Kim Jong-Il and Korean History

So the Dear Leader has passed away, leaving his chubby-cheeked son to take on the mantle of kingship for his starvation kingdom. Most people would say his passing was not soon enough and we have all been sickened by the horrible mistreatment of his people and the massive gulag system used to abuse and eventually kill anyone remotely suspected of disloyalty (including their family – Kim Jong-Il has been quoted as saying that “criminality is a stain that lasts three generations”).

Kim Jong-Ill has also served as a comedic foil outside of North Korea, spawning many sadly funny internet memes. A few of my favorites:

G4TV Twitter round-up, Tumblr, YouTube

Beyond the well-deserved mockery and correct criticism of the North Korean regime and leadership is the tragedy of the Korean people, who have been used as tools by their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, fearing a unified and strong Korea.

Starting with their subjugation by China from the 17th-century until the handover of Korea to Japan via the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 and then eventual colonization by Japan in 1910, Korea’s recent history has been a tragic one.

Even the liberation from Japan in 1945 was incomplete, with the regime in the South managed by officers and officials who had been trained and lead by Japan. According to the book by distinguished historian on Korean history, Bruce Cummings, during the Korean War, the majority of the South’s staff officers were Koreans who had served as officers in the Japanese Imperial Army and who were proud of their service.

Using the same tactics that the Japanese had used to subjugate the population, they maintained control of the South in face of North Korean military offensives and guerrilla incursions.

This fueled North Korean propaganda claims that they were the true freedom fighters and inheritors of a future Korean state. According to Bruce Cummings, it was true that Communist groups in the North did fight the Japanese, expelling or killing collaborators and trying to create an independent Korean state.

He goes on to say that while both sides committed atrocities on the civilian population during the Korean War, the North’s goal was to secure the majority of the population for mass education and conversion while the Southern regime liquidated suspected opponents so the numbers of dead in the South were higher.

Cummings goes further to say that former collaborators in the new regime settled old scores under the guise of fighting communism but, at the end of the day, neither side held the moral high ground. Certainly the post-war North Korean regime has been one of the most brutal and repressive in history, creating a culture of adoration for one family based on a combination of lies and half-truths. Meanwhile, the South has evolved into a democracy and powerful economy with the chance that it will one day face its past and emerge even stronger.

That leaves us with the two Koreas and neighbors who profit from their continuing split. A united Korea, especially a democratic one on its border is too close for comfort for China. Japan may have a more nuanced view of a united Korean nation but in either case, it will be up to time and the Korean people to bring about change since too many profit from the current divide.


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