Forces and motives behind the never-ending Korean War and the division of the Korean peninsula. And a silver lining on the horizon.
An Assessment of the Situation on the Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.
Two Koreas, divided by the most heavily fortified border in the world, scarred by a war that is still not over and by U.S. troops stationed there since the occupation of South Korea at the end of World War II, and North Korea, still isolated and cut off from the rest of the world due to an almost total economic embargo imposed by foreign powers. How did this situation on the Korean Peninsula come about, and what are the prospects for peaceful change and reunification?
To find an answer, we should first look at history, starting with the southern part of the Korean peninsula. And since Korean history has been rewritten in the West, for example by the New York Times, this is also meant as a modest contribution to keeping it unchanged.
South Korea: from Japanese colony to America’s anti-communist client state
The three-year Korean War (1950-1953), the first “hot” conflict of the Cold War, sometimes referred to as “the war before Vietnam,” marked its 70th anniversary on July 27, 2023. Notably, Rhee Syngman, the leader of South Korea at the time, did not sign this agreement. Syngman only accepted the new situation after the United States promised him comprehensive economic, financial, and military aid. Syngman had wanted to wage war until victory was achieved. In this way, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), established on August 15, 1948, evolved into the quintessential anti-communist “frontline state”; the effects of which are still being felt today. There is still no signed peace agreement on the Korean peninsula. The Korean War has changed from a military war to an economic, diplomatic and propaganda war, in which instead of targeted military weapons against the North, it is mainly sanctions, the weapon of starvation, which hits an entire population quite indiscriminately.
Rhee Syngman was the United States’ choice to lead the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which ruled south of the 38th parallel after World War II. Rhee Syngman did everything in his power to keep this region of the peninsula staunchly anti-communist and to use it as a buffer against the North as well as the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union held the scepter north of the 38th parallel, which was initially thought to be an artificial boundary drawn by the winning nations of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union, to separate North and South. Moscow’s meddling in Korean affairs there was considerably less than that of the Americans in the South.
Extensive reforms were implemented in the North, especially in the agricultural sector, and all influential positions in politics, business, administration, and culture were taken away from former pro-Japanese groups and collaborators of the Japanese Empire (of which Korea was a colony from 1910 to 1945). In contrast to his southern counterpart Dr. Rhee Syngman, who was flown in from U.S. exile, Kim Il Sung represented a charismatic, people-oriented leader with incomparably greater legitimacy as a seasoned anti-Japanese partisan fighter in the North.
North Korea: from Japanese colony to a fiercely independent Juche-Korea
While Kim Il Sung punished collaborators with the Japanese, including the death penalty, Syngman Rhee did the opposite and recruited many colonial-era officers and officials into the ranks of his regime. “Even in the liberated homeland, those who used to serve as police officers during Japanese colonial rule painted independence activists as Reds and tortured them,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in later said of Syngman Rhee’s rule. Syngman Rhee was succeeded by dictator Park Chung-Hee, who had faithfully served the former colonial power of Japan as Lieutenant “Okamoto Minoru.” To satisfy his new masters in Washington and to gain economic support for his development plans, Park sent by far the largest military force after the U.S. into the American war in Vietnam. His soldiers committed horrendous war crimes there.
Following the establishment of each state – on August 15, 1948, the USAMGIK handed over power to the newly formed Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) government, and on September 9, 1948, Kim Il Sung announced the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) in Pyongyang – the sociopolitical tensions on the peninsula had reached a point where armed conflict was becoming more likely. With the proclamation of the Korean War, an originally social conflict developed into a civil war, from which an unexpected escalation dynamic of international proportions emanated.
From 1950 to 1953, 22 countries provided either combat troops or medical units to support South Korea under the United Nations flag, albeit under U.S. supreme command. Along with unidentified numbers of Soviet pilots, the Chinese People’s Army’s volunteer units (given that name to avoid direct confrontation between the U.S. and China) fought on the side of North Korea.
While foreign troops left Juche Korea in the North after the war, which insisted on independence, UN units and U.S. troops (currently 28,500 troops) have remained continuously in South Korea ever since.
And it is a U.S. four-star general (General Paul J. LaCamera, as of July 2, 2021) who resides as an outdated proconsul at Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. military base outside the United States, which is situated about 60 kilometers south of the South Korean capital Seoul.
General LaCamera is the supreme commander of the United Nations Command, United States Forces Korea (USFK), and the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC). South Korean forces are under his command in the event of war, which is a “piquancy” because it makes it difficult to distinguish between the domestic policies of South Korea and the fist pumping foreign and “security” policies of the United States. General Ahn Byung Seok, General LaCamera’s South Korean colleague and deputy, has been in charge since May 27, 2022.
This recently led French journalist Renaud Lambert to conclude in Le Monde Diplomatique: “Another relic of the Korean War (1950-1953): In the event of armed conflict, the South Korean army is under the command of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. No wonder it is often said that South Korea is not so much a country with a U.S. base in its midst as a U.S. base with a country.”
Korea’s historical misfortune
Due to the imperial great power ambitions of the two victorious powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, Korea had the historical “misfortune” of being divided in the region after decades of Japanese colonial rule, which ended with the defeat of Japan, allied with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, at the end of World War II in 1945. The new division also meant that on one side there was a South Korea, traditionally the rice bowl for all Koreans because of its many flat, well-watered rice fields, and on the other side a mountainous North Korea with very little arable land.
Separated only by a narrow strait from defeated Japan, where U.S. forces held sway at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula in the far southeast of the Asian continent formed a strategically significant military bridgehead. At the same time, it was the interface of the West-East conflict.
And the nation’s geographical situation, sandwiched between its giant neighbor China and Japan, which had grand ambitions of its own, had already become its undoing 35 years earlier when the insular neighbor subjugated Korea and made it a colony.
But Korea’s unfortunate path to the current status quo began much earlier, namely with the accession of the Japanese Emperor Mutsuhito in 1868. Japan underwent a fundamental change during his rule. Mutsuhito gave his era the moniker Meiji, which translates to “enlightened government.” He had effectively consolidated his power by the time the new Japanese constitution was adopted in 1890, about 20 years later. It stated: “The Tenno is sacred and inviolable” in reference to the emperor.
The Tenno, who had unlimited power, relied on a standing army with universal conscription to maintain his power. His central motto, “Rich land, strong army,” was essentially an instruction to increase Japan’s wealth by conquering foreign territories and exploiting their mineral resources and labor. After all, the Western colonial powers had never used any other method of colonization either.
In 1894–1895, the Japanese armed forces engaged in their first armed conflict of interests with China. The primary issue was supremacy on the Korean Peninsula. Korea was shaken by prolonged peasant uprisings in 1894. Chinese troops and groups sympathetic to China in Seoul believed they could take advantage of the situation until the royal Korean government asked Japanese troops to come to its rescue. The Japanese were only too happy to get involved because it increased their chances of gradually taking over the peninsula’s politics, government, and economy. For whoever ruled Korea exercised control over a country that had rich mineral resources in the north and extensive rice-growing areas in the southern part, in addition to military strategic advantages. With the loss of Korea as a tributary state, regional dominance in East Asia shifted from China to Japan. China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War was a catalyst for a series of domestic upheavals led by Sun Yat-sen and Kang Youwei that culminated in the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. A small but fateful detail is that the U.S. government sold arms to Japan during this first Sino-Japanese War and helped defeat China and force it to cede Taiwan to Japan in 1895.
A decade later, Japan’s army and navy continued to win the conflict with Russia. Korea was the source of conflict once more. By enlisting the support of Tsarist Russia, which had its own ambitions in the Far East, the weak Korean royal family hoped to balance out the growing Japanese influence in the nation. The victory of Japan over the Russian forces in the Far East demonstrated that the empire had now developed to become a great power as well.
Korea lost its diplomatic and state rights to overpowering Japan after claiming Korea as its protectorate in 1905. Japan installed the first Japanese governor general and de facto supreme ruler of Korea in Seoul. Formally, Korea’s subjugation to Japan took place with the signing of the Treaty of Annexation on August 22, 1910, after the weak Korean King Gojong abdicated in favor of his even weaker son. Thus Korea’s colonial status was officially sealed. Japanese military officers now held power, while Japanese corporations and banks linked to the imperial court fleeced the country and its people. Even though roads were built and the rail network was expanded, the occupying forces did not allow Korea to develop its own economy.
The first step taken by the new colonial power was a thorough land survey to determine who owned what. The colonial authorities set a deadline for the predominantly peasant population to report the location and size of their land to Japanese officials. Most peasants did not understand this requirement because they could neither read nor write. If they missed the deadline, which was the rule, they lost the land on which their families had lived for generations. The colonial administration then ordered them to grow mainly rice and deliver most of the harvest to the Japanese population. Although poverty and hunger were widespread in the country, Korea forcibly became Japan’s rice chamber. Peasants became beggars overnight and moved across the country or sought work in northeastern China, in Manchuria.
Angry Koreans began to protest, and mass demonstrations of independence movements occurred, which were violently suppressed by the Japanese occupation forces.
The Japanese motto “Everything for the Tenno” was also imposed on the Koreans. Accordingly, the Japanese governor in Korea did everything in his power to educate the population in the spirit of the Tenno. The Koreans were to become – literally – “good, obedient subjects, ready to make sacrifices at any time”. This included freezing the Koreans’ collective memory and erasing their culture and traditions. The more relentlessly Japan exercised its aggression in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 to 1945) against China, whose resource-rich Manchuria in the northeast it had already annexed in 1931 and founded the puppet state “Manchukuo” there, the more intolerable the situation of the Koreans became. Young men were now pressed into Japanese uniforms in droves; not least with a view to further conquests in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. However, upper-class and educated families who sympathized with the occupying power were proud to send their sons to Japanese military academies in Japan and Manchuria. In order to strengthen the Empire’s power and increase Japan’s wealth, more and more Koreans were forcibly recruited as part of the general mobilization for war in the Pacific and against the countries of Southeast Asia.
The Japanese government also turned the Korean education system upside down. Korean was taken out of the school curricula in Korea. Students were forced to learn Japanese instead. Public announcements now had to be written in Japanese, and Korean history was no longer allowed to be taught. Koreans were forbidden to speak their language in public. Even more humiliating for the people was the decree from Tokyo to Japaneseize their names. Numerous elderly people killed themselves in protest of the occupiers’ policy. They were unable to bear the loss of their names’ ancestry and family history. An example of this cultural genocide is Son Kee-Chung, the outstanding winner of the marathon race at the XI Summer Olympics during the Nazi regime in Berlin in 1936, who mounted the podium as a “Japanese” and went down in Olympic annals as “Kitei Son.” Son Kee-Chung was originally from the north of Korea. He died at an advanced age in the south of the country, and he is still considered a sports legend throughout Korea.
The forced name changes are not all. The country’s history has also been revised. For Japan and its servile guild of Korean historians, Korea was doomed to stagnation and considered incapable of ever becoming independent. Thus, the Korean-German research professor Choe Hyondok identified a colonial penetration of brains and hearts with far-reaching consequences.
Koreans are despised by the Japanese to this day. On August 6 and 9, respectively, the Japanese victims are remembered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the many other people who perished in the nuclear conflagration are usually not mentioned. These include all the Koreans who were taken to Japan as prisoners of war by the Imperial Japanese Army and forced to work in armaments factories, coal and other mines, shipyards and other industries in these two nuclear-bombed cities.
The great joy at the end of colonization followed by brutal disillusionment
There was great jubilation when Japan finally surrendered on August 15, 1945, thus ending World War II in the entire Asia Pacific region. This was especially true for the Japanese colony of Korea. As a result of the euphoric mood of optimism, popular committees were formed all over the peninsula, and nationalists, conservatives, socialists and communists who had resisted the dreaded occupying power in various ways or offered military resistance in guerrilla warfare got involved together. At a representative meeting held in Seoul on September 6, 1945, these committees took control of the government and proclaimed the People’s Republic of Korea, in which all social groups were represented. However, this short-lived government was denied international recognition.
General Order Number One was issued by American forces in the Far East in mid-August 1945 to coincide with Tokyo’s capitulation. This allowed American and Soviet forces to disarm Japanese troops in Korea. However, at that time, only the Red Army was present in Korea. While the war was still in progress, the two victorious powers had agreed to hold all of Korea in trust indefinitely to jointly oversee the demobilization of the Japanese war machine. At Washington’s suggestion, the 38th parallel was used as a sort of fictitious border during this process, with the Soviet Army operating north of it and the U.S. Army operating south of it in charge of disarming the Japanese and returning them to their homeland.
The 7th U.S. Infantry Division did not arrive in Incheon on Korea’s west coast until September 8, 1945. The newly formed People’s Republic of Korea government received no attention from the occupation forces, under the command of General John R. Hodge. Instead, the United States Army Military Government (abbreviated USAMGIK) was established in the southern part of Korea. It dictated what the Koreans should and shouldn’t do. The USAMGIK’s first general order instructed the populace to adhere strictly to its rules. The purported liberators ended up being stern occupiers. Nobody in the U.S. military government in Korea spoke Korean. Resentment among the populace increased when this government appointed Korean collaborators of the Japanese colonial administration advisors and heads of the new security organs. The People’s Committees in particular were a thorn in the side of the U.S. military government; they were considered an “acute threat” and “infiltrated by communists.”
Alienation, division and war again
When a Congress of the People’s Republic meeting in mid-November 1945 refused to dissolve itself, General Hodge summarily declared it illegal. Yi Seung-man, a Korean exile who had spent a total of thirty-five years in the United States and the years of World War II in Washington, D.C., and whose name he Americanized to Syngman Rhee, was chosen by the USAMGIK as its “front man.” The same man America flew into Korea as the nominal head of state was flown back to the United States by the CIA in 1960, when his career as a president with dictatorial powers who brooked no dissent was ended by his overthrow by the South Korean people.
Although he did not know the Korean post-war reality, Rhee, with energetic U.S. backing, advanced overnight to become the figurehead of right-wing forces – large landowners, aristocrats, state bureaucrats and security forces – who had previously unabashedly made pacts with the former colonial power Japan.
There were different developments north of the 38th parallel. The Soviet occupiers there mostly permitted the People’s Committees to function, but they favored a group of partisans led by the young Kim Il Sung, who had fought against the Japanese in the area near Manchuria and the Soviet Union’s border. The new northern leaders pushed through a land reform as early as the spring of 1946; this policy, according to USAMGIK staff, was very popular and won Kim great sympathy. Much to the chagrin of former landowners who saw no future for themselves in North Korea. They moved in large numbers to the South. Many of these people’s disgruntled sons applied there to join the security forces. Or, together with like-minded people, they founded paramilitary thugs who could go about their business unchallenged.
The all-Korean viewpoint remained unchallengeable in the North, where pro-Japanese forces had no chance of gaining a foothold in society, controlling politics, or controlling the economy. In contrast, the situation in the South was the exact opposite. There, an old and a new elite did everything to maintain their power and sinecures, if necessary in a partial state that they administered jointly with the United States. North and South became increasingly estranged, and the division of the country was inevitable when, after turbulent and by no means free elections, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed on August 15, 1948, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on September 9, 1948. The former saw itself as an “outpost of the free world in the struggle against communism,” the latter as a “base of the Korean revolution and a bulwark of national liberation.” The threat of a direct military confrontation grew more serious the shriller this mutual propaganda sounded. Following the Communists’ victory in neighboring China and Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic in Beijing on October 1, 1949, the U.S. intensified the Cold War.
After several previous clashes between military units on both sides, North Korean tanks crossed the 38th parallel demarcation line early on June 25, 1950, entered Seoul without much opposition, and moved unexpectedly quickly to just outside the southern port city of Busan. This was sufficient justification for the United States to back its protégé Rhee Syngman and launch its own military intervention. What had begun as a civil war for supremacy throughout Korea had now escalated into an international conflict due to the presence of the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, on the peninsula. On the southern side, the U.S. and UN troops from 15 countries fought under U.S. command. The north was supported by hundreds of thousands of Chinese fighters and Soviet bomber pilots.
Devastating record of death and destruction
From the end of June 1950 to the end of July 1953, the U.S. Air Force used napalm extensively and systematically against both people and the environment in the north. Cities, villages, rice paddies, and heavily forested mountain slopes were all affected; only withered tree stumps rose into the sky from the affected areas. Moreover, bombing of dams flooded rice fields and brought about famine in the north.
U.S. Air Force general Curtis LeMay, the head of the strategic air command during the Korean War, explained the Office of Air Force History in 1984 that “we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea. (…) Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population.”
To put that into perspective, the Soviet Union lost roughly 13 to 14 percent of its pre-war population during World War II. Poland, which suffered the largest casualties, lost around 18 percent. In other words, U.S.-led forces did to North Korea what war and the Holocaust combined had done to Poland.
The U.S. dropped more tons of bombs in Korea in 1950-1953 than in the Pacific during the whole of World War II. The result was described this way by U.S. General Emmett O’Donnell, head of the U.S. Air Force Bomber Command: “Everything is destroyed. There is nothing left standing worthy of the name.” U.S. air pilots, including Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, systematically destroyed all North Korean dams, bridges and tunnels during the Korean War. One of them was the large Hwacheon Dam. The destruction of the irrigation dams at Kusong and Toksan which provided water for 75% of North Korea’s food production caused flooding of agricultural land and mass starvation. The U.S. Air Force at the time reported that the “subsequent flash flood scooped clean 27 miles of valley below“; it also noted that the flood waters wiped out supply routes as well as villages, and it acknowledged that the loss of the rice crop meant “starvation and slow death.” Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Nazi Germany’s high commissioner in Holland, attempted to flood 500,000 acres of agricultural land in 1944, but stopped the flooding early after being warned by the U.S.-led Allied High Command. Nevertheless, he was hanged as a war criminal at the Nuremberg Tribunal for these and other crimes. During the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War,” the U.S. Air Force again bombed dikes, resulting in the flooding of agricultural land in several provinces. None of the American war criminals were prosecuted.
To this day, a 240-kilometer-long so-called “demilitarized zone” cuts through the peninsula. This is an unparalleled euphemism: In fact, nearly a million heavily armed soldiers still face each other there, including some 28,500 U.S. GIs in the south.
As if that were not enough, the United States is also increasing the number of fighter jets and aircraft carriers it has stationed on or near the Korean Peninsula and intensifying joint planning and training with the South Korean military. More joint military exercises, including more live-fire exercises, are also on the agenda.
Nuclear agreement with North Korea abrogated by Washington, and its consequences
From time to time, North Korea comes under the spotlight of international media coverage, especially when it tests nuclear-capable missiles. Of course, the media pick and highlight what they consider as particularly crazy, confusing and bizarre things. In addition to the tests, they depict mass appearances, military parades, a martial sister and, finally, a daughter of head of state Kim Jong Un, WPK General Secretary and President of the State Affairs, sweetly presented to the public.
At best, North Korea is uncharted territory, but typically it is referred to as a “rogue state” or “the last Stalinist GULAG.” Accordingly, the Western media refer to the DPRK’s dynastic leadership, which stretches from the state’s founder Kim Il Sung through his son Kim Jong Il to the current grandson Kim Jong Un: There is talk of a “dictatorship,” and the term “ruler” is frequently used. A particular thorn in Washington’s side is the fact that it is precisely such a regime that has succeeded in becoming the ninth nuclear power. Yet it was U.S. policymakers, diplomats, and “security strategists” who made the mistakes and lacked expertise in dealing with the DPRK that ultimately contributed to the growth and expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. At least that is the sobering conclusion of the Stanford study, “An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” authored by internationally renowned nuclear expert Siegfried S. Hecker and co-authored by Elliot A. Serbin.
North Korea’s ability to create its own nuclear program at all is not only due to systemic reasons, but above all to Washington’s aggressive quest for dominance on the Korean peninsula. In light of U.S. policy toward Iraq, Libya, and other nations where, in its view, imperial regime changes were accompanied by blatant violations of word and treaty, Pyongyang’s nuclear program is the most crucial form of life insurance. The supreme raison d’être of the North Korean nomenclature is and remains: If we are not to be respected on the international stage, we at least want to be ostracized at eye level. In plain language, it is a matter of mutual respect, recognition and appreciation. A Korean proverb says, “He who sleeps on the mat does not fall low.” This is not compatible with the imperial habitus of ruling everything from a high perch.
Washington’s exceptionally wise course had a good chance of success for a while. The so-called Agreed Framework, which included a protocol to ensure North Korean security, was negotiated in Geneva in the fall of 1994 to resolve the first nuclear dispute with North Korea.
When Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under U.S. President Bill Clinton, visited Pyongyang at the end of October 2000, a deal between the United States and North Korea appeared possible.
This was the first visit by a senior American government official to North Korea.
Two weeks earlier, Bill Clinton shook hands at the White House with Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, a special envoy of leader Kim Jong Il. The then number two in the North Korean nomenclature presented an invitation to a state visit and told Clinton, “If you come to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il guarantees that all your security needs will be met.”
Although there were clear signs of détente at the beginning of 2001, it ended abruptly after President George W. Bush took office. He suddenly began to view North Korea as a “threat factor in East Asia” and suspended all communication until U.S. policy toward Asia had been completely redefined. Beginning in 2002, Bush added North Korea to his “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq, and abandoned the previous containment strategy in favor of a new strategy based on “preemptive military action.”
Pyongyang saw itself challenged and feared for the survival of its regime when U.S. forces invaded Iraq, another member of the “axis of evil,” in March 2003. Since then, it has insisted on the “right to maintain the greatest possible deterrent for self protection.” It was a position that Pyongyang strongly reiterated when former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark told CNN in late May 2005 that he would “take out” the DPRK if necessary through “targeted nuclear strikes” in accordance with the then-existing CONPLAN 8022 planning concept.
North Korea had no nuclear weapons when Bush took office, but by the time he left the White House, the country had five or even more nuclear weapons as a consequence of his threatening policies.
Pyongyang wants to engage in direct negotiations with Washington on an equal footing and wrest a reliable security guarantee from it. However, the U.S., which seven decades after the end of the Korean War still maintains a substantial military contingent in the region, has so far categorically rejected this and demanded comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization, i.e. unilateral disarmament, from North Korea. A demand that is obviously outdated today. Moreover, massive pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons does not work, for reasons I have explained here.
The Bush administration’s tougher stance, with a tightening of economic and other coercive measures, caused Pyongyang’s reform process, begun in the early 2000s, to falter in the years ahead. America’s renewed hostility understandably made the ruling Korean Workers’ Party paranoid again, and I witnessed on the ground how the optimistic mood among my North Korean business partners, employees and many other Koreans was fading. The opening of the country along Chinese or Vietnamese lines again receded into the distant future.
The promising rapprochement, called “Sunshine” between the two Koreas, which I also witnessed firsthand and described in detail here, also came to a sad end.
A united Korean power center is another challenge Washington does not tolerate
Part of the overall picture is the fact that the U.S. does not want to and cannot tolerate other powers that could challenge it economically and otherwise.
Rising China is currently the most striking example of the United States trying to put down a rival with economic warfare and other coercive measures.
Or the strategy of preventing a functioning Russia-Europe economic area which the United States applied for decades. In this case strategists in Washington feared the enormous synergies between Russia’s huge reserves of cheap energy and raw materials and Germany’s outstanding technology, just as they (and Japan) fear a strong united Korea with a north rich in raw materials and a technologically strong south.
Germany’s post-World War II economic miracle, which had become an annoyance to its American rival thanks to cheap Russian raw materials, is now finally coming to an end. The former industrial powerhouse of Europe is weakening and deindustrializing for the benefit of the United States. Washington can rightly celebrate this as a fine success of its longer-term strategic policy.
Similarly, for seven decades, the U.S. successfully ensured that the Korean War armistice remained in force instead of signing a peace treaty that would have been an important step toward Korean reunification. New economic power centers in Europe and on the Korean Peninsula that would have emerged without Washington’s interference are seen as a major threat to U.S. hegemony, and Washington will continue to do everything it can to prevent this.
There is nothing to suggest that this will change in the immediate future; on the contrary, the intense economic, diplomatic, and informational warfare against a rising China, coupled with serious military threats, shows that the United States, fearing the loss of its global hegemony, is now adopting a much more aggressive and risky posture. The two Koreas need to take note of it.
Could China act as a peace broker and contribute to the reunification of the two Koreas?
The Chinese worldview differs significantly from the American one: Unlike America, which has tried to turn the world into a “free world” under American tutelage the Chinese do not want to turn the world into a “communist paradise,” not even their own country. Unlike the Americans, Chinese lack a sense of mission and proselytizing zeal, and besides, the Chinese system would be unsuitable for export because it is so specifically and inextricably interwoven with the country’s millennia-old tradition and culture.
When Chinese politicians speak of the “Chinese dream,” they mean national renewal and renaissance (and not communism). Socialism or communism with Chinese characteristics has failed, and the pragmatic Chinese Communist Party has introduced capitalism with Chinese characteristics, which works better for most Chinese citizens than untamed capitalism with American characteristics works for most American citizens. Beijing intervenes when the market economy becomes dysfunctional to make it work, for example by prohibiting cartels and monopolies to ensure fair competition or to make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes which it uses to reduce social inequalities. It uses the market as a competitive tool to drive innovation and modernization, and ultimately to achieve the Chinese dream. It also advocates the millennia-old concept of tianxia (天下), literally meaning “(all) under Heaven.” By this is meant an inclusive world with harmony for all. Or, to put it casually and understandably for the Western confrontationists in Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels: “We leave you in peace, and you leave us in peace.” That is why the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is so important to them.
So the Chinese don’t want to conquer the world. Unlike the United States, China will never have 800 military bases around the globe. If they had wanted to, they could have done it with ease in the 13th, 14th or 15th centuries, for example, when they were the undisputed and only economic superpower. At that time, when China was far superior to other countries, Chinese Admiral Zheng He sailed the world’s largest and most sophisticated fleet (with 317 ships and 27,800 sailors) on several excursions from China to Kenya, Somalia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead of pursuing a gunboat policy, the Chinese wanted to trade. Unlike the Europeans, they did not seize the opportunity to conquer and subjugate other countries (such as China with two Opium Wars) because they simply had no interest in doing so. However, the Western powers carried out extreme cruelties all over the world. For example, British colonial policies in India alone killed more than a hundred million people between 1880 and 1920, or many more than all the famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea combined. The fact that Chinese soldiers were historically at the bottom of the hierarchical Chinese society underscores the will to trade rather than to conquer, precisely because China, unlike Western nations, was not animated by violent expansionist intentions.
Today is no different: China’s goal is to regain its historic top position in the world in a peaceful, stable international order (in peaceful coexistence with other powers). Stability is the key to realizing the Chinese dream. This is where the U.S., a fundamentally unpeaceful empire, pulls the lever and creates the instability the Chinese so fear through decoupling, deglobalization, and tensions in Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. A divided Korea and tensions on the Korean Peninsula also serve U.S. interests in keeping its troops in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the neighborhood as a springboard for war against China and Russia.
For this reason, China believes that a stable and peaceful Korea is in its best interest. Therefore, it would not mind a pacified, reunified Korea, which would also be a great trading partner. And if Japan were to become more militaristic again with U.S. support, it certainly would not mind having a buffer between itself and the hostile island nation. But while China has managed to broker a peace between former enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, its peace initiative would most likely be rejected by the U.S. and could therefore fail in the case of Korea just as it did in the case of Ukraine, where the U.S. is itself a party to the conflict. Beijing, however, could find a creative solution to help resolve inter-Korean tensions and advance reunification without the United States, just as in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
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Felix Abt is the author of the book “A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.” You can find his author profile here