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The historic reconciliation between North and South Korea is arguably the most exciting Asian development since the end of World War II. So why is the reaction from Tokyo and Washington so muted?

One reason is justified fear in both administrations that a united Korea would move to a neutral or even anti-Japan, pro-China position, thereby dealing a fatal blow to U.S. and Japanese strategies in East Asia. But another is simply the knee-jerk hawkishness that wants to see enemies on every side.

In the United States, some say North Korea’s willingness to embrace South Korean President Kim Dae Jung could be simply a trick to get Seoul to evict U.S. forces and leave South Korea open to future attack (the same people once warned that the Gorbachev liberalization in the former Soviet Union was also a trick).

In Japan, which is protected by U.S. missiles and nuclear weapons and which once abducted Koreans by the tens of thousands for forced labor in Japan, they complain about North Korea’s missile development and its probable postwar abductions of several Japanese to work as language teachers.

Once again, we see the ease with which hawks on both sides can feed on each other to impose and continue the confrontations they need to justify their hawkish existence.

The Korean confrontation was an especially good example. In the normal course of events, immediately postwar Korea would have come under a procommunist regime mainly because the native communists there had been the only force to resist Japan’s colonial occupation and repression from 1910 to 1945.

The U.S. intervened to prevent this happening, and in retrospect it could be argued that this has ultimately been for the good, at least for South Korea. But it has also created untold tragedy for both North and South. By installing a weak and corrupt anticommunist regime in the South, it invited attack from the procommunist regime in the North.

Claims that the June 1950 communist attack was an illegal act of aggression simply do not wash. The line of division between North and South had no international status; indeed, on Sept. 30, 1950, when U.S. forces were sweeping into North Korea, the U.S. representative to the United Nations stated, “The artificial barrier which has divided North and South Korea has no basis for existence either in law or in reason. Whatever ephemeral separation of Korea there was for purposes relating to the surrender of the Japanese was so volatile that nobody recognizes it.”

Then there is the “Kosovo principle.” With far more justification than NATO’s 1999 attack on Serbia, North Korea could well claim a right to intervene against a rival regime jailing and executing in large numbers anyone suspected of leftwing sentiment. Finally, there is the fact that South Korea at the time was claiming sole legitimacy and was threatening attacks on the North.

Yet because of its allegedly illegal attack, North Korea was to come under three years of intense U.S. attack. Australian pilots helping on the constant bombing missions there have told me they were instructed to shoot anything that moved, “even the cows.”

This in turn helps to partly explain North Korea’s fanatic hatred and attempted sabotage of the South in subsequent years, and the ease with an oppressive dictatorship has been imposed there.

But as those who have negotiated with North Korea will admit, the nation also has its pragmatists and they include its leader, Kim Jong Il, whose image as a paranoid recluse was yet another Western media exaggeration. Meanwhile, South Korea has continued to harbor its own fanatical hawks eager for an attack on the North. They tried twice to kill Kim Dae Jung when he sought to oppose their repressive South Korean regimes. Clearly, at least part of North Korea’s obsessive military buildup has to have been in response to the danger these people pose.

North Korea was denounced in 1994 for trying to develop a nuclear capacity. But, as with China in 1958, a regime with no nuclear backers and facing a powerful U.S. willing to use nuclear threats has little choice but to develop its own nuclear deterrent.

Both Japan and the U.S. say they are upset over North Korea’s development of long-range missiles. But in 1994 the U.S. was within hours of launching a full-scale bombing attack to destroy North Korea’s nuclear facilities, and some U.S. hawks still fret over the way former President Jimmy Carter prevented the attack by his urgent visit to Pyongyang to get an agreement halting the development.

What is a regime subject to arbitrary bombing attack at any time (simply because it does things the other side does not like) supposed to do? Bow its head and say sorry?

The view that North Korea’s attempts at nuclear and long-range missile development were evil hinges entirely on the belief that our side is always right and theirs is always wrong. Such views are more suited to religious institutions than the serious business of international affairs.

Fortunately, Kim Dae Jung has had the sense and humanity to try to cut through this web of childish bias. One prays for his success.

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