This past Friday, June 27, 2018, marked the 65th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, a ceasefire agreement signed in 1953 between North Korea and the United States/United Nations that (1) did not officially end the Korean War, (2) established the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel as the de jure border between North and South Korea, and (3) did not include the input or signatures of any South Koreans.
The anniversary underscored what has been an exciting, albeit precarious period of swift developments in the triangulated relations between the governments of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States in recent months. April of this year saw South Korean president Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un meet at the historic 2018 Inter-Korean Summit at Panmunjom, out of which came a declaration affirming both countries’ commitments to working towards reunification, demilitarization, and peace on the peninsula. The North Korea-United States summit in Singapore followed soon after, with U.S. president Donald Trump breaking a 65-year tradition of presidential anti-diplomacy towards North Korea’s sitting leader—and going even further by agreeing to take unprecedented steps towards the normalization and de-escalation of DPRK-U.S. relations.
For Korean Americans living in diaspora scattered across the globe, these developments have elicited a mixed bag of reactions and responses. Many support the recent peace talks insofar as they signify the possibility of finally ending the war and reunifying the Korean peninsula—especially the roughly 58,000 remaining South Korean citizens who have registered for government-facilitated family reunions with long-lost kin living in the North. A significant portion of Korean Americans, however, maintain an intense distrust of the North Korean government and a corresponding allegiance to the U.S. political and military establishment.
Yet it is this precise establishment which has posed the greatest obstacle to the peace and reunification process, spawning a frenzy of anti-peace rhetoric and policymaking on both sides of the aisle. Mainstream American news outlets and publications have ushered in a parade of pundits and op-eds to spin the peace talks into one-dimensional, one-sided portrayals of North Korean duplicity and dictatorship (concealing the fact that the U.S. has repeatedly undermined its own previous negotiations with North Korea and installed multiple dictators in South Korea). Meanwhile, Democratic senators Tammy Duckworth and Chris Murphy recently proposed an amendment that would prevent the president from withdrawing the 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea—days after Trump announced a halt to provocative joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises during negotiations with North Korea.
Taking present-day circumstances into consideration, the Armistice’s 65th anniversary occasions a timely opportunity for critical reflection on the many-pronged relationship between the Korean American community and the U.S. military. To gain a fuller grasp of the nature of this relationship, we have to first trace Korea’s painful entrance into “modernity”—in other words, its entrance into the crosshairs of various imperialist powers vying for political, economic, and military control over the peninsula—starting around the 19th century.
It is a little known fact that the history of U.S. military intrusion in Korea dates back to 1871, when a flotilla of American warships staged what was then affectionately called “Our Little War with the Heathen”, attempting—unsuccessfully—to capture a number of Korean forts in hopes of prying open Korea’s seaports for American commercial enterprise. Save for a smattering of American missionaries and businessmen (the two often walked hand in hand), the United States largely abandoned its colonial project in Korea, leaving the peninsula open to Japanese economic domination and eventual full-scale imperialist annexation in 1910.
Driven into exile by Japan’s brutal irruption of their homeland, the first Korean migrants in the United States beseeched the political apparatus of their adopted country to assist Korea’s liberation struggle, with many Koreans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean invoking the principle of national self-determination as expressed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points speech, given in 1918 near the end of World War I. These appeals fell on deaf ears; the Americans saw no reason to follow their own noble imperative for the sake of a tiny, obscure strip of land frozen in its own “irredeemable, unreformed Orientalism”.
The colonial occupation of Korea lasted until the end of World War II, when Japan was defeated—and had its colonial holdings supplanted—by Allied forces in 1945. In a previous article, I discussed the origins of the Korean War and the entirely Western creation of the North-South divide—a divide whose demarcation line, I recently learned, was hastily drawn by a pair of American Army officers in the waning hours of World War II, half a decade before the official start of the Korean War. To restate and drive my original point home: the United States is culpable not only for imposing an arbitrary, artificial border on a long-beleaguered people stirring on the cusp of national liberation, and not only for wrecking Korea’s fledgling sovereign government in the Southern half of the peninsula, but also for launching a genocidal, scorched-earth campaign that killed nearly 30% of the Korean population in the North. Predictably, hundreds of thousands of Koreans in the South were also slaughtered by UN and Republic of Korea armed forces, whether to crush Communist dissidents and suspected sympathizers—or simply because the brave American GIs had crystal clear orders to shoot all gooks first, ask questions later.
In a twist of bitter serendipity, on this year’s Armistice anniversary I came across a lovely tweet posted by the U.S. Department of Defense’s official Twitter account in June 2016 that read:
“Today in 1952 @usairforce, @USNavy & @USMC (Marine Corps) almost destroyed North Korea! Remembering our #History”
Which brings me to my main point: Korean Americans, the United States military is not your friend. It never has been, and it never will be.
Needless to say, I am acutely aware of how common it is for Korean immigrants and their descendants in the States to have direct connections to the U.S. military industrial complex. Some came to the U.S. as spouses of American GIs, while others gained the basic capital necessary for emigration through employment with occupying U.S. forces or intelligence agencies after the war—the latter is the story of my mother’s side of the family. For decades, enlisting in the U.S. Army has been a notable path to citizenship and acceptance for Korean immigrants and other marginalized groups in America. And today, a growing number of second-generation Korean Americans—some of them childhood friends or recent acquaintances of mine—are seeking careers in the American military, defense industry, or foreign/intelligence services.
That being said, I think it’s possible to both acknowledge that many of us would not be here today if not for our parents’ and grandparents’ favorable proximity to U.S. armed forces in Korea, while also discerning that the de facto condition of this relationship was nothing less than full compliance with the American ruling class’s capitalist, militarist project in Korea and around the world. I think it’s possible to appreciate the hard-fought vitality of the Korean American community while also developing a conscious, consistent analysis of the society in which we now live.
Because let’s do the math: as common as it is for diaspora Koreans to harbor familial and/or financial intimacies with the U.S. imperial structure, it is perhaps even more common for us to have direct ties to North Korea. Originally from Pyongyang, my grandfather was one of five million refugees displaced by the war. The odds that I have distant, unnamed relatives in the North are high. Given that the U.S. is the only country in the current configuration of North Korea–United States–South Korea relations that has already bombed Korea and dropped an atomic bomb on human beings (which it nearly did in Korea six years later), the historical probability of an American nuclear attack killing any North Korean kin I might have—as well as the South Korean second cousins I definitely have—are significantly higher than that of any other nation’s military in the world, including North Korea.
I would be remiss if I did not address an issue that has been a potent rallying cry in the Korean American community, to say nothing of the so-called international community: North Korean human rights violations. Looking objectively at history, however, we find that there is simply no crime which the West accuses of the North Korean government that has not been committed by the South Korean government to some degree and by the United States government to an exponentially greater degree. So long as we are talking about trilateral relations between North Korea, the United States, and South Korea, there is no way to justify the abandonment of negotiations with North Korea on the basis that the DPRK has reportedly executed, imprisoned, and tortured dissidents. To highlight one example, Syngman Rhee, American-installed figurehead of the new Republic of Korea in the late 1940s, oversaw the assassination of opposition leaders as well as the detainment, torture, and massacre of tens of thousands of suspected Communists. Rhee received a thorough education from the top institutions in the U.S.—Princeton, Harvard, and George Washington University—where he no doubt assimilated the ideological persuasions that have proliferated this country’s own history of brutalities which does not, I hope, need to be restated here.
Given the current dearth of sources conveying verifiable information (including North Korean defector testimonies) and the abundance of blatant propaganda about North Korea in the West, only the normalization and de-escalation of relations with the DPRK will provide the opportunity for fuller transparency surrounding the actions of the North Korean government over the past 65 years. It should be noted that the ironfisted sanctions imposed on the DPRK by the UN Security Council are a form of economic warfare, designed to cripple the North Korean economy and bolster anti-communist rhetoric. This includes well-known horror stories proliferated by Western media that blame the North Korean government for starving its own people, rather than identify the international circle of Western capitalist countries as the real cause of North Korean food shortages or contextualize North Korea’s relatively moderate malnutrition rate in comparison to other countries. Examining the details of North Korea’s struggle for existence as a socialist state in a global capitalist economy allows us to gain a more informed understanding of the principal role that the U.S. imperial structure currently plays within its own borders and in the world at-large: a remorseless empire that inflicts crimes of aggression, suppression, partition, deprivation, and exploitation—whether by direct or indirect methods—against the multitude of dispossessed peoples around the globe.
Finally, as we take a longer view of the issue, this is a time to think seriously about the future that awaits all of us if we continue on our current trajectory. The United States holds the enviable distinction of being the largest arms exporter in the world, in addition to having a $717 billion Department of Defense that is the single biggest polluter in the world. The American military and naval bases that have wreaked havoc on local South Korean communities and ecosystems are irrefutable testaments to the complete disdain for human life that underlies the actions of every major player in the U.S.’s behemoth military industrial complex. Imperialism isn’t just a dirty word, it’s a headlong plunge towards total societal and environmental catastrophe.
On both sides of the parallel, Koreans’ present conception of the Japanese occupation period has vindicated the independence fighters who struggled to overthrow that colonial regime, while reserving only the most visceral shame and ire for those who collaborated with Japan’s imperial administration. What’s stopping us from extending a similar analysis to the current occupation of South Korea by 30,000 American troops, fifteen military bases, and six THAAD missile systems? How are we going to reckon with the fact that the vast majority of the ROK Army’s high command in 1946 was composed of former Korean officers from Japan’s much-loathed colonial police force? Is it so difficult to see that South Korea’s exceptional post-war technological and economic development—as a result of U.S. investment—mirrors that of Korea’s rapid industrialization under Japan’s capitalist war regime?
In other words, is it so hard to grasp what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he told us that material and intellectual advancements cannot be conflated with human, moral progress?
That Trump is acting in his own self-interest in Korea (by gunning for a Nobel Peace Prize, among other accolades) should be no surprise. But for a rare moment in this country’s history, the conceit of an American president has put him at fundamental odds with the imperialist establishment in Washington. The satiation of Trump’s ego is a small price to pay for healing the long-festering wounds of division and distrust that drive Koreans further apart from each other with each passing year.
I speak as a Korean American to fellow Korean Americans when I say that all of us in this community have a decision to make: we can either collaborate and comply with the two-faced profiteers of war, or we can join the struggle for true peace, self-determination, and reconciliation—not only in Korea, but in every part of the world that has been broken and burned under heavy-laden skies shot through with red, white, and blue.
This nightmare will not end until it ends for everyone.