NORTH Korea has come in for well-deserved condemnation in recent days. Behaving like a tough-talking juvenile delinquent, intent on testing the limits, it defies warnings from every quarter, including the United Nations. If this state conducts itself like a disturbed kid, perhaps the explanation is that it was deserted in the nest, rather than kicked out, by an uncaring parent. North Korea is an orphan of the Cold War, the child of a past age, trying to define its place in a fast-changing world.
Although it was among the first victims of Japanese imperialism, at the end of the Second World War, Korea was treated like an aggressor. Unlike the occupied countries in Europe that were helped to their feet and assisted to re-establish national governments, Korea was occupied and divided in two.
Mahatma Gandhi had refused to support the Allied war effort on principle while India was still a colony. But many nationalists in Asia and Africa felt vindicated in supporting the allies after the Atlantic Charter, which proclaimed the principle of "government by the consent of the governed", was adopted as the Allies’ war aim. Some Asian nationalist leaders regarded Japan, an Asian imperial power competing for influence in the Pacific with the US, the UK and France, as a model. Subhas Chandra Bose in India, Wang Ching-wei in China and a number of lesser nationalist figures sought alliances and collaborated with the Japanese.
While conservative and liberal nationalists dithered, the communists seized the flag of patriotism. Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty, rose to prominence as an anti-Japanese partisan, first allied to Mao Zedong’s guerrillas; later supported by the Soviet Union. The Soviets declared war on Japan a day or two after Hiroshima. Their armies marched into Korea north of the 38th parallel and received the Japanese surrender, at the same time US forces occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel, so that by December 1945 there were two occupation zones, one Soviet and the other US.
It had been the expectation among all the national resistance movements in East Asia that the defeat of Japan would herald independence. Resistance movements had pinned their hopes on the promise of the Atlantic Charter with its anticolonialist motif. But it soon became clear that France, the UK, the Netherlands and the US intended returning to their colonies in Asia. As the one territory Japan had not seized from a rival imperialist power, Korea was in a unique position. Both the Soviet Union and the US professed anticolonialism, yet, instead of fostering an environment for the Koreans to collectively determine their own future, each power established its protege as a government, north and south of the 38th parallel respectively. Both North Korea and South Korea are confections of the Cold War.
While the US sponsored the establishment of a government, led by Syngman Rhee, in the south; the Soviets supported the establishment of another under Kim Il-sung in the north. War, that lasted three years, broke out between the two Korean states in June 1950. Kim Il-sung and his Workers Party of Korea claimed their armies crossed the 38th parallel in 1950 to achieve unification. Not a single built structure in North Korea survived that war. Neither state signed a peace agreement to end the war in 1953.
The promotion of unification had virtually been illegal in South Korea from the 1960s to the 1980s. Pictures depicting the police dispersing student demonstrations calling for unification featured on TV news. Today, it is the elite of South Korea who are calling for unification, convinced that their society will be attractive to northerners. After 40 years of authoritarian rule, South Korea emerged as a prosperous industrial society. The Kim Il-sung dynasty in North Korea abandoned Marxism and embraced Juche instead. The Kims preside over a impoverished society armed with nuclear weapons but unable to feed or adequately clothe its people.
The end of the Cold War left North Korea orphaned and isolated. Vietnam has made peace with Washington, but North Korea continues to act like a state that feels under threat from the US. It has fired rockets across Japan and provoked incidents with its neighbour to the south, but no one seriously thinks that North Korea intends invading the south, declaring war on Japan or provoking a nuclear showdown. Yet it continues posturing and behaving in a belligerent manner.
In October 1962, when it looked like neither Nikita Khrushchev nor John F Kennedy was prepared to back down, a few quiet words between them averted a nuclear holocaust. In return for an undertaking from Kennedy that the US would not invade Cuba, Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles from Cuba. A year later, the US also dismantled its nuclear batteries in Turkey.
Is it possible that Kim Jong-un is angling for a similar undertaking from US President Barack Obama?
• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.
More in this section
- Thank you for making South Africa work
- THE LAST WORD: Stellenbosch guru can take Reinet gap
- TAX TALK: Carbon tax must be explained to laymen
- THIS IS THE BUSINESS: Education — not BEE — will drive our success
- BULL’S EYE: Pension? No, stick to beer
- IN THE MARKETS: Better ways to get investment than through blackmail