Why does North Korea still hate us while Vietnam is an ally? This post explores this question and presents a human side of North Korea, its people, and its culture. It also views the North Korean conflict through the lens of MLK Jr’s historic Beyond Vietnam speech, which puts this conflict in historical context with other 20th century acts of US imperialism. Powerful stuff from Dr. King. A must read.
The Nation Magazine posted a very short but insightful piece that puts in bold relief the context of North Korea’s strident opposition to the US. Characterized as borderline paranoid in the US mainstream media, The Nation article presents a very different perspective, forcing us to view the conflict from the eyes of North Korea, a practice that is very rare in our media or, apparently, in our development of foreign policy. After the discussion of The Nation’s important contextual analysis, we provide a photo journal of North Korea, providing a human face to a country that is largely demonized in the media, and links to a summary of their land, history, and culture. This post concludes with a series of excerpts from Dr. King’s 1967 speech in which he put an end to his silence on the Vietnam war. Thanks to our friends at New Energy Economy, Earth Care, and Tewa Women United who are using this speech as an organizing principle to the Climate March Symposium at El Museo on April 29. Click here and scroll to April 29 for details on this tremendous event.
The Nation author, Juan Cole, was at a forum in Seoul with Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state for Bill Clinton. Talbott was of the view that North Korea was the biggest threat to US security in the world, like everyone else at the forum. Cole stated to the Forum attendees that: “We never put ourselves in the shoes of the enemy and attempt to see the world as they do.” Talbott then blurted, “It’s a grotesque regime!” In the article, Cole goes on to get at the heart of all that is wrong with US diplomacy. “There you have it: It’s our number-one problem, but so grotesque that there’s no point trying to understand Pyongyang’s point of view (or even that it might have some valid concerns). North Korea is the only country in the world to have been systematically blackmailed by US nuclear weapons going back to the 1950s, when hundreds of nukes were installed in South Korea. Why on earth would Pyongyang not seek a nuclear deterrent? But this crucial background doesn’t enter mainstream American discourse. History doesn’t matter, until it does—when it rears up and smacks you in the face.” Click here, for the full article as it points to a litany of commonplace falsehoods about North Korea that frame most Americans’ understanding of the country and the threat it now poses. Chief among the alt-facts, that North Korea has a history of violating agreements. In truth, as Cole points out, during Clinton’s presidency, the US negotiated to get North Korea to cease plutonium production entirely and even to sell its missile inventory to the US, essentially rendering North Korea harmless. Along comes Bush, his infamous Axis of Evil ,and the rest is history. But it was not North Korea that forced this issue. The article also neatly summarizes the interesting history between North Korea and Japan. A fascinating and very short piece, well worth reading.
I’d like to put a human face on North Korea before diving into Dr. King and his absolutely riveting interpretation of modern US involvement in Vietnam and our history of imperialist-driven interventionism. This photo journal of North Korea won’t give you a tremendous understanding of the land and culture, but it will humanize the people of North Korea and help you see their faces, their rivers, their cities, and their people. Click here for a quick tour. It will take a minute. In addition, if you find yourself lacking background history on North Korea land, culture, and history, click here for a dry, but factual recap. On to Dr. King.
The truly sad part of this 70-year conflict is that the peoples of North and South Korea have never had any real animosity for each other. As was the case in Vietnam, the source of the conflict between North and South is entirely international posturing, with North and South Korea as pawns in a very big time chess game between capitalism and communism. Certainly, over time North Korea has become increasingly aggressive and has become an international threat to peace. But as The Nation article adeptly describes, if you look through the eyes of North Korean there may be method to their madness. Put another way, ‘just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone lurking to the South with a raft of nukes pointed at you.’
The photo journal above depicted children at play or on a computer, families at water parks and along riverbanks. In these shots, you can see that much of what these people value is precisely what we value. It is good to keep that in mind with the drums beating and the swords rattling. If a war begins, the blood spilled will be almost entirely the blood of innocent people who have suffered enough. And while you can certainly point to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un as being unstable and provocative, it is wise to also recall that for 70 years, the US has continued to pit North and South Korea against each other for reasons that have zero to do with the people of either country. When will we men learn that conversation, cooperation, and compassion kill no one? Now, to get at the real source of this conflict and so many others where the US finds itself immersed, we turn to Dr. King and excerpts from his remarkable “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” brought to light this month as the speech is celebrating its 50th year. How prescient are his observations. Everywhere Dr. King uses the word Vietnam, just do a quick switch to North Korea.
Dr. King: “As I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.” And in North Korea, the threat of war has now loomed over them for seven decades or the entire lives of most Koreans.
Dr. King: “Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China — for whom the Vietnamese have no great love — but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.” And yet, the US’ fear of communism placed us on the wrong side of history and not for the first or last time, as Dr. King describes. In Vietnam as with Korea, these were once united countries, but the super powers viewed an arbitrary division as a ‘fair’ compromise, a compromise in which the affected parties had no voice or vote.
Dr. King: “What of the National Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists”? What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.” While not a perfect parallel with North Korea, consider that the US armed South Korea to the hilt, installed innumerable US bases equipped with nuclear capacity. Consider also the use of megaphones all along the border, blaring propaganda, messages that could travel 20 miles into North Korea territory. Consider during the Obama presidency the persistence use of cyber attacks to undermine North Korea’s development of missile technology, all referenced in The Nation magazine. Any one of these offenses would be considered an act of war if directed at the US.
And here Dr. King gets to the heart of the matter, the extraordinary hubris of United States leadership for decades and by extension of those of us who have not been effective enough in our opposition, to have stopped our imperialism. “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala — Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.” How prescient, how familiar, just add Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan….
Dr. King: “In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.” Dr. King’s grasp of the roots of our violence being in our “investments,” should not go unnoticed. It is our imperialism as expressed in wars, treaties, World Bank/ IMF loans, and other forms of enslavement that have allowed the first world to enjoy all forms of luxury, much of which is still largely unavailable in the countries we exploit.
Dr. King: “It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” And here we get to the core of what is wrong with US foreign policy actually from the 19th century forward: it is all about us; it never considers the rights, perspective, or aspirations of those other countries where we intervene and in our blundering use of force, with every bomb, with every attack, we create more enemies, more terrorists, more revolutionaries, and more hatred of the US. We must also note that American intervention is not limited to missiles and bombs, our economic dominance of the world is every bit as violent as our bombs and missiles. And in our hubris, we claim these acts in the service of freedom and justice. As JFK asserted, we make violence against America inevitable. And as Dr. King rightly notes, we must undergo a radical revolution of values.
Dr. King. “It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” In short, we have a penchant for being on the wrong side of justice because our terms for peace include our dominance and our insistence that the sweat and blood of our ‘allies’ serve and support our national greed. We may like our collective lifestyle, but it comes at a cost and we are not often willing to deeply examine that cost in the human terms involved.
Dr. King. “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Apply to much of the Islamic world today, to Cuba, to North Korea. We have much to learn.
Please share this post with others and look in your Inbox tomorrow for a parallel analysis of our struggle to address climate change, again through the lens of Dr.Martin Luther King. Our nation would be far closer to achieving its purported aspirations — democracy, justice, freedom, opportunity — if far more often we heeded our moral leaders than our political ones.
Paul & Roxanne