Irritating Facts About Korea that Many in the West Would Rather Not Know

Photograph Source: Signal Corps Photo

A huge amount of work in the US as well as in Korea, north and south, went into laying the groundwork for a successful summit in Hanoi, Vietnam at the end of February, but Trump recklessly threw it all away, apparently following the advice of the unelected Chief Advisor and Peace-Wrecking-Ball John Bolton. Possible reasons for the collapse of the summit that have been suggested include that Trump did not prep because he is lazy, that there wasn’t enough time for Korean or American officials to prepare, that the aDemocrats got in the way, and that the meaning of the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” was not clear. In The Economist we read, “Mr Trump and his aides seem to have concluded that walking away will do less harm to America’s security than showering North Korea with concessions without gaining much in return.” Well, what they call “showering North Korea with concessions” is what peace-loving Americans would call “ending the War and laying the groundwork for reconciliation.”

There were various factors that contributed to the failure of the Summit, but there is one more major factor that deserves attention. That is that our country suffers from a certain kind of denialism—denialism in which people avoid the facts about our history on the Korean Peninsula. As schoolchildren and even as adults in the US we have been fed the “Disney version” of our nation’s history. (Paul Atwood explains this version of history and how it conflicts with reality in his War and Empire: The American Way of Life, 2010). In this version, there is a “collective hallucination that the US is the primary source of human progress.” We are taught about democracy and the ideal of self-determination but not about how whites and the US government systematically deprived Native Americans of their way of life. (Noam Chomsky gives shocking examples of how misinformed we are about the Native American genocide in his “Genocide Denial with a Vengeance: Old and New Imperial Norms,” 2010). The fact that freedom is treasured by Americans is emphasized, but we hear little about whites robbing freedom from people of African descent through slavery. We are told that people have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but millions of wealth-generating American workers continue to live in dire poverty. Only by hiding gross injustices such as these, can the Disney version of US history maintain any credibility.

Without a full accounting of our past violence and an awareness of the reality that Our Country is addicted to war, it will be very difficult to build the kind of strong grassroots political will that would pressure Our Government to allow the ending of the Korean War.

“Denialism” is “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.” (I borrow this definition from Michael Specter, which is mentioned in the “Firing Bullets of Data at Cozy Anti-Science,” by Janet Maslin, New York Times, 4 November 2009). In the case of Korea, the trauma of change that Americans and others face is an end to the old Cold War in Northeast Asia and the possibility that Washington will no longer dominate the region in the future.

Breath-taking denialism surrounds US crimes against Koreans. During the Korean War, US government officials violated the principle of proportionality by ordering fire bombing raids, torture, and the destroying of dams and other civilian property in Korea. In the decades after the War, individual Americans perpetrated sexual violence in Korea. “Key leaders of Asian women’s movements,” including feminists from Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines have documented how “U.S. military prostitution in Okinawa/Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines involve a complex ‘system’ of central and local government policies, political repression, economic inequalities and oppression of the underclass, police corruption, debt bondage of women by bar owners, in addition to pervasive sexist norms and attitudes in both the U.S. military and the respective Asian society.” (See Katharine H.S. Moon, “Military Prostitution and the U.S. Military in Asia,”). And sanctions sponsored by the government of the US and other countries have punished Korean civilians for the actions of their government—a violation of international law. If only people in the rich countries of the West (and Japan, too) could simply recognize and accept the facts of the wrongdoing committed against Koreans, perhaps someday we can reach a point where we, both our government and citizens, take some responsibility for the setback in peace talks in Hanoi, for the Korean War, for the separation of ten million people from their families, and for sex trafficking in Korea.

In the film “The Last Samurai,” US Army Captain Nathan Algren traumatically recalls his own participation in massacres of Native Americans and these massacres are compared to his violence against Japanese. The film is very inaccurate historically, but it is certainly productive and thought-provoking to draw such comparisons. Americans have massacred Japanese, Okinawans, and Koreans during the last century, and while the level of brutality may not reach the level of the genocide against Native American nations, there was a similar violent transgression of their rights to self-determination. Honest recognition of the wrongdoing on the part of the perpetrators is the first step towards reconciliation and peace.

Holding a Gun to the Head of Pyongyang

What a shock it must have been or will be for North Koreans when they hear that the head of state of their country was handed in Hanoi a piece of paper that called for “fully dismantling North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, chemical and biological warfare program and related dual-use capabilities; and ballistic missiles, launchers, and associated facilities”! (Japan Times, 31 March 2019, p. 4). Now we know that, in the end, Trump decided to go with Bolton’s “Libya model,” i.e., demanding full-on capitulation from the North Koreans.

Imagine:  On the other side of the negotiating table sits the head of state of a country that has a population 13 times larger and a defense budget 150 times larger than yours, hundreds of military bases in your region from which they can strike you, portable military bases called “aircraft carriers,” one hundred times more numerous (and of course far more potent) nuclear missiles, tens of thousands of troops within a day’s drive of your southern border, and submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads lurking at any moment who-knows-where along your long coastline. With a straight face, this man hands you a piece of paper with his ultimatum:  You completely give up your nuclear deterrent as well as all your chemical and biological weapons programs—for Washington the term “denuclearization” now includes these other WMDs—while his country gets to keep all their nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and only they will have the right to continue to expand their stockpile of such weapons. You have to hand over your nukes with their fissile material, tell them where all your nukes are located, allow them to send inspectors into your country to study your facilities, dismantle all your nuclear facilities both old and new, and find new jobs for all your scientists and technicians who now work on nukes.

There is this assumption that North Korea must completely disarm first, even while Our leaders in Washington are in control of 6,800 nukes and have usurped the “power to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet,” in the words of Lee Butler, the former head of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which controls nuclear weapons and strategy. Butler says they should be “trembling in the face of [their] folly.”

North Korea had been willing to bend over backwards for just a little sanctions relief—“relief” in the sense that prosperity will probably be short-lived and the economic suffering of North Korean workers will probably continue. Peace is to be on Washington’s terms. It is not hard to see the next step after Washington gets the peace it wants: Western (and Japanese) corporations walk in, snap up factories at bargain-basement prices, and start exploiting North Korean workers, not unlike what they did to working people in the southern part of the Peninsula after the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis when the IMF (International Monetary Fund) came in and “helped” South Koreans by organizing bailouts that benefited the private club of greedy multinational corporations.

Our Current Violence against Koreans

The US government is using our tax dollars to kill Koreans even now. The dominant narrative portrays Washington as a calm and gentle pussy cat, just sitting at the negotiating table waiting for North Korea to come back, while the barking wolves are Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang. Nothing could be further from the truth. Washington represents a pack of loud, barking wolves with fresh Korean blood dripping off their sharp fangs in anticipation of eating up the whole Korean Peninsula. On 4 September 2017 the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journalactually openly recommended simply starving North Koreans to death in order to achieve regime change, in an article entitled “Options for Removing Kim Jong Un”.

Well, we may be starving them right now through our sanctions. The sanctions make it very difficult to get humanitarian aid into the country. Agencies must get special travel passports from the US State Department, as well as approvals from three other departments of the US government. Banks are loath to cooperate with the delivery of funds. There are delays in port clearances. According to Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bangkok, “With an estimated 11 million men, women and children lacking sufficient nutritious food, clean drinking water, or access to basic health and sanitation services,” North Korea received “less than half of the $111 million that international humanitarian agencies deemed necessary” . 190,000 of those people are kindergarten children who “did not receive food assistance last year due to the shortage of funds.”

Washington’s Constant Threats

A quick run-down of our many threats against North Korea would include Trump’s threat at the U.N. to “totally destroy” their country (again); our continued development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; and our mass production of other dangerous conventional weapons such as tiny robots invisible to the eye that can spy on and assassinate individuals through nanotechnology. When Our Country builds more nukes and tests them one after another at places such as Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, that threatens North Korea and their allies, such as Russia. There have been at least five ICBM test launches at Vandenberg just during the last year, when rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang was achieved. They say this is routine, but the very fact that it is routine, that our government can do this without the slightest hint of criticism from our journalists, is worrisome to say the least, and downright shameful. Among scientists there is a consensus, forming or already formed, that a full nuclear exchange between two major nuclear powers such as the US and Russia would throw up so much ash into our atmosphere that a “nuclear winter” would result, causing the extinction of our species. In that sense, further nuclear weapons development threatens everyone, including North Koreans, as well as you and me. The US must jump on the disarmament bandwagon and sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

In our names, without our approval, Washington has also sparked a new cold war, this time with China. (Michael T. Klare, “War with China? It’s Already Under Way,”). Klare argues that Washington and Beijing already have a kind of war going—one involving a trade war, a battle over technology, cyberwarfare, and diplomatic and military coercion (such as naval patrols and new “basing arrangements with local powers—all with the aim of confining the Chinese military to areas close to the mainland”). Since China is a traditional ally of Korea, North Korea’s security is also threatened.

Recently, Our Government has threatened a respected international judicial body, the International Criminal Court (ICC). Any judge who demands accountability among US government officials for Our War in Afghanistan will be subject to visa restrictions. The ICC is a “court of last resort,” and Washington wants to remove that last-chance ability of people to seek justice. This demonstrates once again that the US is a rogue state.

“The South and North today have agreed to remove every threat in all areas of the Korean Peninsula that can cause war,” President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has said. If only that were true! In fact, President Moon’s government has not taken steps to remove Our Bases that threaten people, both north and south, who live on the Korean Peninsula, not to mention the other threats above, such as South Korea’s nuclear “umbrella.” South Koreans will still feel the rogue’s “light hold on the jugular” of their necks and still smell the stench of his breath, even if President Moon’s immediate foreign policy goals vis-à-vis the North are accomplished. (The phrase “light hold on the jugular” comes from the American historian of Korea Bruce Cumings. This is the function of Our Bases in South Korea in his estimation. Not only do they intimidate countries in the north but also the government and people of South Korea).


This week in the United States, April 3rd will come and go with barely a comment by Our journalists. That date in 1948 is one which will live in infamy. John R. Hodge, the military governor of the occupying army called the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) said in October 1947 that Jeju Island was “a truly communal area that is peacefully controlled by the People’s Committee without much Comintern influence.” Despite that dedication to democracy, or perhaps because of it, tens of thousands of the people on that island were murdered, soon after their uprising began on April 3rd. It was obvious that they would not vote the right way in the U.N.-“observed” elections—elections in which people in the north of the country were unable to participate. The USAMGIK began to ruthlessly crack down on people of a variety of political persuasions who did not approve of the concept of having two governments in Korea, one of them backed by a foreign government. The soldiers and police that were hired by Washington reminded many Koreans of the Empire of Japan that had brutally ruled them for a half century. In fact, Washington hired many of the same Korean police who had been hired by the previous empire—the same treacherous Koreans who had worked against the Korean resistance.

Our government’s responsibility is clear:  “U.S. military leaders gave direct orders that initiated early Jeju 4.3 events [i.e., the massacre of agents of the “April 3 Uprising”]. This was followed by close U.S. oversight over the South Korean military and police suppression operations, including an order to kill anyone within five kilometers of the coastline. From August 1948, the U.S. military held continuous operational control over the South Korean police” and “supplied weapons, aircrafts and other resources.” (Chang Hoon Ko, “Next Steps for 4.3 Reconciliation”).

In those days, just after the US had emerged victorious in the Pacific War that had liberated many peoples in Northeast Asia from the Empire’s grip, and after Japanese government and laws had been liberalized by MacArthur, Washington still enjoyed a little moral legitimacy. Unlike then, nowadays Washington is Rogue State Number One, a menace to global peace and security. And contrary to what we have been indoctrinated to believe, Pyongyang has more than a little legitimacy. It is now a dynasty that has survived for seventy years. It was established by guerrillas who, especially in Manchuria, stood up against the Empire of Japan (in an era when the Empire had made non-violent resistance difficult to impossible). Pyongyang was defended by hundreds of thousands of Chinese during the next imperialist invasion, i.e., that of the United States. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not a socialist paradise by any means, but in spite of constant harassment, a siege, and threats of another holocaust, it succeeded in some ways, especially in terms of social welfare programs that protected women, children, orphans, and workers. The South Koreans, for their part, have somehow managed to wrest away from Washington and Seoul a lot of democracy, perhaps today even more than we enjoy in the Land of the Free, in spite of the embrace with Washington that they are forced into. Washington dominates their military and manipulates their economy for the benefit of multinational corporations, whose stocks are held by parasitic, ridiculously wealthy people from the US and other countries.

Americans are in denial about the prospects of peace in Northeast Asia. We must recognize that the hard work has been done for us, by Koreans and other people of Northeast Asia. Everything is in place. All that is necessary now is for Washington to make some minor concessions to Pyongyang. Do we have the wherewithal to overcome Our Country’s denialism and push Washington to do the right thing?

The least we can do is reign in our government before we get ourselves caught up in more costly, senseless, wasteful violence. We have other, more important, things to do, than kill lots of innocent people and a few bad guys in faraway lands. How about working on slowing global warming and increasing the chance that our descendants will have a decent future on a livable planet? The fact that the military is far and away one of the greatest contributors to global warming should cause us to confront our self-inflicted blindness, i.e., our historical denialism. Listening to the voices of oppressed “others,” especially Koreans, will allow us to open our eyes to what we can and must do to build peace.

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.