Just recently encountered the harrowing accounts of the 1950-53 “Korean War” by Pyun Yung-tai, who served as foreign minister and later acting prime minister of the Republic of Korea during the hellish, cataclysmic conflagration. Inverted commas encompass the most-routinely employed term for the war above – in deference to Pyun’s resolute protestations against what he viewed to be an overly simplistic and thus potentially misleading phrase.
He told a UN committee on Nov. 3, 1952, “The struggle in our country is often called a limited war, but for Korea it is an unlimited war of total destruction. It is often called the Korean War, but this is another misnomer, for it actually is a global war that is being waged at its hottest on our soil.”
A year earlier -- some 10 months into the war -- Pyun declared that the Korean people were “undergoing a virtual genocide,” and depicted the unprecedented destruction he was witnessing firsthand as follows:
“The bulk of the Korean people, rendered homeless and uprooted ... wander like clouds over areas made desolate by the war and vanish like clouds, exposed to hunger, cold and man-made demolition. Just think of a full-fledged modern war of hitherto unheard of power of destruction again and again sweeping over such a narrow strip of land as Korea. ... Just think of scores of thousands of tons of high explosives smashing up nothing but Korea! Neither Germany nor Japan, war-harried as they were, can approach the present Korea in stark devastation. The Korean case, in which her allies, in terms of practicalities, seem to have joined hands with her enemies in her own destruction ... is something tragically unique and unparalleled in human history.”
American historian Robert Oliver commended Pyun as a man of remarkable integrity and insight, stating he “was able to pierce through the cant and hypocrisy of the international scene to the stark realities below the surface” in May 1953. Oliver asserted “our situation would have been vastly improved had our policymakers subjected themselves to his tutelage” but that, in the end, Pyun “expected the worst -- and as events have shown he was eminently right in this anticipation.”
Touching on Korea, Donald Trump recently remarked to the Wall Street Journal, “You know, you’re talking about thousands of years ... and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China.”
In the interview, Trump seemed to proffer as “facts” his unfounded, opportunistic and juvenile interpretations of statements allegedly made by Chinese President Xi Jinping during their first summit. In a Friday editorial, The Korea Herald noted, “If the US leader had acknowledged what Xi allegedly said as truth, it would be a serious problem. Trump and Xi may strike a dangerous deal on the fate of the Korean Peninsula.”
Many in the South have taken the fabrication suggesting Korea was historically Chinese territory to task -- equally precarious is the worrisome exaggeration that the country was incurably plagued by “many wars” throughout its history.
In sheer contradistinction to Trump’s narration, Pyun decried with heart-rending bitterness of spirit in a Jan. 9, 1946 column, “They wisely point to our inability to rule ourselves. It is a foreign fiction, sir. Our long record of peaceful self-rule unrivalled in history has implanted in our very veins an ineradicable conviction that we can manage our own affairs, minus foreign forceful wire pulling. Their greed-blinded eyes ignore that long history of ours, and their power-drunken reason naively call this international murder liberation.”
Korea scholar Gregory Henderson -- formerly US vice consul in Seoul at the outbreak of the war -- concurred with Pyun’s assessment concerning Korea’s “long record of peaceful self-rule,” designating Korea “one of the most pacifist of states in the world” whose refashioning into the most militarized region on earth in the 20th century was the “special domain of foreign influence.”
Pyun gravely forewarned in October 1945 of a looming proxy war, writing in a letter that was later delivered to Gen. MacArthur,
“This most glaring piece of international tragedy ever recorded in history will have been enacted, if the two now juxtaposed armies, each finding the justification of its presence in the presence of the other, should prolong their stay in Korea until it is too late for her to do anything for self-defense.”
Former State Department official George McCune, among the few American “Korea specialists” of the period, wrote for a report published in 1950, “international rivalries ... have divided the country in military occupation, in ideology, and now even in autonomous government. ... It is a perplexing task to give the Koreans their proper place in a drama which has been so dominated by the politics, personalities, and rivalries of the occupying authorities.”
McCune, who died in 1948, premonished with noticeable indignation, “The establishment of two governments ‘in this small space of 85,000 square miles’ has been catastrophic. ... if the 38th parallel cannot be abolished without a bloody civil war ... their chance to retain their freedom has already ceased to exist.”
The UN Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights crimes underscored in their landmark report the role profound historical traumas have played. Not least, the “division imposed on the Korean peninsula, the massive destruction caused by the Korean War and the impact of the Cold War.”
“In particular, the responsibility must be accepted in the light of the role played by the international community (and by the great powers in particular) in the division of the Korean Peninsula and because of the unresolved legacy of the Korean War” the report pronounced.
I’ve long since come to the conclusion that scrupulously taking into account the historical origins of the genocidal, sadistic, appallingly inept and never-once democratically elected Kim dynasty is a necessary undertaking if we’re to effectively heal and resolve the humanitarian, human rights and security emergencies persisting within and stemming from the North.
In July 1947, Pyun reminded us that, “America has betrayed Korea twice in the past 40 years. Korea was virtually signed away to Japan by the former President Theodore Roosevelt, which was the first betrayal. The second betrayal was when the late Franklin Roosevelt signed North Korea away to Soviet Russia at Yalta.”
Robert Oliver concurred in 1952.
“What happened in Korea should be carefully studied,” he said. “North Korea was surrendered (1945) to Communist control by Allied agreement, so that the Soviet rulers never had to bother to woo the people into willing acquiescence.”
It is distressing to hear the Korean Peninsula mentioned as a flashpoint in the same breath as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen by US media as of late. South Korean leaders must do everything in their power to prevent another war from perpetuating mass deaths.
Beyond accountability measures, the UN report recommends “people-to-people contact and an inter-Korean agenda for reconciliation.” The report categorically does not endorse war, which initially plunged all of Korea into this unmitigated nightmare. Incessant hostilities are a central determining factor at the very heart of the overall crisis vis-a-vis North Korea, which the COI specified helps to “explain the intractability of the human rights situation.”
Notwithstanding, any “agenda for reconciliation” must be concentrated on the people and not Kim Jong-un -- for reasons that should be perfectly self-evident by now. Presenting a conditional amnesty -- requiring of officials and soldiers the cessation of all human rights violations, freeing of all political prisoners and opposition to the genocide himself -- would represent a pragmatic and decisive initial step.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. -- Ed.