ENDING KOREA’S FEUD
Saro Thiruppathy backtracks on the history of the two Koreas and looks forward to the sudden prospect of unity
The Winter Olympics in Seoul took on an aura of glamour and hope not only for the competitors but also the world at large – possibly with the exception of the US at the time – as the two Koreas met and marched in unison under a united flag.
It was a historic moment as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder and even competed together in the women’s ice hockey team. They lost the game but won the greater trophy – that of unity in the face of US led divisiveness. The only jarring note in this happy reunion was the presence of a sullen American who refused to acknowledge the presence of Kim Jong-un’s representative – his sister Kim Yo-jong who was seated a few feet away.
So can this fragile truce last in spite of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s commitment to rapprochement rather than war with North Korea and Kim’s reciprocity during the Winter Olympics, not to mention US President Donald Trump’s possible visit to Pyongyang?
To speculate, one needs first to understand America’s imperial ambitions in Korea, which began way back in 1871.
US IMPERIALISM Korea was first invaded by the US in 1871 and in 1882, the Americans compelled the Koreans to sign an exclusive trade treaty with them. The deal was for trade in return for US protection. However in 1910, US President Teddy Roosevelt reneged on the protection pledge and conspired with the Japanese so that they would have Korea while the US held on to the Philippines.
He also encouraged Japan to develop its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in Northeast Asia, which would oppose European colonialism in the region. The Japanese left Korea only after their surrender to the Allied Powers at the end of World War II on 14 August 1945.
That same night, two United States Army colonels seated in the Pentagon (and using a National Geographic map) sought to find a means of ceding the north to the Soviet Union, and keeping the south. Their main aim was to keep the Russians from invading the south before the US could establish itself.
ARBITRARY SPLIT The officers knew nothing about Korea but realising that Seoul should be on the US side, they split the peninsula along the 38th parallel. Little did they know that their bright idea would eventually result in the permanent separation of the two Koreas, divide thousands of families and result in the deaths of three million North Koreans at the hands of the United States.
The Americans were content with the plan but the Koreans weren’t because their land and families were arbitrarily split by a foreign nation. The two Koreas watched helplessly as the Japanese conquerors were replaced by American and Russian occupiers. Though initially the 38th parallel was to be a temporary demarcation, the Cold War hardened the positions of occupying forces.
In 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded under the leadership of Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of current North Korean leader). In 1950, Kim senior crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, which sparked off the Korean War. Russia and China sided with the north and the US supported the south.
A UNITED LAND Korea’s history dates back thousands of years. In the 7th century, Koreans united as one nation and continued to be so until after WWII.
Though the US had assured them that the partition was only until elections, Koreans protested in their thousands against the division of their country.
Concerned that they may vote in a communist regime, the US manoeuvered a separate election for the south and the UN endorsed it. The north conducted its own election and voted in Kim Il-sung as its leader.
The Russians, who were not particularly interested in remaining in North Korea, had withdrawn their military in 1948. But the US was on a roll and during the Korean War, it bombed the north for three continuous years to wipe out a third of its population.
As if that wasn’t enough, US President Harry Truman threatened to detonate an atomic bomb over North Korea. And General Douglas MacArthur is said to have planned to use 30 nuclear bombs stashed at the US military base in Okinawa.
PEACE BROKER In 1994, US President Bill Clinton successfully garnered Pyongyang’s cooperation in signing the Agreed Framework, which was to be the basis for North Korea giving up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic relations with America, security and compensation.
In fairness to Pyongyang, it kept its end of the bargain even though the US failed to deliver due to domestic problems like the Republicans taking control of Congress.
Though North Korea had stuck to the terms of the Agreed Framework in general, disillusionment was creeping in. Then, President George W. Bush came along with his Axis of Evil list and the US tore up the Agreed Framework. Fearing further American aggression, North Korea set about making alternative plans for its survival.
Pyongyang may still want the Agreed Framework and the armistice of 1950 to be replaced by a peace treaty; its threats of nuclear annihilation are empty – but threats are all it has to secure its existence and prevent regime change.
So instead of its usual theatrics, the US would be wise to negotiate with North Korea along the lines of the Agreed Framework. Or maybe it’s time for the two Koreas to seek the assistance of an honest broker, if they sincerely want to transform their fragile truce into lasting peace.