How To Rescue North Korea

Anti-american propaganda painting from North Korea

A Chance For Reconciliation

I don't know many people who can look at North Korea's offensive propaganda paintings of the Korean War without becoming angry and upset. The above image, from a North Korean history museum, depicts sadistic United Nations (presumably American) soldiers using attack dogs to terrorize innocent Korean villagers.

The fact that North Korea's government pushes offensive propaganda like this helps to explain why so many people I know hate this regime. It is beyond the tolerance of my fellow Americans to be depicted in this way, and indeed we know our hometown soldiers would never do things like this. This is why there is great public support for "getting tough" on North Korea, and politicians who advocate this can please a crowd. We Americans don't hate the North Korean people, who we understand to be victims of a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship. But we do hate the Kim regime, and we support actions to confront and intimidate it as smart power politics.

It is actually a sad truth, though, that many horrible atrocities were committed by soldiers in many armies from many countries during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.

Why would anybody be surprised about this? The entire Korean War was a slow-churning bloodbath that killed 2.5 million civilians (through bombings, death squads, starvation, drowning, fire, death camps). History records that some soldiers of all armies that joined this horrifying cluster participated in war crimes and atrocities: South Korea, North Korea, China, United States, United Kingdom, Philippines, Thailand, Canada, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Greece, France, Colombia, Belgium, South Africa, Netherlands, Luxembourg.

So it turns out that some of the paintings that are labeled "offensive propaganda" may not be too far off from recorded history. We need to admit that what really offends us is not that North Korea is telling lies, but that North Korea is exaggerating and contextualizing some ugly truths, and rubbing our faces in them.

Just as Turkey needs to own up to the Armenian genocide of World War One (the nation still does not do so), many nations of the world need to come to terms with the disaster that left Korea a broken land after 1953. Open discussion and cultural exchange is the first step towards mutual forgiveness.

What exactly would a process of healing reconciliation consist of? I'm not sure, but I will look for opportunities for Pacifism21 to help make this happen.

A significant public gesture of global reconciliation would not only help North Korea, but would help us all. A broad look at the atrocities of the Korean War reveals that an unusual level of brutality was mutual on all sides, which means that the lessons we can learn from the war are universal lessons. The moral takeaway of the Korean War is not that any one nation or people of the world are more evil than any other.

The moral takeaway of the Korean War — and the relevance for this 60-year-old war today — is that a war-torn society will become a brutal dictatorship. The chokehold of the totalitarian Kim regime upon the North Korean people, which has been constant since the Korean War, is a predictable result of the damage left behind after total war is unleashed upon a helpless population.

Three weeks ago, North Korea announced (dubiously) that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. "Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves," said North Korea's bizarrely-worded announcement of the bomb test.

When I first read these arch words, I was confused who the ferocious wolves were supposed to be. I had to read the weird message a couple of times before I understood that the hunting gun is the hydrogen bomb, and the hunter is the good North Korean people. The herds of ferocious wolves are the United States of America and its allies.

Then I remembered the painting of the UN soldiers and their attack dogs.

It's obvious that the primary motivation for North Korea's hyper-military paranoia is that they see themselves as our victims, and remain afraid of us today. Why do we call Kim Jong-un "crazy", when in fact his crazy behavior follows naturally from the effects of trauma caused by leading a nation under constant military and espionage threat from the great powers of the world?

The first thing we can do to begin to rescue North Korea is to understand that the behavior we call "crazy" is the behavior of a frightened victim. If we want North Korea to stop being "crazy", we ought to stop the actions that are causing it to feel victimized.

When a small terrified animal is snarling and biting in a corner ... maybe what we should do is stop poking it with sticks.

Stop Comparing North Korea to East Germany

It doesn't help North Korea that so many self-proclaimed foreign policy experts and pundits keep betting against it. The idea that North Korea is small and weak enough to disappear soon has created an atmosphere of apathy about our relationship to it. It's almost as if we'd rather wait for North Korea to go away than make peace with it.

North Korea is widely considered a weak regime, ripe to be toppled. In 1989 the world cheered as Communist East Germany merged with West Germany into a unified Germany. This may seem like a good model for Korea, and it would presumably be a joyous event if Korea could be peacefully reunited as Germany was.

But this is an optimistic dream, and East Germany was fortunate in finding a path to calm reconciliation. The Erich Honecker dictatorship was allowed to step down without civil violence or violent retribution against former leaders. Many East German former leaders including Honecker were arrested and tried, but the punishments were not severe (Honecker himself was tried for war crimes but released for reasons of ill health). The fact that East Germany's larger government and military bureaucracy felt it had a viable exit strategy helped Germany's unification go smoothly.

It appears that the many North Koreans who make up the country's ruling regime — not just the Kim dynasty and the top leaders in Pyongyang, but the entire federal and regional military and civic bureaucracy — feels personally threatened by the idea of reunion with South Korea, and prefers a bunker strategy to a unification strategy. This is very unfortunate, but we can better deal with the problem once we understand the current national state of mind.

It's also important to understand that many North Korean citizens feel deeply devoted to their national identity. Strangely, this surprises outside observers, who may not understand the North Korean national psyche at all (for instance, many American news commentators were surprised to see Koreans weeping sincerely at the funerals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il). We must respect the North Korean refusal to see their embattled country wiped off the map without a balanced unification, and that would require much greater mutual communication and understanding than currently exists.

Therefore, it is dangerous to assume or expect that North Korea's government will soon either fall or fold. The nation is isolated, and highly dependent upon a narrow thread of support from its neighbor China. But that does not mean that the weapon-bound military regime is ready to fall, or even capable of disassembling itself. Yes, unification solved the problem of East Germany, but unfortunately few observers of the tough Kim regime believe that Korean unification could take place without violence or severe retribution.

East Germany fell smoothly because it was able to put together an exit strategy. Does the entire North Korean government bureaucracy in Pyongyang and throughout the nation have any exit strategy at all? If not, doesn't that help to explain Pyongyang's desire for hydrogen bombs?

No More Axis of Evil

One thing's for sure: a "get tougher" policy will not help solve North Korea's crisis. North Korea has had it tough since the nation was born.

We can expect better results if we try the opposite approach. To its great credit, the government of South Korea began leading the way in 1998 with its experimental Sunshine Policy. There were a couple of hopeful years, but sadly the entire world took a step backwards after September 11 2001. USA President George W. Bush, glibly and carelessly ignoring the vital regional effort at peacebuilding, called out North Korea along with Iraq and Iran in his infamous "Axis of Evil" speech in January 2002. This speech was Bush's first major foreign policy response to the September 11 attacks (which, of course, North Korea had nothing to do with) and the beginning of his buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War turned out to be a fiasco, and in fact the Bush administration's North Korea policy appears to have been a fiasco as well.

Still, hope can always be found. In the past year, we have seen global gestures of friendship and actual historic peace agreements between the United States and two other embattled nations, Cuba and Iran. The same prescription is needed for North Korea. As the country's nuclear brinksmanship becomes more extreme the need becomes more urgent, and good news on this front can't come soon enough.

My Father Recalls ...

Korea feels personal for many Americans — mainly because 34,000 American soldiers died there between 1950 and 1953.

My own father is a US Army veteran of the Korean War, a draftee, though he was not sent overseas. He served in the 525 Military Intelligence Group at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While I was writing this final piece in the Pacifism21 series on Korea, I thought to ask him what his perceptions of the larger picture of the Korean War had been, and what he had observed of general morale, during these Army years. Here's what he told me:

Our morale was as low as could be expected — we all wanted to be anywhere else but in the Army. No, we never gathered around a radio to listen for updates on the war — we all felt that no matter how well or how badly the war was going, our fate was in the hands of other people — namely our officers, who could decide anything they wanted about us, or anything their superior officers told them to do.

Basically, all of us were infantrymen. We had all gone through 16 weeks of infantry basic training. So even though we all had the additional "intelligence" label, we could just as easily be handed a rifle and be told to shoot it out with the enemy, if the need arose. And our officers made it a point to constantly remind us of that fact. That's another reason I was always so amazed that guys would volunteer to be shipped to Korea -- there was never any guarantee as to where you could be assigned. In the end, if necessary, you could always be cannon fodder as an ordinary infantryman.

The term "cannon fodder" comes up surprisingly often in histories of the Korean War. Many soldiers on all sides felt like cannon fodder, and this suggests that the military managers of the world's great armies failed in their jobs just as badly as the diplomats who created and enabled the disaster. One of several books I read as I worked on this study is a vividly angry and sarcastic history of the failure of the United States Army leadership in the Korean War: This Kind of War by T. R. Fehrenbach.

The (apparently conservative and pro-military) author of this book is angry about the fact that American society had gone so soft by 1950 that it couldn't put together a Korean task force or invading army that could get its thumb out of its butt. However, unlike T. R. Ferhenbach, I don't think a more militant culture is the answer to our problems. Instead, I think it is a hyper-military mindset that led to many of the mistakes and bad decisions that caused the Korean War.

Many historians emphasize the role that General Douglas MacArthur's ego played in causing the disaster of the Korean War. President Truman did eventually fire MacArthur, but it's dismaying to think that 2.5 million Korean civilians (along with millions of Korean and Chinese and United Nations soldiers) died because President Truman followed MacArthur too far before firing him. When President George W. Bush bizarrely began to threaten North Korea in 2002, it seemed as if we'd suddenly woken up to find General MacArthur in the White House.

Conclusion: Korea's Cosmic Flag

A few weeks ago, prompted by the news of North Korea's latest hydrogen bomb test, I began this series of blog posts, and began aggressively reading and consuming everything I can find about Korea.

I've learned a lot through writing several articles, and I've really appreciated the participation of Finn Harvor and Vince Larue, along with many who've engaged with me on Twitter and Facebook and in private conversation. I've discovered so much about the history of this proud society, and about the glimmering long history of the Korean people — the people who invented movable type (before Gutenberg), who exemplified Confucian religion at its best (and sometimes worst) for centuries, who carried Zen Buddhism (in Korean, Seon) from China to Japan and transformed it along the way. Korea's long religious heritage informs both Korean nations today; South Korea's flag bears a taijitu, the ancient symbol of yin and yang, and in fact the current South Korean flag is based on the Joseon dynasty flag that once represented the entire land. Here's an image of a 19th century drawing of the Korean flag.

Something eerie occurred to me as I was putting together this Pacifism21 series on Korea. I illustrated my earlier article on the history of the Korean War with a black-and-white image that showed the progress of the Korean War in four maps. I thought color would improve the image, and I must have unconsciously chose red and blue for the two opposing sides in the war. It was only after I published the piece that I realized I had chosen the red and blue of the taijitu on Korea's flag. But that's not the eerie part.

What struck me with surreal horror is that the actual progress of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 presents the classic motion of yin and yang, the taijitu, the Tao. Two opposing forces are balanced in a circle. Red expands and blue contracts. Blue nearly disappears but then recovers and begins to expand, and red contracts. Red nearly disappears but begins to expand again.

At the end of the Korean War — after more than four million unnecessary tragic deaths, accompanied by the unleashing of new hatreds among the survivors that still torments the region today ... after all this, the red and the blue had returned nearly to their original balance.

The Korean flag must be the saddest flag in the world today. Understanding the tragedies of the past is the first step to helping this troubled region find a way out of its nuclear-armed crisis, which has become the world's crisis. Let's stop repeating the mistakes that got us here in the first place.

Taking a hint from Korea's beautiful religious history, we can start by letting go of our tight grip on a book called The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and picking up a book called Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

-- Tao te Ching, Chapter 29

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