TFF logoFORUMS Meeting Point

The United States and Korea:

Time to Wake Up!




Glenn D. Paige

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawai'i
Center for Global Nonviolence

TFF associate


March 5, 2003

When I interviewed former President Harry S Truman in Independence in 1957 for my book The Korean Decision: June 24-30, 1950, I asked, "Mr. President, as a devout Baptist, when you made the decision to engage the United States in the fourth largest war in its history [now fifth after Vietnam] did you pray?" "Hell no!" he replied, "There's right and wrong going back to Greece and Rome. It was the right thing to do. I made the decision and went to sleep."

Unfortunately war-rooted United States policy toward Korea, both North and South, has been deep in righteous sleep for more than fifty years. Officially everything about American engagement with its ROK South Korean ally has been right and everything about its DPRK North Korean enemy has been wrong.

But now events raise alarm that it is long overdue time to wake up. Confronted with the threat of nuclear weapons development in the North and rising youthful challenges to continued American military presence in the South, it is time to exercise some empathy and creativity in United States-Korean relations.

Empathy is essential because failure to understand the feelings and needs of others lies at the heart of conflict and violence in politics as well as in personal life. Creativity is needed because we have to question and replace divisive assumptions and policies toward war-divided Korea with constructive Korea-centered integrative thinking. The United States must shift from its Hot and Cold War mindset of paternalism and enmity to become a constructive partner in helping both Koreas to achieve their historic task of independent peaceful reintegration.

An obvious but crucial basis for empathic understanding is to recognize that the exercise of United States power on the Korean peninsula, however righteously or demonically portrayed, is seen as a foreign intrusion. Korean patriots do not wish to see their country as a dependency, protectorate, or target of any country--not Japan, not China, not Russia, and not the United States. Oncoming generations of Koreans, numbering now some 47 million in the South and 23 million in the North, will not accept it. Koreans both North and South will insist upon respect for their independence and integrity. An example is the DPRK's liberation of itself from being a Soviet satellite or a Chinese tributary state despite military obligations to them for its creation and survival.

Despite division Koreans have a strong sense of distinctive national identity based upon language, history, geography and culture. Singing together the Korean folk song "Arirang" can bring about emotional unification in any meeting of Koreans from North and South. But while insisting upon respect for identity and independence, Koreans also want to live in peace with all nations of the earth. This is proclaimed at critical moments in Korean history such as in the peaceful March 1, 1919 uprising against Japanese colonial rule and in pre-division political manifestoes upon Liberation in 1945.

In empathy for the South, the United States must understand that its Cold War anti-Communist alliance with repressive conservative forces associated it with atrocities and violations of human rights (such as the Kwangju massacre of 1980) that would have brought outraged condemnation in the United States if committed in a Soviet satellite. It must also be appreciated that many Koreans credit courageous student demonstrations in 1960 and 1987 for progress toward electoral democracy in the face of lagging U.S. policy. In the South, of course, there is also gratitude for aid in repelling the 1950 DPRK invasion and for assistance in postwar reconstruction.

In understanding North Korea it is essential to empathize with the fact that its people were subjected to massive U.S. Air Force bombing--as well as Navy bombardment --throughout the 1950-53 war. In contrast, the South was not bombed except by American and allied planes. Pyongyang, Wonsan, and other cities were flattened. Industrial and transportation facilities were destroyed. People were forced to live and work underground. There was great loss of civilian as well as military life, including that of Chinese soldiers. To such experience must be added the unambiguous American threat since 1953 to repeat that devastation, including continuing threat to employ nuclear weapons.

People subjected to such devastation can be expected to exhibit both defensive bellicosity and a striving for credible removal of the threat of its repetition. Thus becomes understandable the current DPRK move to acquire a deterrent nuclear weapons capability combined with a call for a nonaggression guarantee and peace treaty with the United States.

Another key to understanding the current nuclear crisis is that numerous DPRK peacemaking overtures directed to the United States Government and Congress have been ignored or rejected. In 1973 the DPRK claimed at the UN that it had made 131 unanswered peace proposals to the United States. Only when signs of atomic bomb development appeared in 1993-94 did the United States agree to talk. A Cold War slogan was, "The only thing that Communists understand is force." Regrettably as illustrated by the DPRK atomic case this also seems to apply to the anti-Communist superpower United States. Rather than "blackmail,"

the DPRK atomic weapons message can be interpreted as, "We want to talk to you about a peace treaty and normal diplomatic relations. Take us seriously."

Among several previously missed peacemaking opportunities for serious consideration by the United States and ROK was the 1980 proposal by Kim Il Sung to reduce the size of the DPRK and ROK armed forces to 100,000-150,000 soldiers on each side. Another was the DPRK proposal to co-host with Seoul the 1988 Olympic Games. This was rejected by the IOC on grounds that the Games are awarded to cities not countries, missing the chance to recognize Pyongyang as a city that had already invested in extensive Olympic-class sports facilities.

An essential point for empathy is that DPRK actions, like those of the United States, are not only proactive but reactive as well. For example, the bloody 1983 Rangoon assassination attempt on ROK President Chun Doo Hwan can be interpreted as revenge for General Chun's role in the 1980 Kwangju City slaughter. Similarly the atrocity bombing of the KAL airliner in 1987 can be understood as a frustrated reaction to exclusion from the upcoming Seoul Olympic Games. In the same vein, the revived DPRK atomic weapon program can be understood in part as deriving from fear of a U.S. preemptive strike to achieve "axis of evil" regime change as well as from frustrated attempts to achieve a genuine peace settlement and diplomatic recognition. This is not to excuse such atrocities but to try to understand them. All parties to the Korean tragedy, including the two Koreas and the four Big Powers, have blood on their hands and have yet to master the art and science of nonkilling politics.

For further understanding it is helpful to recall that Cold War proposals to establish US-DPRK diplomatic relations were rejected with the argument that when the Soviet Union and China recognized the ROK, then the United States and Japan could recognize the DPRK. Even after the DPRK and ROK entered the United Nations as sovereign states in 1991, followed by recognition of the ROK by China and Russia in 1992, the United States and Japan still have not done so.

The present wakeup call being issued from both Koreas to the United States is that it must make a creative transition from partisan bellicosity to co-partnership for peace and mutual benefit. Both Koreas seek respectful recognition and support for inevitable unification. The United States must shift from obstacle to facilitator. Chinese policy provides a model. Although a wartime ally of the

DPRK, China has established diplomatic relations with the ROK and considers both Koreas its friends. The ROK has become China's third largest trading partner while China continues to be a major source of economic aid to the DPRK.

In long range terms China favors a unified neutral Korea. Russia has also shown itself capable of constructive dual engagement. Only the United States and Japan remain self-excluded in Cold War antagonism.

If a nuclear-weapon-free united Korea is a primary objective of United States policy it should do two things.

First, the United States should engage the DPRK directly on nuclear disarmament issues and move resolutely to establish diplomatic relations. If the United States could establish Cold War diplomatic relations with the big nuclear powers Russia and China--or even later with victorious Vietnam--why not with its DPRK partner in defeat in the stalemated Korean War? Although both sides claimed victory, each was actually defeated since neither succeeded in unifying Korea by killing. Why not go forward from mutual military defeat to partnership for peace in Korea and the world?

Second, the United States should support South Korean leadership initiatives in establishing peaceful political, economic, and cultural relations with North Korea that seek to facilitate reconciliation and gradual national reintegration. The United States needs to cultivate empathy and creativity to support peace efforts in both Koreas.

It is time for the United States to wake up in its Korean policy for creative, catalytic, peaceful change. Waking up means gaining binocular vision to see itself, the world, and the needs of the Korean people through the eyes of both Pyongyang and Seoul. It means translating wakefulness into two-handed assistance to Koreans in both North and South to peacefully reunify their country as a major example and contributor to the advancement of nonkilling global civilization.



© TFF & the author 2003  


Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name





Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997-2003