The fear of war with both Iraq and North Korea has been looming over our heads for the bulk of this holiday season. Whether it frightens you or not, it is largely a personal matter based on your love of either sports or politics, but it should be understood all around that the situation is tense.
I’m not so worried about a nuclear war in Northeast Asia as much as I am with the totalitarian nature of North Korean society and the desire of its leader, Kim Jong Il, to build an “army-based powerful nation”. I don’t even know specifically what he means by this, but I think that a good guess would be to look at either the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, or Nazi Germany as examples of what a completely militarized society would look like.
The desire to build a society based completely on war seems rather ludicrous in an era when a nation’s prosperity, and security, is dependant on international treaties and economic interdependence. This leads to two possible conclusions about Kim Jong Il: Either he is crazier and more megalomaniacal than Saddam Hussein, or he is a brilliant geo-political strategist who knows exactly how to manipulate the great powers of the world. The more I look at him, the more I suspect that it might be a combination of the two.
At the very least, the U.S. ambassador has stated the United States is willing to provide not just humanitarian aid, but economic aid as well. The situation may appear to be slightly simmering down, but the situation, if at all in character with Kim Jong Il, is far from over.
With the present situation having been stated, it seems necessary, in order to fully understand it, to get a little historical knowledge of the Korean nations.
The dynastic periods, while important for a long-term study of Korea, was relatively unimportant in the shaping of the present situation. The Choson dynasty reigned from 1392 until 1910 when the Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan. This was an interesting period in Korean history that was characterized by a neo-Confucian system of social and political life.
This hierarchical structure would be shattered in the ensuing Japanese occupation and exploitation of the peninsula, preparing it for the transition to a modern industrial economy. The Japanese occupation was disrupted several times, but the most important disruption was that of the March First Movement, which began to unify feelings of Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment. This movement and the willingness of Japanese governor-general Saito Makoto to give into Korean demands for civil liberties saw to the beginning of the end of Japanese domination and the rise of the modern Korean state.
After WWII, Korea stood divided between the two conflicting superpowers. What happened next was both the result of Soviet greed and the Allies’ stupidity. Separate elections were held in the south, ensuring that unification would not occur, and ultimately leading to the Korean War.
More importantly, any dreams of a united Korean nationalism were crushed for the foreseeable future. The rest is history with the north aligning itself with the communist bloc countries and the south doing the exact opposite by joining the western powers. As the “market-dictatorship” of the south gave way to democracy, the north sank further and further into totalitarianism under a cult of personality.
This extreme ideology isolated North Korea from its own allies further impoverishing the nation and polarizing sentiments within its borders against all things foreign.
Korea is a touchy situation. One false, or insane, move could trigger a violent conflict between numerous powers that all have a stake in the peninsula’s outcome.
The key to success in this crisis is knowledge, understanding and rational thinking, not sudden decisions or rhetorical arguments.