Virtually all commentators on North Korea and its conflict with the US over Kim Jong-un and his late father Kim Jong-il’s quest to develop nuclear weapons have focused on the bizarre personalities and extreme brutality of both hereditary “monarchs” in their totalitarian state. Their goal to join the nuclear fraternity, however, has not been irrational. There is dramatic video evidence of the gruesome ends of dictators out of favor with the US, such as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, who did not have nuclear weapons or gave up plans to develop them. Kim Jong-un often refers to Qaddafi as an object lesson. Moreover, it would be an error to entirely focus on Kim per se without considering that his fears might also be rooted in Korean history and widely shared among the top leadership and citizenry,
Korea was a land with a long tradition of autonomy and a vibrant culture. When Japan colonized it in 1910, it destroyed existing institutions and even tried to eradicate the native language. The Japanese and those Koreans who allied with them―-predominantly the elites―-were despised. When Japan “lost” Korea after World War II, the US became the occupying power in the southern part of Korea and the Soviet Union, a late entrant in the Pacific war, in the north.
Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, was a Korean Communist and leading guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. The Soviets elevated him to power, but he was not simply a puppet. The US brought in Syngman Rhee, who had been in exile since 1912, to lead “South” Korea. He too was dependent, but somewhat autonomous. Korea was “divided” by the US, arbitrarily using the 38th parallel as the demarcation point, a line accepted by Joseph Stalin.
It was supposed to be temporary, but the Soviets and US, at different times and based on their interests, supported or opposed unification. Koreans of all stripes wanted one nation, with most probably also favoring rejection of any leaders tied to the Japanese and sweeping land reform in a country with highly concentrated property ownership and widespread poverty. (Land reform was carried out in the north in 1946 by Kim right after WWII, was highly popular in its initial non-collectivist form, but many of those who lost large estates, among others, fled south). Rhee, though a genuine nationalist, was a conservative autocrat and relied upon economic and political elites, invariably Japanese collaborators, to facilitate his rule. When resistance developed in the south, Rhee and his henchman used extreme brutality to repress it. The US did not object.
Eventually, the Korean War started. The northerners had wanted to unify what had always been one country. The US was content to leave the country divided. As the Cold War heated up, Stalin, possibly for geopolitical reasons, was finally willing to support Kim-Il Sung’s persistent desire to make Korea whole again. The north “invaded” the southern region of what was always one country, but Rhee also wanted a war to unify---on his terms. The US entered the war at a point when the southern regime was nearly defeated. Rhee’s soldiers lacked the morale of those of the north because the government lacked legitimacy.
The US’ extensive use of firebombs, previously utilized to great effect in Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, destroyed between 40 and 90 percent of every city in North Korea, killing perhaps 20 percent of the entire population. Dams were also bombed, which flooded railways, rice fields, and highways. Napalm was used as well, with more than 30,000 tons dropped. There were atrocities such as the massacre of 3,500 political prisoners, with US complicity, by the South Korean army; and a My Lai preview in No Gun Ri, where American GIs slaughtered hundreds of civilians under a bridge and blamed it on the North.
While awareness of modern Korean history is rare in the US, North Koreans know key parts of it. Though Kim Jong-un is 33, many who have been at the apex of the system are quite old and have first-hand recollections of a civil war in which America sided with Japanese collaborators and inflicted horrible damage to the North. Their trust of the US is low. Moreover, ordinary citizens, though subject to bizarre propaganda by the regime, recognize this aspect of the history drummed into them is fact-based. Virtually all living North Koreans probably had relatives die during the Korean War.
South Korea, significantly, has had, since 2005, a South Africa-inspired truth and reconciliation program which has largely corroborated North Korea’s perspective. It has examined, among other historical injustices, Korean War atrocities, primarily assigning blame to the American-backed regime and the US itself. Even if Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program is mainly for self-preservation and that of a failed system he fears might someday be overthrown by the US, through an attack, subversion if it loosens its grip, or by internal rot, North Korean elites and masses might also worry about US intentions.
In fact, the US, if rationality prevails, probably would be happy if Korea remains divided. If unified it’s estimated it would have an economy larger than Japan’s by 2050 and America has too much competition already. China too prefers two Korean states. Among South Koreans, enthusiasm for unification has diminished among the younger generation more concerned with maintaining economic growth at home than absorbing an impoverished population with an alien culture.
Since no one seriously thinks Kim is planning to use nuclear strikes as an offensive weapon to conquer the South or anyplace else, or make a truly unprovoked attack on the US, the best thing to do is once again engage the North in negotiations formally to end the Korean War, and with each party foregoing any attempt to subvert either Korea. Economic sanctions against the North would have to end, and aid begin. The North, at times, seemed willing to abandon its nuclear weapons program and entered serious negotiations during the Clinton Administration. But it has also pulled back. Both sides have blamed the other for the failure to reach an accord.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is President. His willful ignorance, impulsiveness, and megalomania, coupled with an awareness that bold military moves anywhere typically produce knee-jerk mainstream media and popular approval, make him more likely than other Presidents to take drastic steps and produce catastrophic results. Recognizing our historic role in creating Kim Jong-un’s psyche is a first step to the art of the deal.