Korea Staredown

While Washington and Seoul ramp up the rhetoric against the government in Pyongyang following their conclusion that the sinking of a Republic of Korea (South Korea) military ship was an intentional attack by Pyongyang’s navy, Beijing is publicly wondering if the ship actually sunk because it hit a US-placed mine in Korean waters.  Because of this doubt, China is currently refusing to sign on to any sanctions against the nation of North Korea.  While unable to ascertain the actual cause of the ship sinking with the information publicly available, it is difficult for this writer to not draw parallels to the destruction of the USS Maine in 1898.  Like the sinking of the Republic of Korea’s boat, the circumstances of the Maine sinking were difficult to ascertain.  Many historians belove that the explosion that caused the sinking was due to an internal fire on the ship, while the US government and its cohorts in the US media (especially William Randolph Hearst) blamed the sinking on a Spanish mine in the Cuban harbor where the explosion occurred.  As any reader of US history knows, it was this sinking that provided the United States with the excuse it needed to chase Spain from the western hemisphere and begin the long march of modern US imperialism.

It is not my intention here to prove what or who is responsible for the sinking of the South Korean warship.  However, it is useful if we review the history of the Korean peninsula over the past couple decades to understand how things got to the current situation.  Foremost among recent causes leading to the present standoff  between Pyongyang and Seoul are the election of George Bush in 2000 in the US and the election of  Lee Myung-bak to the presidency of the Republic of Korea in 2007.  Both men and the forces they represent are not only ideologically opposed to the regime in Pyongyang, they were and are determined to make that regime and its people suffer until the regime is gone.  This is despite their public statements claiming they have no animosity toward the northern Korean people.  Their actions speak otherwise.  Despite the fact that the two states of the Korean peninsula are still officially at war, serious efforts were made to reconcile during the 1990s.  These efforts increased substantially after a series of truce violations almost erupted into conflict in 1993.  The southern Korean people elected an administration and legislature genuinely interested in rapprochement with their northern brethren.  Despite US efforts to block it, aid flowed into the north and goodwill exchanges became a matter of course.  Washington, meanwhile, did send aid for a few years but never did fulfill their end of the agreement made after the near war in 1993.

Then George Bush was elected in 2000.  It wasn’t more than a year or so that Mr. Bush purposely turned back the clock on Washington’s approach to Pyongyang.  After naming the Pyongyang regime part of a so-called “axis of evil,” the White House began to once again isolate the regime and refused to fulfill the remainder of the aforementioned 1993 accords.  Pyongyang saw these moves as belligerent and restarted its nuclear weapons program, eventually producing a few nuclear bombs.  The government in Seoul at the time was displeased with Washington’s belligerence but was unable to influence the much stronger nation’s change in policy.  Pyongyang’s test of one of those weapons in 2006 heightened tensions in the region and gave room for Lee Myung-bak and other rightwingers in southern Korean politics an opening to take power.

Notoriously corrupt, Lee has managed to keep out of prison and consolidate both economic and political power.  The first rightwing South Korean president since the 1980s, his actions include refusing to acknowledge the Kwangju rebellion memorial holiday as president and a series of economic policies that tend to favor the wealthy classes.  His foreign policy is more in line with the desires of Washington than his predecessor, whom some Koreans criticized for what they perceived to be Seoul’s handouts to northern Korea without conditions.  Lee’s government has restricted freedom of assembly and increased press restrictions as well as championing his Christian religion and putting into place policies that discriminate against Buddhists. His foreign policy is more in line with the desires of Washington than his predecessor, whom some Koreans criticized for what they perceived to be Seoul’s handouts to northern Korea without conditions These accusations logically return the debate back to why there are two Koreas in the first place.

As I wrote in a piece several years ago:

Near the end of the Second World War, right before the U.S. dropped the bomb on Japan, the Soviet Union moved into northern Korea to fight the occupying Japanese troops. Within weeks of Japan’s surrender, democratic groups of Korean peasants, merchants, and workers formed local governing organizations and begin to organize a national assembly. The U.S. and U.S.S.R., meanwhile, chose to maintain a “temporary” occupation of the country with the 38th parallel as the dividing line. This occupation was to end after the Koreans established their own government, and Korea was to reunite. However, after the United States realized that the makeup of any Korean-organized government would be anti-colonial, it reneged on its promise.

Within weeks of the election of a popular national assembly, the Soviet Union began to withdraw its forces. The U.S., however, increased its military strength and coordinated security with the remnants of the hated Japanese army. At the same time, Synghman Rhee, an ultra-right Korean politician who was living in America, was flown back to Korea (with the assistance of the US intelligence community). He immediately began to liquidate the popular movement in Southern Korea and, with the complete support of the U.S. military, refused to acknowledge the existence of the newly elected national assembly. In the weeks following his installment as ruler of Southern Korea, over 100,000 Korean citizens were murdered and disappeared. The United States military provided the names of many of the victims.

After realizing that the United States had no plans to withdraw its troops, the Soviet Union put its withdrawal on hold and asked for assistance from the People’s Republic of China. In the days and weeks that passed, military units from the south persistently forayed into the northern half of Korea, testing its defenses. Eventually, although the exact details remain unclear, Northern Korean and Chinese troops attacked. On June 25, 1950, the U.S. responded, using the authority of the U.N. Security Council, and the Korean war began. Three years and one month later an armistice was signed between the warring sides. The toll in lives was: 52, 246 US soldiers, an estimated 4 million Koreans on both sides of the parallel (mostly civilians), 1 million Chinese soldiers, and another 4000 soldiers from armies that allied themselves with the United States.

Ever since, the US has refused to sign a peace treaty, even when Seoul wanted them to.  The current tension over the sinking of the South Korean ship in March 2010 and the assertion that the North Korean military was responsible has ratcheted that tension to its highest levels since 1993.  So far, Seoul has been rational and measured in its response.  Pyongyang denies the charges.  The world awaits.  Pyongyang is not blameless in this situation.  It is possible that their navy did sink the South Korean ship.  Their actions on the world stage appear to be those of a paranoid nation.  Indeed, they are not unlike Israel in that regard.

However, unlike Israel, Pyongyang’s greatest enemies are not disenfranchised people living in poverty under occupation.  In fact, Pyongyang’s enemies include the world’s most heavily armed nation and several of its subordinates.  Perhaps they have a reason to be paranoid.  After all, it’s not like they can call on a world power to back them up like Israel can.  Indeed, Washington could sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang and make the entire region considerably safer.  Yet it has refused to do so for almost sixty years and twelve US administrations.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net




Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com