By Uilson Jones
When we hear of North Korea, we immediately conjure up images of totalitarianism, abject poverty, prison camps, and tyranny. On the other hand, when we think of South Korea we tend to believe that it is the ‘normal’ one of the two (i.e. one that possesses a liberalized economy and is a close ally of the United States). However, are we getting the full picture?
As with many other areas in political history, to be able to begin to understand our current conception of the Korean Peninsula, we need to consider its modern history.
Before I formally begin, I would like to give credit to the source that made me interested in this topic. It is a casual youtube video that presents a refreshing perspective on the current conception of North Korea, the link to which I will provide here. Whilst I do not agree with everything they said, it was an interesting starting point for my research into the broader topic.
Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty
The signing of the Protectorate Treaty in 1905 between Imperial Japan and the Korean Empire, effectively led to Korea becoming a part of the Japanese sphere of influence, similarly to many treaties that claim foreign lands as their ‘protectorate’. Following other such imperial trends, half a decade later Korea was officially absorbed into the Japanese Empire through a highly contested Treaty called the Japan-Korea Treaty, which was signed in 1910.
Whilst Japan claimed that the Treaty was official and legal, Korea questioned the legitimacy of the Treaty for rather obvious reasons. An investigation on the legality of the Treaties of 1905 and 1910 between Korea and Japan respectively concluded that these Treaties were illegitimate based on two major realizations. The first of which states that there was no signature of the Korean Emperor on the document, instead it was only signed by the Korean Foreign Minister at the time. As a result, neither of the Treaties were ratified by the Korean Emperor who refused to sign them. Therefore, in order to legitimate the Treaties, one would have to accept that a signature of the Foreign Minister alone is sufficient to hand over the sovereignty and independence of a country to a foreign imperial entity. However, this is an insufficient criterion, thereby deeming this Treaty “null and void ab initio” as both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea stated.
Besides this, there is a second reason for why the Treaties should be deemed illegal. This involves the physical coercion of Korean Ministers. As reported by the historian Carter Eckert, “Japan sent its elder statesman, Ito Hirobumi, to conclude the protectorate treaty. He entered the palace with an escort of Japanese troops, threatened Emperor Kojong and his ministers, and demanded that they accept the draft treaty which Japan had prepared. When the Korean officials refused, Prime Minister Han Kyu-sol, who had expressed the strongest opposition, was dragged from the chamber by Japanese gendarmes”. Under such blatant acts of violent coercion on the side of Imperial Japan and taking into account that neither Treaties were ratified by the Korean Emperor, the report concluded the Treaties to be “null and void ab initio”.
Japanese Imperial Rule Over Korea
Immediately after the completion of the Treaty, Japan began consolidating its rule over its new imperial possession in Korea. In order for the Japanese to be able to keep Korea under strict control, they appointed a Governor-General who would hold the highest administrative position in Korea.
Furthermore, there were several destructive policies that Imperial Japan pursued in Korea. One of which was aimed at the Korean language. This was done by forcefully making students speak Japanese at schools and universities, whilst Korean was made outwardly illegal. Japan also attempted to undermine Korea’s historical academia and cultural literature by forbidding all “non-approved texts”. Following this, the Japanese authorities in charge burned over 200,000 books, thereby wiping out much of the literature detailing Korean history. The demolition of Korean cultural sites became commonplace as the new influx of Japanese people led to a demand in tourist attractions. One such important site that was damaged was the Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 by the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul. This was a key symbol of Korean sovereignty and pride. Although, beginning in 1989 the South Korean government launched an initiative to restore many of the cultural sites that were demolished under Imperial Japanese rule.
One of the most repulsive acts carried out by Imperial Japan was the forced abduction of hundreds of thousands of Korean women to be used as sexual slaves for the Japanese military, referred to as “comfort women”. The dark history surrounding the fates of the countless Korean women is still fresh in the minds of many, a bitter reminder of Japanese colonialism which until today remains a barrier to Korea-Japan relations.
With the influx of Japanese settlers also came the Shinto shrines. They were initially used as places of worship for the new Japanese settlers. However, these quickly turned into places of “forced worship”, where Koreans were coercively made to “worship the gods of imperial Japan, including dead emperors and the spirits of war heroes who had helped them conquer Korea…”.
For all these reasons there was significant opposition to Japanese rule. One of the most important opposition movements was the March 1st Movement. This consisted of tens of thousands of Korean civilians and students calling for the end of Japanese rule in the city of Seoul. It is now celebrated as a national holiday in South Korea. However, undeterred by clear signs of mass opposition, Imperial Japan continued to hold a tight grip on the Korean Peninsula until their unconditional surrender which marked the end of the Second World War in 1945.
The Half-Hearted Liberation of Korea
The war ended with a highly controversial decision to drop two atomic bombs on an already ailing and clearly defeated Imperial Japan. The extent to which Western perspectives consider it necessary to have dropped not one, but two atomic bombs which completely devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now being heavily questioned. One such source, amongst others, claims that rather than a genuine concern about the costs of a land invasion of Japan, the US dropped the bombs to intimidate the Soviets and get the upper hand in the post-war negotiations.
By the time of the unconditional surrender of Japan, Korea had been liberated from the boot of Japanese Imperialism through the intervention of the two emerging superpowers: the US and the Soviet Union. Whilst the Soviets landed in the North, the US arrived in the South not long after. At the time, there were existing councils that most workers, farmers, and civilians were a part of. These were known as the People’s Committees. This network of People’s Committees culminated in the creation of the People’s Republic of Korea in Seoul in 1946 which sought to govern the Korean Peninsula independently. These institutions, which existed prior to the advancement of the superpowers, were considered the legitimate government of Korea by the consensus of the people. In addition, the Committees were largely characterized by left-wing politics, as these were very popular at the time. Although debate still rages on about the extent to which these groups were politically homogeneous.
When the Soviets initially landed in the North, they discovered the existence of these People’s Committees and decided to cooperate with the already established government. On the other hand, upon the arrival of the US in the South of Korea, the leading Lieutenant-General John Hodge who was in charge of administering South Korea rejected the existence of the People’s Committees and outwardly prohibited the legality of the People’s Republic of Korea. However, upon agreement between the Allies, they set up a trusteeship with the goal of unifying Korea under an independent government. Under this trusteeship, each superpower set up a provisional government until the agreed upon date of 1948.
There was a great deal of anger and resentment towards the US for rejecting the government that the people of Korea had established of their own accord. To prevent the tide of communism, the US set up its own government which recruited “pro-Japanese collaborators to serve in the police force and the government”. However, the general dissatisfaction with the split-up of the country and the rejection of their government led to a series of uprisings in 1946 that were characterized by brutal repression. The rule of the South by the established US government, was one plagued by violence and crimes against humanity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea stated that the US “aided right-wing civil organizations, such as the Ganghwa Self-Defense Forces by providing combat equipment and supplies”. Right-wing groups such as these were responsible for terrorizing the civilians of the South. The report provides a list of detailed accounts of atrocities committed against the civilian population. This was perhaps done in an attempt to suppress the popular left-wing politics of Korea at the time in the name of anti-communism. When referring to these atrocities, the report goes on to say that such “mass summary executions against civilians are considered by some to be a crime against humanity”. I will revisit this topic in the next section.
When 1948 rolled around, due to a lack of agreement and complete failure of the Allies to unify the peninsula, the country was divided on the 38th parallel. A single nation divided in two, creating the eternal antagonism between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) which was fully realized in the destructive Korean War of 1950. And whilst the North pursued progressive policies of major economic and social reform, such as land reform in the name of redistribution, the 8-hour workday, improved working conditions, the strive for gender equality and universal healthcare; the South sought to follow in the footsteps of the US by conducting Communist witch-hunts resembling those of the Red Scare.
The Korean War
Simply by observing the political climate in Korea around that time, it was evident that tensions were rising and that there were dangers of a war brewing. Thus, if the North would not invade, then the South would invade, and vice versa. It was clear that this war was one characterized by dreams of reunifying the country. The division of a single nation, caused by the geopolitical interests of two interventionist superpowers, remained a source of pain for the Korean people.
The Korean People’s Army (North Korean military) initiated the war for reunification on 25th June 1950 and was able to swiftly advance through most of Southern Korea. However, as a result of a UN intervention the KPA was pushed back past the 38th parallel, and later on the conflict stabilized at around the 38th parallel. The UN intervention was hardly a UN one at all. The US almost exclusively led the UN into the war as the Soviet Union could not veto the plan, due to them boycotting the UN for not recognizing the newly formed state of the People’s Republic of China. This war was particularly brutal in the amount of damage it incurred on the Koreans as a whole, yet it is worth noting that the North had gotten completely decimated, far more than the South had.
The brutality of the war is linked to the amount of war crimes that were committed and the sheer factor of destruction. To put the extent of the damage incurred into perspective, American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea, as well as 32,557 tons of napalm. These numbers may not mean much in the beginning, however they are striking when compared to the pacific war in World War 2, which was a drawn-out war in the East. A total of 502,000 tons of bombs were dropped in the “Pacific Theatre”. Moreover, the extent of the bombing campaign was put into words by Air Force General Curtis LeMay: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea […] we killed off […] 20% of the population”. And by the end of the war, only two modern buildings were left standing in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
It is for this precise reason that North Korea has been building up their military, including anti-aircraft defenses and investing in nuclear arms. The psychological and physical harm that was experienced by the Koreans was immeasurable. In addition, there were countless massacres carried out by the US and the South. One such massacre was the No Gun Ri massacre, taking place in July 1950, “in which hundreds of Koreans were killed by US warplanes and members of the 7th US Cavalry regiment as they huddled under a bridge”. The Bodo League massacre was particularly barbarous.This included the killing of 100,000 suspected communists without charge or trial. Many were innocent women and children, and the commission investigating it considers the death toll to be a conservative estimate.
In 1952, a report came out stating that the US took advantage of germ warfare. The report claimed that the US dropped “plague-infected fleas” on North Korea. It went on to state that “since the beginning of 1952 numerous isolated foci of plague have appeared in North Korea, always associated with the sudden appearance of numbers of fleas and with the previous passage of American planes”. According to the report there were several deaths linked to such incidents.
The war was only settled by an armistice that has lasted for 68 years, thus it is still not over which is the reason for the general instability of the peninsula. As there was no peace settlement reached, there remain some 30,000 US troops in South Korea to this day, to act as a “deterrent to the nuclear-armed and often belligerent North Korea”. However, opposition to the US military bases in South Korea by sections of its population has resulted in growing tensions in the ROK-US alliance.
I mentioned a lot of war crimes, however, the truth is, I didn’t even scratch the surface. The devastation of the Korean people, particularly in the North was unfathomable. Not only did they see the separation of their country, along with the separation from their families and loved ones, but they also went through one of the most deadly wars in modern history as a result of the destructive powers of US hegemony. The next section dives into our contemporary conception of Korea.
Having set the scene for the more contemporary discussion of Korea and its relationship with the United States, let us begin by acknowledging the bottom line. The relationship between the US and Korea has been split right down the 38th parallel. Whilst the US maintains very close relations to South Korea who it considers to be the legitimate heir of the Korean nation, the treatment that the North receives has a very different essence.
It can be said that the relationship between North Korea and the US is characterized by the history we have discussed, particularly the depressing legacy of the Korean War. The tiny country of North Korea has been continuously vilified, ever since its formation. Yet, it suffered a war in which most of its cities, towns and villages were wiped out by a foreign superpower. The country saw a fifth of its population eviscerated, and similarly to Cuba, it has a host of economic sanctions imposed on it leading to poverty and the inability to maintain stable development that is meant to ensure prosperity for its people.
We often hear of the hostile and belligerent nature of North Korea towards the rest of the peaceful world. Of course, the North has a nuclear weapons program thereby breaking the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which is a major point of tension between itself and the international community. However, it is often forgotten that the North has actually proposed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a “vow” from the US to not attack. A seemingly reasonable proposal that would end Cold War-era hostilities, yet this was not acted upon by the US.
In order to fully analyze the relationship between the two, a deeper look at Western media coverage of North Korea is required. Articles, videos, books, and other forms of media coverage of the North are incredibly popular. It would seem as if a crazy story comes out of North Korea almost every day. The ugly truth is, that most stories coming out of North Korea are false and lack any real substance. Because we live in a world that places profit ahead of everything else, this incentivizes people to put out stories that garner lots of ‘clicks’ and therefore increase returns on the investment put into the story. So, the crazier the story that you put out, the more clicks you get, the more money you pocket. It’s a simple trick that has largely bypassed the public.
Yet, one does not have to dig deep to see the lack of credibility of the reporting on North Korea. We have seen countless gruesome or ridiculous stories come out that have proved to be false either by the media themselves or by careful observation. A recent example of the lack of reliability of the media was their story in 2020 that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, had gotten severely ill and was missing. Countless media outlets jumped on the idea and even began speculating about the successor of the country. However, a few weeks later Kim Jong-Un reappeared as healthy as ever. Another such story is the infamous haircut law by the North Korean government whereby students had to receive a Kim Jong-Un style haircut, which turned out to be false due to the clear diversity in haircuts. Or the numerous times where it was reported that senior officials had been executed in bizarre ways, only for those same officials to show up a few weeks later, completely fine and very alive. Lastly, let us consider the news about people getting publicly executed for watching foreign films. This story appears to fall through as well, seeing as the North hosts the Pyongyang International Films Festival every other year that gives out awards celebrating various foreign and international films.
The list could go on and on, however, due to space constraints, I would like to touch on the final point before I round off the article. A large portion of our information stems from various defector testimonies. Unfortunately, these defector testimonies are plagued by similar issues as the media. When defectors decide to open up about their experiences in the North, they are frequently offered cash incentives in order to come up with the most bizarre stories which seem almost unrealistic. This is a recurring problem, cash incentives and other benefits including internet fame happen to interfere with the truth that we are seeking.
It would be irresponsible, however, to disregard everything that has ever come out about North Korea simply based on the fact that there are incentives for people to lie. The idea I am attempting to communicate is that a more nuanced outlook on the region and the utilization of critical thinking would prove more beneficial as opposed to taking everything we see on the internet for granted.
As a final note, this article does not in any way support or demonize North or South Korea. My intentions for the article were simply to investigate and question the dominant narrative surrounding our conception of the Korean Peninsula. This does not include legitimating one form of government over the other.
Edited by Ricarda Blümcke, artwork by Teresa Valle