Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What We're Reading: Korea

Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea,
by Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Throughout the lives of an entire generation, certain areas of international conflict in the world have remained intractable. The Middle East is one area, Korea another, as events relating to North Korea’s nuclear provocations have so recently served to remind us. This is not an intimate and familial look at the long antonymic relationship between North Korea and South Korea so much as it is about the international nature of “The Unending Conflict in Korea,” and the role of the major world powers in both instigating that conflict and in tenuously containing it for the last 60 years. What this unending conflict has done to the minds and hearts of Koreans, both North and South, as the notion of brothers at war perhaps suggests, is not the story told here. This is, rather the history of a lengthy, politically imposed estrangement, one that has long been assumed would only finally be resolved by the reunification of Korea. Brothers at War presents a solid overview of the political history of the persistent face-off between North and South Korea as they battled over their competing claims for legitimacy in representing “Korea,” and it concludes, perhaps ironically, that legitimacy may now have little to do with the manner in which the history of this division is likely to be resolved.

Any survey that attempts to cover the 65 years since the Allied liberation of Korea from the Japanese, since it cannot conceivably cover every theme or event, will inevitably be judged on those events and themes the author selects, the treatment and balance those subjects receive, and the integration of those subjects into a unified and satisfying narrative. The early years in Korea, before the start of armed conflict, those years immediately following the end of the war when Korea was occupied jointly by the Americans and Soviets, are interesting. The history here is probably not well known to most Americans. Most accounts of the Korean War usually do not include much background to the conflict, starting rather with the invasion of the South by North Korea. Although Jager gives us some of the prelude, readers might wish for a little more here at the book’s beginning, as well as at the end, where recent events involving North Korea are discussed. The chapters on the prosecution of the Korean War are excellent. The author outlines the major events and has chosen to present a strategic and diplomatic history of the war rather than a combat history, indicating the fatal miscalculations, citing the thinking of major players in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. (Quotes and references are used sparingly but are well chosen.) This approach allows the author to address effectively the question of why the Korean War and the continuing face-off on the Korean Peninsula became, early on, an issue that enlisted the interests and attention of the major superpowers. Of particular interest here is the discussion of why China decided to enter the conflict, what Mao hoped to gain for China, and what fighting the United States and United Nations forces to a standstill meant for the international prestige of China and the domestic credibility of Mao's young regime. He was willing to pay a profligate cost for those gains: It seems that at least 100,000 Chinese soldiers were killed in action and maybe as many as another 70,000 to 80,000 died of wounds or other causes in Korea.

Although it is not integrated into the war narrative, the discussion of military and civilian atrocities and the ways that both sides in the conflict treated prisoners of war is a valuable contribution to our historical understanding of what happened in Korea. The memory of this among Koreans continues to be a source of bitterness. It is a subject that wasn't addressed in contemporary reporting or discussed much in previous books on the war, the exception being perhaps the public debate that followed the war in the United States pertaining to the “cooperation” that some American prisoners of war gave to the North Koreans by participating in their “brainwashing” and propaganda campaigns. Jager gives a short overview of the domestic political pressures that caused the United States (and the fledgling United Nations) to feel it had an important stake in Korea and also looks at the dissent that grew against the stalemated and costly conflict, arguing that it was an important factor in the decline of Truman’s approval ratings, his decision not to seek reelection, and the election victory of Eisenhower.

But certainly by far the most intriguing theme that Jager returns to, more than once, is a question that a whole generation of Americans has asked itself over and over again, that of how after the experience of Korea the United States could have got itself involved in what seemed a very similar situation in Vietnam less than a dozen years later. She notes the changes in the international situation and summarizes the revisions in strategic thinking and foreign policy of the major powers that occurred between the Korean War and Vietnam. The American involvement in Vietnam emerges as a fascinating story of how the pressures of domestic and international politics can cause a nation to unlearn what should have served as a salutary historical lesson. More plausible explanations of both what went wrong and what went right in Korea were ignored in favor of analysis that reinterpreted the history of what had occurred in Korea in an effort to support current policy and make objectives in Vietnam seem realistic.

The plight of small countries so unfortunate as to be caught up in the global conflicts among superpowers is illustrated in instructive detail in this story of North and South Korea, which shows us the cynical and self-serving nature of so-called international friendships and alliances between countries. South Korea was able to cash in on its relationship with the United States and begin a period of spectacular economic growth as it received millions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid in return for its support of the United States mission in Vietnam. But the United States also put the brakes on any ambitions that South Korea might have had to reunite all of Korea, and was often ignorant in its understanding of South Korean politics and critical of the county’s leadership. Jimmy Carter as president was ill-informed in his understanding of the situation on the Korean peninsula. Jager views critically his plans for a proposed reduction of U.S. forces, and she recounts his rather astonishing and condescending gesture of “outreach” to South Korean President Chung Hee Park . While meeting with Park in Seoul, Carter asked him about his religious beliefs, and when Park said he had none, Carter said “I would like you to know about Christ,” and proposed to set up a meeting between Park and a Korean American-based Baptist evangelist. Carter as a “private citizen” comes in for more criticism later for his self-aggrandizing role as a rather diplomatically obtuse intermediary in a dispute between the North Koreans and the Clinton administration over North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994.


North Korea, on the other hand, has long used international provocations to shake down its Soviet and Chinese allies, along with playing one off against another as it exploited the Sino-Soviet split. Both China and the Soviet Union have sought to avoid a renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula, and North Korean leaders have used those fears to extort a large amount of cash and other forms of aid that have served to subsidize their economically failed regime and keep themselves in power. The provocations in the DMZ and over North Korea’s nuclear program also help the regime to hold its grip on power domestically by manufacturing chimerical military threats from the United States and from South Korea. That has allowed it to keep its citizens in a state of fear and a sense of perpetual crisis, and to justify continued political repression. Jager paints a picture of a North Korean regime desperately hanging on, unable to feed its own people and unable to address its economic failure. The desperation may cause instability in the region, but it seems unlikely that China, whose interest and political hegemony in North Korea is growing, would support any North Korean military action against South Korea. Jager suggests that reunification is no longer in the cards as a final resolution of the ongoing “war” in Korea. The threat to South Korea’s economy by any absorption of the impoverished North is too great. The South no longer desires reunification, and the North has no international backing for achieving it. It is more likely that North Korea, if not territorially then at least politically and economically, will be absorbed into the neighboring regions of China. At one time that was an outcome we feared. Now it seems to be one we hope for as a means of finally ending the conflict and stabilizing the region. Brothers at War is a primer that will allow you to look behind the headlines of events from this region that are, undoubtedly, yet in the offing.

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