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TFF Note* – North Korea and the Korean War


By Jan Oberg

In 2017-2018, the risk of nuclear war has surfaced more or less permanently in the media – the catchword being “North Korea” and the media being Western. It’s all been seen from the West’s point of view, nobody pointing out, for instance, that North Korea’s military expenditures are around 1% of those of the United States.

And President Trump found it appropriate to talk about his bigger nuclear button – in response to a pretty pathetic statement from Kim Jong-un about having his on his desk in front of him all the time.

In short, an extremely a-symmetric conflict with North Korea, for all practical purposes, seeing enemies and no reliable friends all around it and therefore in need of one tool which it has learned from others that it can be good to have when you are alone and you’re the weaker: nuclear weapons.

In 2010, the New York Time posted an excerpt from Bruce Cuming’s “The Korean War” which is worth reading as an intro to what country North Korea is and where it comes from. To just quote two passages that tells you a lot about Korea but also about Cuming’s scholarship and style:

“Korea is an ancient nation, and one of the very few places in the world where territorial boundaries, ethnicity, and language have been consistent for well over a millennium. It sits next to China and was deeply influenced by the Middle Kingdom, but it has always had an independent civilization. Few understand this, but the most observant journalist in the war, Reginald Thompson, put the point exactly: “the thought and law of China is woven into the very texture of Korea . . . as the law of Rome is woven into Britain.”

The distinction is between the stereotypical judgment that Korea is just “Little China,” or nothing more than a transmission belt for Buddhist and Confucian culture flowing into Japan, and a nation and culture as different from Japan or China as Italy or France is from Germany.

Korea also had a social structure that persisted for centuries: during the five hundred years of the last dynasty the vast majority of Koreans were peasants, most of them tenants working land held by one of the world’s most tenacious aristocracies. Many were also slaves, a hereditary status from generation to generation. The state squelched merchant activity, so that commerce, and anything resembling the green shoots of a middle class, barely developed.

This fundamental condition — a privileged landed class, a mass of peasants, and little leavening in between — lasted through twentieth-century colonialism, too, because after their rule began in 1910 the Japanese found it useful to operate through local landed power. So, amid the crisis of national division, upheaval, and war, Koreans also sought to rectify these ancient inequities.

But this aristocracy, known as yangban, did not last so long and survive one crisis after another by being purely exploitative; it fostered a scholar-official elite, a civil service, venerable statecraft, splendid works of art, and a national pastime of educating the young.

In the relative openness of the 1920s, young scions proliferated in one profession after another — commerce, industry, publishing, academia, films, literary pursuits, urban consumption — a budding elite that could readily have led an independent Korea.

But global depression, war, and ever-increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s destroyed much of this progress, turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance.”

Here is more about this classical study from the same year. Perhaps a large part of the conflict between the West and North Korea has to do with a fundamental lack of understanding of the culture, history, social structure, etc of the society – society and not just government, of many disciplines and not just geo-strategy? Perhaps, if we understood that better, there would be more chances for dialogue?

You’ll see that the Korean War caused the death of up to 4 million people due to, among other things, “oceans of napalm” being released also on civilians. Here at The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan explains, with lots of references, “Why Do North Koreans Hate Us? One Reason: They Remember the Korean War.

And The Intercept has a whole collection of important analyses that balance the image conveyed in the rather self-serving, Korea-demonising mainstream media.

Bruce Cumings has also written North Korea. Another Country.

Finally, you may also benefit a lot from the former US diplomat, William R. Polk’s excellent backgrounder to the present crisis.

* A TFF Note is just a casual, non-systematic encouragement to get going and study for yourself.

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