To the world’s condemnation of its firing of artillery onto a South Korean island on 23 November 2010 North Korean leaders provided a muted response. Why?
What explains North Korea’s apparent callous attitude to the world?
Korean nationalism, the US and the Soviet Union
Clues to these and other questions are in the history of both the Koreas.
After neighboring Japan first occupied the territory in 1876, and with British consent declared it a colony in February 1904, Korean nationalism was sparked. It did not have the wherewithal to end the Japanese occupation and on the advice of China resorted to seeking help from the US.
In Cairo in 1943 the international community recognized for the first time Korean nationalist aspirations but owing to the presence of a large number of USSR forces on its northern side and of the US on the south a division of the country along the latitudinal line of the 38th parallel was made. The Foreign Ministers of the US, USSR, Britain and others convened in December 1945 and agreed on the Moscow Decision which provided for the creation of a 5-year ‘trusteeship’ over Korea. The task of the ‘trusteeship’ was to facilitate arrangements for the establishment of a ‘provisional government’.
Progress on the realization of the Moscow Decision stalled however. This, a US Central Intelligence Group report indicated in 1947, was ‘largely because of disagreement between the US and USSR over the interpretation of the document and the meaning of democracy’.
With the USSR having made strides, meanwhile, in nationalizing North Korea’s banks, communications and heavy industry whilst allowing locally elected “people’s committees” for administration purposes to function, the South under US control struggled. It was marred consistently by riots over food that saw some 40 policemen killed in Taegu and Pusan whilst liberal democratization failed to take off. Yet, two-thirds of its population fervently opposed domination by any foreign power.
In this context, the war hero Kim II Sung came to dominate North Korean politics. In South Korea, on the other hand, ‘rightist parties’, according to the US Central Intelligence Group report, ascended having ‘a strong aversion to Soviet Communism’. In their aid, the US adopted a program to ‘educate the Koreans.’ allocating for the purpose in 1949 $1.8 million. In 1950 it transferred $56 million worth of military equipment and supplies and gave economic assistance totaling $60 million. In Syngman Rhee who, like Kim II Sung, fought the Japanese, it found its ‘man’.
Intervention through the United Nations
A rise in tensions between the two Koreas became inevitable, exacerbated too by the US’s overestimation of the USSR’s capabilities and will, such as General John R. Hodge’s report to Washington that trained communists in South Korea planned the riots aiming to precipitate armed intervention by the North. Thus, when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, after the South attacked one of its villages in May 1949, the action seemed to confirm the reports.
With British and US support, South Korea asked the United Nations Security Council to intervene. In the event, North Korea which together with the USSR had boycotted the session, was by 9-0 votes declared an ‘aggressor’ by the UNSC. Harry Truman, the US President, then proceeded to place a UN force under the command of one of his country’s Generals, Douglas MacArthur. With the British he characterized the action as a ‘contention … between the United Nations collectively and North Korea’.
The actions that launched the Korean War
Pyongyang fell into South Koreas hands on 19 October 1950 with Kim II Sung hastily in retreat. But MacArthur was stopped from pushing further by the intervention of China led by Mao Tse Tung. In moves that confirmed the war as the US’s rather than the UN’s’ MacArthur proposed that for victory Washington should take the war directly to China and gave the same views in ‘off-the-record’ briefings to correspondences. His government refused whilst Britain voiced concerns of the link with the UN increasingly becoming obliterated in the public view.
Consequently, Truman dismissed MacArthur. A stalemate in the war took place, however, forcing the signing of armistice on 27 July 1953. From that point, together with Britain, the US consistently refused to recognize North Korea. And this included countries such as Canada and South Africa that participated too in the Korean War on their side.
When North Korea registered for the first time to participate in the 1966 FIFA World Cup that was held in London, British officials sought to refuse its national team entry visas and only abandoned the plan when it was made clear that as a reaction FIFA would transfer the finals to another country. Meanwhile, notwithstanding reports about corruption and despotism, Rhee, in the South, continued to receive both military and economic aid.
In 1981 the country changed the status, according to the Institute for International Strategic Studies, of a nuclear program it started in 1950 of providing ‘basic training and research,’ to one that henceforth focused on building ‘industrial-scale faculties that could produce substantial amounts of nuclear energy and weapons-grade plutonium’. However, its helper, in the program, the USSR, collapsed in 1989.
Before it did, its leader, Mikhael Gorbachev presented to Ronald Reagan in June 1988 a proposal by North Korea for a start of negotiations with the South with ‘reunification’ as a goal. Reagan answered: ‘US involvement came under the aegis of the United Nations banner after the North Koreans had attacked the South. Today, the line established during the Korean War still exists, and, as far as we know, the North Koreans have not given up their wish to control the entire country’.
Clinging to the same thinking but now armed with a nuclear-weapons rhetoric George Bush announced in 2003 that North Korea formed part of an ‘axis of evil’ before attacking Iraq and ‘decapitating’ its leadership.
Against the background, are there any surprises?
- Hastings, M The Korean War. Pan Books, London. (1987).
- National Archives and Records Administration (US).
- National Archives (UK).