What is the backstory to the escalating war of words between the US and North Korea, both nuclear-armed nations? What light does this current conflict throw on Africa’s own history of Balkanisation? By Kalundi Serumaga
As the talk of a new outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula gets ever louder, we should remind ourselves that the problem of the two Koreas is not in Korea, but in the United States.
Korea is actually one country that now exists as two, due to military occupation. The driving force is the American military establishment, which has maintained a very large and well-equipped military presence on sea, land and in the air in the eastern Asian region since demolishing the 77-year dominance of the Japanese Empire after four years of very brutal conflict, in 1945.
The reasons for their interest are many, not least, accessing the vast agricultural, mineral and trade wealth on the islands and in the oceans of all the so-called Far East – an ambition not limited to America, though it brought it into that conflict with Japan, in the only war so far to have been ended by use of nuclear weapons. From the time of the 1905 Japanese conquest, many prominent Korean officials’ families were drawn into collaborative relationships with what was a cruel and grinding colonial rule. With its end at the culmination of WW2, many of these same people put their military, administrative and intelligence skills at the service of the now occupying American forces.
This was never going to endear the new conquerors to significant sections of the population that had suffered at the hands of these collaborators. Some of the key personalities in both the northern Pyongyang and southern Seoul regimes are direct descendants of the generals, warlords, guerrillas, enforcers and inquisitors who fought on opposite sides during the resistance to Japanese rule, and their rivalries are deeply personal and bitter.
As part of the anti-Japanese alliance, the Russia-dominated Soviet Union had taken control of the northern part of the peninsula, and was propping up political and military formations friendly to itself.
Those not happy with the re-entrenchment of collaborator forces and the emerging new economic order under them in the south, began to see hope in the reforms being implemented in the north, under Soviet influence. Key among these was the redistribution of massive landholdings held by a class of wealthy families, to their former tenants. Many such dispossessed families also then fled south.
This is how the battle lines were slowly set: one country occupied by two military forces representing diametrically opposite political systems and values, and attracting the support of influential domestic leaders according to taste and inclination. An administrative line was drawn by the Americans to demarcate the parts occupied by the US in the south, and the Soviet Union in the north.
In the end, the country, which had been united for nearly a thousand years, split in two as a result of manoeuvres that made it impossible for the UN to ensure Koreans elected a government for one country, despite the Soviets having withdrawn their forces quite early.
Within three years, open warfare had broken out between the two halves, each backed by a superpower. A massive and vindictive US bombing campaign left no urban area in Northern Korea standing, and caused the widespread suffering that forms the bedrock of Pyongyang’s anti-Americanism.
This war has never officially ended. The forces face each other across the last frontline only in accordance with a truce declared in 1955, and the US has maintained a basically permanent military presence there ever since, still menacing the understandably paranoid sanctions-bound socialist monarchy in the north.
My suspicion is that the cost of this huge and longstanding strategic outlay has become too much for the US to bear, especially increasingly single-handedly. And especially more so when other global players (read China, in the main) freely exploit the trade routes and diplomatic certainties held in place by Pax Americana to then pursue their own goals, at American expense.
If this analysis proves correct, then a US-led war on North Korea would make sense from their point of view: because by fighting the north into submission and forcefully bringing it under the regime in the south, presumably, the cost of guarding the peninsula and the seas around it would be greatly reduced.
Also, it would place US forces right on the border of North Korea’s neighbour China, and beyond her, Russia, who both remain key obstacles to US aspirations for resource hegemony in the region. But wars rarely conform to laid-out plans. With its long history of Balkanisation, Africa has knowledge to offer: Peace will best be built by those that need it most: ordinary communities.
Korea suffers the danger of a family having strangers and neighbours inserting themselves into a household dispute. Huge politico-military interests have over time built up around the respective regimes to the point that the Koreans, who speak the same language, practise the same culture and belong to one vast native clan system, cannot speak privately to one another.
This is a nuclear-tipped, high-tech version of the African condition where, after a century of Balkanisation and control by colonial powers, the place was inherited by other powers that seek to portray Africa’s artificial countries as real, and keep the real native communities apart.
The world is in a different place now from the Cold War era. That, together with the fact that many of the potential belligerents are nuclear powers of long standing, really means that talk of war is actually a planet-wide suicide pact. This should be a matter for all the world to be concerned about.
Africa for the Africans, and Korea for the Koreans. NA