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South Korea Slips Off the US Leash

Photo by Emmanuel DYAN | CC BY 2.0

The mainstream US media, when it comes to the idea of talks between the governments of North and South Korea, are focused on the idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is trying to drive a wedge between the Republic of Korea and the United States. No doubt that is true, but this focus misses a major part of the story.

What we’re really seeing here is South Korean President Moon Jae-in making a bold move to assert South Korea’s independence from the United States.

Nobody should be surprised that Moon, who was swept into power thanks to a surge of voters (he won by 41.1% against two conservative parties which received 24% and 21.1%) last year on a promise to reach out to North Korea and attempt to bring the two warring halves of the Korean Peninsula (they are still technically in a state of war that began in 1950, nearly 68 years ago) back together.

Taking the seeming baby step that he has taken of inviting North Korea to compete in the Winter Olympics being held next month in South Korea might seem like a small thing, but it was actually a bold step for Moon. What most Americans don’t know is that South Korea is technically a kind of colony of the US, given that its military is still under the control of the United States. This is thanks to a UN Security Resolution passed in 1950 authorizing a UN military action against the North and designating the US as the lead authority of the UN operation — a controlling role that the US still clings to.

That situation explains the bizzare warning given about North/South two-party-only negotiations by former Obama-era US State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Russell, who is quoted in a Jan. 3, 2018 article in the New York Times by Mark Landler as revealingly saying, “It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the US behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea…And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash [my emphasis], it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.”

Imagine US diplomats telling NATO allies UK, Germany or France not to “run off the leash” in bilateral discussions say, with Russia! Sure, they too are on a leash to some extent, but nobody associated with the US State Department, would ever stick it in their faces like that.

Leo Chang Soon, a Korean-American historian and author of an important history of US and Korea, whose father faced an assassination threat for standing up, as vice president, to Korean dictator Rhee, “South Korea has been under the US leash since Syngman Rhee flew into Korea on General Douglas MacArthur’s plane to become the first president of South Korea (ROK) on September 2, 1945.”

In his must-read history of the US role in the Korean War and the subsequent neo-colonial control over South Korea titled Reflections on the Roots of US Involvement in Korea (Levellers Press, 2013), Chang writes:

Even a US general, the late Richard G. Stilwell, commented that the degree of operational control enjoyed since July 1950 by the United States in Korea is “the most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world.”

Chang says that last year’s impeachment of conservative Korean President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, in the face of massive protests known as the “candle movement” against her corruption and links to the giant South Korean chaebol industrial conglomerates, and the subsequent election of the liberal Moon, an advocate of rapprochement with the north and of a more independent relationship with the United States has “fundamentally changed the character of political dynamics in South Korea for years to come.”

Understandably, the US, used to running the show in South Korea, is not amused. Ignoring the opening between north and south, the US organized a meeting of allies in Vancouver, Canada called a “North Korea summit.” Invited were representatives of all 15 of the nations — like France, the UK and South Africa — that joined with the US in the “UN” military action against North Korea and its allies, China and USSR in the Korean War. Pointedly not invited to the meeting were either China or Russia, nations that would obviously have to play key roles in any peaceful settlement of the current Korean crisis. Both those countries blasted the conference as a sham.

The last thing the US government wants is the eventual unification of the two Koreas, which would inevitably wind up being a neutral nation under the influence of its two largest neighbors, China and Russia. As Chang notes, an end to the Korean War and the possibility of further hostilities on the Korean peninsula would be a huge blow to the US arms industry. South Korea buys billions of dollars worth of US arms every year, and also serves as a base for US troops and naval vessels, and now also for anti-missile systems that can target both China and Russia. All of this would be lost in the event of Korean unification, or even of an end to hostilities between North and South.

While the US government is doing its utmost to frighten Americans about the supposed capability of North Korea to hit US cities with its nuclear-tipped missiles, South Koreans, whose country would be devastated once again by a war between the North and the US, as it was by the Korean War in the early 1950s, when millions died, mostly from an incomprehensibly huge and brutal US bombing campaign, particularly of North Korea, but of the South Korea, too, seem confident it won’t happen again. While there are right-wingers in the South who hate and fear the North and oppose reunification, most South Koreans understand that North Korea’s nuclear program is about preventing a US invasion aimed at regime change, not at trying to attack the US or South Korea. There is tremendous anger and antipathy in South Korea — and among Korean-Americans in the US — at Trump’s name calling and threats to erase North Korea in a US nuclear attack on that long-suffering nation. Many have relatives who live in the north, and also remember the ruthlessness of America’s military in the ‘50s. Many Koreans also still recall that the US military oversaw the killing of some 100,000 Korean leftist and nationalists in the south after the war during the US occupation, and that Washington US generals in Korea okayed the slaughter of hundreds of students during an uprising in the South Korean city of Gwangju in 1980.

Some leaders in the US, notably Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), have spoken out against Trump’s threats. Gabbard, a major in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq, has even gone so far as to explain that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are clearly meant as a defense against the threat of US “regime-change” efforts, and has also said that US government attempts to demand denuclearization of North Korea as a precondition for peace talks are futile.

She is right. Kim Jong-un has seen how the US dealt with Muamar Ghaddifi in Libya, once he gave up nuclear weapons, and with Saddam Hussein, who had none, and sees possession of credibly deliverable nuclear bombs as his best bet for staving off US military action against his regime.

There is also the reality that China is not going to allow the US to gain control over North Korea, which would put US troops on its border. It was the threat of that happening back in 1950 that led a much weaker China, just a year after its forces had won their long revolution and taken power in Beijing, to join the battle on North Korea’s side when Gen. Douglas’s forces appeared likely to crush the North Korean army.

The situation in Korea is unprecedented at this point. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (the North) now has as many as 20 nuclear weapons, including hydrogen bombs, that can probably reach the US mainland on North Korean missiles. Meanwhile, the Republic of Korea in the south is showing signs of shaking off at least some of the control the US has long exercised over its relations with the North. At the same time, under President Trump, behind all the bluster the US is pulling back from its prior efforts to behave as the world’s “lone superpower,” and is being forced by a resurgent Russia and a China that is both a dominant economic and an increasingly potent military rival, to recognize the limits of US military and economic power.

Since there really is no way the US can simply have its way militarily against a nuclear-armed North Korea, at some point the US is going to have to either negotiate with the DPRK, or let South Korea do it, with the four or more surrounding powers, China, Russia, Japan and the US, playing supporting roles.

The sooner the US recognizes that reality the better.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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