The news of North Korean bombing of a South Korean island and recent escalation of tension between the two countries, each of which claims to be the legitimate ruler of the Korean peninsula, is not surprising. It is not surprising because the two countries are technically at war with each other for the past six decades, as they never signed a peace treaty following the armistice in 1953, following three years of what most of us refer to as the Korean war. Equally unsurprising is American involvement in the conflict. For the past six decades, since the Second World War ended, American presence in the region, via her South Korean ally, is constant.
To borrow from a famous Winston Churchill’s quote, North Korea appears to many in the West as a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill was speaking in 1939, when the world, or at any rate Europe, stood on the cusp of a war that would see millions slaughtered and countries destroyed. He was predicting, rather he was indicating that he could not predict, what steps Stalin’s Russia would take. ‘But,’ Churchill went on to say, ‘perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’ What might be the key to the riddle that is North Korea, the world’s most secretive state?
Perhaps, to understand the tragedy of the peoples of North Korea, we need to look at the history of the Korean peninsula in the twentieth century.
With the surrender of Japan, in 1945, which brought an end to more than five decades of Japanese rapacity, the peninsula was ripe for picking by the two emerging superpowers, Soviet Union and the United States.
When Japan made Korea its colony in the first decade of the twentieth century, it embarked on one of the most audacious experiments in the twentieth century: erasing cultural identity of 24 million Koreans. Korean language and literature were banned from public life and the use and study of Japanese language was made mandatory. During the Second World War Japan ruthlessly exploited Korean resources towards war efforts. Several million Korean men were forcibly conscripted in Japanese labour camps; millions more were sent to work in other parts of Japanese empire and in Japan itself. As the war progressed, Korean men were conscripted into the Imperial Japanese army. When America dropped atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than fifth of the millions who died were Koreans labourers.
As the Second World War neared its end, Soviet Union, as per the agreement with the USA, declared war against Japan, and, within days, occupied what is now North Korea. In the next two weeks the Soviet army reached the 38th parallel and awaited the arrival of the Americans in the South. Once again the fate of the Koreans was in the hands of those who had no connection—geographical or cultural—to the peninsula, although it would be fair to say that Communists had presence in the undivided Korea under Japanese rule and had provided resistance to the Japanese occupation. By this time, though, seeds of suspicions had been sowed between the two Second World War allies, and the Americans seriously doubted that the Russians would honour their part of the Joint Commission, the US-sponsored agreement of occupation of Korea. In the Postdam conference, the Allies unilaterally divided Korea without so much as by your leave of the Koreans. The decision had become a foregone conclusion when colonel Rusk and colonel Bonesteel III demarcated the two ‘occupied zones’ at the 38th parallel, a decision, as Rusk would later clarify, that was taken in thirty minutes, even though the 38th parallel was further North than what he, at that time, felt the US forces could realistically reach. The Russians agreed to this demarcation line, even though it meant that the zone under their control would be smaller than that under American control, as Stalin wanted to be in a stronger negotiating position in the Eastern Europe. It was agreed that the two divided parts of Korea would remain under the ‘trusteeship’ of the Soviets and Americans for five years, until 1950. (It is tempting to compare the partition of the Indian subcontinent, which happened around the same time (in 1947). The British, who had been in charge of undivided India for more than 150 years, left behind a bloody mess (which resulted in the largest forced migration of peoples in the history of twentieth century); but they at least made some efforts to take into consideration the will of the people. Almost all of what is now Pakistan chose to secede from India in a plebiscite.)
Both the Soviets and Americans set about establishing what were for all practical purposes puppet governments in the parts of the peninsula under their control. Let’s look first at what happened in South Korea. Lieutenant General Hodge of the United States directly controlled South Korea via the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK). He forcibly dissolved the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) to which the Japanese had handed power. PRK was headed by a Korean politician named Yuh Woon Hyung. Hyung was a re-unification activist who agitated for the independent reunification of Korea (in which neither of the superpowers had any interest). Hyung was left wing in his political beliefs. In 1920 he became a member of the Korean Communist party. Four years later he joined Sun Yat-Sen’s Chinese Nationalist party (Kuomintang). In 1929 he was arrested by the British for daring to criticise Britain’s colonial policy and was handed over to the Japanese in Korea. He was imprisoned for three years. Upon his release he kept himself busy by participating in a variety of underground anti-Japanese activities in Korea. In August 1945, when Japan surrendered, General Abe transferred the power to Hyung in return for safeguard of the Japanese in Korea. However, Hyung’s obvious leaning towards the left made him a suspect in the eyes of the Americans. Lt. General Hodge wasted little time in summarily abolishing Hyung’s government. In the next two years Hyung maintained a centre-left position, which won him few fans in the extreme right or left wing groups. In 1947 Hyung was assassinated, in South Korea, by a right wing extremist.
In the North, PRK’s local structure was maintained under the Soviet occupation and went on to form the basis of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the party that has controlled North Korea for the past six decades. In the South, the Americans wanted nothing to do with Hyung’s crypto-Communist policies.
Americans now desperately wanted a ‘democratically elected’ Korean leader who would head South Korea. The chosen man was Syngman Rhee, a rabidly anti-Communist, Right wing Christian, who came with the personal recommendation of the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader of the neighbouring China, who was fighting an internecine civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists, a war he would lose. Rhee was ‘democratically’ elected after elections were held in South Korea. The Soviets first opposed and then boycotted the elections, arguing that the Americans honour the agreement in the Moscow conference and the two parts remain under the trusteeships of the two superpowers. In reality the Soviets knew that their chances of gaining power in American controlled Korea were slimmer than none. The Americans had achieved their goal: there was now a nominally independent, indigenous, and democratically elected Korean government in place in the South, which would serve as America’s bulwark against the Soviet led (Mao Zedong had not yet usurped power in China) Communist advancement in North Asia. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established. At least in the initial years, the puppet government, filled with politicians loathed by the Korean populace (many of them had served under the hated Japanese occupiers), remained intensely unpopular. This resulted, from time to time, in rebellions in the American controlled Korea (for example in the Jeolla region, where some local active units of PRK, together with Communist units, rebelled), which the Rhee’s South Korean army snuffed out with Forensic precision. This was the beginning of the Cold War, and the American anti-Communist paranoia had set in. The Americans had decided that communists everywhere in the world were under direct payroll of Stalin; and many members serving in the government of Syngman Rhee had no qualification other than that they were anti-Communists. Syngman Rhee was a dictator and he knew what he had to do keep his masters happy. He set about clearing South Korean politics of communists with commendable efficiency. He ruthlessly suppressed several rebellions against his regime and oversaw more than one massacre of his own people. In the post-war (that is the Second World War) South Korea, politicians who had any public stature were on the left. Many of them left for Pyongyang when the repression of the leftist activities began under Syngman Rhee.
What was going on in the Soviet controlled North Korea while the ‘democratically’ elected dictator ran amok in South Korea? As it happened, a Soviet approved dictator rose to power in the Northern part of the peninsula, a dictator who would rule the country for more than four decades, until his death in 1994. He was Kim Il-Sung.
Let’s step back in time and have a brief look at the Korean independent movement, and the rise of Communism in Korea. Korea became vulnerable to Japanese expansionism in the late nineteenth century. In the first decade of the twentieth century, after Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, there were no limits to Japan’s imperial ambitions. Other Imperial powers of the time, such as Great Britain, turned a conniving eye when Japan invaded Korea in 1910. The resistance to Japanese occupation, which started immediately, was provided by disparate religious, military, and Royalist groups. The Communist party of Korea was formed in secrecy in Seoul, in 1925 (Japan had banned communism in the colony). The communists played their role in the resistance movement, although right from the beginning the party was afflicted by sectional feuds, forcing the Comintern (Communist International—an international organization funded by the Soviets) to disband it. Some of the members of the Korean Communist party escaped to China and became members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Kim Il-Sung, or the ‘Great Marshal’ as everyone in North Korea is forced to refer to him as, had an interesting background. Born as Kim Song-ju, in 1912, into a deeply religious family, Kim’s maternal grandfather was a Protestant minister, while his father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. The family was not poor although it was not very rich either. According to official North Korean publication and extensive accounts left by Kim Il-Sung himself in his later life, his family was involved in anti-Japanese activities and fled Japanese persecution in 1920, to Manchuria. Some have suggested that the family, like thousands of Korean families, was fleeing famine and not Japanese persecution. It is possible, though, that the family played some minor role in anti-Japanese resistance. Kim would have been eight when the family settled in Manchuria. Kim’s father died in 1926. It was around this time that Kim became interested in Communist ideology. He became a member of an underground Marxist Youth Organization and participated in subversive activities. He was arrested and jailed for several months in 1929. In 1931, the year Japan invaded Manchuria, Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party and participated in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers in Manchuria. Kim rose steeply within the ranks of Chinese Communist Party. In his later life Kim would make much of the guerrilla warfare and the North Korean Communist party systematically build his personality cult as some sort of young Communist Robin Hood. There was probably a kernel of truth in these exaggerated claims. Kim continued with his guerrilla activities throughout the 1930s, but, as the decade neared its end, relentlessly pursued by Japanese troops, he escaped into Soviet Union. It is not known what Kim did in Russia: either he sat out the Second World War in Siberia along with other Korean leaders in exile(more likely, as Stalin was hesitant to anger the Japanese by letting the Koreans use the USSR as a base for their anti-Japanese activities) or he joined the Soviet Red army and fought in the Second World War (less likely). Sometime during this period, either before or after he escaped into Soviet Union, Kim assumed the name Kim Il-Sung, which meant ‘becoming the Sun’. The same name was assumed earlier by a prominent early leader of the Korean resistance movement. (For a long time rumours circulated that the young Kim was somehow switched with the ‘original’ Kim.)
When Soviet declared war on Japan, in 1945, and the Soviet army, much to Stalin’s surprise, rolled into Pyongyong without any resistance from the Japanese, Stalin wanted a puppet regime in North Korea (just in the same way the Americans wanted a puppet regime in South Korea). Kim Il-Sung was Stalin’s man. Laverenti Beria, who was tasked with the job of selecting the candidate, suggested Kim Il-Sung’s name. Kim, who was only in his thirties at the time, was widely believed to have been chosen by Stalin because, having spent most of his life outside Korea, he was not viewed by Stalin as someone with any links with the Korean Communist party, which Stalin had disbanded years earlier for being too nationalistic. Stalin wanted someone in place in North Korea who would forever look towards Moscow for support and guidance.
When Kim Il-Sung arrived in North Korea, he could not even speak Korean; his education, such as it was, was in Chinese. The headquarters of the Korean Communist Party were still in Seoul, which was under American occupation. In the years leading to the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung, with generous help from Stalin, built up a formidable army and air-force. When the Americans carried the elections in South Korea and instated Syngman Rhee, Stalin followed suit and the Democratic Republic of Korea came into existence (with Kim Il-Sung as leader) days after the Republic of Korea was created. True, there were no elections in North Korea that elected Kim Il-Sung, but difficult as it may seem to believe now, Kim Il-Sung was far more popular at this time in North Korea than his counterpart in South Korea. The Korean populace respected Kim for his years of anti-Japanese activities (albeit in the neighbouring China), which Rhee had sat out in Hawaii. Within two years North Korea had become a proper Communist dictatorship. All walks of life were dominated by the Communists.
Both the North and the South Koreans, backed by their respective masters, declared themselves to be the only lawful governments of the peninsula. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the details of Korean war (that is for another day); however, contrary to what many probably believe, the war did not start suddenly one June morning in 1950 when the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The North Korean invasion was preceded by a long and sustained period of aggression by both sides involving incursions into each other’s territory. What added immeasurably to American paranoia (probably with good reason) was the news that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb, and, in the neighbouring China, Communists, under Mao Zedong, gained control of the country, forcing the US-backed Kuomintang Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to leg it to Taiwan, taking with him millions of American dollars from the Chinese treasury.
The Korean war finally ended in a stalemate—with both sides taking each other’s capitals only to lose it to the other side, and the control of the territories going back and forth—during which US air raids devastated North Korea, selecting Pyongyang for special punishment; most cities in North Korea suffered almost total annihilation. When the UN—mostly American troupes— captured Pyongyang, Kim Il-Sung, the brave guerrilla fighter against the Japanese, fled to China. He was reinstated by the Soviets when the war ended.
Kim Il-Sung’s regime was no different from other Soviet imposed Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. They were all, on the face of it, multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ in which Communists were part of the coalition. In reality the Communists were firmly in control and the coalition partners were allowed little autonomy and less influence. Within the Korean Communist Party (which later became Korean Workers Party) Kim Il-Sung soon assumed complete control.
What is almost difficult to believe, given the dire financial state of North Korea, is that from the 1950s to 1970s, North Korean economy was actually doing better than the South Korean one, even though North Korea received (relatively) less help from the Soviets and the Chinese than the South Koreans did from their American masters.
North Korea’s position became tricky with the Sino-Russian rift following death of Stalin. The Soviets became annoyed with Kim Il-Sung as they felt that he was leaning towards Mao’s China. In fact Kim-Il-Sung tried to be clever, and propagated his famous ‘Juche’ theory, which preached self reliance. The result was a gradual decline in Soviet aid to North Korea over the years. In due course Kim Il-Sung removed all reference to Marxism and Leninism (which he rejected as European notions) and ‘Juche’ became, for all practical purposes, an ultra-Nationalistic form of Stalinism.
Almost six decades after the Korean War ended, the winds of war are once again flowing through the Korean Peninsula, after the North Koreans shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpeyong, which sent the Americans rushing to the aid of their South Korean ally, and a depressing rhetoric consisting, in equal parts, of paranoia and deranged grandiosity, has started from the North Korean regime. It is not surprising. Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung, ‘a flabby chap who likes to drink and enjoys public adulation’, according Wikileaks documents, inherited a completely ruined economy when his father dropped dead in 1994. His response to the economic crisis facing his country was to rely almost entirely on military. In the 1990s, North Koreans began producing very crude but cheap ballistic missiles, produced from obsolete Chinese and Soviet designs. These missiles became available to any regime that was willing to pay for them. Many of these missiles were sold to countries like Iran and Syria which the US considers as enemy. The North Korean nuclear programme, which began on a small scale in 1980 via a Soviet donated reactor, gained momentum during Kim Jong-Il’s regime, even as his people starved to death through the terrible famines of the 1990s. Americans have gone, unsurprisingly, apeshit. Rumours have circulated for years that the Americans have kept nuclear missiles in South Korea. They certainly have a naval base and military presence in that country. But they don’t like it when third world countries dare to arm themselves with weapons that will actually prove to be a deterrent against what they think is imperialist bullying. (I am prepared to bet my left ear that the Americans will not dare to invade North Korea if the North Koreans indeed have nuclear capability. Iraq was invaded precisely because Saddam Hussain’s chemical cupboard contained nothing more dangerous than a packet of paracetamol.) The other factor in the North Korean ‘problem’ which America cannot ignore is, of course, China. More than two decades after the first attempts to normalise relations between China and US, the relations between the two giants are still plagued by the two unresolved problems: Taiwan and the (technically) unfinished Korean War. Wikileaks documents reveal that China might finally be running out patience with their North Korean allies, described by the Chinese vice Foreign Minister as a ‘spoiled child’ (there is Chinese euphemism for you) after North Korea carried out nuclear tests in April 2009. It seems that at least some high ranking officials in the Chinese Communist party have begun viewing North Korea as a burden, and not a useful ally. However, to assume that China will allow unification of Korea under South Korean control would be a step too far at this stage. Similar rumours floated when Kim Il-Sung died. China did not abandon Pyongyang then, and it is unlikely that it would do so any time soon.
In 1950, when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea invaded South Korea, the ostensible aim was to unify the peninsula. Under Communist ideology. It was exactly the aim of Syngman Rhee, the American backed strongman in South Korea; he too was for unification of Korea, but under Capitalist ideology. The Communists enjoyed grass-root support even in South Korea at the time of invasion and the only reason, at that time, why the peninsula did not unify was the intervention of the Americans. That was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then. Communism has collapsed everywhere. China, North Korea’s last hope, is Communist only in name. North Korea remains virtually the only Stalinist regime in the world, and, unlike the situation at the time of the Korean War, the Communist dictatorial regime has probably lost its legitimacy with the people of North Korea. But any hopes of it imploding, East German style, are premature.