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Korea Prospects

How’s your arithmetic?

In April this year, North Korea celebrated the 85th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army.  And it was no secret.

USA Today’s headline was ‘North Korea marks anniversary of its military with massive live-fire drill’.  Reuters ran with ‘South Korea on heightened alert as North Korea readies for army anniversary’.  The Daily Mirror: ‘Terrifying rally in North Korean parliament to mark army’s 85th anniversary as fears of war grow’.  And lots more on Google.

Now an embryonic North Korea was ‘invented’ on 10 August 1945.  Those with a knowledge of history (which seemingly excludes the entire current US administration) will remember this as the day after the USAF dropped the ‘Fat Man’ nuclear bomb on Nagasaki.

The US War Department knew the war with Japan was effectively over.  They also knew this would mean occupation, the dismantling of the Japanese Empire and the chance to impose US will on northeast Asia in anticipation of future conflict with a communist China.

A couple of US officials, after no consultation with their allies and certainly none with the Koreans themselves, met in secret in Washington, looked at the map of Korea, and chose the 38th parallel as the dividing line between a Soviet-occupied north and a US-occupied south.  US troops were dispatched within the month.  Miraculously, the USSR agreed to all this and in 1946 handed their half over to the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, which morphed into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948.

Thus was North Korea created.

Now for the arithmetic.  1948 plus 85 makes 2033, not 2017.

Now North Korea has, according to western commentators, been ruled by a dynasty of idiot Kims.  But they can at least add up.  So where does an 85th anniversary come from?

More arithmetic.  2017 minus 85 is 1932.  So what happened in 1932?  Let’s go back a bit first.

In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, provoking an exodus of Koreans across the Chinese border, including Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok, the parents of Kim Il-sung.  In 1932, the Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in northeast China, which was the start of armed resistance against the Japanese by a number of groups, with the most important one, according to North Korean hagiography at least, led by Kim Il-sung.

So the North Korean armed forces are officially viewed as starting life as a rag-tag guerrilla band fighting a horrendously savage struggle against Japanese imperialism.

But, er, wasn’t someone else fighting Japanese imperialism at the time?  Oh yes, the US and its WWII allies.  Shouldn’t they have been on the same side?

Well, it seems that on occasion they were, at least until the Second World War was over, when the common enemy had been vanquished and what you were fighting for became more important.  Kim Il-sung’s goal had been clear all along – an independent communist Korea.  The US’s objective was perhaps not so public but equally clear – a stridently non-communist and pliable Korea.

The divided occupation of Korea led to the USSR installing Kim Il-sung as leader in the north and the US ditto Syngman Rhee in the south, dictators both, but with diametrically opposing political views.  Neither had the slightest interest in human rights and dissidents on both sides were tortured, disappeared and summarily executed.  Since each believed he was the rightful ruler of a unified Korea, they hated each other with a passion that erupted in 1950 in the Korean War.

During the 3 years of this war, the USAF dropped more ordnance on N Korea than it had in the entire Pacific theatre in WWII.  By the end, after bombing even irrigation dams to disrupt agricultural production and drown entire towns and villages (a war crime), they had run out of targets and were reduced to attacking footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.  Pyongyang was reduced to rubble, with only two modern buildings left standing.

The US also had to shore up the S Korean armed forces, which they did with officers who had served in the Japanese Imperial Army, like future president-cum-dictator Park Chung-hee and his colleague and future assassin Kim Chae-gyu, who headed the Korean CIA.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, even if he used to be my enemy.

So from the admittedly blinkered N Korean point of view, Kim Il-sung saved the country from foreign domination, first by the Japanese and later by the US, both of whom committed war crimes in the process.  The anti-American museums around N Korea and their school textbooks keep a totally one-sided view of that memory alive, though it seems to have been completely erased from the collective US memory.

The children and grandchildren of the Korean War survivors have retained a healthy fear of US aggression and may have noted that while the Non-Proliferation Treaty calls for no new countries to acquire nuclear weapons, the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council are allowed to retain theirs, as a ‘deterrent’.  A lesson also successfully learned by non-signatories India and Pakistan publicly and Israel in secret.

N Korea, which signed and then un-signed the NPT, chose to acquire its own deterrent.  En route they may have noted what happened to the leaders of other countries who the US has accused of trying to acquire nuclear weapons and who backed off under western pressure or blandishments: Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

Even the US must remember how they ended up.

The leitmotiv of pronouncements from outside N Korea these days start from the premise that Kim Jong-un’s grasp of geopolitics is as flaky as his hairstyle.  He is a ‘maniac’ (Philippines President Duterte) (takes one to know one), ‘a madman’ (Donald Trump) (ditto),‘begging for war’ (US Ambassador to the United Nations and ex-Tea Party star Nikki Haley).

Or you could say his policy is impeccably and frighteningly rational.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).