A Critical Response to the PBS Frontline Report on North Korea

History of imperialist interventions from Japan and the United States strangely omitted from PBS investigation

Note: These remarks were made at the concluding program of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) Annual Spring Film Series held at the Historic St. Matthew-St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Tuesday May 30, 2017. Azikiwe, who is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire, also serves as a board member of MCHR. These comments were delivered both prior to and after the screening of the Public Broadcasting System Frontline Report on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the outlook of MCHR.


United States foreign policy towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has remained largely based upon Cold War assumptions about the relationship between the two states. Unfortunately, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Frontline report entitled the “The Secret State of North Korea” does not shed any light on how relations can be improved and normalized in regard to both Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Pyongyang, the center of power in the DPRK.

In this brief evaluation of the Frontline program it is necessary to examine some aspects of the history of the Korean Peninsula; the U.S. and British invasion of the Korea under the banner of the United Nations during 1950-53; the political character of the Republic of Korea since the conclusion of World War II, up until today; and what steps could be taken towards normalization of relations between the DPRK, ROK and Washington.

The Role of Japanese Imperialism in Korea

There is no mention in the Frontline report on how the peninsula was divided in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union was aligned with the Communist Party of Korea (CPK) led by Kim Il Sung in the north while the U.S. established a base in the south with leading figures who had worked as agents of Japan while it ruled the peninsula. Kim Il-sung was also reported to have been a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and maintained a close alliance with Chairman Mao Tse-tung during the time of the anti-Japanese resistance of the 1930s and 1940s.

Japan, as an imperial power competing with Britain, China and the U.S. in Asia during the early years of the 20th century, invaded and occupied Korea in 1905. This occupation lasted until 1945 when Japan was defeated at the end of WWII.

There was a third Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 which came after the defeat of the Russian monarchy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Two other treaties had been imposed by Japan in 1876 and 1882 which resulted in rebellions led by Korean nationalists.

Conditions for the Korean people worsened under the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 which made the peninsula a “protectorate” for five years prior to a complete take over beginning in 1910 under a revised imposed agreement. After 1910, most of the arable land was under the control of Japanese landlords and officials who managed Korea as if it was their own. The country was in fact annexed to Japan as a province with no legal rights as it relates to ownership and political representation.

Forced labor was the norm where Koreans were compelled to work on Japanese plantations and production facilities. Women were exploited ruthlessly for their manual and sexual labor in order to pay taxes to the imperialists.

As Japan deepened its involvement in the Second World War after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, a demand for Korean slave labor increased. Estimates of Korean deaths as a result of forced labor range up to 800,000 from 1939-1945. Koreans were also conscripted into the Japanese military to serve its imperialist aims.

A national liberation movement against Japanese rule intensified and established a working agreement with the Communist Party of China (CPC) which was also waging a war to end Japanese imperial rule after the invasion of Nanking in 1937.

Nonetheless, it is very important to note that there were Korean soldiers who were trained as officers in the Japanese Imperial Army Academy and maintained careers which continued after the end of WWII when the U.S. became dominate in the south. People such as Park Chung-hee, who became first president of South Korea; Chung Il-kwon, who served as prime minister in the south from 1964 to 1970; as well as Paik Sun-yup, the youngest general of them all, who was recognized for his service in fighting alongside the United Nations forces during the Battle of Pusan Perimeter. There were ten consecutive Chiefs of Army Staff in South Korea whom had graduated from the Imperial Japanese Army Academy while not one of them had served in the Korean Liberation Army (KLA).

Consequently, the Frontline report efforts to paint the Republic of Korea as a haven for democratic forces have no basis in the actual history of the country. The undemocratic character of South Korea continued through the Gwanju Massacre of 1980 up until today with the recent mass demonstrations against President Park Geun-hye who was impeached for corruption.

The Establishment of the DPRK and the United Nations Invasion

Over a period of time of 1945-1946, there was a merger of several patriotic and anti-imperialist organizations which formed the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) eventually leading to the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. The majority of people in both the north and south wanted some form of a unified government even after 1948. In fact some accounts suggest that the CPK had a broader base of support in the south after the war than in the north.

Nonetheless, as was the case in Vietnam, the official State Department narrative on these Asian states was that the majority of the people did not want unification and only the Communists governments in the north of both countries wanted amalgamation under a socialist system. This myth was defeated thoroughly after the acceleration of the occupation of Vietnam in 1965, the defeat of the U.S. in 1975 and the subsequent merger into one state with two economic systems over the last four decades.

With specific reference to Korea, hundreds of thousands of advocates for reunification, socialism, trade union organizers and other popular forces were victimized by the U.S.-backed government in the 1945-1950 pre-invasion years. Although there is dispute over the origins of the initial battles of the Korean War beginning in June 1950, there was no justification for a U.S. and British-led intervention under the banner of the UN.

We must understand that in 1950, the UN was heavily dominated by European governments, the U.S., and its allies in other parts of the world. The intervention was a by-product of the quest for hegemony by Washington and Wall Street in Asia designed to halt the growing influence of the Soviet Union and the impact of the Chinese Revolution of October 1949.

In addition, events in other parts of Asia and Africa after WWII gave rise to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described in 1967 as a “morbid fear of communism.” Vietminh leader Ho Chi Minh declared its independence as the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in August 1945 and commenced a war of liberation against French occupation of the south up until 1954 when Paris was roundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu.

India gained its independence in 1947 although it did not move into the Socialist Camp. African liberation movements from Egypt and Algeria to the Gold Coast and South Africa made significant gains in the mobilization and organization of urban residents, workers, peasants, youth and nationalist-oriented intellectuals.

For a detailed report on the horrendous aspects of the Korean War of 1950-1953 people can read “The Hidden History of the Korean War” (1952) by I.F. Stone along with Bruce Cumings “The Origins of the Korean War” (1981, 1990) and “The Korean War: A History (2010). Both of these authors take a different approach to the developments in the Korean peninsula from the period of the Japanese imperialist occupation through the war waged by the U.S. and the British beginning in 1950.

Stone examines State Department and Pentagon reports in combination with press accounts during this time of rising tensions and warfare. Cumings reviews documents which have become available since the 1950s. Neither Stone nor Cumings could be considered apologists for the DPRK although both place blame on Washington for the destruction brought about in the war and the continued occupation of the Republic of Korea.

Cumings notes that the Soviet Union withdrew from the DPRK in 1948 and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) which Mao Tse-tung deployed in the hundreds of thousands in 1950 to support the Korean People’s Army (KPA) led by Kim Il Sung, pulled out in 1958. Nevertheless, in 2017, the U.S. maintains over 30,000 troops in the ROK along with naval submarines. There are joint military exercises of the ROK and the Pentagon annually which remains a source of tension between Washington and Seoul on the one hand and Pyongyang and Beijing on the other.

Several weeks ago the administration of President Donald Trump went ahead with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in the ROK over and above the emphatic objections of Pyongyang, Beijing as well as many people inside the south who staged protests against the placing of the weapons on the peninsula.

What is rarely mentioned in the public discourse on Korea is that the estimated deaths during the post-WWII period through 1953 were 3-4 million. U.S. deaths during the war were over 36,000 dead and in excess of 100,000 wounded. The carnage of the war was immense. Even according to official documents from the Pentagon, the U.S. utilized a total of 635,000 tons of bombs, including 32,557 tons of napalm in Korea. In quantitative terms this was far more than what was dropped during the whole Pacific campaign of WW II.

Today it is widely recognized among scholars that documentation proves all significant buildings in the DPRK were leveled through aerial bombardment. An American prisoner-of-war, Major General William F. Dean, acknowledged that cities and villages were reduced to rubble.

Industrial plants, educational facilities, hospitals, and government buildings were moved underground since there was no air defense system. By November 1950, the DPRK officials mandated the population to construct dugouts along with underground tunnels to deal with the acute shortage of housing.

U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay was quoted as saying: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Pyongyang had 75 percent of its area liquidated as a result of the blanket bombing. The aerial campaign was halted due to absence of substantial targets.

On November 28, 1950, the Pentagon reported that 95 percent of Manpojin was eliminated, in addition to 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon, and 20 percent of Uiju. U.S. Air Force assessments claimed that: “eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated.”

Forward Towards a Peace Treaty and Normalization of Relations

One of the most egregious aspects of the Frontline report is its suggestion that the ROK in the south is a center of democracy and stability. This is clearly a profound distortion of the actual situation since 1948.

The role of General Douglas MacArthur while he maintained an office in Tokyo after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 was to suppress all popular, democratic and trade union groups in Korea. As was done unjustly in Japan in August 1945, MacArthur advocated the utilization of atomic weapons during the Korean War. He was relieved of his duties by the-then President Harry S. Truman in April 1951 largely due to differences over how to proceed in Korea amid the defeat of U.S. and British forces near the border with China at the Ch’ongch’on River. This episode in the war represented, some say, the largest U.S. military retreat in its history.

As was mentioned earlier, the dominant political and military figures in early South Korea history were those who received training from Japanese imperialism. Decades later in May 1980, a student uprising was suppressed by the Seoul military regime which came to power in a coup just months before headed by Chun Doo-hwan.

More recently, the conservative government in Seoul was removed after much political turmoil throughout the country. An article in the May 9 edition of the New York Times says: “A South Korean court removed the president on Friday (May 5), a first in the nation’s history, rattling the delicate balance of relationships across Asia at a particularly tense time. Her removal capped months of turmoil, as hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets, week after week, to protest a sprawling corruption scandal that shook the top echelons of business and government. Park Geun-hye, the nation’s first female president and the daughter of the Cold War military dictator Park Chung-hee, had been an icon of the conservative establishment that joined Washington in pressing for a hard line against North Korea’s nuclear provocations.”

However, another president has been elected to office and is advocating a different approach to relations with Pyongyang. The following day on May 10, the New York Times also reported that: “South Korea’s newly elected president vowed on Wednesday to play a more assertive role in resolving the North’s nuclear crisis through dialogue, saying that he was willing to meet with its leader, Kim Jong-un, if the circumstances were right. President Moon Jae-in also pledged to strengthen the alliance with Washington, expressing an eagerness for an early summit meeting with President Trump, whose military posturing and diplomatic overtures toward the North in recent weeks have both rattled and confused South Koreans. But Mr. Moon also hinted at balancing diplomacy between the United States and China, his country’s largest trading partner, over the contentious deployment of an American missile defense system here.”

A renewal of genuine dialogue is the only real hope for the avoidance of another war on the Korean peninsula which could be far worse than what took place in the early 1950s. The DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons along with intermediate and long range missile capability could potentially ignite World War III if one military incident was triggered between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The peace and antiwar movements in the U.S. should focus their attention on promoting a resolution to the Korean crisis which is sustainable. Efforts aimed at demonizing the DPRK can only serve to further hostilities towards Pyongyang and to ideologically prepare the people in the U.S. to accept a continuation of hostilities that could easily lead to catastrophic consequences.


By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire


The 4th Media

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