The Overlooked Past Behind U.S.-North Korea Tensions & How South Korea Could Forge Peace

Yves here. This Real News Network segment gives a high-level overview of American-North Korean hostilities, and suggests that South Korea could de-escalate matters. While in theory true, there seem to be some large impediments. First, China does not want a unified Korea, and query what a less warlike co-existence might look like. Second, North Korea is an economic basket case. In theory, the best way out would be a massive bribe to help improve living conditions. But the US does not operate that way, and North Korea is such a mess that even if we did, the cost would be unacceptable to the American public. And third, as Lambert points out, South Korea is in the midst of an earth-shaking political crisis. It would seem doubtful that a new government on such a shaky footing could implement a radical policy change with respect to North Korea, even if a clearly better plan of action existed.

AARON MATÉ: it’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are rising. North Korea has warned the U.S. that sending a navy strike group, including the aircraft carrier Karl Vincent to the Korean Peninsula, could lead to war. North Korea’s official newspaper said its, quote, “nuclear sight is focused on U.S. forces and the U.S. mainland”.

A new ballistic missile test last week is said to have prompted the Trump administration’s move, sending a U.S. navy force into the area. In a Twitter post President Trump said, quote, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA.”

Joining us is Christine Hong, Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz. She is on the executive board of the Korea Policy Institute. Welcome, Professor Hong.

CHRISTINE HONG: Thanks, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: This is not the first time that the U.S. has moved a navy force into that peninsula, but the first time it’s done so under President Trump. Talk about what’s going on.

CHRISTINE HONG: Well, I mean, you raise a very interesting point. You know, the question is to what degree is Trump’s hawkish, very aggressive, bellicose stance toward North Korea a continuation of the policies of his predecessors? And, in fact, it was Trump the candidate who struck a very different note. If you recall roughly a year ago Trump stated, when he was on the campaign trail, that he would be willing – and this is a very maverick statement – to actually sit down with Kim Jong-un and speak with him. And it was that that represented the possibility of something different.

What’s happening right now, unfortunately, is business as usual. And, in point of fact, under President Barack Obama, the policy that was carried out, the U.S. policy that was carried out with regard to Asia and the Pacific, was what he called his “pivot policy”. Under that pivot policy, that was later called the rebalancing policy, the balance of U.S. naval forces went from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that 60% are concentrated now in the Pacific.

Whereas a lot of people are looking at Trump right now and rightly recognizing that his very aggressive language is bringing us to the brink of something very dangerous, we were on the brink during the past presidency, as well.

AARON MATÉ: When North Korea launches a ballistic test, what should the U.S. do?

CHRISTINE HONG: You know, unfortunately right now, we’re in this very lamentable situation in which North Korea’s launching of these tests is a kind of way of communicating with the United States. Much as Trump’s air strike was also meant, as his administration openly admitted, to be a form of communication with North Korea, as well. And so, we have this sort of very dangerous mode of communication where these kinds of bombs, bombs are substituting for actual dialogue.

So, I would say that right now Trump is sort of walking a very tried and true, regime change oriented path that many of his predecessors have also walked along. That if there’s any way for Trump the maverick who is willing to sit down with Kim Jong-un, if there’s any possibility of that, I think that that is one of the only ways forward.

AARON MATÉ: There have been talks between the U.S. and North Korea before. There was the agreement in the ’90s between Clinton and the North Korean regime to get North Korea to freeze its plutonium production. These agreements worked for a bit, but then they collapsed. Can you talk about the history of recent U.S.-North Korean engagement and how we got to where we are today?

CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I think that we have to actually look at the long history, and then look at the more recent history. From its very inception as a state, North Korea has been subjected to a policy that we can just broadly call regime change on the part of the United States. You can understand the Korean War, an extensive campaign, an asymmetrical war that was aimed at regime change. And you can understand more recent policy in that same light.

But, you’re very right. At the end of the Clinton administration there was the possibility of engagement. And when George W. Bush came into office he adopted what was known as the ABC policy, the All But Clinton Policy. And as I’m sure your viewers recall, he nominated North Korea as part of the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’. And also, the other thing that happened during his administration is that, as part of the U.S. nuclear posture review, it listed North Korea among several other states as a likely and possible target of a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear strike.

From mid-century onward, the United States has had a very aggressive nuclear policy toward North Korea. It contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Korea and China at mid-century. And, in fact, some of the U.S. strategic planners envisioned a kind of Cobalt Zone where no life could live for hundreds of years.

Against the conditions of the Armistice Agreement, which was concluded in July of 1953, the U.S. stationed – and this was illegal – nuclear weapons on the southern part of the Korean Peninsula until the end of the Cold War. Over a dozen times the United States has threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation. But if you look at this long history you can understand that, from North Korea’s perspective, it’s eminently rational to actually develop a nuclear weapons program as a self-defense measure.

And I also do want to say that one thing that very few people in the United States have is a memory of ruin, in terms of its hot wars during the Cold War. Throughout the Cold War the United States waged really destructive hot wars in the Third World, most infamously on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam. And, you know, an estimated 4 million people – Koreans – were killed during that asymmetrical war in which the United States unleashed bombs with absolutely no regard for human life. 70% of those who were killed were civilians. Chinese statistics have North Korean casualties at one/third of the total population.

And so, when you’re talking about North Korea’s memory, in terms of people who are alive today, there’s not a family that was untouched by the ruination of the Korean War.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. So, you’re saying that this very devastating and long history fuels some of the antagonism that North Korea projects towards the U.S. today. Going back to the devastating Korean War.

But what to do now? I mean, people look at the Korean regime and say, you know, this is the worst government in the world. How do we deal with them? What’s your response to that?

CHRISTINE HONG: I just say that the primary ways that we know North Korea are through lenses of war. And so, you know, if there are other ways of engaging with North Korea, and this is the other thing, too, throughout the presidency of Barack Obama there was absolutely no engagement with North Korea. And I think that that is one of those options that, you know, supposedly, the Trump administration has stated that all options are on the table, and that’s meant very ominously. You know, I mean, we’re made to understand that a nuclear first strike is possible. But I hope that one of those options is also engagement.

AARON MATÉ: And what would engagement look like?

CHRISTINE HONG: It would look like a much more humane policy toward North Korea. Right now, the United States, against the wishes of the South Korean people, is deploying what they call a missile defense system, the THAAD battery to South Korea. And it accelerated that under Donald Trump. The people in the communities in which these systems will be located have actually really protested against this.

And that was also part of the protests against the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, that you saw those massive, millions of people who went to the streets in South Korea, that was one of the issues that was animating those protests.

Another way in which engagement would appear would be… it would be actually North Korea has repeatedly stated that it’s willing to cap its nuclear program – not do away with, but cap its nuclear program – if the United States stops performing war exercises with South Korea. And these are the largest war exercises in the world.

AARON MATÉ: Can there be direct talks now between the Trump administration and North Korea?

CHRISTINE HONG: You know, I think the interesting thing about Trump is if his predecessor, Barack Obama, had a policy of strategic patience toward North Korea, Trump’s has been strategic unpredictability, and strategic opaqueness, with the threat of a nuclear first strike thrown in. I’m not sure what’s possible at this present juncture because things do seem so dire.

But it was Trump the candidate who did speak in very unorthodox fashion about being willing to actually sit down with Kim Jong-un. And if that’s at all possible now, I’d say that that’s one of the only pathways forward.

The other thing that’s happening is although the Trump administration is speaking to its conservative counterpart in South Korea, as you well know, the South Korean president was ousted. And all signs suggest that the next administration in South Korea is going to be progressive. And so, that’s a wind of change that’s happening. And in actually in planning its North Korea policy, the Trump administration can’t but deal with South Korea. And so, we do have change that’s happening there and that actually suggests another sort of possibility of engagement.

AARON MATÉ: Professor Christine Hong of UC Santa Cruz, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRISTINE HONG: Thank you very much.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I suspect that China is less interested in a divided Korea then in ensuring it does not have a potentially hostile neighbour on a direct border. There is no evidence that the Chinese have anything but dislike for the North Korean government, they see supporting it as an unfortunate necessity. The obvious solution is for an acknowledgement that the Korean people should decide the destiny of the peninsula, but with a guarantee that foreign (i.e. US) militaries are not allowed to be based there. I suspect it is Washington, not Beijing that is the obstacle to this sort of approach.

    Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The North Korean government will cling on to the last drop of their countrymen’s blood, and I don’t think the South Korean government has the ability to stake out a strong independent foreign policy. The Chinese will see the status quo as the least worst of a lot of bad options.

    1. IDontKnow

      …nor, based on the examples of US guarantees to Gorbachev/USSR that NATO would not be expanded if the USSR acquiesced to the reunification of Germany. No one in their right mind would trust the USA to keep any guarantee; so the question for Beijing is how far could a United Korea be trusted not to let the USA back in.

      Both Korean governments have claims on lands now in China, and no leader, no party/government organ in China could survive giving up land. A United Korea would quickly forget China’s role, and constantly agitate for these lands to be returned, probably leaving a united Korea in the US orbit.

      1. RabidGandhi

        PK would have to elaborate here, but I read his comment that China prefers the status quo as being based on the assumption that a united Korea would inevitably entail a weakening of North Korea’s strident anti-US stance. To the CCP’s eyes, the threat would not be Korean irredentism, which given the power differential would be far-fetched to say the least. Rather their concern is exactly the one you mention, that those THAAD missiles would end up even closer to the Yalu, as in East Europe.

        Adding: the sad part in all of this is the history. After World War II, Kim Il Sung sent hardened WWII partizans to help the Chinese Revolutionary Army win the 1949 Revolution. In the Korean War, Mao returned the favour by sending the weary but highly-experienced Chinese army to turn back the US invasion. While there was certainly a degree of realpolitik there, nevertheless anti-imperialist solidarity also played a huge role. Sadly, with China’s transformation into the world’s largest capitalist state, that solidarity is disintegrating.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I’m not sure that there was ever that much ideological solidarity between China and North Korea, I’ve always thought that China’s military intervention in the Korean War was more strategic than anything else. But I could stand corrected on that, it’s not a subject I’m an expert on. Since the north fell back economically in the 70’s it’s always been an assumption on all sides that reunification would in effect be a takeover by Seoul. I’ve always thought there has been a tendency by westerners to overemphasize ideology and underemphasiae nationalism when looking at Asian geopolitics.

    2. nathan riley

      A strong independent South Korea that pledges neutrality (meaning withdrawal of U.S. troops) also must assume the cost of integrating with North Korea. Germany’s experience with unification suggests this is an expensive commitment. I think China would endorse this plan provided they had assurance there would be no refugee crisis. South Korea has extensive ties to the U.S. They could sell this plan to Congress with the right President.

  2. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves, for sharing this insight.

    In similar vein to the insight you kindly shared about the Netherlands a couple of months ago, one does not get anything in the MSM. Foreign leaders, if not the people / countries they lead, are reduced to cartoon / pantomime villains /characters, depictions that drive policy. I remember when Reagan’s depiction of Gadafy as “flaky” in 1986 became le mot du jour.

  3. cocomaan

    This is a great look at the history of NK.

    I’d also just like to point us also to one of the main drivers of the NK regime: JAPAN. When you read about NK’s monuments, their philosophy, and what makes the propaganda tick, much of it has to do with the absolute humiliation they say was perpetrated on them by the Japanese.

    Ask Koreans (South and North) and you’ll hear about cultural subjugation, feudalism, and rape. It’s a sordid history of colonial administration, no matter who you ask.

    If America thinks it can solve a century old ethnic conflict, it’s mistaken. We couldn’t do it in Afghanistan, we certainly can’t pull it off in the Koreas.

    1. RabidGandhi

      That is a fundamental point about Japan. Also in that regard it is crucial to remember that whereas the North Korean regime was founded by the main resistance leader to the Japanese occupation, the South Korean regime was founded by collaborators with the Japanese (eg, deposed President Park Geun-hye’s father, dictator Park Chung-hee) and it was kept in power by US force. As elsewhere in the post-WWII world (eg, Italy, Greece Indonesia…), the US worked intensely to install fascist collaborators as a bulwark against “communism” (read nationalism). Thus the US decimation of North Korea– which leveled every last one of its major cities, carpet bombing dams and agriculture– was and is part of a larger war of local Quisling élites against their native populations.

      In this sense I disagree with you about whether the US is able to “solve a century old ethnic conflict”, since the 38th Parallel is not an ethnic division or a matter of inter-communal hate as in Punjab or Bosnia; it is rather class warfare writ large. Furthermore, as in most conflicts worldwide, the US is far from an impartial player that needs to do something positive to end a conflict. Rather, as elsewhere, the most effective action the US can take to help resolve the conflict would be to desist from its attack position: remove all of its military force from the region, cease military aid to ROK, Japan, Philippines, etc.

      As you hint in your comment, in the west, we get this amnesiac picture of the North Korean regime that emphasises its looniness, inevitably with the assumption that it is on the brink of collapse. But the main reason why the regime is nowhere as weak as is portrayed is that it is propped up by a very real threat of impending national destruction, backed up by the very present memory of the very real destruction wrought on the country in the living memory of many Koreans. As Prof. Hong makes clear in the interview, removing this threat of imminent destruction– in honest memory of what actually happened in the Forgotten War– is the only way forward.

      1. cocomaan

        Love this post, thank you for the deeper dive. This history isn’t my strong point, so I am glad that you framed it this way.

        Regarding the ethnic conflict, I was more referring to a Japanese/Korean conflict than an ethnic divide between N and S, but your point is well taken.

        Peace is paramount here. We’re not going to accomplish anything with a war with NK. They’re now primed to resist an occupying force. It’s in their blood at this point.

      2. Aaron Aarons

        Yes, and the correct position for the anti-imperialist left is to defend the DPRK against the U.S., Japan, et al., both politically and, where possible, materially.

    2. Uahsenaa

      It certainly doesn’t help that Japan is growing ever more militaristic by the day and that its government is still run by the same right-wing, ultra-nationalistic cabal that’s been in power since Koizumi (with a brief but weird interlude under the DPJ). These are the very same people who have been riding the denial train regarding Japanese imperialism and, I imagine, wouldn’t be too upset by getting another foothold in the mainland. After all, why would Abe press so hard for greater military latitude during the TPP talks, if it weren’t to go on some sort of military adventure?

    3. sierra7

      Yes, Japan occupied Korea for approx. 40 years prior to Japan’s defeat in WW2.
      Then their were the “settlements” to WW2 that were the results of the last “Big Powers Conference(s)” near end of that war; Russia accepting Japanese military surrender in the “north” of the arbitrary 38th parallel; the US in the “south”. Russia carried out it’s agreement to leave NK after the surrenders; the US did not leave the south. The split really hurt almost all Koreans because of the economic/natural resources/agricultural asset interdependences.
      Korea was devastated during the Korean/US war…especially the north….unbeknownst to so many in the US, literally millions of Koreans died in that war; the US ran out of targets to bomb especially in the North. Most US backed South Korean governments have been very corrupt. The North is ideologically bent to resist any changes in re-unification. It is a truly sad situation. As the article (and many others) state there are no easy answers.
      During the Clinton administration an agreement was made with North Korea to lift some sanctions, agree to ship oil and other energy necessities in trade for them not to pursue military nuclear power. The incoming Bush 2 admin. tore up the agreement. Americans should have asked their government if that is/was the way to conduct foreign policy. Alas, we still have crusty, moldy Cold War Warriors embedded in the government that serve in many administrations.
      Personally I believe that only China will be able to contribute anything of value to restrain the US and come to some kind of real-politic assistance to both North and South for reconciliation. That certainly is not in the recipe for the US. The Korean/US war is not over; it is only in “armistice”. Either the US policy changes or this will continue until some nut on either side sparks a conflagration.

      1. Ames Gilbert

        Remember also the 1882 treaty between Korea and the United States. Amongst many articles, it included a mutual defense provision. When the Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, the U.S., to its eternal shame, decided not to honor its obligations. Just another in a long, long list of the treaties the U.S. has broken. In fact, it is hard to name a treaty amongst the hundred it has signed, both internal and external, that the U.S. has not broken!
        Any entity signing a formal written treaty, let alone assuming any ‘understanding’ with the U.S., should prepare for betrayal and disappointment as a matter of course. A study of the actual facts, over the entire history of the U.S., show that the country has an absolute disregard for international law of any kind, let alone treaties, which are supposed to be primary obligations over and above any other laws—according to the Constitution.

  4. R R Hayes

    If Europe can forget WWII and work together, why can’t NK & SK? Seems that they, as a united country could potentially surpass Japan in economic power. And what is better than economically dominating markets to show which culture is superior?

    There needs to be dialogue, sponsored by China between the NK & SK. With a strong facilitator, driving them toward unification, it might happen. And Trump should be more than willing to have our troops withdrawn from SK–saving us billions in defense spending. The impact on the Korean economy would be adverse, but those troops can be re-deployed to other Asian nations who would like to see our troops spend Green Backs in their nation. And if none want the economic infusion, Fort Hood’s communities would.

    Our goal should be a unified Korean peninsula, as should China. Because a unified Korea would be a good partner for Chinese exports–like cheap steel to be made into pipes for oil exploration. And a unified Korea could produce good quality products with lower labor costs.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “If Europe can forget World War II”

      You might be glossing over certain events and just udder devastation.

      The South Koreans just impeached their very own cultist and daughter of their former dictator. I know they play baseball and make a number of consumer products, but I’m not certain this can simply be ignored.

      “If Europe can forget the Napoleonic Wars…” would apply too in many ways.

    2. JTMcPhee

      RR, nice neoliberal dreaming there — “more good quality stuff [made with Chinese steel, like that California bridge?] at low labor costs,” what does that mean to the hypothetical ordinary person here and there, hmmm?

      And for all of us, consider for a moment: who is/are the agents for the personifications/hypostatizations that all us armchair geopoliticians, we just love to Talk Big Picture, about what “we” should or shouldn’t to, love to talk about, “NK” and “SK” and “China” “the US” and “Europe” and so forth, that should “reason together,” and Make Trade Not War, as if there is any cure for the latter in the former?

      Sure seems clear, even in our own USian case, that there are a lot of “agents” acting nominally for “the US,” speaking with seeming authority (Nuland, Haley, Lurch, April Gillespie, The Trump, Flynn, Kushner, yes, both male and female) and of course the people we don’t get to see, who actually “Act” to make actions that can be “studied judiciously.”

      Maybe it’s just such a nice convenient shorthand, this reification of “states” that themselves are fictions obscuring the stuff that lies beneath the blanket term, MIC and banksters and Supra-national corporations under flags of tax-avoidance-externality-facilitating convenience, and so forth. Too bad that all this is more like the Krebs/citric acid cycle in its actual complexity, but the best us limited humans can do is visualize “it all” as a Game of RISK! (TM) and Monopoly! ?(TM) and Life! (TM).

      Seems there ain’t no one living, in NK, who gets to speak for the state creature but The Wonderful Leader and his carefully fearfully constrained closest consiglieres. And here? 50,000 US troops in SK, a vast military infrastructure and profitable supply lines and procurements to be protected by the heavy-lobbying corporations involved and the Brass in the Chain of Commmand who get such fine perks for “managing that part of the Global Battlespace” that the military people have divvied up the planet into, the Nine Commands, each with its own Nazgul and hordes of volunteer Orcs and linkages to local native militaries and national police forces and all the corruption that makes up such a massive part of it all.

      If Trump did somehow even remove most of “the troops” from SK, “facilitated” by some strong person or entity, it’s guaranteed that there will never be a “peace dividend” of “saving billions–” that wealth is predestined to flow to other cost centers with the War Department.

      Yah, let “us” sit and reason together, push the parts of the Korean Peninsula into some kind of proximity, and hope that that does not produce a kind of critical-mass reaction… Out of any kind of control — with a relative few to profit and gain “power” over whatever comes out of it…

    3. sierra7

      It would be useful if the US would “allow” a reunification…which it will not. I don’t foresee any giving in on the part of the US in the medium term future. For the US to “retreat” from South Korea would be a major, major policy change and the admittance of “defeat” in Asia. We already have had major problems in the Philippines; withdrawing from Korea would be unthinkable for the “Deep State” ideologues. Both NK and SK are ruled by extremist governments. The North, rigidly (and protectively) ideological; the South by successive corrupt “democratic” ones. I feel sorry for both all the Korean peoples. I served during the Korean War and like most young going to war because they are “forced” to, didn’t understand squat during that brutal mess. I spent one year out of my four aboard an aircraft carrier operating within Task Force 77 off the East coast of Korea. I have since devoured most historical descriptions of that war and know of no real solution giving the characteristics of the US (Deep State) and the intransigence of both NK and SK.

      1. animalogic

        The best opening for positive change may be a break in the line of NK Kim Jong family succession….

  5. JTMcPhee

    There’s a lot more “past” to Korea than what is noted here, not that most of the Empire gives a toot. Other than “the South Shall Rise Again,” “We” seem notably short of long-memory capacity that so many other people in other parts of the world manifest, in spades — Armenia, anyone? Even Vietnam? Sunni-Shia?

    “We” obscure the activities of the CIA and the rest of spookdom in the “establishment of democracy (sic)” in the Korean Peninsula after the surrender of the Japanese government in 1945. “We” installed a guy named Syngman Rhee to rule the place, and in the run up to the Korean Conflict, there was all the “democratic” activity of mass killings and oppression detailed here, . And then “we” cooperated in killing Rhee, to put someone who was even more “our guy” in place. During the Conflict, the good ol’ Purity of Arms US military, many of the GIs apotheosized by Bill Mauldin, either ignored, blinked at or took active part in more mass killings of civilians, on the not altogether specious notion that there were NK terrorists hidden in among the mowed-down masses. Or just because they were little yellow creatures… Let us of course gloss over all the activities of Our Great Nation(‘s Rulers) that resulted in this last global conflict, and the horrors “we” visited on the Wogs and Yellow Perils and “little countries down there in Monroe Doctrineland. “We” stir the pot, commit the atrocities, connive and arrange overthrows and destabilizations, all “in the (serially undefined but supposedly grokked) national interest” and all that…

    And echoing the actions of yet another, much smaller “democracy” that is supposed to be a “staunch ally” but wags the US dog as a vastly potent tail, there’s this history of Korea’s CIA activities in the US of Democratic A:

    All this behind the vast, bland screen that makes up the back wall of the Cave we live in… See how “democratic” our rulers let us be? We can choose Acura over Honda, Infiniti over Nissan, Chrysler over Chevy, “fries with that?” And on and on…

  6. AA

    The following history of Abe family (from wiki) may also be relevant. Abe is the prime minister of Japan.


    Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi,[1] is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War. Since GHQ’s policy changed and became more anti-communist, Kishi was released from Sugamo Prison, and later established the Japan Democratic Party. In his book “Utsukushii Kuni e” (“Toward a Beautiful Country”), Abe wrote “Some people used to point to my grandfather as a ‘Class-A war criminal suspect’, and I felt strong repulsion. Because of that experience, I may have become emotionally attached to ‘conservatism’, on the contrary”.[2]

    As a self-described “playboy of the Eastern world”, Kishi was known during his four years in Manchukuo for his lavish spending amid much drinking, gambling and womanizing.[40]A man with a very active sex life, Kishi when not visiting the brothels of Manchuria was demanding sex from the waitresses who served him at the expensive restaurants he patronized (Kishi seemed to have regarded sex from waitresses as an essential part of his fine dining experience).[41] Kishi was able to afford his hedonist, free-spending lifestyle as he had control of millions of yen with virtually no oversight, and additionally was deeply involved in the opium trade; it is generally believed at the time and since that Kishi engaged in corruption to enrich himself.[42] Kishi was known for his skill in laundering money and as the man who could move millions of yen “with a single telephone call”.[42]During his time in Manchukuo, Kishi was able to marshal private capital in a very strongly state-directed economy to achieve vastly increased industrial production while at the same time displaying complete indifference to the exploited Chinese workers toiling in Manchukuo’s factories; the American historian Mark Driscoll described Kishi’s system as a “necropolitical” system where the Chinese workers were literally treated as dehumanized cogs within a vast industrial machine.[43] Kishi favored giant conglomerates as the engines of industrial growth as the best way of achieving economics of scale. The system that Kishi pioneered in Manchuria of a state-guided economy where corporations made their investments on government orders later served as the model for Japan’s post-1945 development, albeit not with same level of brutal exploitation as in Manchukuo.[44] Later on, Kishi’s etatist model for economic development was adopted in South Korea and China, again albeit not executed with anywhere near the same brutality as in Manchuria.[45]

  7. Matthew Cunningham-Cook

    Yves– We should be careful to avoid metaphysical statements on the North Korean economy. There is no meaningful economic statistical analysis going on. Closest thing to it is the migration rate, which is average. Given that Chinese manufacturers are always on the hunt for cheap rural labor, the low migration rate indicates a sluggish economy but highly equal (likely lowest gini coefficient on the planet due to social and legal strictures on conspicuous consumption), which offsets the pull of much, much higher paid employment in China.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? North Korea is such an economic mess that it is not producing enough calories for its citizens. For over a decade, there have been regular reports of it being common for children to be so small (as in 10 year olds the height of 7 year old Asian children) that that level of underfeeding would also have a cognitive impact. Reporters who visit can’t even get enough food. Michael Lewis wrote in detail about losing weight there when that was not intent and described in detail the food he could get.

      See this, for instance: (VOA but cites another UN report)

      There is no doubt that North Korea is in vastly worse shape that Eastern Germany at the time the wall fell. The cost of integrating Eastern Germany Western Germany is now recognized as a significant contributor to the Eurozone crisis (as in Germany adopted a policy of wage suppression which it now insists other European countries adopt).

    1. vegeholic

      Whoa! That interview was seriously good. Thanks for the link. I need to read Bruce Cummings’ book.

    2. olga

      Thanks for posting this (there’s a lot, and he also puts the malnutrition data into context).
      Some years ago, when Background Briefing was still a good radio programme, the host had on a US professor, who worked in Seoul, and he described NK as a state more along the lines of military Japan (pre-1945), which suddenly made a lot of sense. Nothing to do with communism…
      This – – kinda alludes to that point, too.
      Demonising NK is a whole industry in the US (and the west) – but, as usual – the reality is much more complex. Surprisingly (or not), Russian media are able to get in and broadcast from there…

  8. Actus Purus

    “While in theory true, there seem to be some large impediments. First, China does not want a unified Korea, and query what a less warlike co-existence might look like. Second, North Korea is an economic basket case.”

    Yves, these points are distractions. It’s not China that stirs instability and hostilities in NE Asia. It’s the US.

    And I’m not so sure that the US (or Japan) desires a united Korea. A united Korea would likely pivot towards China. Without the NKorean threat, America’s NE Asian military bases becomes harder to rationalize except as a direct containment policy against China (which it is).

    It’s the US that refuses detente and a peace treaty with North Korea. It’s the US that carries on a hostile foreign policy, including isolation, sanctions and propaganda. And this in the face of repeated entreaties from NKorea for normalization and conclusion to the Korean War.

    For real big picture view, keep in mind that it was the US that divided a united Korea following WWII against the will of the Korean people. The US divided the nation (unilaterally) and inadvertently set the stage for the Korean War where, as Prof. Hong stated, up to 1/3 of the Korean people perished.

    The US created the North and South and perpetuate that division through its lunatic foreign policy.

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