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Brutality followed by brutality, followed by more brutality. Welcome to Korean history

Credit Image: © Chris Jung via ZUMA Wire

Credit Image: © Chris Jung via ZUMA Wire

August 16, 2017   7 mins

Old sins cast long shadows.

In Korea they date back to the early 20th century, and the shadows have been lengthening ever since.

The collective psyche of North Korea today can only be understood in terms of its dark past, artificially preserved by a totalitarian regime without equal.

For 35 years, from the pseudo-treaty of annexation in 1910 to Emperor Hirohito’s surrender in 1945, the Korean peninsula was subject to brutal Japanese rule.

During the Second World War, over five million Koreans were pressed into forced labour, in which one in ten died.

Many tens of thousands of Korean women were conscripted for sex work for the Japanese military as “comfort women.”

Rehabilitation of such a country was never going to be easy… and it hasn’t been.

Birth of a Nation (Two Nations)

The first problem when war ended was forming an administration. Unlike other liberated countries of East Asia, there was no former colonial power or exiled government to retake control. At the Allies’ Moscow Conference in October 1944, the Russians agreed to declare war on Japan as soon as Germany was defeated. Stalin fulfilled his pledge on 8 August 1945, two days after the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered on 15 August (which North Korea celebrates as its national liberation day), and the Soviet Union, with troops nearest the peninsula, would quickly move into the vacuum. As an interim measure to disarm the Japanese occupation forces and repatriate 700,000 or so Japanese civilians, Moscow and Washington agreed to divide the peninsula along the 38th Parallel and administer their respective zones under United Nations trusteeship – Russia to the north, the US to the south.

The Korean candidates for leadership when sovereignty was devolved fell into two categories: Communists, who had fought against the Japanese in Manchuria and China with Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and ‘Nationalists’ in exile in the West, mainly the US. Of the Communists, the Russian-trained guerrilla leader Kim Il-Sung (Kim “one star”) soon emerged pre-eminent. Of the Nationalists, Syngman Rhee, a political refugee in America since 1904, emerged the strongest. Paradoxically, while Kim Il-Sung had been born into a Presbyterian family in the north, before abandoning his faith, Syngman Rhee had had a traditional Confucian education in the south, converting to Christianity in his late teens through the influence of American medical missionaries.

1 in 10 Koreans died in the Second World War and tens of thousands of ‘comfort women’ were forced to provide sexual services to their Japanese occupiers. You can’t understand today’s regime in Pyongyang without recognising the fears of a return to the brutality that preceded it

By the end of the three-year UN trusteeship, a third of the North’s population (around three million) had migrated to the South despite the North’s advantage in industry and raw materials (the South was largely agrarian, much poorer, and generally considered to be backward). The North therefore boycotted what were intended to be nationwide parliamentary elections, and consequently in August 1948 the South formed the Republic of Korea (ROK) with Syngman Rhee as president. The following month the North formed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with Kim Il-Sung as “Eternal Leader”.

Encouraged by the DPRK, communists in the South began an insurgency which led to sporadic fighting along the border between the newly formed ROK Army and the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA). Atrocities on both sides were common. Nevertheless, in December 1948 the UN established a commission for the unification of Korea and the withdrawal of the occupation forces. While the commission oversaw the withdrawal of almost all US and Soviet forces in 1949, it made no progress towards unification.

The First of the Cold War’s Wars

On 25 June 1950, with the encouragement of Stalin and Mao, the KPA launched a massive offensive across the 38th Parallel – a full-blown invasion the South. The UN Security Council (UNSC) promptly passed a resolution calling for immediate cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of North Korean forces. Two days later, with no response from the DPRK, the UNSC passed an additional resolution calling on “Members of the United Nations [to] furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security in the area.”

The ROK Army, which had no tanks or heavy artillery, was no match for the KPA, who were well equipped and organised along Soviet lines, and swelled by Korean guerrillas recently returned from the PLA’s war with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese. Seoul, the capital, fell within days.

The US sent what troops it could from Japan while other UN members (especially from the Commonwealth) began mustering their forces, but by September the KPA had largely overrun the South, with ROK Army and US forces falling back to the south-east corner around the port of Pusan.

General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the war in the Pacific, US commander-in-chief in Japan and now of UN forces in Korea (UN Command – UNC), at once made one of the boldest moves in all military history: an amphibious landing by two divisions – one Marines and one US Army, together with ROK units – at Inchon, just south-west of Seoul, quickly recapturing the capital. A shaken KPA began withdrawing north, taking with them many thousands of civilian hostages and forced labour, and executing many more. The summary execution by both sides of large numbers of political prisoners made for scenes reminiscent of the Second World War in Germany and Eastern Europe.

As UNC forces crossed the 38th Parallel, Kim Il-Sung appealed to both the Russians and Chinese for direct help. Stalin responded by sending more and better arms, including aircraft – and pilots – while in late October Mao sent men from the PLA under the banner of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Force (CPVF).

As the tide now turned against UNC, MacArthur loosed his Far East Air Forces (FEAF) to halt the advance of the Chinese and reinvigorated KPA, and to destroy potential shelter for the coming winter. As a result North Korean cities were devastated, including the capital, Pyongyang.

The images of devastation play a major part in the DPRK’s anti-American propaganda today. Despite the FEAF’s fire and fury, however, Chinese and KPA troops pushed the UNC back across the 38th Parallel, in January taking Seoul again.

And so throughout 1951 the fighting continued – push and return push – with mounting casualties, both military and civilian, and the country both sides of the border increasingly laid waste.

Talks of Peace 

Thoughts turned to a negotiated settlement, though Mao planned to negotiate while still fighting. When this proved too costly, however, he settled for an armistice of sorts along the ‘contact line’, just north of the 38th Parallel. By the end of the year, talks got under way at Panmunjom (which remains today the official location of the continuing ceasefire ‘negotiations’), although guerrilla fighting continued in large parts of the south.

The talks dragged on with little progress, the North Koreans’ thoughts increasingly those of Chairman Mao. In September 1952, fighting flared up again when the Chinese launched an offensive in the east to push back the UNC to the 38th Parallel, though it met with little success. Nevertheless, with the change of US presidents in January 1953, Dwight D Eisenhower succeeding Harry S Truman, the impetus for resolution increased (Eisenhower wanted to focus on the Cold War in Europe). Stalin’s death in March greatly helped: the Politburo was determined to see an end to the war and told Mao that they would withdraw material support.

Yet Mao was still reluctant to give up, seeing Korea (as well as French Indo-China) as his opportunity to export the revolution. In May he launched one last offensive, which the UNC brought to a halt after Chinese gains of around twenty miles closer to Seoul. In late July, the shooting war was more or less over, and peace negotiations under the auspices of the UN began again.

The South is a prosperous and sophisticated polity, while the North remains the last Stalinist state surviving from the Cold War, and for the most part grindingly poor

Peace: a Continuation of War by Other Means

And there – the demilitarised zone close to the 38th Parallel – and then – July 1953 – the Korean peninsula has continued ever since, preserved in light-blue aspic. Except that today the South is a prosperous and sophisticated polity, while the North remains the last Stalinist state surviving from the Cold War, and for the most part grindingly poor. And US troops remain in the South – 30,000 of them, with another 40,000 in reserve in Japan.

Soon after the fighting ended, however, Kim Il-Sung began laying the foundations for the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme, which precipitated the first US-North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s. In 1994, the subsequent Clinton administration devised an ‘Agreed Framework’ which almost literally defused the crisis by halting the programme (which would have produced enough plutonium for a significant number of bombs) in exchange for a normalisation of political and economic relations.

The game was not up, though. Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 not long after concluding the agreement. His son, Kim Jong-Il, long groomed for the succession, took over the leadership and began an alternative approach to producing weapons-grade material: uranium enrichment. In October 2002, the DPRK finally announced that they had such a programme, violating the framework agreement. The DPRK withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Thus began the second North Korean nuclear crisis. For a while it seemed that UN sanctions were containing the programme, until developments of late – principally an effective long-range ballistic missile and miniaturisation of the nuclear explosive initiator – have made the programme a clear and present danger.

But why now?

The death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, and the succession of his son Kim Jong-Un, seemed to accelerate both the “weaponisation” programme and the rhetoric. But to what end, exactly?

The general assessment was that Kim Jong-Il was interested solely in regime survival – as was his father, Kim Il-Sung, especially towards the end of his life when his rhetoric turned away from expansionism. Kim Jong-Un, however, has made an important change in national policy, albeit barely perceptible: domestic economic development now has equal priority with building up the armed forces. Beyond any genuine altruism, the regime’s leadership could not have been blind to the popular materialism which undermined Communism in the former Warsaw Pact. It is possible, therefore, that he regards nuclear weapons basically as a far cheaper way of preserving the regime from external threat, allowing him to put more resources into improving living standards (not least those of a nascent ‘middle class’), thereby preserving the regime from internal threat – however remote such a threat might seem at present.

This is conjecture, and does not wholly explain Kim Jong-Un’s increasing bombast. Yet herein, perhaps, lies a line of exploitation for both the US and for China – and  China, arguably, has just as much, if not more, to fear from a nuclear-armed DPRK than does the US.

Whatever the truth, for the time being the people of North Korea are prisoners of their history – or rather, the regime’s version of that history.

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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