The Koreans and their Enemies

Jon Halliday

Over the past year evidence has been emerging that the Japanese kidnapped more than 200,000 young women into sex slavery during their occupation of East Asia. Those so enslaved were termed ‘comfort women’, about 80 per cent of whom were Korean. Some were as young as 12, hauled out of their schools, often under a quota system, and carted off to army barracks and outposts all the way from Manchuria to the South Pacific. All suffered indescribable brutality and hardship, and untold numbers died in frontline trenches. Almost none would ever return to their homes. So far no compensation has been paid for these atrocities, on the grounds that Japanese reparations to Korea for the occupation period (1910-45) were settled once and for all in the 1965 agreement which normalised relations between Tokyo and Seoul. The kidnappings, like many other outrages, are not mentioned in Japan’s official school textbooks.

Japan transformed Korea more profoundly than any European power changed any of its colonies. It tried to crush the Korean language, and put intense pressure on Koreans to abandon their family names – an act of appalling cruelty in a culture centred on family lineage. Intensive industrialisation was introduced, particularly in Northern Korea, which became the most heavily industrialised colonial area in the world. Moreover, close to seven million Koreans were either lured or coerced into working in the worst jobs in Japan and other parts of the Japanese Empire. But the Japanese also acquired a core of collaborators – businessmen, military and, especially, police.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was divided and the South was occupied by America. The South Korean armed forces, however, were dominated by former officers of the Japanese Army, some of whom had made their careers hunting down their fellow-Koreans in Manchuria. In this way, and others, South Korea inherited the structures of the pre-1945 Japanese state.

The Japanese period and the post-war development of South Korea take up about half of Korea Old and New. In four hundred clear and well-written pages, five eminent Korean and American historians provide a judicious survey of Korea’s history from palaeolithic times to the present, giving due emphasis to its cultural achievements, including its magnificent pottery, and, not least, the development of metal movable type in the first half of the 15th century. By outlining the extraordinary role of Confucianism in Korea, and engaging (briefly) with the theses of Max Weber on religion and economic development, the book allows a general reader a way into some of the issues relating to South Korea’s spectacular modernisation since the early Sixties. It is extremely fair on the strengths and weaknesses of the various authoritarian regimes which have prevailed in the South since 1945. But it has two weaknesses: no references or bibliography and more seriously, nothing on North Korea since 1950. This omission is not even explained. The only good reason I can think of for this is that North Korea is about to disappear. Even so, because reunification is probably close, it is important to know about the 22 million people who live there in hermetic isolation.

Anthony Daniels’s The Wilder Shores of Marx describes journeys to North Korea, Albania, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba around the time of the collapse of Communism in 1989. Daniels chose his redoubts well: two were the last European dictatorships to fall; the other three are still holding out. Although he was only in Korea for a short time (as a delegate to the World Youth Festival), Daniels saw more than many who have spent much longer in Kim II Sung’s narcissistic ‘paradise’. ‘North Korea,’ he observes, ‘was not so much a factory of flattery as a forced labour camp for it.’ It is a society dominated by fear.

Daniels encountered one of the many surrealist mini-dramas which Kim and his army of stage managers lay on for visiting foreigners: ‘Potemkin shoppers’ – locals dragooned to trudge purchase-less through one of the capital’s leading department stores. Kim’s dictatorial power, Daniels notes, is inextricably linked to the humiliation of his subjects. ‘The most sombre reflection occasioned by the Potemkin shoppers is that concerning the nature of the power that can command thousands of citizens to take part in a huge and deceitful performance not once but day after day, without any of the performers ever indicating by even the faintest sign that he is aware of its deceitfulness ... The humiliation it visits upon the people who take part in it ... is an essential benefit to the power, for slaves who must participate in their own enslavement by signalling to others the happiness of their condition are so humiliated that they are unlikely to rebel.’

Daniels says he ‘rapidly became convinced – absolutely and unshakeably convinced – that one day stories would emerge from North Korea that would stun the world, of cruelties equal to or surpassing those of Kolyma and the White Sea Canal in Stalin’s time.’ He is probably right. Mao’s demented tyranny in China concealed unbearable pain, which foreigners had little or no idea of how to perceive, let alone decode. Yet the degree of control and concealment in North Korea is unique, probably greater than in Mao’s China. Kim has managed to isolate his population from any contact with the outside world more completely than any other in the 20th century. No North Koreans watch Western or South Korean TV. Nor are they visited by relatives from the West. Much less have they been able to go vacationing in a place like pre-pluralist Hungary. Chinese characters have been eliminated, so the society is cut off from its past: almost no one under the age of 60 can read anything written before Kim came to power – or anything from the South. The barriers between North and South Korea are incomparably stronger than those between East and West Germany ever were. There has been no postal or telephone communication since the Korean War and even privileged students were withdrawn from Eastern Europe in 1989. Kim’s goal – in which he has been appallingly successful – has been to keep the barriers up, and the information revolution out. This has been central to his survival.

Before I went to North Korea, I asked a diplomat from a Third World dictatorship what it was like. He had travelled via China: ‘When I got back to Peking,’ he told me, ‘I felt like I was walking down the Champs Elyséees.’ This was 1971, the depths of the Cultural Revolution. Only those who have languished in Pyongyang can know the feeling Daniels describes of one’s heart leaping for joy at the sight of a plane bearing the lettering of the world’s most misanthropic airline, Aeroflot, if it is about to bear one away from North Korea. No harsher judgment could be passed than that by George Blake, who told me: ‘I would rather go back to Wormwood Scrubs than North Korea.’

Korean reunification will undoubtedly come about more slowly than German reunification has done. The Russians have stopped their aid and started to demand payment in hard currency, and this is hurting the North Koreans badly, but it is not going to bring them to their knees in the short term. A senior Russian official involved in negotiations with Pyongyang told me that North Korea could hold out: ‘Our biggest surprise,’ he said, ‘is that juche (Kim II Sung’s strategy of ‘self-reliance’) actually seems to work – if at a very high cost.’

But reunification will also proceed cautiously because the participants recognise that, while the process will lead to the disappearance of only one state (the North), it could bring about the collapse of both regimes – that of the successors of both Kim II Sung and of Roh Tae-woo, the outgoing President of South Korea. Superficially, Korea would seem to have many features in common with Germany: on the one hand, a dynamic capitalist economy which has broken into world markets and even become a leader in key sectors of industry and advanced technology; on the other, a hide-bound command economy lagging further and further behind. South Korea also possesses the traditional national capital, Seoul, which is of great symbolic significance. Under Roh Tae-woo, South Korea has achieved striking international successes. It has established diplomatic relations with both Russia and China. Roh has been welcomed in Moscow and Peking, and on his recent visit to Seoul President Yeltsin apologised for Russia’s past support for North Korea, indicated that he was ending Moscow’s military pact with Pyongyang and returned the black box (apparently minus a few tapes) from KAL007.

In spite of its spectacular successes, South Korea is not West Germany, either politically or economically. Southern society is incomparably stronger than that of the North. It is vibrant, well-educated and self-confident, and knows that it has nothing to fear from unification. But it does not have a political leadership or political institutions which can approach reunification with the same degree of self-assurance, or the same degree of broad support from its own population as West Germany did. Perhaps these can be developed in time for reunification. But until now the governments of the South have been authoritarian (mainly military) regimes: Roh Tae-woo is a former general. Although he came to power via a democratic poll, he won only 34 per cent of the vote, and was the nominee of the previous heavy-handed military rulers. New presidential elections are set for 20 December – and both the leading contenders are civilians.

The demographic ratio is also different from Germany’s. Whereas West Germany’s population was four times that of the East, South Korea’s is only double that of the North. And this bears directly on another factor: the inevitably high cost of reunification. According to a report published in October this will rise the longer it is delayed. The report, based on a detailed comparison with Germany, estimated that if Korea were reunited in 1993 it would cost the South $212 billion to bring the North up to its own standard of living within a decade – but this was based on projected growth of 27.7 per cent p.a. in former North Korea for ten consecutive years. Most analysts reckon that 20 years is a more likely time-scale (this would still require 15 per cent annual growth). If reunification were delayed until 2000, the cost would soar to $448 billion. And if it waited until 2101, it would rocket to $762 billion. The per capita burden on the South would be many times that borne by West Germany, which had a much higher standard of living than South Korea. Yet there is much greater complementarity between the two economies than in Germany. The North has abundant raw materials, and the size of a united Korea, with a population of about 65 million, would give it substantial international weight. It would be the 15th largest state on the globe, and it might also attract many of its brightest émigrés back from Japan and the USA. Given the huge military spending in both North and South, a united Korea would also reap a much bigger peace dividend than Germany.

North and South Korea started serious talks about reunification at senior level in 1990. It is easy to see why the South wanted talks, but why did the North agree – when success is bound to lead to its own extinction? The short answer is that what the North says differs from what it does: its rhetoric says ‘we want reunification’; its deeds (like accepting dual entry into the UN last year) indicate that it wants to keep the division. For this it needs foreign accomplices and it has found two powerful ones: China and Japan, which want to keep Korea divided. China wants to preserve North Korea because it needs one other socialist country around, preferably one beholden to it, and wants to prevent another non-Communist society appearing on its heavily industrialised and vulnerable north-east border. Japan wants to keep North Korea in existence to block the emergence of a dynamic united competitor on its doorstep.

The outlines of a tacit deal seem to be emerging. The South Korean government and the West do not want instant reunification, because it would be too expensive and would lead to uncontrollable upheavals and population movements. So, if Kim II Sung behaves himself, he will be allowed to hang on (after all, he has no future in a united Korea – what would he be, Vice-President?), while North Korea is gradually opened up by business and, later, family visits and a slow information revolution. Kim was 80 in April and should soon be heading for his mausoleum. By the mid-to-late Nineties, reunification could take place relatively smoothly. One important new ingredient is an open (émigré) opposition movement, headed by 21 former senior North Korean officials, which was set up in Russia and China in January this year.

For a time, North Korea seemed to be trying to add the threat of nuclear weapons to the negotiations. But after scarcely veiled, if well publicised, threats from the USA, in January Pyongyang signed an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to open its nuclear installations to international inspection. The US, which had been the only nation with nuclear weapons in Korea (until late last year), claimed that North Korea was building a plutonium extraction plant. The North has replied by saying that the plant was for peaceful purposes. By November 1992 the North had been visited by four inspection teams from the IAEA: they discovered that Pyongyang had started to build a plant apparently intended to convert spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material, but that an actual bomb was a long way away. By November the US pronounced itself reasonably satisfied, saying the inspections had ‘blocked the ability’ of North Korea ‘to have a sizeable number of nuclear weapons over time’. Washington and Seoul also said they were much less worried about the possibility of the North being able to hide a nuclear programme. The North, although on the defensive, did manage to wring a number of concessions from the US and the South on nuclear questions. In particular, it apparently secured the removal of US nuclear weapons from Korea, which had been a priority policy goal. It has thus diminished the role of non-Koreans in Korean affairs, which has been a major long-term objective.

Kim II Sung is a realist as well as a dreamer. Although he strenuously denies that Korea will take the German road, he cannot have missed what happened to Honecker. Nor can his officials. They will want to negotiate some guarantees against revenge in the event of reunification. Given what happened during the Korean War – when each side occupied about 90 per cent of the territory of the other and both carried out extensive massacres – this may not be easy. A united Korea will inherit not only a Stasi legacy (on both sides), but also a history and memories of violence on a scale equal to that in the former Yugoslavia. Almost every family in Korea lost one or more members as a result of division and war. Korean family ties will not allow this issue to be swept easily under the carpet. It is hard to think what guarantees could be accepted by both sides.

Revenge and justice may be issues which involve not only Koreans. It is now widely accepted that the primary responsibility for the division of the country rests with the United States – and Koreans, both South and North, know this. What is perhaps less well known outside Korea is that the West’s role from 1945 onwards, and especially during the Korean war, was not always honourable. Unification could turn over a few stones.

Dreadful massacres were carried out during the Korean War by both sides. As in most wars, there was a cycle of violence; how the massacres started is therefore important. In its official report on atrocities the US Army singles out one particular incident shortly after the start of the war, in the summer of 1950, in which it says five to seven thousand people, including 42 US prisoners, were slaughtered by the North Koreans: ‘For murderous barbarism, the Taejon massacre will be recorded in the annals of history along with the Rape of Nanking, the Warsaw ghetto and other similar mass exterminations.’

There was a massacre near Taejon in summer 1950 – in fact, at least two massacres. But the US report does not tell us that the first was carried out by the Allies, the South Korean police and MPs – with high-ranking officials present. Nor does it reveal that American officers looked on. A French Catholic priest, Fr Cadars, told the Observer correspondent that he saw 1700 people shot near Taejon by South Korean police with American officers present. This was probably the largest massacre attended by American officers this century, yet it finds no place in most history books. When Alan Winnington of the Daily Worker reported this massacre, attributing it to ‘our’ side, the Labour Cabinet discussed charging not only him, but some of his colleagues on the paper, with treason. The Cabinet backed off because there was a mandatory death sentence, with no appeal, if the accused were found guilty. The massacre has not, however, been forgotten in Korea. Indeed, earlier this year, a South Korean journal ran the first ever report on the massacres based on testimony from one of the police executioners. It concluded that the cycle of atrocities started when South Korean police killed about 3000 prisoners from Taejon gaol. Leftists then killed about 1300 alleged rightists. Ultimately, some 12,500 people were massacred in the area – about 7000 by rightists, and about 5500 by leftists.

In Korea the West intervened on behalf of a very unpleasant dictatorship and, to judge from the official British history, showed little sensitivity for the feelings of those on whose behalf it was ostensibly intervening. ‘ “Gook”,’ writes General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley in the first volume of his study, The British Part in the Korean War, ‘is the Korean word for people. The British used this term for Koreans as “Yanks” were used for Americans.’ The term ‘Gook’ is perceived by Koreans as deeply offensive.

The West did little to encourage democracy and many Koreans across the political spectrum feel aggrieved by this. In the long run the majority of people living in the South enjoy not only a much higher standard of living, but incomparably greater freedoms than those in the North. In fact, it may well be true that even more people in the South would now thank the West for saving them from Kim’s tyranny than would have done so at the time of the Korean War. Nevertheless, hindsight should not obscure the violence employed to achieve this goal. The Koreans deserve reparations and apologies from Japan for its appalling behaviour during the occupation, but it would be nice if the West, too, could now take a balanced and informed attitude towards it own actions in Korea forty years ago.