On Korea

Based on certain historical accounts, the Korean peninsula was first inhabited largely by hunter-gatherers and foragers of Mongol origin approximately 12,000 years ago. The first signs of sedentary civilization on the Korean peninsula emerged at around 6,000 BCE. For centuries, the Chinese would dominate the Korean peninsula in both a cultural and political sense, and Korea would assume a subservient role to China until the 20th century when the Japanese would establish a colonial foothold in the Korean peninsula.

            Before Japan’s colonization efforts in the early 20th century, Korean culture was largely ascetic and hermetic. Nevertheless, as Hans Morgenthau once explained, Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 20th century was part of a long-standing pattern whereby China’s protection of Korea’s autonomy would alternate with Japanese attempts at establishing a foothold in the Korean peninsula. Japan’s defeat of China in 1895 and later its defeat of Russia in 1905 firmly established a Japanese foothold in the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century. Only with the Japanese defeat in World War II did the United States replace Japan as the predominant power in the Korean peninsula.

Shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the Soviet Union would occupy the northern half of the Korean peninsula and establish a like-minded government in Pyongyang led by Kim Il-Sung in 1948. Soon after, in 1949, the United States established a like-minded government in Seoul led by Syngman Rhee. In 1950, the North would invade the South in an effort to unify the peninsula. President Truman’s intervention in the Korean War – despite claims by his top advisers such as Dean Acheson and General Douglas MacArthur that Korea was outside America’s security zone – had no clear objectives other than demonstrating the will to “deter Soviet aggression” wherever the president deemed necessary.

At one point in the Korean War, the Americans would push the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border at the top of the peninsula under General MacArthur’s command. Pyongyang, the capital of the North, was completely leveled to the ground by the Americans during the Korean War. Out of fear of an American invasion of the Chinese mainland, Mao Zedong would deploy a voluntary force into North Korea in order to push back the Americans to the 38th parallel.

In 1953, after the Chinese and the Americans decided that the stalemate at the 38th parallel would persist, both the North and the South agreed to a demarcation line at the 38th parallel that would hold up until the present day. Although war has ceased to break out on the Korean Peninsula ever since the 1953 stalemate and truce, the fluctuating tensions between the North and the South still has the potential to translate into the world’s deadliest conflict, on par with the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Pakistani-Indian conflict. There is no peace treaty between the two sides.

            At the dawn of the Cold War, Korea became one of the key geographical points of America’s “containment” strategy against the Soviet Union. Overall, however, Korea was a major distraction for the Americans, whose core objective during the Cold War was to thwart Soviet domination of Europe. According to Henry Kissinger, Korea was costly for both Americans and the Chinese, in the sense that America’s agreement to a truce and a stalemate signaled that Americans were no longer in the business of defeating its adversaries in an all-out manner. However, after the Korean experience, America would double down on its commitment to Taiwan, which in turn would set back Chinese efforts to unify Taiwan with the mainland by at least a century. Another major byproduct of the Korean war was the boosting of American military capabilities and the expansion of America’s global presence, which placed the Soviet Union in an inferior geostrategic position vis-à-vis the United States for the duration of the Cold War.

            But even after the Korean War, the Soviet Union would remain heavily invested in the North and the propping up of the North Korean regime led by Kim Il-Sung. For one, the Russians would spearhead North Korea’s nuclearization program, which took flight in the 1960’s. Now, North Korea is one out of only nine countries with nuclear weapons. Under the leadership of General Park Chung Hee, South Korea – with the backing of the United States – came under the rule of a military government as a response to the nuclearization efforts that were ongoing in the North during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Only in the 1980’s would serious efforts at democratization in South Korea be undertaken after General Park’s departure.

            Finally, in the 1990’s, the Soviet Union – North Korea’s foremost patron – would collapse, and as a result, North Korea would undergo a major famine of catastrophic proportions in the 1990’s. China would then assume its traditional and historic role as Korea’s superior in order to salvage the North as part of a concerted effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis at its border. According to statistics provided by China’s General Administration of Customs, 95 percent of North Korean “trade” is with China. In essence, “trade” between China and North Korea assumes the form of aid from the former to the latter. Theoretically, China’s stopgap measures towards the North poses as a safety measure against a potential influx of North Korean refugees into China in the event of a breakdown of social order.

American attempts at negotiating a reversal of North Korea’s nuclear program have also been inconclusive. For the most part, North Korea’s recurring missile tests are a scare tactic aimed at inducing the removal of international sanctions on North Korea. But under massive sanctions, North Korea’s state ideology has developed along the lines of an indigenous Korean concept called “Juche,” which translates into “Self-Reliance.” As a result, no amount of money or sanctions relief would change North Korea’s foremost strategic objective, which is to overcome international pressure over its nuclear weapons program and seize full control over the Korean peninsula. In reality, neither the North nor the South has relented in their respective efforts to unify the Korean peninsula based on their own terms, which has led to the stagnation of both reconciliation efforts as well as efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

            South Korea’s economy is shaped largely by the preponderance of major international conglomerates known as “chaebols.” Approximately 50 percent of South Korea’s wealth is owned by just three “chaebols.” Due to a dearth of economic opportunities in their native country, Koreans migrate to the United States on a regular basis. Los Angeles is now the city with the largest Korean population outside of Seoul. Due to the massive economic inequities resulting from the preponderance of just a handful of “chaebols” over the South Korean economy, major protests led by the South Korean youth broke out in 2017 over the issues of corruption and inequality. In turn, the protests would shed light on the corruption emanating from the office of South Korea’s president at the time, Park Geun Hee, who is the daughter of the legendary General Park Chung Hee.

            Apparently, Park Geun Hee was in cahoots with certain “chaebols” who were stalling economic reforms through bribery. This would lead to the arrest of Park Geun Hee, and in 2018 Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Shortly after the 2017 protests, Moon Jae-In would become South Korea’s president after winning elections based on a left-of-center platform. Aside from promising major economic reforms, Moon also proposed the reinstitution of a foreign policy initiative known as the “Sunshine Policy,” which is aimed at fostering a reconciliatory spirit towards the North. To an extent, Moon’s orientation towards the “Sunshine Policy” stems from his family’s links to the North.

            Moon’s pursuit of a “Sunshine Policy” would coincide with President Donald Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea beginning in 2018, which were of no avail given that North Korea would not budge on its nuclear program as long as American troops were stationed in South Korea. North Korea’s condition for denuclearization has long been the removal of US troops from South Korea, which is why the situation is unlikely to change significantly on the Korean peninsula in the near future. It is also important to note that aside from its nuclear program, North Korea has the world’s largest standing army.

            However, an issue that is perhaps more urgent than North Korea’s nuclear program has emerged on the Korean peninsula in recent months and days, which is the coronavirus outbreak. Although South Korea’s initial response to the coronavirus in the Spring of 2020 was swift and decisive, the nation has been unable to fully quash the virus, and as a result South Korea has gone through two successive waves since the spring. After cases peaked in South Korea in March, there was a major lull in cases mid-summer until a second peak in cases late summer. However, after a lull in the fall season, cases in South Korea have peaked yet again this month. Virtually everything, including matters pertaining to war and peace, economics, and diplomacy have been vexed by the coronavirus.

            Brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula, as well as in other places, has largely been confounded by concerns relating to the coronavirus. Whether this pandemic has veered the world off a course that was unsustainable is yet to be determined. After this pandemic ends, perhaps the world will resume its unsustainable course of action. Or perhaps the economic and social downturn resulting from the coronavirus is comparatively worse than the course of action before the pandemic. No one knows for sure. Nevertheless, it is completely within the bounds of reason to suggest that there will be an uptick of global disorder and social turmoil in the coming years before there are substantial efforts made at fostering global order, peace, and stability.

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