I haven’t seen Black Panther yet, but I know enough of the story’s basic premise — what might an African nation, untouched by centuries of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, look like in the 20th/21st century? — to use it as a generative point of speculation within my own interests in the history of the Korean War and its aftermath.
Thinking, then, along the lines of the Wakanda’s Afrofuturism, I’m prompted to ask a similar question as I watch the international spectacle and geopolitical maneuvering of the 2018 Winter Olympics unfold in Pyeongchang: what might the Korean peninsula look like today if it had never been invaded and brutalized by the United States?
But wait, you might be asking, when did the United States ever invade Korea? Didn’t the U.S. military defend the South against the evil Communist regime of the North? Isn’t North Korea the bad guy in this fight? Aren’t the U.S. and South Korea friendly allies? Doesn’t South Korea owe its safety — its wealth — its very existence to the United States?
Excellent questions. Here’s what history has to say:
Following the defeat of the Empire of Japan in World War II and the liberation of Korea from Japanese imperial forces, the United States military arrived on the Korean peninsula on September 8, 1945. The US immediately set about forcibly dismantling the local governance committees of the new People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), and implanting in their stead a foreign-run military government over the Southern half of the peninsula. The US military officials who assumed authority in Korea had zero knowledge of the land and its history, zero understanding of the people and their dreams of independence. This meant that they were utterly incapable of managing the population they had hoped to control, and consequently threw the burgeoning Korean economy into chaos by cutting off Southern manufacturers from their Northern supply lines, where most of the industrial facilities lay. Koreans in the South who resisted American imperialism were silenced or slaughtered; such was the case in the Jeju Uprising, when Korean independence fighters on the island rebelled against the US Military Government in Korea and were met with brutal repression from Korean police forces (managed by US army officials), resulting in a massacre numbering between 14,000-30,000 people, or 10% of the island’s population.
Looking at history from this standpoint, the US military’s forced bifurcation of the peninsula at the 38th parallel marks the real start of the Korean War; how Koreans in the North responded to the North-South divide — which was solidified via the UN-backed establishment of the Republic of Korea (ROK) after the US’s panicked abandonment of the peninsula in 1948 — was predicated by the violent imposement of the United States’ imperialist enterprise in 1945. This is not to imply that the Soviet Union didn’t mirror the US in its occupation of northern Korea after WWII; the fundamental difference lay, however, in the fact that the Soviet Civil Administration operated in tandem with the peninsula-wide People’s Committees of the PRK, while the US military government abolished and supplanted these same committees in the South. The seeds of division and war were stamped into the earth by American boots, not Soviet ones.
Recognizing that the root of all subsequent violent antagonisms between North and South can be traced back to the United States’ disastrous attempt to preemptively secure part of the peninsula as a means of cementing a foothold against the Soviet bloc, we can then begin to make sense of the US military’s role and strategy during the Korean War. The incursion of DPRK troops into the South on June 25, 1950, which marks the supposed starting point of the war from a Western historiographic perspective, was met two days later by the UN Security Council’s authorization of a “police force” (of primarily US soldiers) to be dispatched to Korea.
What happened next can only be described as one of the most monstrous wartime atrocities in the past century. What the United States military did to the Northern half of the peninsula eclipsed many of its previous efforts towards achieving “total war” in every sense of the term. Vladimir Lenin’s formulation of modern imperialism as the highest stage of industrial capitalism becomes clear when we look at the sheer quantities of resources, technology, and energy expended in the US’s effort to obliterate North Korea from the face of the earth.
At 635,000 tons, America dropped more bombs on Korea in the span of three years than it did across the entire Asia-Pacific Theater during the Second World War. 313,600 rockets were fired, 32,357 tons of napalm were dropped, and 166,853,100 rounds of machine-gun ammunition were spent. Three million Koreans in total were killed, seventy percent of whom were civilians. In North Korea, where the US concentrated its aerial bombardment, approximately fifteen to twenty percent of the population was killed. American warplanes quite literally bombed “everything that moved,” including 8,700 industrial plants, 906,500 acres of farmland, 600,000 homes, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and 260 theaters. Civilians were driven underground by the unremitting ferocity of the bombing, living in tunnels by day and farming/scavenging food by night. Millions of families were separated or displaced, creating a flood of refugees desperate to escape the carnage.
Americans have long assumed that North Korea is a fundamentally pathological society — that the DPRK has totally indoctrinated its subjects into a crazed, illogical hatred of the United States. To suggest in any public arena that the US has ever had anything but the utmost benevolent intentions in Korea is to court incredulity, ostracization, or condemnation. Only recently have Westerners (including myself) begun to question this narrative of unfounded North Korean aggression and totalitarianism versus America’s humanitarian civilizing mission. Why is North Korea the way it is now? What could have prompted such an extreme response on the part of the people of North Korea that they would, for the most part, comply with a policy of self-imposed isolation from external contact? Is it just a fear of their authoritarian government, or is there something more? Could the constant war threats and infamous effigies of US soldiers bayoneted by school children contain, at their core, an entirely human response to the near-incomprehensible loss of life, destruction of critical infrastructure, and complete degradation of dignity that dominated North Korean experiences of the war? Is it possible that the prodigious firepower of the United States military, especially in the hands of a trigger-happy warmonger like Trump, poses a far greater threat to the Korean peninsula than North Korea’s ever could?
In this moment when North and South Korean relations seem to be on the upswing — to the supposed peril of South Korea and its allyship with the United States — it’s important to have an account, however astonishing, of the forces that brought the two warring nations to their tenuous truce and divergent paths today. Yes, South Korea’s “Miracle on the Han River” would not have been possible without American investment and aid — but at what cost did this miracle come? What of the 300 South Korean refugees who were mowed down by American troops during the No Gun Ri massacre of July 1950? What of the brutal repression of protesters and deadly purging of dissidents by American-backed, anti-communist strongmen Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan? What of the 15 known US military bases in South Korea that have covertly revived the Japanese comfort women system through coerced prostitution to US soldiers? What of the entrenched nepotism and corporate collusion that lead to the impeachment and imprisonment of Park Geun-hye? What of the widespread despair and anxiety that has permeated every stratum of South Korea’s modern, democratic, liberated society? What of the second-highest suicide rate in the world?
Face to face with the bleak record of the Korean War and its reverberations throughout North and South Korean society, I return to the original question of what Korea might look like today without American imperialism. It sounds like an improbable question. We Americans assume that the North has always been a totalitarian Hermit Kingdom, and that the South has always been our eager ally in proselytizing capitalism to the rest of East Asia. We must recognize that our limited notions of Korean history are not only factually untrue, but are in fact the consequence of a bloody and relentless crusade to subjugate the entire peninsula under the foot of US imperialism, beneath the full apocalyptic weight of “fire and fury.”
What is needed is a reclamation of history in order to construct a radical vision of Korea’s future beyond the clutches of colonial interests. What is needed is for Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel to sacrifice their own narrow self-interests in search of a society that belongs to everyone, not just the few oligarchs, military officials, and technocrats who rule both North and South. What is needed is more than symbolic gestures, more than empty promises, more than a narrow-minded, jingoistic framework of nationalism. What is needed is a broader perspective of imperialism and colonial occupation throughout the Global South and in the ghettos of Western civilization, from Palestine to Ferguson to Puerto Rico to Okinawa to Standing Rock.
What is needed are three simple things, yet three whose possibility eludes us in our present delusion about the foregone necessity of American democracy™️ in Korea and the world:
Liberation. Solidarity. Peace.