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North Korea, the hand of history

All states involved in the Korean crisis are influenced by their historical experience, but the recent past weighs most heavily on Pyongyang.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 April 2013

The reaction to events is determined partly by historical experience, and this is especially true of wars. Most countries have memories that serve to influence behaviour and these can sometimes be powerful in determining their course of action. The British still talk of the “Dunkirk spirit”, the French continue to invoke memories of the German occupation and of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, while the Soviet Union's memory of the “Great Patriotic War” informed its outlook during the cold war.

In a remarkable way, such history has a much greater effect on the current crisis involving North Korea than is commonly realised, and not just in terms of the Pyongyang regime but also of China. For Beijing, the Korean war of 1950-53 provides a context, and North Korea itself has the much more recent experience of being declared part of an “axis of evil”.

At the end of the second world war, Japan's surrender of Korea was taken by the Russians north of the 38th parallel and the Americans to the south. The divided country soon became a symbol of cold-war rivalries as United Nations efforts at reunification failed. Tensions turned into a crisis in 1950 and this escalated as North Korean forces crossed the parallel on 25 June to enforce reunification. South Korean and international forces were quickly pushed right down the peninsula to the Pusan perimeter in the extreme south-east, but hung on there long enough for General Douglas MacArthur to organise risky amphibious landings on 15 September at Inchon on the west coast, some 400 kilometres behind the North Korean lines.

The operation was a success, and in the following weeks the combined international forces, dominated by the United States and South Korea, pushed north of the 38th parallel right up towards the Chinese border on the Yalu river. The US and its allies were thereby set to reunify Korea; the expectation was that neither the Soviet Union nor the Chinese would intervene, even though they had backed the North Koreans in the original assault.

This was correct as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, but completely misread the attitude of China, whose forces attacked on 26 November and within a month had driven far beyond the 38th parallel. The extraordinarily bitter war continued for more than two years until a stalemate and ceasefire was agreed in 1953 (though a formal peace treaty has never been reached).

There were three reasons for the Chinese intervention. First, Mao Zedong's forces had consolidated control of mainland China only in the previous year, with the People's Republic of China (PRC) declared on 1 October. This had taken over thirty years to achieve, including the civil war of 1945-49. Moreover, the Nationalists still kept control of Taiwan, with strong American support, and the prospect of having Korea as an outpost of the United States was anathema in Beijing.

Second, this fear was reinforced by the Chinese experience of Japanese forces attacking them through Korea in 1931. Third, and an element not appreciated in the west, was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP's) links with Moscow. The CCP had been founded in 1921 with assistance from Moscow, and in the mid-1920s many of its future leaders spent time there learning from the Soviet experience. These Chinese communists, though the model they created was to differ from the Soviet one, especially retained the lesson that the Bolsheviks had faced repeated interventionist attempts by western states to turn back the revolution after 1917.

In 1950, the Chinese leadership had a fundamental fear of history being repeated, only this time it would be the hugely powerful United States and its allies with a direct springboard into China from Korea. The intervention in Korea from November 1950 may have cost them hundreds of thousands of lives, but from Beijing's perspective it prevented that dreaded outcome.

The new phase

Even now, more than sixty years later, this has an effect. China may be frustrated with Pyongyang, it may view Kim Jong-un with disfavour, and may even be willing to see a slow transition in North Korea; but it remains adamantly opposed to rapid reunification, with at least part of that outlook going back not just to 1950 or 1931 but even to the early 1920s.

For the elite in Pyongyang it is more recent history that counts, the key period being the first few months of 2002. After the 9/11 atrocities, Washington had reacted with remarkable speed in pursuing al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, using a combination of air power, special forces and support for the Northern Alliance warlords to terminate the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks.

For many people in western Europe, including some governments, this was a remarkable turnaround that suggested the war against al-Qaida would soon diminish in intensity and significance. The neo-conservatives and assertive realists that dominated the George W Bush administration's security outlook thought very differently, a fact that became clear in the president's state-of-the-union address to Congress on 29 January 2002.

Here he extended the war far beyond al-Qaida to target other states that supported terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The main threats were Iraq, Iran and North Korea, with the latter described as “a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens”:

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

Bush went on to say that: “(Time) is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”

Perhaps most important for Bush and his security community was the need for pre-emption, which he emphasised in his graduation address at West Point in June 2002:

“(The) war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.”

Pyongyang's lesson

Since then, the Saddam Hussein regime has been terminated; a lesser member of the "axis of evil", Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, was eliminated after giving up its WMD programme; another, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, now faces armed opposition supported by the west. 

For Pyongyang, the response is obvious - get a nuclear capability and deter aggression.

From a western perspective this seems little more than paranoia. After all, George W Bush is long gone and Barack Obama tends to avoid referring to an "axis of evil". But this is the view from the west, not from isolated North Korea. For Pyongyang, Obama may be a passing phase, after which 2016 will usher in an even more aggressive president than Bush. The bottom line in Pyongyang, never to be forgotten, is that the United States is the evil empire and has made its intentions towards North Korea abundantly clear. 

China's historical perspective is a partial guide to its current attitude and must be factored into any hope of cooperation. But the North Korean outlook is guided by more recent history, and this will make a diplomatic settlement much more difficult to achieve than most western analysts appreciate.

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