Monday, January 31, 2005

Reply to a Jane Galt post

Just came across today's post on Asymetrical Information regarding recent reports of deterioration of North Korean leadership. I started to leave a comment, but in my usual way I had too many words and decided a blog post would be better. Here I have more space. And she and her readers would probably not find my remarks either interesting or germaine so I'll stick with a link instead.

Interesting post. Reports of cannibalism have been seeping out for a couple of years now, with Japanese journalists doing a lot of reporting. I often wonder how long North Korea can last until it completely implodes. I read whatever comes along about Korea because my tour of duty in South Korea raised my awareness of the country.

I can see how M.A.S.H. can be viewed as a thinly-veiled commentary on Vietnam, but I don't think most people would put that construction on either the movie or the TV series. After having served in the US Army Medical Service Corp, in Korea, all of 1966 and half of 1967, I was entirely taken by the film just a couple of years later. I can assure you that the not-too-military attitude of the doctors that I worked with was not too far off from the M.A.S.H. profile. Many of those guys were in effect drafted just as I was, but because of their professional training they were made officers rather than enlisted men, with "professional" pay, "hazardous duty" pay, and whatever other perqs Uncle Sugar could manage in order to pursuade them to serve. It made for good medicine, if not good military decorum. I served under a Captain who could not get a security clearance because he was a foreign national. Had there been a need for him to access certain confidential documents in the safe, a Spec-5 assigned as our pharmacy tech would have to open the safe for him!

The point of my comment, however, has to do with the attitude of (South) Koreans in 1966 regarding the Vietnam conflict, and also the line dividing their own country. These two topics were connected in the minds of many Koreans with whom I spoke.

I was shocked the first time I heard it, but after hearing it more than once I began to understand that Koreans regarded what we call "the Korean Conflict" as the sparkplug launching the Japanese economy as the economic engine of the Pacific rapidly being manifest at the time. Japan was the staging area for a good many US (or UN, if you prefer - that being the putative authority for our being there, then and now) military needs. Uniforms, food, storage areas, docks and whatever immediate support was needed for the US participation was furnished, at considerable economic advantage, by the newly pacified Japan, just a few years following WWII. Even when I was there, I think we may have been receiving supplies from Japan; reconstituted milk, for example, comes to mind.

Whether or not, or to what extent, any of this is true is beside the point. It was the thinking of Koreans at the time, undescored by a hatred of Japan that defies description in English. Prior to the Second World War, Korea had been dominated as a Japanese territory from the end of the Russo-Japanese War, 1915. During those years, the Japanese had treated Korea in a manner reminiscent of European Colonialism. Korean children had to learn and speak Japanese in school, people were required to change their names to Japanese names, historic artifacts of the country were collected and displayed in a National Museum, constructed for the purpose. But Korean young women were also transported across Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese military, and their Japanese overlords treated Koreans with the same disrespect as Colonial subjects were by their masters. Again, how much of this is true is beside the point, although I have seen and read nothing to contradict the substance of it. That was the thinking of Koreans with whom I spoke.

At the time I was in Korea there were reported to be about 50,000 US troops stationed there. At the same time, interestingly enough, there were about the same number of South Korean troops stationed in Vietnam. There were so many Koreans in Vietnam that it was feasible for bilingual Koreans (Korean/English) to take assignments as translators in Vietnam. I heard reports of Korean taxi drivers going to work in Saigon in order to earn money to send home to their families. (We are witnessing the same phenomenon now, here, with aliens, both legal and illegal, coming to America to work, to live at what we imagine to be a "subsistence" level, while sending a significant amount of their earnings home to Africa, Mexico, Bangladesh or whatever third world country was their home. These are just a few about which I know personally from having employed them in my cafeteria.) And Korean soldiers assigned to Vietnam, of course, were the principle conduits of wealth back to Korea. In other words, South Koreans saw the Vietnam Conflict as their opportunity to flourish, in the same way that the Korean Conflict had aided Japan.

Regarding the DMZ and the division of their own country, it was clear to me that the notion of "Two Koreas" is a fanciful figment of the American imagination. My first reality check was in the form of a map, quickly drawn on a scrap of paper by a Korean X-ray technician explaining to me the location of Taejon. I had received a "permanent" assignment after a few weeks of OJT at the 21st Evac Hospital at Inchon, near Seoul. I mentioned that I had heard of Taejon, but I didn't know exactly were it was.
"Here, I can show you," he said.
Taking a piece of paper he sketched a line drawing representing an outline of Korea. Next he drew a line through the middle and said, "Here is DMZ..."
Instantly, I understood something more than the location of Taejon. I learned that in his mind the word "Korea" meant the entire country, not what I had been thinking of as "The Republic of South Korea." It was one of those "aha" moments for me. I remember it to this day. And for the rest of my tour of duty I never imagined that the Republic of South Korea was anything other than a temporary political construct, largely a creation of the American imagination.

As time passed, I came to the understanding that were it not for the US presence in Korea, there would be a good chance that the South might invade the North. Politically, we have been fed the line that a possible North Korean invasion of the South was the reason for the Demilitarized Zone (odd designation, since it is one of the most heavily fortified pieces of geography on the map). That may be true, but it is only half of the truth, the other half being that the South may have been just as eager to invade the North to free them from their Communist leaders. The degree of hatred for Communism in South Korea was only matched by their hatred of the Japanese. And their willingness to take a stand for their beliefs was as strong as anyplace else on earth.

Regarding the post to which I am responding, this is an operative paragraph...

...I've always been rather surprised at liberals and basically isolationist libertarians who concede World War II, but offer Korea as an example of a morally questionable war. Dear Leader is doing his best to turn the entire country into a concentration camp; how is it morally questionable to have kept tens of millions in South Korea from having suffered that fate?

My response seems off-topic. But I offer it as another point of view from the vantage point of an old-fashioned "liberal" and conscientious objector who finds all wars to be morally questionable. My own take on Korea is shaped by the tail end of a discussion I caught on S-SPAN about a month ago. Regrettably, I don't know who was speaking or what the occasion was, but the man was clearly well informed. He was clear in his argument that the main stumbling block to a political solution to the challenge of North Korea was none other than the Republic of South Korea. A visceral dislike of both China and Japan causes the diplomatic result that South Korea refuses even to sit in talks with those other two important players in their neighborhood, even to discuss a way to deal with North Korea.

When I remember how much the population of South Korea must absolutely agree with that position, it makes me question whether "democracy" is really what we want to prevail in this situation.


Anonymous said...

"During those years, the Japanese had treated Korea in a manner reminiscent of European Colonialism.... their Japanese overlords treated Koreans with the same disrespect as Colonial subjects were by their masters."

This is an extreme charge! Do you have any evidence that the Japanese occupation was roughly comparable to European colonialism, as opposed to being far, far worse? I suppose you could dig out stories of the worst excesses of European colonialism, and it might be somewhat comparable to average conditions under Japanese occupation, but overall I think you're far underestimating what was suffered in many, many Asian countries, and most of all in Korea.

I can remember visiting Singapore and seeing many remnants of British colonialism (the Raffles Hotel, etc.) treated mildly, almost nostalgically. I asked several Singaporeans why there didn't seem to be more resentment towards the British, and the answer was always that, after the Japanese occupation, the British didn't seem all that bad.

I'm shocked that you would argue that Japanese colonialism was comparable to, or perhaps even less severe than, European colonialism. In Asia I think that most would argue that there was no comparison - no one liked European colonialism, but the Japanese were far, far worse.

Anonymous said...

The South Koreans I've talked to aren't anxious for reunification, because they think that it will be very expensive. They're quick to point out the relative sizes of East and West Germany, and of North and South Korea. What they want is for North Korea to first shape up and start to modernize. Then, once it's on track and has achieved substantial economic growth, they would like to merge.

Delaying reunification will indeed lower the cost, not because North Korea is likely to grow economically, but because enough people will continue to starve to death each year so that there will be far fewer left for the South to support if they can just wait a while.

If you're arguing that the South Koreans are the main obstacle to reunification, then what do you think Kim Jong Il would settle for? If North Korea opens up even slightly, the people will find out just how far behind their "worker's paradise" has fallen, and they're not likely to be happy. I don't see how the North Korean leaders can do anything other than hang on until the bitter end, no matter who dies in the process. What am I missing?

Hoots said...

Thanks for your comment. And thanks for reading.
It was not my intention to argue Japanese vs. European colonialism. I stand corrected and I'm sure you are right. I know Koreans would wholeheartedly agree with what you said.
My post was meant to shift a paradigm regarding the way Americans think about Korea.

Hoots said...

Thanks again, this time to Anonymous #2. (It's hard to respond to Anonymous comments)
You, too, are correct about Kim Jong Il's position as well as the advantage of the South to delaying unification. Again, my purpose was not to "argue" but the shift a debate...away from saber rattling, in favor of diplomacy. If, when or whether there is any participation on the part of the South - or the North, for that matter - our recent engagements in Afghanistgan and Iraq, and continued murmuring about Iran and North Korea makes me want to advance the case for diplomacy over yet another preemptive military engagement or "regime change." Surely there is a better alternative.