U.S. Foreign Policy and Korean Self-Determination

Terry Murphy

Posted March 31, 2008

Korea: Division, Reunification and U.S. Foreign Policy
by Martin Hart-Landsberg
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998)
266 pages, $18 paperback.

THE INCOMING BUSH administration’s appointment of figures associated with hard-line attitudes toward so-called “rogue states” are a signal that U.S.-North Korean relations will again be allowed to deteriorate. With the promotion of the Missile Defense Shield, the whole of the Northeast Asian region is thereby threatened with instability. And yet just a few short months ago, this would have seemed an unlikely scenario, with newspapers reporting on the possibility of a visit by Bill Clinton to Pyongyang to close out his presidency.

The year 2000 proved to be an immensely important year on the Korean peninsula. In June, the first summit between the two leaders of the divided nation, Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, took place. In November, Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the North since the Korean War.

Finally, in December, the South Korean leader, Kim Dae-jung, accepted the Nobel Prize for his work on behalf of peace, democracy and reunification. Given these momentous events, it would have been easy for the causal TV viewer watching Albright shake Kim Jong-il’s hand or seeing Kim Dae-jung claim his prize to assume that Korean unification was now a strong likelihood.

Martin Hart-Landsberg’s recent book, Korea: Division, Unification and American Foreign Policy is thus an important contribution to the political understanding of Korea at a potentially crucial period in its history. For Hart-Landsberg’s basic premise is that reunification, though entirely possible, will neither be easy nor without problems. The central reason for Landsberg’s argument is that one of the major actors in the drama, the United States, has historically been opposed to a democratic solution of the Korean national question.

Hart-Landsberg’s new book is his second major work on Korea. His first book, a critical study of the “Miracle on the Han River,” The Rush to Development: Economic Change and Political Struggle in South Korea, was previously published by Monthly Review Press in 1993. His new book is not a work of fresh scholarship, and it is unclear from the book or its index whether Hart-Landsberg reads Korean. Nevertheless, it is an exciting, densely argued and, to my mind, mostly convincing contribution to a debate still obscured by State Department propaganda and disinformation.

The book’s early chapters offer an effective historical synthesis of the political events that led to the outbreak of war in June 1950, drawing on previous left scholarship on Korea including that of Bruce Cumings and Jon Halliday, Stewart Lone and Gavan McCormack, W.G. Beasley, and Howard Zinn as well as more mainstream revisionist Korea scholars such as Bong-youn Choy and Carter Eckert.

The second half of the book makes an original contribution to the debate on Korean unification by discussing the separate historical evolutions of North and South Korea and examining a possible Korean parallel with the process of German reunification. This portion of the book begins with a useful and balanced discussion of North Korean development, including the U.S.-North Korean military rivalry.

The chapter devoted to North Korea provides a useful and chronological context for what is often presented in the Western media as meaningless North Korean action, including the forms of terrorism it practiced briefly in the 1980s. Hart-Landsberg suggests that North Korea’s current economic difficulties are likely to lead to a continuation of the Personality Cult around Kim Jong-il, a situation that has served to distort contemporary discussions about Korean socialism, “leaving North Koreans at a political as well as an economic crossroads.” (166)

In the light of this political impasse, he discusses the North’s efforts to exhort workers through various, mostly moral, incentives and examines the evolution of North Korea’s major economic projects. These include the efforts to create an economic free trade zone in the Rajin-Sonbong area and North Korean participation in the Tumen River Project, both of which implicitly undermine the official ideology of national self-reliance.

Nevertheless, Hart-Landsberg notes the continuing distrust of “free market solutions” among the North Korean leaders, who compare their situation favorably with that of Russia in the 1990s, citing the fact that the Russian economy has done worse by opening up more fully to foreign capital. The principal omission in the chapter is a discussion of current North Korean views about its developing relations with Russia, China and the “non-aligned countries” to counter U.S. pressure.

Hart-Landsberg’s concluding chapter, contrasting governmental and critical non-governmental routes for a democratic Korean unification process, is also useful. His stated (but unfortunately undeveloped) thesis is that a union of middle class and working class interests holds the key to a popular movement for unification in South Korea: Such a union would bring together a middle class citizens’ movement that “understands the importance of democratic, decentralized decision-making” and a labor movement that “understands the importance of organizational discipline and collective action.” (228)

While it is possible to fault this on the grounds that the contemporary citizens’ movement, certainly at election time, operates largely within the political orbit of the Kim Dae-jung government, it is nevertheless salutary to read a Western writer who is considering such possibilities.

More importantly, Hart-Landsberg provides a solid framework of argument and evidence for evaluating South Korea’s official reunification policy. As he suggests, “South Korea’s reunification strategy is designed to maintain maximum economic and political pressure on the North, in hopes of precipitating its collapse.” (220)

In this respect, Kim Dae-jung has not departed from this “basic structure of previous South Korean initiatives, all of which [have] demanded that cultural, social and economic exchanges take place before the start of negotiations to settle political and military issues.” (221)

Hart-Landsberg demonstrates the inadequacy of this approach in suggesting the need for a dialectical linking of progress toward both democracy and reunification in South Korea: “Educators, for example, should strive to show those who support educational reform that their efforts will always be bounded as long as national security concerns are used to limit what scholars can study and teachers teach. For labor activists, likewise, workplace democracy will always be frustrated as long as national security concerns are used to limit worker organizing and collective action.” (234)

An analysis like this clearly demonstrates the relevance of campaigns to repeal the National Security Law, first invoked to crush the leftist Cheju Island and Yosu Rebellions of 1948 and subsequently used against virtually all movements for democratic and working class change in South Korea. The weakness of Kim Dae-jung’s efforts to get rid of the National Security Law is further evidence of the need for progressive forces to operate independently of this former dissident.

It is obviously not possible to do justice to all the book’s arguments in a review such as this one. For this reason, this discussion will confine itself to two principal issues. (1) Since most readers will have a basic knowledge of the events of the Korean War, I will rehearse the substantial argument that Hart-Landsberg makes for U.S. opposition to Korean self-determination before the outbreak of the war in June 1950, within the wider context of inter-imperialist rivalry in Northeast Asia. (2) The review will then conclude with a discussion of the current strategic thinking of the American administration concerning the Korean peninsula.

In his introduction, Hart-Landsberg sets out the basic premises of his argument for believing the United States will not support the rapid unification of the two Koreas. The author maintains that in the post-Cold War world, Northeast Asia has assumed a new strategic importance in the global military-political thinking of US foreign policy-makers.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, foreign policy specialists needed to come up with some plausible new enemies in order to continue justifying Cold War-level American military spending. The justification for this new policy was duly provided in Les Aspin’s The Bottom-Up Review: Forces for a New Era, a document released by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1993.

In this document, the DOD argued for the necessity of the U.S. military being able to wage two simultaneous regional conflicts against mid-sized Third World countries. The two countries cited in the report as likely candidates for war were Iraq and North Korea.

Since the Gulf War of January 1991, the United States has maintained a crushing economic and military embargo on Iraq, resulting in extraordinary levels of human suffering and avoidable deaths. From around the same time, key foreign policy specialists began to portray North Korea as a “rogue nation” and a purveyor of “weapons of mass destruction.”

The politico-military logic of this heightened rhetoric was extraordinary dangerous. Its upshot was a visible deterioration in U.S.-North Korean relations from around the time of German unification in 1990 that came very close to setting off actual military conflict between two nations in 1994. The situation was only cooled off by the visit of Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang as a belated peacemaker in June 1994, an event that led to the signing of the Agreed Framework, setting limits on the North Korean production of plutonium.

From 1994 to the end of the Clinton presidency, the United States backed off from this rhetoric of brinkmanship, settling instead for the alternative policy of limited engagement with the North. Limited engagement with North Korea is the second of the “two paths” set out in the non-classified portion of the Perry Report of 1999.

The Perry Report, undertaken to clarify U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula in the wake of the events of 1994, helps to explain the recent thaw in US-North Korean relations, including the visit of Madeline Albright to meet with Kim Jong-il late last year. The implicit hostility of George W. Bush to the prospects of a meeting with Kim Jong-il demonstrates that once again the rhetoric of brinkmanship has gained the upper hand in the White House.

As Hart-Landsberg argues, this oscillation in policy results from real divisions within U.S. government circles over attitudes to adopt towards North Korea. A concrete illustration of this was the palpable difference in tone between Colin Powell and George W. Bush in discussing North Korea in the early weeks of the new administration’s term, with Bush correcting Powell’s conciliatory words about North Korea with more guarded, hawkish language of his own.

On the downside, this inconsistency clearly contains the danger of renewed conflict. Yet as Hart-Landsberg explains, this same inconsistency also allows popular pressure to be brought to bear on U.S. foreign policy makers. In the United States, Hart-Landsberg suggests, people should find ways “to pressure the U.S. government to pursue a more independent and balanced policy towards North Korea, including ending war games (which continue even though Team Spirit has ended), signing a peace treaty, withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea, and normalizing economic and political relations.” (233-34)

The aim of this popular pressure is to forge a new U.S. foreign policy for the region, “one that is dedicated to creating an environment where Koreans can freely and peacefully begin erasing the `imaginary line’ [of national division] that continues to cause so much harm and suffering.” (16)

The Context of Inter-Imperialist Rivalry

As Korea: Division, Reunification and U.S. Foreign Policy makes clear, U.S. strategic interest in Korea did not begin or end with the Korean War. Indeed, to put it more finely, the belief that the U.S. strategic interest in Korea begins only with the outbreak of the Korean War is the central ideological prop of the U.S. State Department and its allies, preventing widespread public understanding of the real interests and actions of the United States in Northeast Asia.

In a powerfully argued pair of opening chapters, the author attempts to counter this ignorance by placing the much longer history of U.S. corporate and military designs on Korea and of Korean resistance to this design within a broader framework of inter-imperialist relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

If U.S. citizens know anything of the history of U.S.-Korean relations, it is likely something along the lines laid down in this 1960 State Department briefing:

“At the moment of liberation [from Japanese colonialism] the United States, as one of the occupying powers, looked forward to cooperation with its allies and the Korean people in the creation of a new Korea-united, democratic, and free of all foreign domination. This purpose, which has also been that of the United Nations, has only been partially achieved . . . . [T]he people of South Korea, under UN observation, freely chose their representatives and successfully established a democratic republic. The people of the North, to whom the Communist occupying power denied the free expression of their own will, were instead forced to establish a rival regime which subsequently launched an unprovoked surprise attack on the South. At great cost of life and property, this aggression was repelled by UN action; and unceasing efforts have been made by the United Nations and its members since that time to realize the continuing aspirations of the Korean people for unity in a single, free, and independent nation.” (9)

It is in opposition to this bland summary of imperial designs masked as altruism and benign intervention that Hart-Landsberg has written his book.

As Hart-Landsberg explains, the first attempts of the United States to establish contact with Korea took place in the mid-nineteenth century. In a context in which the whole of East Asia was being forcibly opened up to the West, it is not surprising that these initial contacts were marked by fear and hostility on the part of the Koreans and violence on the part of the Americans.

The General Sherman, the earliest U.S. naval expedition seeking to establish contact with Korea, sailed up the Taedong River to Pyongyang in 1866, with hostile crowds meeting the ship along the way. After the U.S. sailors fired on the crowds that had gathered on the shore, the ship was burned and its crew beheaded.

A second expedition, sent five years later to punish the Koreans for the first incident, was also unsuccessful in attempting to make official contact with the Korean government. The only outcome of this second brief encounter was the destruction by U.S. forces of five Korean forts and the wounding or killing of 350 local people.

As Hart-Landsberg explains, these two abortive expeditions to Korea were merely a small part of the overall early foreign policy of the United States, centrally focused elsewhere. This policy “was guided consistently by the aim of westward expansion, a policy that left U.S. forces to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans; prop up an undemocratic Chinese government; force open Japanese ports; annex Hawaii; and colonize Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Korea escaped Japan’s fate only because its economic value was not considered great enough to sustain U.S. interest.” (23)

By the early 1890s, however, there was a second reason for stemming a strong U.S. interest in Korea, de<->spite the U.S. push into Southeast Asia and China. This was the emergence of a set of basic imperialist spheres of influence.

The early push of the United States had been concentrated on Southeast Asia, confirmed by the waging of the Spanish-American War in 1898. In places where it could enforce its commercial prerogatives through gunboat diplomacy such as in the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam, the U.S. policy favored exclusion of its major imperial rivals, namely Britain, Russia, Germany and Japan.

In China, on the other hand, viewed by all the great powers as the major prize, the United States sought accommodation for its own interests alongside those of the other powers through the ideology of the “open door.” Under this scheme, all the great powers would benefit from agreements that any one of them happened to sign with China, to the detriment of the Chinese alone.

In Northeast Asia, however, the United States adopted a policy of support for the imperial claims of Japan in relation to its East Asian neighbors, including its nearest neighbor, Korea. This policy was designed to counter the ambitions of Russia in the Northeast Asian region, which was seen as a greater rival to U.S. global ambitions. The same basic view of Russo-Japanese rivalry was shared by Britain.

In consequence of its rapid victory over the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the Japanese regime began to tighten its grip on Korea. Initially, Japan merely stationed troops in Korea under the pretext of protecting Japanese commercial interests. In both the United States and Britain, the imperial claims of the Japanese to justify their presence in Korean and Manchuria found a ready echo in Asian specialists who were ready to welcome the Japanese as honorary members of the imperial club.

The rapid victory of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 consolidated the basic pattern of inter-imperialist rivalry and cooperation.
Britain had already moved to welcome Japan to the informal imperial club, by signing the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance in 1902. This support from the British obviously encouraged the Japanese in their territorial ambitions.

In July 1905, following the Japanese victory over the Russians, the United States signed the secret Taft-Katsura Memorandum, outlining a basic understanding of mutual U.S.-Japanese interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the terms of the Memorandum, Washington agreed to recognize Japanese claims over Korea and Manchuria in return for Japan’s recognition of U.S. supremacy in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, both nations would share in the spoils of the greatest prize of all, China.

One of the consequences of the resulting Ports<->mouth Peace Conference, organized by the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to end the war between Japan and Russia, was the diplomatic acceptance of Japan’s rights over Korea. Annexation duly followed, with formal Korean independence being extinguished on August 22, 1910. (It is one of the curious but telling facts of history that the Nobel Peace Prize, so recently celebrated as an occasion for national pride in Korea, was thus awarded to a US President for an agreement that heralded the formal annexation of Korea by Japan.)

Between the signing of a second agreement between the United States and Japan in 1908 and the recognition of the Soviet Union by the U.S administration in 1933, however, this basic U.S.-Japanese inter-imperialist balance deteriorated significantly. The major reason was the continued encroachment by the Japanese on Chinese territory, principally in Manchuria.

The first moves against the basic settlement issuing from the Russo-Japanese War was Japan’s seizure of German property in China in 1914 and the presentation of its infamous 21 Points to the Chinese government a year later, while the Western powers were tied up with the European war. Although the Versailles Peace Treaty formally acknowledged the gains of its Asian ally, the Western imperial powers soon set to work to curb the growing appetite of Japan for Chinese territory and concessions.

The Washington Conference of 1921-22, organized by the United States, was designed to curb this growing Japanese appetite by setting limits to the total tonnage of the guns and ships of the major imperial powers, in a ratio that favored the United States and Britain. Another treaty, dealing with social and political concerns, had as a central provision a pledge on the part of nine nations, including both the United States and Japan, <169>not to support any agreements . . . designed to create spheres of influence<170> in China. (31)

In September 1931, however, Japan decided to consolidate its hold over Manchuria to demonstrate to the Chiang Kai-shek regime and the rest of the world its enhanced power. The Japanese moved into Mongolia in early 1933 and forced Chiang’s acceptance of a demilitarized zone south of the Great Wall soon after. By the time that Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, it was clear that war with Japan for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region was becoming a real possibility.

In 1936, Japan signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, setting the stage for its eventual participation in an alliance against the Soviet Union. The extraordinarily rapid strengthening of Japan during this period, a process that the United States through its own pro-Japanese policies had inadvertently aided, forced the United States to abandon its original imperial alliance with Japan and to seek an alternative alliance with its Northeast Asian rival, the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, these strategic alliances would quickly reverse themselves once again<197>but this time the United States would assert its rights over the whole of the Asia-Pacific region, including the Korean peninsula.

The Struggle for Korean Self-Determination

It is important to recognize that at no point in the history of U.S.-Japanese imperial relations before the Second World War itself was the subject of Japanese control of Korea ever a cause of disagreement. Instead, the United States repeatedly and unequivocally demonstrated its support for Japan’s exclusive imperial prerogative on the peninsula.

The first signs of this can be traced back to the rash of books and speeches in the United States and Britain celebrating the greatness of Japanese civilization and the naturalness of its imperial ambitions in the 1890s. The central reason for this sudden Anglo-American support for Japan was the desire among the foreign policy-makers in both countries to limit Russian ambitions in Northeast Asia.

U.S. policy specialists feared that Russia would succeed in separating Manchuria from China. They also believed that Russia would come to dominate northern China to the detriment of their own interests in China. It was the anti-Russian orientation of Anglo-American imperialism that led to the subordination of Korea’s national interests to those of its imperial neighbor, Japan.

It was for this reason that the United States encouraged Japan’s war efforts against Russia financially, with the U.S. envoy to Korea also offering assurances that <169>Korea should belong to Japan by right of ancient conquest and tradition.<170> (26) In 1905, the secret Taft-Katsura memorandum spelt out U.S. support for Japan’s control of Korea in exchange for Japanese recognition of U.S. control of the Philippines.

The Portsmouth Treaty, which earned Theodore Roosevelt his Nobel Prize, publicly asserted Japan’s rights over Korea. In November 1908, the United States and Japan entered into a second agreement, the Root-Takahira Agreement, under which the United States once again acknowledged Japan’s rights over Korea and accepted a central role for Japan in Manchuria. In return, the United States received further assurances that Japan would limit its expansion into China.

This series of inter-government assurances, both secret and public, helps to explain the indifference with which the US viewed the formal annexation of Korea by Japan in August 1910. It also helps to explain why the United States viewed with deep suspicion the eruption of the Korean movement for self-determination in 1919 — despite Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of the Fourteen Points in January 1919, including a call for “a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims.” (30)

In the immediate aftermath of mass peaceful demonstrations throughout Korea in the spring of 1919, the State Department wrote to its Consulate in Seoul, explicitly cautioning the Consulate to “be extremely careful not to encourage any belief that the United States will assist the Korean nationalists in carrying out their plans and that it should not do anything which may cause the Japanese authorities to suspect American Government sympathizes with Korean nationalist movement.” (30-31)

Assured of continuing American indifference, the Japanese bloodily suppressed the Korean independence movement. Soon afterwards, the Washington Conference, organized to settle various postwar claims, blocked a delegation of Koreans from addressing it. Japan had supported the Allies in the First World War, and Wilson’s pledge was not binding on the territories controlled by the imperial victors or their allies.

It was only in the mid-1930s, with the rapid emergence of Japan as a real rival to U.S. interests in China, that key U.S. strategic thinking on Korea began to change. The first sign of this was Roosevelt’s pledge that the Philippines would eventually become independent, following a suitable period of tutelage, in 1935. In 1943, in meetings with Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt for the first time extended this formula to cover Korea.

It is important to recognize that Roosevelt’s formulas regarding the Philippines and Korea were imperialist ones. In neither case were they evidence of genuine support for national self-determination. Instead, the idea of tutelage was the way in which the United States chose to present to the world its expanded politico-military superiority over smaller nations.

The Taft-Katsura memorandum had spelled out a division of interest between the United States and Japan in East Asia, involving a tradeoff that involved the Philippines and Korea. In moving to take full possession of the whole of East Asia, the U.S. President naturally linked the two nations together again in the one formula. In other words, the US was committing itself to replacing Japanese imperial interests in Korea with its own.

As a direct result, the U.S. military that arrived in Korea in September 1945 had orders to suppress, rather than support, the cause of Korean self-determination. As Hart-Landsberg notes: “Four days before U.S. military forces were to land in southern Korean in September 1945, ostensibly to accept the surrender of Japanese troops, the commander of U.S. forces informed his officers that Korea was `an enemy of the United States’ and should be treated as such.” (18)

Given the reality of Soviet power in the north, the U.S. strategic plans for control over Korea dictated a di<->vis<->ion of the country. Once the Soviet Union had accepted the arbitrary demarcation line of the 38th parallel for receiving the Japanese surrender, the United States was free to substitute its own military regime under the command of General Hodge for the Japanese one. To do this, however, it had to defeat the embryonic Korean People’s Republic with its associated people’s committees that had come into existence in both the north and the south of the country, immediately following the August 1945 Japanese surrender, with a program of anti-landowner, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial demands.

The U.S. military government first tried to suppress this popular movement by resurrecting the Japanese authorities; and then, when this naive solution proved utterly unworkable, relied instead on advice provided by the previous Japanese authorities in choosing compliant, anti-communist Koreans, a majority of them former collaborators.

Popular Korean resistance to this U.S. attempt to defeat popular sovereignty, however, was widespread. In effect, from the time of the landing of U.S. troops in the south until the UN-sponsored but massively flawed elections in the south in 1948, a system of dual power existed in what was to become the Republic of Korea.

One small measure of the unpopularity of the U.S.-installed Syngman Rhee regime on the eve of the Korean War is the number of Koreans behind bars. In June 1950, 60,000 people were imprisoned under the terms of Rhee’s 1948 National Security Law, a number double that of Koreans in prison at the time of the Japanese withdrawal five years earlier! (cf. 176; 63)

From the establishment of the Republic of Korea in the south and the temporary withdrawal of the U.S. military until the outbreak of the Korean War itself in June 1950, an armed standoff existed between two rival states, both claiming legitimacy over the whole territory of Korea. In the south, this state, armed, financed and supported by the U.S. military, represented the interests of landowners, government bureaucrats and rehabilitated collaborators. In the north, the state was led by the main Korean Communist guerilla forces that had returned from military action against the Japanese in Manchuria and Soviet East Asia.

The Korean War then, contrary to the views of the State Department, was not an act of naked and unprovoked aggression on the part of the North. The views regularly presented in U.S. and South Korean textbooks and in the press releases of the State Department are demonstrably false. Instead, the Korean War represented the attempt to complete the revolution set off by the Japanese withdrawal from the peninsula in August 1945.

This revolutionary process was first interrupted by the massive intervention of the U.S. military in the south of the country, propping up an unpopular regime that was peopled by an assortment of those Koreans who had collaborated or otherwise benefitted from the long period of Japanese rule. It was then permanently postponed by the inconclusive end of the Korean War, which saw the solidification of two hostile Koreas facing each other across the imaginary line of the 38th parallel.

The real beneficiary of this outcome was the United States, which found in anti-communism a convenient excuse to lodge itself permanently in the south of Korea, its 37,000 soldiers poised strategically to combat what<->ever threats might emerge from the Soviet Union, China or, more distantly, Japan.

The final act of this drama, overlooked by most Western accounts of the war, was the U.S. sabotage of the Geneva peace conference designed to formally end hostilities in 1954. Washington’s actions in Geneva that year ensured that only an armistice was signed, suspending rather than actually ending hostilities. This uneasy conclusion prevailed in spite of the wishes of the other major parties to the conflict — with the exception of South Korea, whose wayward leader, Syngman Rhee, refused to sign a document concluding peace with the North.

By sabotaging the Peace Conference, however, the United States had achieved its ultimate goal of fashioning a justification for stationing a large contingent of troops indefinitely in South Korea.

The Future for Korean Unity

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little interest among South Kor<->ean politicians for a policy to facilitate inter-Korean rapprochement. On the contrary, the official policy of anti-communism served as a necessary organizing ideology for party politics in Korea and as a convenient means for discrediting, intimidating or imprisoning dissident elements, particularly those concerned with furthering working-class issues. The rapid growth in the organizational strength of the South Korean labor movement in the late 1980s began to erode the ability of successive Korean governments to continue this simple form of anti-communism.

In addition, from the time of Park Chung-hee in the early 1960s, the South Korean government had taken the decision to put off real negotiations with the North until the South was in a position of economic superiority, which it had clearly achieved by the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The rapid completion of German unification in 1990 thus posed more starkly the unresolved issue of the division of Korea, making it seem to many Koreans either an unfortunate anachronism or as final confirmation of the peninsula’s permanent subordination to the interests of great power rivalry.

It is conceivable that the fortieth anniversary of the Geneva conference was in the back of the minds of U.S. policymakers when they moved close to the brink of war with North Korea in 1994. It is certainly true that it has been the consistent policy of North Korea since that time to conclude a genuine peace agreement with the United States. But if there is to be change in the situation on the Korean peninsula, it seems that something in the calculations of both sides must alter.

The major dilemma for U.S. policy regarding the Korean peninsula nowadays involves dealing with the powerful feeling among virtually all Koreans that there is no further political reason for national division. In turn, this powerful feeling calls into question the need for the permanent stationing of U.S. troops in the South.

On both sides of the 38th parallel, there are large Korean majorities favoring unification. World opinion, with its latent acceptance of the right of nations to self-determination, would almost certainly be predisposed to Korean unification were it to become an impending actuality. This fact was demonstrated clearly enough in the case of German reunification, where the voices of opposition were an isolated few.

Nevertheless, U.S. strategic interests in Northeast Asia have been strongly served by Korea’s division. The prospect of Korean unification thus poses problems for U.S. imperial interests. In the minds of State Department strategists, the departure of U.S. troops from a re-united Korea would likely strengthen the interests of each of the other major regional powers — China, Russia and Japan.

The swift movement towards outright war with North Korea in 1994 was a palpable demonstration of this dilemma. The “end of communism” in Eastern Europe should have placed the question of Korean unification on the immediate political agenda. Instead, within three years of the Soviet breakup, the world was witness to a narrow aversion of a second Korean military conflict.

This otherwise peculiar turn of events is explicable if it is understood that the division of Korea under the guise of “democracy” and anticommunism was merely a ruse designed to further U.S. strategic interests in the region — interests which occasionally require going to the brink of war with North Korea. As far as State Department strategists are concerned, the end of the Cold War had therefore changed nothing.

Although Koreans regularly cite the example of Germany unification to justify their own cause, there are a number of reasons for caution in the use of this analogy. In the first place, it was clear to all but a few Anglo-American bourgeois strategists that the reunification of Germany would strengthen their cause.

Germany has long served as a bulwark against Russia, and a stronger reunified Germany would serve this goal in a better way. The rapid absorption of the eastern half of the country also served as an ideal propaganda lesson for the television masses of the unpopularity of all non-capitalist social systems.

For these reasons, U.S. strategic interests were not threatened by German unifications. On the contrary, they were bolstered — since German unification also paved the way for the eastward push of NATO. Korea, on the other hand, does not serve the same strategic function in Northeast Asia.

If Northeast Asia is viewed through the prism of Europe, it is Japan that must be substituted for Germany and China that must replace Russia. For its part, Korea is a kind of divided Poland or Ukraine, a country whose tragic history has served mostly as an indication of the relative strength of its great power neighbors.

The Perry Report of 1999 was a belated attempt to come to terms with the new reality in Northeast Asia, created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In effect, the Report attempts to chart a future course to preserve a U.S. troop deployment on the Korean peninsula.

The Report deals with two scenarios, both of which will allow for U.S. troops to remain. The first is a renewed partial deterioration in the status quo, to offset the effects of the end of the Cold War. In effect, the events of June 1994 demonstrate clearly enough that this scenario remains the fallback option of the State Department.

The incoming Republican administration, with its interests in the development of the Missile Defense Shield, has already signaled that it is prepared to risk such a renewed partial deterioration. This strategy has its limits, however, since actual armed conflict on the Korean peninsula would have highly unpredictable consequences, even in the event of a rapid U.S. victory.

The second Perry Report scenario is one of meaningful, limited engagement with North Korea. In other words, the Report deals only with the alternative of increased hostility and some form of meaningful, but strictly limited, engagement — the distance between the visit of Carter to Pyongyang in 1994 and the visit of Albright to Pyongyang in 2000.

The Perry Report does not contemplate the possibility of Korean unification itself, presumably because its author doubted whether there could be any real role for U.S. troops in Korea after unification. Keeping the peace is only necessary when there is the possibility of war. In a post-unification Korea, this possibility would rapidly drop to zero — and the U.S. peacekeepers would eventually be asked to leave.

A basic strategic uncertainty thus explains the go-slow approach favored by the incoming Republican administration to North Korea. The long-term strategic goal is to put off indefinitely the possibility of a U.S. troop withdrawal from the South. In the interim, the strategy requires preserving the uneasy status quo, using the issues of missile proliferation, nuclear capabilities and the concept of the “rogue nation” as the justification for keeping troops present — while periodically holding out the possibility of engagement in return for further North Korean concessions.

In this context, the promotion of the Missile Defense Shield is profoundly destabilizing, since it represents a quite conscious attempt to cause a real deterioration in U.S.-North Korean relations.

But this hard-line policy too has its limitations, which the Perry Report itself was designed to rectify. Refusing to engage in a meaningful way with North Korea now is an open invitation to a disastrous outcome from the point of view of all actors in the region, with the exception of those whose interests are served by catastrophic military adventures.

It is in the interests of Koreans on both sides of the imaginary divide, as well as critical people in the United States and elsewhere, to chart an alternative course to such potential catastrophe. Martin Hart-Landsberg’s book is a good place to start for those interested in doing so.

from ATC 93(July/August 2001)