By Tim Anderson
|Most seem proud that their country is standing up to an imperial power that has occupied their country for a lifetime. |
In the current stand off between Washington and North Korea, western governments and media almost invariably present the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea) as a crazed aggressor.
Yet the recent confrontation comes 72 years after Roosevelt and Stalin divided the colonised Korean people at the 38th parallel, and 60 years after the US brought nuclear weapons to the peninsula. The US military still occupies southern Korea and, in the current climate, the reunification summits of 2000 and 2007 seem a distant memory.
Rarely do we listen to the North Korean side. Yet it should be no surprise that they have a distinct perspective on the successive Japanese and American attacks, invasions and occupations that have defined their past century. Even when UN commissioned ‘human rights‘ reports are prepared, it is not thought necessary to get the North Korean view, or even to visit the country.
Popular western history blames North Korea for starting the Korean war (1950-53). By this story the US is said to have intervened (killing more than 4 million, according to the DPRK) to ‘protect’ South Korea from ‘communist aggression’.
However the North Koreans themselves, and many socialist historians, point to US military planning for complete annexation of the peninsula, as spelt out by the 1949-50 head of US occupation forces, General Roberts. Let’s also remember that, immediately after the Korean War, the US backed military interventions and coups in Cuba, Guatemala and Iran and began its long war in Vietnam.
With two colleagues I visited the DPRK in late August. It is a beautiful, lush country with warm, friendly people. I was struck by the confidence and self-assurance of the many well educated North Koreans we met, in particular the women. That self-confidence seems to reflect the state slogan ‘we envy nothing in this world’, linked to an official _Juche _philosophy which stresses human creativity and self-reliance.
Between visits to schools, hospitals and farms we visited meticulously documented history museums. Amongst other things they show that, in the 1950s war, Pyongyang was hit by 428,000 US bombs, at a time when its population did not exceed 400,000. The capital’s museums display evidence of Washington’s use of chemical and biological weapons against the Korean people, and of 8,000 US breaches of the 1953 armistice, notably the captured US spy ship USS Pueblo.
Carrying out ‘vox pop’ interviews with professionals, students, workers and farmers we often met statements such as that of rural co-op worker Ms Song Myong Oh: ‘of course we do not want war, but we are not begging for peace’. Most seem proud that their country is standing up to an imperial power that has occupied their country for a lifetime, while invading dozens of others.
If we read the official statements carefully, the DPRK’s recent threats against the US have merely responded in kind to those of the US President. Of course, such threats carry new weight with the little country’s nuclear capability. Yet the decision to go down this road came after repeated US refusals to convert the 1953 armistice into a permanent peace treaty.
North Korea fought for its independence from the Japanese Empire, fought a massive US attempt to destroy it, and is still technically at war. The little nation-state has been on a war footing for more than a century. In these circumstances it has permanently embedded the military at the centre its government; this is the Songun doctrine.
The DPRK Government says its nuclear capacity is an ‘equaliser’, to deter constant US threats. US manoeuvres to disarm and then destroy both Iraq and Libya are seen in Pyongyang as clear lessons of the consequences of weakness. Reunification is only possible, they say, if the US military withdraws and they can resume serious talks with an independent south.
Washington is accustomed to proclaiming that ‘all options are on the table’, including a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Indeed, the USA is the only country to have actually used nuclear weapons on human beings, and Hiroshima civilians at that. The North Koreans, for their part, are not inclined to lie down or ‘bargain’, in face of such threats.
Their country is often described as a ‘Hermit Kingdom’, because of its apparent isolation and the extreme reverence given to the late President King Il Sung and his successors. But the DPRK, while practising self-reliance, does not seek to cut itself off from the world. It is the US-driven economic sanctions that do that.
We visited a new 300 bed Children’s Hospital, across the road from Pyongyang’s Maternity Hospital. A boy was having a cranial CT scan with a German Siemen’s machine. That test, like all health services, is free and at state expense. But the new sanctions regime means that the DPRK can no longer buy such machines or parts for them. North Koreans put a brave face on their self-reliance, and they do produce most of their essential medicines; but individual doctors expressed outrage.
*(Dr. So Yong in the Telemedicine centre. Condemns ‘inhumane’ sanctions. Image courtesy of Prof. Tim Anderson)
Dr Kim Un Song, for example, with two young children of her own, said she was ‘very proud’ of her country’s ‘free, universal and comprehensive’ health system, while expressing anger at the sanctions. Dr So Yong in the TeleMedicine section, which arranges video conferences with all major hospitals in the country, said he ‘strongly protests these inhumane sanctions which affect even children’
Former regional allies have proved unreliable. The DPRK suffered a great depression after the collapse of the USSR and its linked economic relations. The China relationship has also changed, with Beijing became more businesslike.
An alarming feature of the US-led assault on this little country is that it has virtually no public face. Western politicians can say almost anything about the country and get away with it. Foreign experience and understandings of the country are shallow.
Further, from 1 September onwards US citizens are banned from visiting North Korea (as they are still banned from visiting Cuba) without a US Government license. Such controls have long been part of the ‘land of the free’.
For the rest of us, a visit to North Korea can be an eye opener. The contrast between the one dimensional western image and the reality of a visit with direct person-to-person contact is quite striking.
Dr. Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He researches and writes on development, human rights and self-determination in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East.
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