Evolving Reflections on US Imperialism in Korea. By: Christian MarinosRead Now
Authors of foreign policy in the United States (US) propose short, justifiable military interventions. These deployments to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan considerably outlast conjured promises of swift victory made by US officials. Instead, these conflicts never fully resolve, and the occupations do not end. The endless war is an imperialist practice which maintains US hegemony throughout the world. American dominance is enforced via military occupation, economic and sociopolitical influence, and wealth extraction in the form of resources. For the Marxist-Leninist and the anti-imperialist, it is important to assess monolithic, enduring forms of oppression. Only through understanding the methods of the empire can one successfully oppose the newest iteration of it. The US occupation of Korea as an endless war has lasted for 70 years. This article specifically explores the US occupation of the Korean peninsula, as well as the economic, diplomatic, and political impacts that this imperialist endeavour has had and continues to have on both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The aim of this article is not to wholy discern the in-depth intricacies of US imperialism in the Korean peninsula, but rather provide an introductory framework as well as uncover misinformation and hearsay regarding the historic and modern implications of the US occupation on the peninsula.
For the sake of transparency, there are challenges in procuring and establishing consistent, accurate information about the DPRK. First, not all primary source material from within the DPRK is obtainable. Second, the DPRK is barred from accessing the global internet structure (Williams, 2016). Third, both English-language and ROK news and information sources about the DPRK include propaganda, often biased against the DPRK. The US is still technically at war with the DPRK, and the US military continues to occupy the ROK (United States [US], 2018). Material for this article spans these conflicting perspectives. Sources that meet a degree of impartiality are utilized to produce supporting arguments. References include the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), global public financial reports, the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), as well as both Korean and Western news media.
The US has a long history of occupying the Korean Peninsula, including a number of military endeavors waged against sovereign Korean governments. In 1871, during the Joseon Dynasty, the US initiated its first attempt to establish trade relations (Nahm, 1996). US warships were forced to retreat following an initially successful but costly skirmish off the coast of Ganghwa Island (Nahm, 1996). The Korean government continued to refuse all negotiations with the US government until 1882. American trade and business ventures would expand in Korea under the Japanese occupation of the Peninsula from 1910 until trade and relations broke down between the US and Japanese governments during World War II (WWII).
When considering post WWII Korea, it is necessary to review the political and economic implications that led to the development of the DPRK and the ROK, the occupation of the ROK by the US military, and the economics and politics in the two modern respective Korean governments. Following WWII, the Korean Peninsula was occupied by two of the Allied victors: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US. The planned objective for both the USSR and the US was to occupy the peninsula on opposing sides of the 38th parallel for roughly a five-year period. Both nations would officially withdraw combat troops in 1948. However, the US did not recall all forces as agreed, but left military advisors in the South until after 1949 (Cummings, 2005). The DPRK, foundationally, could be described as a socialist state, despite formally not identifying as such anymore. Officially the DPRK identifies through a political ideology developed by Kim Il-Sung called “Juche”, which means ‘self-reliance’. Additionally, much of the structure of the DPRK has developed through the idea of “Songun”, which emphasizes the importance of military strength as the primary defender of the nation’s interests and economic development (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2018). The ROK is largely described as a constitutional republic and bases its strong economic development through one of the most domineering capitalist markets in the world (Britannica, 2018).
The foundations of the modern DPRK and the ROK stem from the ashes of the Korean war which lasted from June 1950- July 1953. This conflict did not rise out of nowhere, and it would be historically improper to not highlight here the ahistorical view that the North and Kim Il-Sung were solely responsible for the outbreak of the war. Since the advent of Japanese occupation and the subsequent occupation of the peninsula by both the USSR and the US, many Koreans dreamed of a unified and independent nation of their own to rule over. With the continued division after 1946, these unification sentiments continued to grow. This is relevant because the North did in fact want to unify the two Koreas (by forceful civil war if necessary), and Syngman Rhee (ROK President) and the South also wanted to achieve this as well. Following WWII, it was not the North who initially began drawing up and enacting battle plans to reunify the peninsula, but rather the Southern government under Rhee. While the North was definitely interested, a large portion of the best North Korean soldiers were still participating in the Chinese Civil War, fighting alongside Mao Tse-Tung and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); thus rendering a full-scale offensive into the South, not a feasible notion (Cummings, 2005).
In-fact the major global influencers, the USSR and the US were not totally interested in taking sides in another all-out war either. While the super powers were less inclined to do so, the US did keep military advisers in Seoul to advise on the interests of the American policy of containment and to vett Rhee’s administration of being competent enough of America’s time and money. While the North was assisting the communist revolutionaries in China to secure China’s future support in reuniting the peninsula. In contrast the government in the South; in order to gain favor from the US, was tasked with routing the impoverished guerilla fighters who had begun taking up arms all over the rural sections of the southern peninsula. These guerillas utilized hit and run tactics on military outposts, and while many would either be communists or deemed communist sympathizers, there has never been surmountable proof of material aid from the North (Cummings, 2005). To further strengthen his forces and to undermine the communist element growing in the South from 1946-1949; Rhee bolstered his military and administration with former Japanese colonialist collaborators and soldiers. Rhee’s administration, with the assistance of American advisors, completed their task and all but eliminated between 5,000 and 12,000 guerilla fighters by mid-late 1949. Additionally his military created an estimated 100,000 refugees of villagers solely in the South Chulla region. Throughout much of 1949, skirmishes between the North and the South began appearing in greater numbers, as Rhee’s administration sent exploratory missions into Northern territory, likely in hopes of goading a large (but ineffective) invasion from the North. The response to this from the North would not come until the following year (with the official start to the Korean War), likely due to many of Kim Il-Sung’s best troops and leaders still aiding Mao and the PLA in the last stages of the Chinese Revolution (Cummings, 2005). There are dozens of more significant actions (and tragedies) leading up to the civil war, deeply involving the interests of Kim Il-Sung and the North and Syngman Rhee and the South; but these developments are significantly more suited for military and cultural historians who have documented these events at length. This discussion of military expansion and political power dynamics is explored here to brush the surface of preliminary tensions and the influence of imperialism on the peninsula with historical regards as to how, when, and why the two Koreas should be unified.
Despite the US and the ROK still technically being at war with the DPRK, for the purposes of this article, relations between the DPRK, ROK, and US after the armistice of 1953 will be referred to as ‘post-war involvement’. In order to assess modern dynamics of the US’ involvement in Korea, assessment of the re-establishment of the occupation in post-war Korea must be discussed. As of 2019, the US officially controls 15 military bases situated throughout various regions across the ROK countryside (US, 2018). In addition to these formal outposts, the US military stations additional troops and equipment in ROK military installations throughout the country, as well as along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) (Ryan, 2018).
For many Koreans, over 70 years has been too long of a wait for not only unification, but also self-determination. Throughout the ROK, citizens have a wide variety of opinions on reunification, the occupation, and the military. This includes those who have sided historically with the governments viewpoints, and that of the US, but also those who oppose US presence and military interventions as a means of deterring the DPRK from invading. Most notable are the views of the latter, and can be readily observed by South Koreans who reside in DMZ border towns, or in areas that were displaced for the creation of military installations. Many of these particular critics or US and ROK governance decisions view these military bases and programs such as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) to be overtly aggressive behaviors and hazardous to the citizens of the ROK (Cho, et al., 2018). In looking further as to why the US still occupies the Korean peninsula, we must also further look at the development of cultural views towards reunification among Koreans. Historically reunification has been a hope for many Koreans, but legitimate governmental attempts at this have been largely a political taboo. Much of this taboo is rooted in early US political pressure on the ROK, which originates from before the Korean war, under the first US occupation at the end of WWII. Since the impeachment and arrest of former ROK President Park Geun-Hye (daughter of former ROK Dictator Park Chung-Hee), current President Moon Jae-In has made significant efforts towards unification and denuclearization of the peninsula. The DPRK has since utilized this new political climate led by Moon’s administration in an attempt to leverage the sanctions imposed by the US where possible (Griffiths, 2018).
Another consideration of the continued occupation of the ROK is due to the benefits it brings from investments into the military industrial complex. Not only does the US allocate more funding for its military than many other nations combined (National Priorities, 2015), which designates a vested interest for American defense contractors, but Korean capitalists and investors across the global market have much to gain from furthering the Korean War. Following the military industrial complex’s possibility for profit due to these material conditions, a reunification of the peninsula under a joint ROK/USA venture would open up millions of dollars in natural resources to be stolen from the northern regions, and profit extracted to shareholders in other parts of the world (Killalea, 2017). Keeping these considerations in mind, we must also look to one of US President Donald Trump’s summits with DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un. Stock volume for companies with large US defence contracts, such as Halliburton (HAL, 2018), Raytheon (RTN, 2018), and Lockheed Martin (LMT, 2018), dropped either leading up to, or following the meeting. South Korean companies such as Samsung have made significant investments in building up ROK military strength. Samsung is one of the largest tech and telecom companies in the world and owns a subsidiary corporation which works closely with the ROK and US military advisors, as well as holding significant portions of defence contracts with the ROK government. To give a more specific example, Samsung developed an autonomous sentry unit that is to be stationed at various points along the DMZ, where this sentry costs $200,000 USD per unit (Crane, 2014). Continued examination of the relation between the capitalist class and the ROK government shows significant signs of corruption, especially for capitalists who directly benefit from the continuation of the Korean War. Several former Samsung executives faced various charges and jail sentences for bribing and inducing corruption in former President Park Geun-Hye’s administration. Notably, Lee Jae-Young the (at the time) Vice-Chairman of Samsung, was relieved of his five-year prison sentence for bribing the former president (Reuters, 2017).
Looking through the US’ historical obstruction of the peace process between the ROK and the DPRK, the notion that the US’ presence as an occupying force of the ROK has been all but solidified. Due to long standing economic aid, as well as the laws set up within the ROK, the US has significant control of what the peace process does or does not look like on the peninsula. The US can threaten economic cutbacks, reduced investments, and even veto ROK governance decisions as chartered through treaties and laws. From 1953 up through Nikki Haley’s departure as the US’ United Nations representative; there has been continued condemnation and obstruction to any ROK politicians attempting to meet with DPRK officials to discuss denuclearization or an official end to the war. Despite this, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recanted negative statements made by Haley against Kim Jong-Un, and stated that he and the DPRK were making significant efforts towards reconciling with the ROK and limiting continued US involvement (Webb, 2017).
There are significant political and economic motives for the US and Korean capitalists to push for staunch and restrictive economic and foreign policies towards the DPRK. The presence of conservative sections of Korean society, which frequently are rooted in anti-communist ideology sourced from the US occupation and various ROK administrations, is still very much apparent (Silberstein, et al., 2017). Additionally with regards to US economic policy towards the DPRK, sanctions have yielded mixed results. These sanctions exacerbated the devastation that gripped the DPRK in the mid-to-late 1990’s caused by a naturally occuring famine and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR (Park, 2017). Currently there is conflicting evidence that shows food availability and market values are both at nominal levels (as compared to other nations), while other reports state food insecurity still exists at a national level within the DPRK (CIA, n.d.).
Among South Koreans, there is no overall consensus for a means to end the war, the occupation, and establishing reunification. Presently the key objective for the DPRK is likely the removal of the US military from the peninsula and the potential for reunification with the ROK. The present goals of the US are evidenced to be continued pushing for economic and quasi-political supremacy of the region, and pushing for the denuclearization of the DPRK. Regardless of any one country's individual endeavors, the current dichotomy on the Korean peninsula will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Marxist-Leninists and anti-imperialists must be cognisant of the world around them. Imperialism does not just come in the form of foreign military dictatorship. It comes in the form of investment rooted in the oppression of the occupied people and the detraction from self determination. For those in the imperial core, most notably the US, the importance cannot be expressed enough about being at the forefront of the anti-imperialist movement. Being at the forefront of this most noble and necessary cause begins with understanding the issue.
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Christian Marinos is a Social Worker and Socialist from Akron, Ohio. He has a history in working in both manual labor and service industry jobs, as well as working for various social service and grassroot organizations in Northeast Ohio. Areas of interest includes (among others): U.S. imperialism, the plight of Refugees and Immigrants, the impact of social services in the imperial core, and global economics.