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North Korea for Dummies:
Basic Facts Good People Should Know
by GARY LEUPP

The surprise announcement on January 2 is that North Korea has invited a delegation of U.S. nuclear experts to visit its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. Perhaps the North Koreans want to show the world that they have what they’ve been saying they have—enough plutonium for half a dozen atomic bombs. And perhaps they will repeat what they’ve been saying all along: that they will give it all up in exchange for a serious U.S. promise not to attack and kill them. (Now is that inscrutable or what?)

Colin Powell’s State Department has been working with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to negotiate the dissolution of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But on December 12, Vice President Cheney appeared to want to sabotage that effort, telling those attending a high-level meeting in Washington that he wants to defeat Pyongyang, not talk with it. According to a Knight-Ridder report, Cheney stated: "I have been charged by the President with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with. We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it." That’s just nonsense, of course; while tyrant Eduard Shevardnadze was in power in the Republic of Georgia, the U.S. contentedly negotiated with him about oil pipeline construction and the handling of Islamic terrorism in the Pankisi Gorge. (Meanwhile Georgia received more U.S. aid per capita than any country but Israel.) Tyrants Musharraf, Mubarak, Karimov, etc. negotiate with Washington all the time; Muammar Qadhafi just negotiated the end of his nuclear program after months of talks with the U.S. Washington chats with Evil comfortably and routinely, in businesslike fashion.

Anyway, two weeks after Cheney’s statement, White House spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters, "The US stands ready to resume the six-party talks [including North Korea] at an early date and without preconditions, and we are working with others to do so." So maybe the Bushites are sincere about negotiating, or maybe they’re not; they’re divided among themselves. The odiously influential Richard Perle, and former Bush speech writer David Frum, have just published a book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, which declares that as a premise for negotiations with the U.S., Pyongyang must completely and immediately abandon its nuclear weapons program. So it’s hard to know what’s going on. But the plan currently under discussion, drafted by the Chinese (who seem to really not want nukes on either half of the Korean peninsula) calls for Pyongyang to freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons program, in return for security guarantees and economic aid. In contrast, Cheney’s statement called for North Korea to dismantle its very self under the threat of U.S. attack. More specifically, Cheney set conditions difficult for a sovereign state to accept: first North Korea, having been labeled "evil" by Washington since Bush’s first State of the Union speech (and conflated with dissimilar Iraq and Iran as part of what thinking people consider a ludicrously contrived "axis of evil") must dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and make itself more vulnerable to the defeat Cheney has specifically threatened. Only then will the Bush administration talk to Pyongyang about maybe issuing some statement promising not to mount an attack. Beijing quite reasonably urges Washington to be more "realistic" and "flexible" in dealing with North Korea.

The Chinese, unfortunately, aren’t talking to the world’s most flexible regime. These particular imperialists responded to frantic efforts by the Iraqi regime to prevent war (including the offer, secretly made last December, to accept hundreds of FBI or military arms inspectors from the U.S.; give special oil concessions to U.S. firms; and to cooperate with any U.S.-authored Middle East peace plan) with the demand that Saddam admit (whether true or not) that he possessed weapons of mass destruction, place himself in U.S. military custody, and order his military to surrender to the U.S. without a fight. That’s diplomacy, neocon style. It requires the enemy to declare, "Yes, you’re right, I’m evil," and then to grovel and capitulate. It takes into account that the foe will not do that, but his truculence can then be represented to the American people as a desire to evilly provoke their own good selves into war.

Nine months ago, John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, advised North Korea (and Iran and Syria) to "draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq" (Reuters, April 9, 2003). (Fear us, and obey!) He called the Pyongyang regime a "hellish nightmare" and actually stated, "The end of North Korea is our policy." (Mr. Bolton wants to end North Korea, period. So why bother with diplomatic speech, and why negotiate anything at all?) Bolton is a leading neocon, and (with Cheney) adviser to the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, which promotes aggressive assertion of U.S. military power in the Middle East and everywhere. His career includes a stint of service to extreme anticommunist war hawk Barry Goldwater. A friend of the former Senator Jesse Helms, he strove to thwart African-American voter registration in the 1980s. He has led the Bush administration’s opposition to the International Criminal Court. The North Korean regime, responding to his attacks on it, have pithily described Mr. Bolton as "human scum."

Now, I’m no big fan of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, and the regime he heads. But neither am I a fan of selective vilification and simplistic thinking. If the Bush administration is in fact planning for war with North Korea (madness, but the neocon faction at least seems to think it’s doable), it will continue to depict Pyongyang in the worst possible light. Just as it cherry-picked information to build a case for war with Iraq, it will distort the historical record on North Korea. So what follows is a very brief presentation of what I think are the points about that history most relevant to the current crisis.

1. The Korean peninsula, peopled by one of the world’s most homogeneous ethnic groups, and united from the seventh century through 1945, is now divided into two nations due primarily to the actions of the Truman administration and the U.S. military. This is something upon which South and North Koreans agree. The facts are laid out well by historian Bruce Cumings in his magisterial two-volume work, The Origins of the Korean War. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. As the Japanese prepared to surrender to the Allies, they did what they did elsewhere in Asia: they turned over power to local people in the hope that the western powers wouldn’t colonize, or continue to colonize, Asian nations. (One of the principle outcomes of the Pacific War was that it indeed helped produce the end of colonial administrations in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, etc.) Leaders of self-governing people’s committees opposed to Japanese occupation formed the "Korean People’s Republic" in Seoul on September 6, 1945. It had a broad-based leadership ranging from right to left. When Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, leader of the U.S. occupation of Korea, arrived in Inchon soon thereafter, he ordered Japanese authorities to remain at their posts, refused to acknowledge the newly-formed republic, and indeed even banned all reference to it. The U.S. would be in charge of what was seen as a defeated enemy nation. This attitude produced widespread resentment and resistance in Korea. (Compare contemporary occupied Iraq.)

2. As the war was drawing to an end, the Soviet allies of the U.S. advocated independence for a unified Korea as soon as possible. Truman for his part suggested a trusteeship of decades, citing the case of the Philippines. The Soviets by prior arrangement in the closing days of the war declared war on Japan and moved troops into Manchuria, Korea, and islands north of Hokkaido. They could easily have seized the entire Korean peninsula. Instead they consulted with the U.S. State Department, and agreed to pause at the 38th parallel, where they awaited the arrival of U.S. forces to accept the Japanese surrender in the peninsula’s southern half. (Rather accommodating behavior, I’d say.) The Red Army handed power over to the Korean Workers’ Party, headed by Kim Il-sung, a legendary guerrilla leader who had fought the Japanese in Manchuria (where there is a large ethnic Korean population).

3. In the South, U.S. Occupation authorities installed Korean nationalist leader Syngman Rhee as president. His dictatorial rule met with resistance from the people’s committees, which while quite independent, sympathized with the leadership in the north. That leadership demanded the reunification of the peninsula, and withdrawal of foreign troops; but U.S. authorities, noting the North was becoming part of an expanding communist bloc, became committed to the establishment of a separate South Korean republic, This, like then-occupied Japan and Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, would maintain an anti-communist alliance with the U.S. Following the collapse of U.S.-Soviet negotiations about Korean reunification, the Republic of Korea was formed in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, in May 1948. The Soviets withdrew their troops from the peninsula; the U.S. continues to this day to maintain a large force in the south. (Washington’s man Rhee was overthrown in a student-led uprising following a rigged election in 1960.)

4. On June 25, 1950 North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel in an effort to establish Pyongyang’s control over the whole peninsula. They took Seoul three days later, easily. They met with little resistance from their southern compatriots, and indeed, found much support. But the U.S. was not prepared to see the reunification of Korea on Pyongyang’s terms. With some support from its allies, and the fig leaf of U.N. authorization (the Soviet ambassador was absent when the Security Council vote was taken, and Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on Taiwan held the China seat), it counter-attacked. As U.S. troops approached the Yalu River (the natural border between Korea and China), forces from the newly established People’s Republic came to the assistance of DPRK forces, doing much damage to the overextended Americans. The war ended in a stalemate, after the death of about four million people, three years later. The pre-war border has been maintained under armistice conditions. North Korea continues to insist that the South is occupied by the U.S., and that the U.S. has thwarted the reunification desired by all Koreans. Historically, the U.S. official position has been that South Korea is a democracy (even under successive brutal dictatorships, those of Rhee, Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, etc.), while the North is an evil totalitarian communist state. Vice President Cheney’s position, as noted above, is that North Korea must be defeated, and only following that defeat reconnected with the good, pro-American, capitalist, democratic South.

5. The South is an economic powerhouse today; its GDP is double that of the Netherlands. But it is subject to crises, like that of 1997, and it is of course dependent on international capital and can’t have a really independent foreign policy. The South Korean economy becomes increasingly globalized, and under foreign control. The North Korean economy, meanwhile, is in miserable shape. While Pyongyang long pursued, officially, the policy of juche (self-reliance), it was badly hit by the implosion of the USSR and collapse of its bloc. Natural disasters, like the 1996 floods that destroyed most of the rice crop, have caused homelessness and starvation. But should any aver that this fate is the inevitable result of the North Korean system itself, Cumings notes that in 1980, infant mortality in the north was lower than in the south. Life expectancy was higher. Per capita energy usage was double that in the south (Boston Globe, Dec. 21, 2003).

6. Of the two Koreas, the first to begin a systematic effort to acquire nuclear weapons was the South. Park Chung-hee’s regime was obliged to abandon its nuclear program under quiet pressure from the Carter administration in the 1970s. The North Koreans may have produced two nuclear weapons by 1992. In 1994, the Clinton administration negotiated a deal by which Pyongyang suspended its nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil and the foreign-sponsored construction of two cool-water reactors. But the U.S. didn’t follow up on the agreement, and North Korea resumed its program. Having withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last January, it now develops that program legally, arguing (sensibly) that it’s necessary for self-defense. As the U.S. once argued, followed by the USSR, Britain, France, China, Pakistan and India. Nuclear Israel would argue similarly if it talked about its program, which it doesn’t as a matter of policy. (The U.S. currently conveys the impression that any nuclear newcomer commits a fundamentally evil act in acquiring this technology. But putting things in perspective, one must observe that each new nuclear state merely follows in the footsteps of those who first developed nuclear weapons and used them, with unapologetic efficacy, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

7. Recent South Korean presidents have followed a policy of "sunshine diplomacy" towards the North. President Kim Dae-jung visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-il in 2000. When George W. Bush came to power and met with Kim in 2001, he indicated, much to the latter’s chagrin, that the U.S. had no interest in his "sunshine diplomacy" but wished to aggressively confront North Korea.

8. The majority of people in South Korea currently believe that the United States is a greater threat to them than North Korea, and there is even considerable sympathy in the South for the North’s nuclear strategy. Many feel that their compatriots across the border are being bullied by the power responsible for the peninsula’s division; they say they don’t fear the North or believe its weapons will be deployed against them. They’re Koreans, after all, victimized historically by Japanese and Americans, Chinese and Russians, far more than by one another.

As I say, I’m no fan of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il (nor for that matter the current South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun). The North Korean leader is most often defined as a "Stalinist," although I’m not sure that’s fair to Joseph Stalin. It’s absurd to call him a "Maoist." (Maoism stresses the vulnerability of the socialist project, and the very real possibility of the restoration of capitalism, which of course has happened in the PRC. North Korean official Marxism depicts the present North Korean state as an invulnerable worker’s paradise, which can’t be undermined because History won’t let such reversals happen.) The official North Korean ideology looks to me as a peculiar mix of Confucianism, passionate nationalism, and undigested Marxism-Leninism. Filial devotion to the house of Kim Il-sung, national Father, is central to the ideology. Thus both Washington and Pyongyang are benighted by simplistic, dogmatic approaches to reality. But the will for war seems much greater on the one side than the other.

Will the visit of non-government U.S. nuclear experts to North Korea stymie the neocons’ effort to defeat North Korean "evil"? Will it produce an agreement without regime change, to their chagrin? Bruce Cumings told the Boston Globe, "If the Iraq war had gone quickly and successfully to a conclusion, we would have had a major crisis with North Korea this fall [2003]. It was quite apparent that the Bush administration felt that North Korea was next on its list if the Iraq war went well." Paraphrasing Cumings: dogged resistance to invasion and occupation by Iraqis, fighting on the battlefield Bush calls the "center" of the "War on Terror" has well served the Korean people, on the other end of Asia, who do not want to be on that list and (like Syrians, Iranians, Cubans, Libyans, and most people) do not want Americans killing them. At this point the State Department (Bolton excepted) seems inclined to back off from further killing, because the various repercussions make it nervous. But the neocons piloting the Defense [sic] Department are as eager as ever to affect an End to Evil, and nothing said or shown in Yongbyon this week will likely curb their wild will to victory.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu