nearly all of which began as incursions from the south into the north.  Both sides threatened and sought pretext to reunify the country by force.  In 1950 June, the DPRK decided to resolve the conflict by responding to an alleged ROK assault, in the Ongjin area, with a full-scale invasion of the south.  The ROK regime collapsed, and DPRK forces quickly gained control of most of the south. [11,  12, 5]

During its brief control in the south, the DPRK instituted progressive reforms (nationalization of industry, land reform, and restoration of the People’s Committees).  According to U.S. General William F Dean, “the civilian attitude seemed to vary between enthusiasm and passive acceptance”. [11, 5]

Subsequent U.S. and allied military intervention (authorized by the UN during the absence of the USSR from its meetings) produced a bloody war with massive destruction, huge losses of life (estimated at 1,200,000 military and 1,600,000 civilians mostly inflicted by U.S. aerial bombing), and little net change in the control of territory.  Armistice signed in 1953 July left a hostile and uneasy truce, but no peace agreement.  This condition persists to the present time.  Moreover, foreign troops have not been stationed in the north since 1958, but U.S. armed forces (in the tens of thousands) have never yet left the south. [13, 5, 11]

Who First Introduced Nuclear Weapons?

The U.S. deployed nuclear weapons in south Korea (in violation of the Armistice Agreement) from 1958 until at least 1991 (when it apparently decided that its interests would be better served with a prohibition on nuclear weapons in Korea).  Moreover, U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons operate routinely in waters around Korea.  With the (1991) collapse of its protective USSR ally and with continued hostility from the U.S. and ROK, the DPRK (in 1993) announced its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and stepped up its efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability as a deterrent.  The DPRK suspended that withdrawal under the 1994 Agreed Framework whereby it agreed to remain in the NPT and to be monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in return for: light water nuclear power reactors to replace existing graphite nuclear power reactors (which were capable of easily producing weapons-grade plutonium), fuel oil deliveries to replace the power from shut down of the graphite reactors (until the light water reactors came on line), relief from sanctions, an end to threatening U.S.-ROK military exercises, and movement toward normal diplomatic and economic relations.

It is now widely suspected that the U.S. embraced the Agreed Framework on the assumption that the DPRK regime was on the verge of collapse which would mean no need for the U.S. to fulfill its commitments. The U.S. did default on the agreement thru long delays in construction of the light water reactors which was years behind the targeted 2003 completion date.  Then in 2002 the U.S. further defaulted by ending delivery of promised fuel oil shipments.  Further, the U.S. falsely accused the DPRK of having confessed violation of the Agreed Framework by misinterpreting the DPRK’s assertion of having an inherent right to possess nuclear weapons as an admission of actual possession of such weapons. Finally, U.S. President Bush: branded North Korea together with Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil”; and then invaded Iraq where the U.S. imposed regime change (followed by show trials and executions of deposed Iraqi leaders).  The DPRK responded (in 2003) to the U.S. default and intensified hostility by reactivating its nuclear reactors and by quitting the NPT. However, it offered to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security guarantees, but the U.S. was unwilling to provide. [14]

Repeated talks (2003..07) between the two sides failed to produce any lasting agreement.  The Obama administration ratcheted up the threatening military exercises and ignored DPRK calls for talks to make peace.  The DPRK has made six nuclear bomb tests (in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 January, 2016 September, 2017); and it has also developed an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] capability.  Meanwhile, the U.S. has used its power and influence to intensify international sanctions against the DPRK [14, 15, 5]

The Current Danger

In 2011 the U.S. and its allies used military force to oust the Gaddafi regime in Libya (after having used military force to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003).  Both countries had given up their nuclear-weapons and other WMD programs.  The DPRK drew the inevitable conclusion that it needed a nuclear weapons deterrent to protect itself against a similar event. Meanwhile, the U.S. (with its imperial interventionist bi-partisan foreign policy consensus arrogating to the U.S. the “right” to use subversion, economic sanctions, military force, and any other available instrument in order to enforce its dictates against any country which insists upon following an independent course) continues its provocative joint military exercises with the ROK.  Moreover, the U.S. has, this year, deployed its THAAD anti-missile system in south Korea thereby further destabilizing the confrontation and also provoking unease in China.  Now U.S. President Trump is playing with fire with his threats to destroy the DPRK militarily.

Astute experts, including former U.S. President Carter, have recognized that the current U.S. policy, of attempting to coerce the DPRK to give up its nuclear deterrent while refusing to provide security guarantees, cannot succeed.  As long as the threat remains, the DPRK, regardless of who leads its government, will certainly not agree to give up the nuclear weapons deterrent which is its best insurance against military attack by an imperial U.S. superpower bent on regime-change.  Trump’s provocative threat to destroy the DPRK thru military action creates a high-risk hair-trigger confrontation which could easily lead to a devastating exchange of conventional and/or nuclear firepower with millions killed in both Koreas despite neither side intending it.  The way to ensure peace in the Korean peninsula is to remove the sanctions and other hostile measures against the DPRK including the provocative joint military exercises with the ROK. [5]

The DPRK does not want war.  It wants a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War.  Its officials have asserted that it also wants reunification under a federal system where the central government’s functions would be limited to national defense and diplomacy.  Finally, the DPRK wants normal relations with the U.S. and its neighbors; and, with that, it would, as it has repeatedly asserted, envision and welcome an end to hostile actions on both sides. [15]

U.S. government policy has never prioritized the welfare of the Korean people, north or south.  Imperial hostility and pressure for regime change from outside forces – the U.S. and its allies – drives the DPRK regime to react with intensified repression which then operates to reinforce the bureaucratic rule, personality cult, and dynastic autocracy, all of which are contrary to the best interests of the people of the DPRK.  Moreover, this U.S. policy seriously threatens a catastrophic war which would devastate Korea and cause massive loss of life, south as well as north. The only beneficiaries of this policy are: the war industries (primarily in the U.S.); their supportive warmongering politicians; and their faithful propagandists in Western imperialism’s policy institutes, academia, and mainstream news media.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES:

[1] Wikipedia: History of Korea (last edited 2017 Sep 18) ~ Later Three Kingdoms, Foreign invasions, Modern history.

[2] Wikipedia: Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (2017 Sep 08); March 1st Movement (2017 Sep 06).

[3] Wikipedia: Kim Il-sung (2017 Sep 18) ~ Communist and guerilla activities.

[4] Wikipedia: History of North Korea (2017 Sep 18) ~ North Korea before the division, Division of Korea.

[5] H Patricia Hynes: The Korean War – Forgotten, Unknown, and Unfinished (2013 July 12) < http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/17533-the-korean-war-forgotten-unknown-and-unfinished .

[6] Wikipedia: People’s Republic of Korea (2017 July 26); Lyuh Woon-hyung (2017 July 30).

[7] Wikipedia: United States Army Military Government in Korea (2017 Sep 08).

[8] Wikipedia: Syngman Rhee (2017 Sep 16) ~ Presidency.

[9] Wikipedia: History of South Korea (2017 Sep 19).

[10] Wikipedia: History of North Korea (2017 Sep 18) ~ Internal politics.

[11] Wikipedia: History of North Korea (2017 Sep 18) ~ The Korean War (1950-1953).

[12] Bruce Cummings: Korea’s Place in the Sun (© 2005, ISBN 0-393-31681-5) ~ pp 247..254, 260..263.

[13] Wikipedia: Korean Armistice Agreement (2017 Sep 18); Korean War (2017 Sep 16) ~ Casualties.

[14] Wikipedia: Timeline of the North Korean nuclear program (2017 Sep 15); Agreed Framework (2017 Sep 13).

[15] Stansfield Smith: Interview with north Koreans while traveling in the DPRK (2013 Apr 06) (2017 Oct 18, FightBack!News) < http://www.fightbacknews.org/2013/4/6/interview-north-koreans-while-traveling-dprk

Charles Pierce is a Marxist researcher and writer; a social justice proponent and activist since my youth in the early 1960s (for example, a sympathizer with Patrice Lumumba and an opponent of the U.S. in the Cuban missile crisis).  He is a working class retiree, having spent his working life primarily as a farm worker, industrial production line worker, and government office worker (where he also served as union steward and local union officer). He is a U.S. Army veteran with a B.S. in sociology from Michigan State University (1971).

Portside thanks Portside reader Charles Pierce for his original submission to Portside.