An image for our time: the two Koreas as one

What an image!

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Ri Son Gwon, chair of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (left), shakes hands with Cho Myoung-gyon, the Unification Minister of the Republic of Korea (right). This was at the meeting today in Panmunjom, in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas.

And again:

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Amazing start to 2018, sidelining the international players and getting on with their own agenda. The footage of the gathering (found here) is stunning in its simplicity. And I was in this room in 2015 when I visited the DPRK.

It is worth noting that while the corporate media is trying to spin this development as an initiative from the ROK, it was actually Kim Jong Un who got the whole process going with his New Year address. Instead, we have to look to news outlets such as the Global Times to get the story right, use the actual names of the countries and use the correct spelling for names. The same news item indicates the desire of the DPRK to move towards reunification sooner rather than later (see also here).

 

 

 

 

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Moving fast: Inter-Korean talks to begin soon

Well, things move fast sometimes. After Kim Jong-un’s new year address, the south has moved to welcome the opportunity for renewed talks to defuse tensions on the peninsula. The southern Yonhap news has been making some extremely positive noises about the move, with the presidential office hailing the move and urging swift steps to restart talks.

This is a further signal that President Moon Jae-in actually has some spine. It began with his recent call to reconsider (and potentially tear up) a semi-secret deal done between Japan and the previous conservative government concerning the sexual slavery of hundreds of thousands of Korean women during the Second World War. The Japanese have never made an official apology for the systemic organisation of what they called ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese army, with some – like Abe himself – insisting that all of them did so voluntarily. The Japanese have been keen to bury the issue once and for all and thought they had a deal . Not so now, and the Japanese are mightily displeased with Moon’s move.

This was actually an election promise from last year. So too was the offer to restart talks with the DPRK. Initially, the US responded to this effort by sending warships to the area and upping the military exercises in the south. The target was not so much the DPRK, China and Russia, but actually Moon himself. ‘Toe the line’, was the message. But Moon eventually returned to his theme, mentioning the Winter Olympics and his desire to see DPRK athletes there. These will take place in early February in PyeongChang. Not a bad move, since who can object to the Olympics? Of course, they are the banner under which more comprehensive talks can begin.

As for Kim Jong-un and his carefully worded and sober new year’s proposal for talks, this is also an an opportune time. The DPRK is now able to negotiate from a position of relative and greater strength in light of its nuclear development. And they know that Japanese-South Korean relations are at a low ebb. They also noticed that the USA had been systematically sidelined during Trump’s recent Asia tour. When Trump – the ‘master of the deal’ – offered to mediate between Vietnam and China, or between the Philippines and China concerning the South China Sea, he was politely ignored. Even Japan and South Korea, while giving Trump all of the due honours, refused to enter into any serious negotiations with him or his team. All of this is a clear signal that Asian countries realise that the USA is abandoning Asia, so they will forge on ahead without it. In this situation, both Kim and Moon know that they have room and opportunity to make an initial step to solving their own differences.

So when will the talks begin? The proposal is 9 January at Panmunjom, in the building where previous talks have been held.

 

 

The origins of the DPRK: From Division to Reunification

The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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