July 27th is the 56th anniversary of when the United States signed a temporary armistice with North Korea to halt the fighting of the Korean War. Across the United States, five cities—Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, and Washington, DC—held candlelight vigils to commemorate the signing of the armistice.
The armistice wasn’t something to be celebrated because it only provided a stopgap measure to stop the fighting. The Korean War didn’t end with a permanent resolution, without a peace treaty.
But it was significant at the time in 1953 because within three years, two million soldiers, including 37,000 U.S. troops, died. Three million Korean civilians were killed (1 in 10), and the entire Korean peninsula was decimated.
A broad coalition of multiple generations of Korean-Americans, American veterans, and human rights groups came together this spring to form the National Campaign to End the Korean War. We are organizing these events to remember the tragic past, but to wake us because the U.S. government is “sleepwalking to war”1 with North Korea.
In a matter of weeks, North Korea launched missiles and conducted its second nuclear test and declared that it would consider sanctions by the United Nations to be an act of war. The UN Security Council passed a new round of sanctions against North Korea, including authorizing the stopping of North Korean ships at sea to search for nuclear weapons material, to which North Korea said that this would be a declaration of war. Leon Sigal recently reminded us that stopping ships at sea was the reason why the US once went to war with Great Britain.
The last time we were close to a full-scale war with North Korea was in 1993 when the Clinton administration was poised to bomb North Korea for its alleged nuclear program. Luckily the swift diplomacy work of Jimmy Carter (and the behind-the-scenes organizing by elder Korean-Americans) subverted this plan when he flew with the CNN crew and struck a deal with Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, which later yielded the Agreed Framework. Little less known is that then South Korean president Kim Young Sam, when informed by Clinton of US plans to strike, said that he would not allow a war on the Korean peninsula during his tenure.
Today, South Korea is ruled by a neoconservative president Lee Myung Bak who not only joined the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism Proliferation Security Initiative, but who has managed to reverse the significant progress made towards reconciliation and reunification over the past decade.
And in North Korea you have a situation where they are weary of US denuclearization deals, having gone through lengthy negotiations with Clinton and then Bush—and then having these scuttled by neocons. Most American policymakers and the media tote the line that the North Koreans haven’t upheld their part of the bargain, but can anyone tell me where are the two light water reactors promised in 1994? The problem with the false promises made by previous administrations is that the pro-engagement forces in North Korea have lost face, only further emboldening their hardliner counterparts who argue that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are its best defense. If we look to Iraq, in many ways, they have been right.
So here we are in 2009 with President Obama, who during his campaign promised to sit down and talk with Kim Jong Il and who inaugurated his presidency with an offer to "extend a hand" so long as those "on the wrong side of history" would "unclench [their] fist." Yet the Obama policy on North Korea thus far has been one of sanctions, and a repeat of tired old tropes about North Korea, many of which are blatantly untrue.
President Obama is refusing to learn from the lessons that Clinton and Bush learned the hard way—that not engaging North Korea produces bad consequences, such as a nuclear North Korea. Add to this scenario an ailing Kim Jong Il coupled with bad intelligence from pro-war forces in South Korea, Japan and the United States—and you have a very dangerous situation on the peninsula.
In 1949, veteran American journalist Anna Louise Strong wrote on the cusp of the Korean War, “In days to come, Korea will continue to supply headlines. Yet there is little public knowledge about the country and most of the headlines distort rather than reveal the facts.” Strong couldn’t have been more prescient, and thankfully the one to document the distortion was none other than the inscrutable journalist I.F. Stone. I just finished reading “The Hidden History of the Korean War,” which he was finally able to publish in 1952 through the Monthly Review as no mainstream publisher in the US or the UK were willing to during the height of McCarthyism.
In 1952, the publishers of the book wrote, “This book, by the distinguished journalist, I.F. Stone, paints a very different picture of the Korean War—one, in fact, which is at variance with the official version at almost every point. The reader will, regardless of his inclinations or intentions, find over and over again that he is forced to compare what he has been so often told about the Korean War with the facts and interpretations presented by Stone. More than that, he will find that he is forced to choose, to accept one version and discard the other, for the two are contradictory and irreconcilable.”
So here we are today in the United States where not only is current intelligence on North Korea dated, the major media outlets perpetuating the same old narratives, but the whole basis of why the U.S. has occupied Korea for over 60 years is still grossly distorted.
Most Americans, if they even know anything about the Korean War, believe that the US first landed in Korea in 1950 to “liberate” South Korea from a North Korean invasion and that Korea was divided along the 38th parallel after the fighting ceased.
For one, it was the U.S. that authored the division of Korea along the 38th parallel even before there was any such war. Then War Department officer Dean Rusk ripped out a page of the National Geographic and drew a line across the 38th parallel, keeping Seoul under the control of the United States. As many Korea historians have noted, yes the Soviets agreed, but Stalin never signed or made a verbal agreement; it was just a de facto acceptance. And the US didn’t consult anyone, no less the Korean people.
The US landed in Incheon following Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and for three years, installed a military government and put into power an elite of Koreans who had experience in the Japanese colonial period, in the police, military and bureaucracy. Think about that for a moment—imagine the millions of Koreans who had organized peoples’ committees and waited for this moment of independence from the slavery imposed upon them by the Japanese to be then “liberated” by the United States, who then replaced their Japanese oppressors with Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese.
But the tragedy continued. The Korean War, known as the “Forgotten War” in the United States was known militarily at the time as the “scorched-earth” policy, which was essentially a three-year fire-bombing campaign. Not only were more bombs dropped on Korea than on Europe during World War II, but also more napalm was used than during the Vietnam War. In Pyongyang, a city of 400,000 people in 1950, approximately 420,000 U.S. bombs were dropped—more than one per resident. At one point during the war, President Truman seriously considered dropping an atomic bomb on North Korea.
I don’t know what made me more sick reading IF Stone’s book. Was it the outright lies fabricated by Macarthur and Truman, the perpetration of these lies by media headlines, the fact that peace was thwarted at every turn by rabid anti-Communists hell-bent on war, or the blatant disregard by Americans for Korean life?
I came across this footnote which I must read: “On June 25, 1951, Major General Emmett O’Donnell Jr. commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command testified to the Senate: “I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name… There were no more targets in Korea.” So much for the attitude toward North Korea. What of the attitude toward South Korea? The authoritative British military publication, Brassey’s Annual: The Armed Forces Yearbook, has this to say in its 1951 edition: “The war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. As a consequence, fighting was quite ruthless, and it is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country. Its towns have been destroyed, much of its means of livelihood eradicated, and its few people reduced to a sullen mass dependent upon charity…Few attempts were made to explain to the American soldier why he was fighting… The national hatred and fear of Communism was sufficient in most cases to inflame him with a rather indiscriminate belligerence… It failed however to bring about any kind of sympathy for South Koreans, except, of course, in the thousand and one little kindness troops offer to children and lost dogs… The South Korean, unfortunately, was regarded as a ‘gook,’ like his cousins north of the 38th parallel.”
Now I can understand why the Korean War is known as the Forgotten War: The U.S.’ role on the Korean peninsula is a shameful legacy and as more and more information seeps out, I can see why the U.S. wants to keep things under wrap.
Well, it’s now 56 years since the Korean War has ceased, and its now been over 60 years since the U.S. has had some 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula. And we’re still stuck with the “official” fabricated narrative of Korea’s liberation, despite the opening up of democracy in South Korea over the past 20 years which has produced an outpouring of new research that gives us an even better understanding of the role of the Americans in Korea. Yet to disabuse the “official” U.S. government history with the peoples’ history often feels like wrestling with an 8,000 pound gorilla.
There are some days when I question why I continue to do this work for peace and reunification of Korea, and I imagine there are countless activists in this room who feel the same way. You read the mainstream media’s coverage of Korea and feel quite depressed about any prospects for truth or reconciliation.
But let me tell you. I’ve been an activist most of my adult life working for some semblance of social justice. And there is no more inspiring and heartwarming movement that I have experienced than the Korean people’s desire for peace, for justice, for healing and for their own sovereignty. I think about the villagers of Pyongtaek—halmonis and haddabugees, simple farmers who used their bodies to defend their homes and land from being demolished to accommodate the expansion of a US military base. I think of the elderly political prisoners I met in North Korea who spent up to 40 years in South Korean prisons, tortured daily and exiled by their families, who held onto their convictions about Korea’s right to sovereignty. I think about the movement in South Korea who struggled under the heavy repression of dictatorship and struggled for democracy. I think of the families from nogunri, cheju-do and countless other massacre sites before and during the Korean War—and despite all the pressures to remain silent—spoke up and talked about South Korea and US involvement in the massacres.
And despite my feeling very marginal here in the United States, I also realize how incredible it is that despite all the misinformation, despite the cold war mentality that my family carried with it when it left South Korea during the Park Chung-hee era, and despite the daily propaganda we get from U.S. media, I have learned the people’s history of Korea.
But trust me, I know it takes a lot of work, a dedication to studying, learning, and keeping an open mind and heart. And it takes tremendous courage in the face of being attacked, red-baited, isolated from your family to know this truth. And even more courage to be willing to write and speak publicly about it. But as many people in this room can attest, once you know the truth and the real history, you cannot turn your back on it. You are endowed with a responsibility to do what you can to challenge the official narrative and contribute to the healing.
Everyone who knows the true history of the U.S. occupation of Korea has a collective responsibility to act, and to act now. There are over 10 million families who are still divided, and millions of elders who will soon pass without ever uniting with their siblings. All governments (US, South and North Korea) are wasting billions of dollars on further militarizing the de-militarized zone, a pristine area that already is saturated with 1.2 million landmines. There are 22 million North Koreans who are struggling with the basics—food, medicine, electricity—and thousands of North Korean migrants who are being exploited now in their journey for economic survival. South Korean movements for workers rights, farmers rights, and reunification are being severely repressed under the authoritarian reign of Lee Myung Bak. As one South Korean scholar recently told me, “With the exception of torture, it is like the period under Park Chung Hee.” The Korean War must end, and the US holds the key.
Last December, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney said:
“One of the things that have bedeviled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War. A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Absent such a peace treaty, every dispute presents afresh the question of the other side’s legitimacy.”
We must end the Korean War by replacing the temporary armistice with a permanent peace treaty. If any president can achieve it, it’s Obama. And if any generation can make it happen, it is this one.
1 Hazel Smith speaking at a Grace Cathedral event in San Francisco, June 23, 2009.