Asian Geopolitics: Korea and Imperialism


The Korean peninsula is where Russia, China, Japan and the United States meet and contest. It is the most strategically valuable location in the world and inevitably has been of consuming interest to imperialism, either to use as a strategic base for onward expansion or to deprive competitors of control. The actors have changed over the course of history – the Mongol and Japanese empires are no longer and the hegemony of the recently arrived US empire is under challenge especially from China. Korea, divided by the US into North and South in 1945 as part of its strategy against the Soviet Union, is still struggling to find a way to reunification and independence. Current US policy on Korea can only be understood within the framework of imperialism and resistance to it.


The Korean Peninsula has been a prime site of contestation for US imperialism since the defeat of Japan in 1945 and for Japanese imperialism in the preceding half century. Any analysis of imperialism must be grounded in specifics – a lazy, undifferentiated, and historically decontextualized description is inimical to understanding – but because of its importance, a study of imperialism in Korea can offer insights into the nature of contemporary imperialism. Moreover since US imperialism is a global phenomenon (the Japanese variant was essentially regional), looking at imperialism in one theatre in isolation makes no sense, though it is often done by apologists and by mainstream writers generally. Thus talking of “the North Korean problem” as if the issue emanates from Korea and is limited to a bilateral interaction with the USA either directly or in its guise as “the international community” obfuscates as perhaps it is intended to do. Instead we must look at the Korean case within the context of the empire as a whole, whether that is American or Japanese. That inevitably brings us to a contemplation of imperialism, its nature, its constituents, its motivations, and its constraints. Thus the specific and the general are inextricably linked, each giving meaning to the other. At the same time because of the limitations of the author’s knowledge and the constraints of space in a short chapter, the focus will be on US imperialism for reasons which need no elaboration.

A discussion of the general issues about imperialism that the Korea case study throws up starts with the simple question, why Korea? It is necessary to understand what is it that makes the Korean Peninsula of such interest to imperialism. This chapter is not an attempt to formulate a general theory of contemporary imperialism but simply to contextualize the Korean case which in turn may deepen our understanding of the concept of imperialism.

After addressing the question of why Korea is of such importance to imperialism, we turn to a historical overview to familiarize the reader with the basic facts. It hardly needs to be noted that this is important because most writing on the subject comes from an imperialist perspective where lies, obfuscation, and myth happily mingle to mislead us.

Why Korea?

There are four main reasons why imperialism is interested in a particular place. The strength of a reason will vary with the specific imperialist power; what applies to Japan may not apply to the USA.

  1. 1.

    History and Destiny

    The place may have a special role in the history of the imperial power. Mussolini’s attempt to resurrect what he could of the Roman Empire and Israel’s claims in Palestine are examples. If the target country is not part of the past, it might be seen as part of the future, as inherent in the nation’s destiny. The American concept of Manifest Destiny, of a nation from sea to shining sea and across the Pacific, provides a foundation for the US presence in Korea (Cumings ).

  2. 2.


    Gold, silver, and oil are obvious historical examples, but are less pressing reasons in the modern world where the question is not access itself, but the terms of access. The USA did not invade Iraq in 2003 simply to seize its oil because it was able to buy it commercially, and the Iraqi government was not threatening to curtail that. The reasons were deeper. Countries, especially in times of war, may take action to prevent a resource being available to, or seized by an adversary: the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 is a case in point (“Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran” ). This was not an issue in Iraq 2003, nor is there any reason to see it being applicable to Korea. The US invasion of Iraq was driven by a complex combination of motives: the power balance in the Middle East; the particular role of Israel; general antipathy toward independent governments, even if they had been friends and allies the day before; and a general desire to control the supply and sale of oil. This in turn involved the issue of petrodollars, and Iraq’s attempt to move to Euros, an issue which was paralleled in Libya and the continuing confrontation with Iran (Doran ). The use of dollar for trade in oil is a subset of the larger question of the role of the US dollar as the world’s trading and reserve currency, which leads to the very heart of US imperialism. So the motives for the US conquest of Iraq in the twenty-first century were very different from the Spanish plundering of Latin America for silver and gold in the sixteenth century though that simple avarice for resources had momentous global consequences.

    There are reports, perhaps exaggerated, that North Korea has substantial mineral resources (Mollman ) but this provides no compelling rationale as such for US policy since North Korea has long sought foreign investment (Shi ). The issue is respect for sovereignty. With Japan not merely were the historical circumstances different, but Korea’s resources were a magnet, rice from the south and from the “mineral-rich north,” gold, iron ore, and coal (King ; Roy ).

  3. 3.


    Capital without labor is valueless, and the search for suitable labor is a constant theme in imperialism, from the African slave trade to the Americas to low-paid workers today in the Global South. Again, for the USA, Korea’s labor resources were initially of no interest; it was much more plentiful in Japan and China. Today South Korea is a major economy with workers who are skilled, disciplined, and notoriously overworked (Haas ), but only 6% of the 27 million labor force are employed in foreign companies (“FORCA Brochure” ). Of more interest to US imperialism, now is the military “labor force.” According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the combined total of the three types of military personnel (active, reserves, and paramilitaries) in South Korea is 5.1 million, by far the largest in the world, outstripping that of the USA (2.2 m), Russia (3.5 m), China (3.4 m), and North Korea (2.0 m) (“Military Balance 2017” ). Since the South Korean military is under the “wartime” Operational Command (OPCON) of the USA, this is a formidable asset (Jun ).

  4. 4.

    Geopolitical Location

    Although resources and labor were important considerations for Japan, by far the most important and enduring reason for imperialism’s interest in the Korean Peninsula is its unique geopolitical location. It is the only place in the world where all the great powers, other than the Europeans, come together. This is where Russia, China, Japan, and, from across the “American Lake,” the USA meet and contest. This is the place, in the words of the Australian scholar of Northeast Asia, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “where empires have collided” (Morris-Suzuki et al. ). Imperialism abhors a vacuum and a crossroad such as the Korean Peninsula will not be ignored.

    The Korean Peninsula in the past has been the conduit whereby Buddhism and Chinese culture, particularly Confucianism and its writing system, flowed through from the Asian mainland to Japan. In the future it will hopefully serve as a transit corridor for gas pipelines from Russia and have railways linking Japan with the west of Europe – what Kim Dae-jung dubbed an Iron Silk Road (Kim ) – though for obvious strategic reasons, this would not find favor in Washington.

    From a strategic perspective, the Korean Peninsula has two functions. It may serve as a staging post and a corridor toward the main objective. This is how the Mongols and the Japanese used it. Or it may serve as a barrier and a bastion against incursion from adversaries. This was, and remains, the Chinese perspective. Or, it may serve both functions: that is the American position.

    How have these various objectives played out in history?

Historical Overview

Perhaps few states in history have not displayed attributes of imperialism, state creation usually being a violent business originating in greed and ambition. The northern Korean state of Koguryo (Goguryeo) which dates from roughly 37 BCE to 668 CE extended its territory far beyond the Amnok River (Yalu) into the plains beyond into what are today parts of China’s Northeast, Inner Mongolia, and Russia; it was according to a South Korean website a “Korean empire whose brilliant history flourished on a vast expanse of land in East Asia” (“Koguryo Proud History of Korea” ). In 2004 a controversy erupted between Chinese and South Korean historians as to whether Koguryo had been a tributary state of China or “truly Korean.” The debate was arcane and ultimately unresolvable because modern concepts of nationalism cannot be easily applied to the past, but it had important modern implications. China considers itself a multiethnic state built to a large extent on cultural soft power, and the tributary system was a manifestation of that. Under that concept a historical state which was militarily independent poses no challenge to the modern Chinese polity. If Tibetans and Manchus, Mongols, and Miao can be Chinese citizens, why not Koreans? This conflicts with a vision of a “Korean empire” that once held sway over a large part of what is now China and might do again one day; as the New York Times put it: “China Fears Once and Future Kingdom” (Brooke ). It was a coming together of two aspirations, Korean revanchism and American interest in the dismemberment of China. It is unknown to what degree South Korean dreams are shared in the North, but since Pyongyang was the major capital of Koguryo, it would be surprising if that were not so.

In the event Koguryo was destroyed by an alliance of the Chinese Tang dynasty and the southern Korean state of Silla which absorbed it. With the consolidation of state power in China, and elsewhere in Northeast Asia, the possibility of an extension of formal Korean rule beyond the peninsula faded although interaction, sometimes peaceful, sometimes bloody with the semi-sinicized peoples to the north, such as the Jurchen/Manchu, was unremitting. However the end of Korean imperialism did not mean that imperialism was finished with Korea, given its strategic location that was impossible.

This process of focus on the peninsula itself culminated in the two centuries long seclusion policy of the latter days of the Choson Dynasty (1392–1910). Isolationism was a reaction to foreign incursions of various sorts and was ultimately fruitless, but it is a common phenomenon. Incursions may be military, commercial, or intellectual (usually religious), but if too strong they threaten to destabilize the existing social order which, unable to cope, erects barriers against the outside world. Some societies are able to cope. The rulers, realizing that the old gods are not as powerful as the foreign ones knocking on the door, embrace the new religion, be it Catholicism or capitalism. The spread of Islam throughout Southeast Asia and the transformation of Germany under Bismarck are examples. In some circumstances relatively peaceful adaptation is possible; in others the process of transition is traumatic and frequently bloody.

All three East Asian countries – Japan, China, and Korea – embraced forms of seclusion under the Western impact. China’s was nuanced – welcoming Jesuits with their knowledge of cartography and cannon-making under the Ming, keeping foreign traders (many of whom were drug dealers) as far away from the capital as possible during the Qing. The geography and size of Japan and Korea allowed for more absolute measures. The Sakoku (“closed country”) policy of the Japanese under the Tokugawa shogunate tried to extirpate Christianity, which was seen as not merely subverting the social order but placing Japan under the control of foreigners in a way that acceptance of Chinese culture had not. Foreign trade, previously flourishing, was stifled although some was tolerated, mainly through the distant southern city of Nagasaki. This was brought to an end by the Americans in the person of Commodore Perry who in 1854 “opened up” Japan and imposed the first of the “unequal treaties” (Rabson ). This exercise in gunboat diplomacy, still a staple of imperialist statecraft today, had profound consequences, some of them unintended. It led to the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan, but also to Japanese imperialism which was to challenge America at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Korea’s opening up was also produced by force, but there was a preceding experience of imperialism which needs to be sketched.

Korea had long been a tributary state of China, and while this was an imperialistic relationship, it had its own special characteristics which need to be considered. There are, in a sense, two Chinas – one is those dynasties such as the Tang, Song, and Ming – which were ruled by the Han, the dominant ethnicity in China. Then there were the two “barbarian” dynasties when China was under the rule of people from the steppes – the Yuan (Mongols) and the Qing (Manchus). Han China was essentially inward looking because the outside world had little to offer. Horses from Fergana in Central Asia were prized, and of course Buddhism from India had a profound impact and wide acceptance, but in most respects the Middle Kingdom was richer and more advanced than anything in its purview. This is in distinct contrast to the imperialism of the Portuguese and their fellow Europeans who, utilizing military superiority, went scouring the world for riches – gold, silver, spices, slaves, and land. There are interesting, if partial, parallels here between China and the USA whose imperial expansion was not based on a simple lust for foreign riches. Han China’s interest in peripheral states, such as Korea, was primarily a desire for stability on its borders. The states paid tribute, of more importance symbolically than economically, and in return were accorded legitimacy by the Chinese emperor. Again this is similar to the modern American system where legitimacy, the difference between being a government and a regime, is seen as something that can only be bestowed by Washington (Dulles ). The American ideology of “exceptionalism,” the USA being a “city on a hill” to which the world looks for inspiration and leadership in many ways, mirrors the traditional Chinese concept of “culturalism” where the superiority of Chinese culture is evident to all and irresistible to barbarians who even if they have military superiority (as did the Mongols and Manchus) inevitably become sinicized (Fairbank ).

The non-Han dynasties had other priorities. The Mongols were hugely expansionist, creating the largest land empire in history, and the economic basis of their imperialism was rent-seeking in the form of extracting tribute from conquered peoples. The principle military advantage they had was their highly mobile cavalry, but as their empire expanded into settled economies, this advantage was dissipated; the short life span of the empire was inevitable. Their rule over Korea lasted only 80 years and that over China (the Yuan dynasty) not much longer. Despite their reputation as ruthless conquerors, spreading terror before them to demoralize their enemies, with piles of skulls being their version of Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” (Sanders ), diplomacy was an important component of their strategy; indeed in the tribal clusters that made up their society, the ability to create bonds and alliances was the prerequisite for Genghis Khan’s creation of a Mongol nation. This style of politics was naturally carried forward into the imperialist stage. After the initial military conquest, they sought to consolidate and continue their power through marriages much like the Hapsburgs in Europe, but with less long-term success.

While China was by far the main prize, there was a desire to exact tribute from Korea and then Japan, which was (falsely) reputed to have gold in measureless quantities, though this might not have been an important consideration. It may have been that the Mongol empire once born was, rather like the American, driven not so much by immediate economic gain but by the need for permanent war, hence unending conquests; like a bicycle without forward motion, it would fall over. The Korean Peninsula has been described as a dagger pointing to the heart of Japan, and although the expression dates from the nineteenth century when the dagger was pointing the other way and it was really only a pretext for Japanese seizure of Korea in the fourteenth century, it had validity (Jun ). Korean-built ships, sailors, and soldiers were an important component of the forces assembled by the Mongols, now under Kublai Khan, who was by then the emperor of Yuan China, in two attempts to invade Japan. Both ended in catastrophe caused by a combination of Japanese resistance and storms which wrecked the invasion fleets, a fate shared by the Spanish Armada. The exercise was an ill-conceived product of imperialistic hubris. The war-machine which had proved so devastating of the steppes of Eurasia was ill-suited for a hugely ambitious amphibious campaign in which the ships would be vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. The Mongol failure had important ideational consequences for Japan’s subsequent interaction with the outside world. This first encounter with invading foreigners produced a sense of Japaneseness that had not existed before. The typhoons which had wreaked the Mongol fleets were labelled kamikaze – divine winds – and this led to the myth of divine intervention which would also provide security against invasion in the future (Conlan ). It was an unfortunate illusion, as illustrated by the futility of the suicide bombers, called kamikaze, to invoke the past, on the eve of Japan’s defeat in 1945. In the meantime it gave a confidence to Japanese imperialism that it might otherwise have lacked. One imperialism begets another and just as Western imperialism in the nineteenth century generated modern Japanese imperialism, so perhaps did Mongol imperialism stimulate Hideyoshi’s dreams of conquest in Korea and beyond.

Mongol success had another very important, and broader, ideational consequence. The peace that the empire brought to Eurasia meant that for the first time in history, merchants could travel under a uniform regime between Europe and East Asia. Marco Polo was one such, and his fantastical tales of the riches of Cathay were profoundly influential in stimulating exploration, such as that by Columbus and the Western Expansion. Trans-Eurasia had long existed, as the Silk Road attests, and late-medieval Europeans were not alone in exploring the world; the Moroccan Ibn Battuta traveled more widely through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and China. Columbus only got as far as the Americas, and there are doubts that Marco Polo actually got to China (Wood ). But it is the thought that counts, and whatever its provenance, the idea of an Orient of untold wealth, and hence a subject of imperialist desires, received a substantial boost from the Mongols.

The Japanese did not require a Marco Polo to tell them about China, or Korea, but the abortive Mongol attempts did perhaps seed the idea of invasion of the Asian mainland, along with the perceived security of the kamikaze. The prerequisite was the unification of Japan and that was achieved by Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), with the process being consolidated by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa shogunate which lasted until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Hideyoshi launched two invasions of Korea, in1592 and 1597 (with China as the larger objective), and both ended in failure, and the attempt was finally brought to an end with the death of Hideyoshi. The invasion of Asia was militarily as ill-conceived, though for different reasons, as the Mongol invasions of Japan but it may be that, as so often with imperialism, they proceeded from domestic considerations more than a rational assessment of success. Hideyoshi needed foreign success to bolster his legitimacy at home, and he also needed to provide an outlet for the military now made redundant by the peace imposed by his conquests. The unemployment threatened by demobilization and the potential economic slump caused by demilitarization lay behind the creation of the permanent war economy in the USA in the late 1940s (Melman ), and the Cold War, in which the Korean War played a significant role; so too in its own specific way did sixteenth century Japan attempt to cope with similar problems.

While the Japanese do not seem to have had the problems with the weather as the Mongols did, they faced considerable opposition from the Chosun navy. However the big difference was Chinese intervention. Ming China sent forces to support the Koreans against the Japanese, as did Qing China in the nineteenth century. Neither wanted to see a hostile power occupying Korea as a prelude to attacking China, and this was also behind the Chinese intervention in 1950. And indeed China would surely intervene again if the USA did invade North Korea (Editorial ).

There are other parallels between Hideyoshi’s campaigns and the Korean War. The Japanese were harassed by guerillas, as were the Americans in the fluid period of the war between the Inchon landing and the Chinese intervention, and it ended with a military stalemate where neither side was strong enough to subjugate the other and drive it from the peninsula. In the sixteenth century, the impasse was essentially resolved by Hideyoshi’s death; the armistice of 1953 remains an unfinished business with the formal peace it promised still rejected by the USA despite the Panmunjom Declaration of the two Koreas and Chinese advocacy (Lim ; Seong ).

Although this early Japanese attempt to invade China via Korea failed, it remained a dream that readily resurfaced in more propitious circumstances toward the end of the nineteenth century.

The Manchus also launched two invasions against Korea, in 1627 and in 1636. As with the Japanese in preceding invasion in the sixteenth century and the later annexation of Korea in the twentieth, this was part, albeit an important one, of a larger design against China. Unlike the Japanese, the Manchus were successful on both counts. This was symbolized in 1636 when the Korean King Injo surrendered and transferred his tributary status from the Ming to the newly established Qing dynasty of the Manchus. The Qing took the Ming capital of Beijing in 1664 but did not overcome Ming resistance until the capture of Taiwan in 1683.

The Qing dynasty has left an important legacy for contemporary imperialism; it expanded westward, establishing control over Tibet and Xinjiang and northward into Mongolia. However it did not absorb Korea but continued the tributary status of previous dynasties. As the Qing declined in power from the nineteenth century, foreign imperialists imposed unequal treaties and carved out spheres of influence. The British seized the island of Hong Kong in 1842 and tried to detach Tibet at the beginning of the twentieth century, hoping to attach it to the British Raj. However in general the foreign powers recognized the territorial integrity of the Qing Empire, legally if not in practice. The USA, in particular, firmly supported the territorial integrity of China, arguably because it confidently expected one day to hold commercial and political sway over all of it (Kennan ). The Qing therefore established the boundaries of the modern state and both the Republic of China (ROC), established in 1911, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), established in 1949, regard themselves as the legal successor to the Qing territory. The only major difference between the two relates to Outer Mongolia which declared independence in 1924; this was accepted by the Communists (i.e., PRC) but not by the nationalists (ROC).

In 1945 the victorious allies, which means basically the USA, insisted that Japan return the territory it had seized on the Chinese mainland (Manchuria and the eastern seaboard), Taiwan, and the islands of the South China Sea. The South China Sea has become a hot point in recent years because it is a major chokepoint for China’s seaborne trade in case of war, and, with historical amnesia, the USA has objected to Chinese control of the islands and their defensive militarization (Beal ).

Taiwan became an issue and continues to be one, because the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) retreated there in 1949 and, protected by the USA, established the Republic of China on Taiwan, still claiming legal inheritance of the Qing territory and dreaming, for a while, of a return to the mainland. With the USA switching diplomatic recognition to the PRC in the 1970s, the KMT legitimacy was eroded, and indigenous Taiwan secessionism grew in strength. This has presented the USA with challenges. The One China Policy – claiming the legal territorial integrity of the Qing inheritance while being pragmatic on matters of actual control – is the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, which the USA and most other countries have accepted. On the other hand, fragmentation of adversaries (divide and rule) is a standard strategy of imperialism, and Taiwan is a prime target, though Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang are also candidates (Xinjiang is problematic because of the connection with Islamism (Lin )). These ongoing issues in US relations with China have obvious, if often indirect, implications for Korea.

The other legacy of the Qing of relevance here is the intriguing historical conundrum that if Korea had been formally a part of China that had, like Taiwan, been seized by Japanese imperialism, would it, like Taiwan, have been returned to Chiang Kai-shek’s China in 1945? In which case whatever would have happened, it would surely have been very different from what did happen: no division of Korea and no Korean War to start with.

The Japanese Annexation of Korea

Apart from resistance, and some support, from the Koreans themselves, Japan had to deal with four other imperialist powers in its annexation of Korea – China, Russia, Britain, and the USA. They each of course presented specific challenges and opportunities, but more crucially they fitted into Japan’s plans for the future in different ways. China especially and to a lesser extent Russia had a territory which Japan desired and which were a major reason for the seizure of Korea in the first place; Korea was the gateway to the Eurasian continent. Britain and America, though they had desirable colonies, some of which Japan snapped up temporarily during the Pacific War, were a different matter. Because of power and geography, they were invulnerable, so the prime object was not conquest per se, but their neutralization and perhaps even support for the Eurasian expansion.

China and Russia were dealt with by war around the turn of the twentieth century. The First Sino-Japanese war of 1894–1895, and the resounding Japanese victory, demolished Qing pretensions to be a suzerain and protector of Korea, losing the province of Taiwan in the process. Even happy events can have unfortunate consequences, and the humiliation of the Qing hastened the demise of the dynasty and gave rise to revolutionary movements, some of which were inspired by Japan, but which led to the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and the end of Japan’s leading role in Asia for the foreseeable future. Besides being an American client because of its defeat, the resurgence of China was to return East Asia to its natural state where China was predominant economically, militarily, and politically. Japan was never to achieve Ezra Vogel’s 1979 prediction of becoming “number one” (Vogel ).

Much of this was replicated with Russia. Japan had again a resounding victory which started with a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (now Lushun) in a stratagem was repeated at Pearl Harbor, though without attracting, in the West, the opprobrium of “infamy.” Japan’s military success removed Russian influence and protection for Korea and opened the way into Manchuria. As with China the defeat had revolutionary and transformation effects which eventually blocked Japan’s expansion into Siberia.

Britain war, at this stage, was not necessary. Because of fears of Russian expansion in Central Asia (the so-called Great Game), Britain looked to Japan as a counterbalance, a potential second front on Russia’s furthest flank, rather like the USA automatically looks to India today in its containment of China (Kolko ). The relationship was formalized with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 which recognized Japan’s “interests” in Korea and condoned any action Japan might take to protect them from a foreign power (i.e., Russia) or the Koreans themselves. British interests in China were similarly recognized, and this was subsequently extended to India.

The USA was different again. It was a rising imperialist power whose appetites were clear – after all it was America that “opened up” Japan and imposed the first of the unequal treaties. It was likely that it would become a rival for the domination of China, far more of a challenge than either Britain or Tsarist Russia. Resolution of the issue was achieved, for a couple of decades, by the Taft-Katsura understanding of 1905. Although not formalized as an agreement or treaty (Congress at that time was loathe to do such things), it was clearly a realpolitik deal whereby Japan would not object to the US conquest of the Philippines in return for free rein in Korea (Larson et al. ; “The Taft-Katsura Agreed Memorandum” ). This betrayal of Korea rankles today both North and South (Larsen and Seeley ; Lovmo ; Park ).

Japan’s colonization of Korea proceeded in three stages. The Korea-Japan Treaty of 1876 (to which the Japanese, but not the Koreans, attached the word “amity”) was a variant of the unequal treaties which the Europeans and America had imposed on China and Japan and was brought about, as was its predecessors, by “gunboat diplomacy.” Sea power, in the nineteenth century, was where the military superiority of imperialism was most marked. It was joined in the twentieth century by airpower whereby recalcitrant natives could be pummeled with virtual impunity, though as John McCain found out when shot down over Vietnam in 1967 that immunity was never quite absolute. Although imperialist states tend to have overwhelming military superiority, as casualty figures attest, there is always the danger in a land war of quagmire as the Japanese discovered in China in the 1930s and the USA in Vietnam and in the Middle East.

Casualties are difficult to pin down with any accuracy. The imperial power keeps good records of its losses, but pays scant attention to those of its victims and often of its “allies” and civilians (Davies ; Sherlock et al. ). In the Korean War, there are presumably accurate data for the USA (36,574 dead of which 33,686 were battlefield) and US expeditionary allies such as Britain (1109). Chinese figures are perhaps less dependable because of conditions obtaining at the time; Wikipedia gives 183,108; a Xinhua article quotes 197,653; however this may be to a matter of definition; one may be battlefield deaths and the other includes subsequent deaths from wounds (“Burial ceremony held for remains of Korean War soldiers in NE China” ). Data for the Koreans, North and South, is uncertain; Wikipedia gives 137,899 for the South, which seems spuriously precise, and 215,000–350,000 for the North (“Korean War” ). On a rough calculation for every soldier, the USA and its expeditionary allies lost; the North Korean/Chinese lost 12. Imperialism, especially that of the last two centuries or so, depends heavily on technological superiority. The Romans might have had superior training, discipline, and tactics, but their weapons, though benefitting from higher-quality metals, were in general at a par with those of their enemies. The USA may be confronting challenges to its superiority in military technology from the Russians and Chinese, but Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were conquered (if not pacified) with impunity (Farley ). North Korea might be different, and it does have a nuclear deterrent (Cooper et al. ; Rogin ).

Japanese military superiority over the Koreans was never put to the test, but since it had been demonstrated against China (1895) and then Russia (1905), further proof was not needed.

The Japanese were not alone in wanting to batter down the doors of what Westerners called the “hermit kingdom.” The French made an attempt in 1866 and the Americans in 1871 following the destruction of the armed merchant ship General Sherman in 1866; visitors to Pyongyang today are taken to the spot on the Taedong River where the ship was destroyed.

The Japanese were not satisfied with opening up Chosun Korea to trade. Korea was too important for that. It was the nearest country to Japan, and culturally similar, it possessed resources and labor which cultural affinity made utilizable, and it was a bridge to the Eurasian continent, which meant primarily China but then Russia and then perhaps India. Japan’s future in a world of contesting empires seemed to depend on its carving out one for itself, and Korea was an obvious choice (Taiwan had been merely a collateral benefit of the Sino-Japanese war). Moreover if Japan did not control Korea, others, perhaps the French but more likely the Americans, would probably do so. Japan had been moved in 1879 to annex the Ryukyu islands, which became the Okinawa Prefecture for fear that Commodore Perry would take it for the USA (Tinello ). Following the Treaty of 1876, Japan moved on to more intrusive measures. The treaty of 1905, following the defeat of Russia, established a protectorate over what was now ironically called the Korean Empire. This was followed by outright annexation in 1910. Japan was now truly an empire and Korea was the jewel in the crown.

The Japanese seizure of its neighbor marked a new stage in the history of imperialism and Korea. Past imperialisms were concerned with rent and tribute, with retaining the momentum of imperial expansion, or in the case of China protection against foreign incursions. Japan was different, a modern imperialism with modern concerns – mines and mineral, railways and ports, rice for the factory workers at home, labor for factories at home and abroad, and settlers for the conquered territories of Manchuria. Again Korea was part of a wider canvas, and here again history had produced a different imperialist framework, closer to that of today and more complex than in the past.

This framework had its own dynamic because Japanese expansion happened not merely at the expense of conquered people but also of the interests of competing powers. The Japanese empire at its height encompassed Southeast Asia reaching to the borders of India, then the British Raj, down the South Pacific through the then Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) to New Guinea. It took in Manchuria (through the puppet state of Manchukuo) and most of the eastern seaboard of China extending into central China as far as Changsha and Wuhan. Crucially the advance to the north into Siberia had been stopped by the Soviet victory at Khalkhin Gol on the Manchukuo/Mongolian border in 1939. This dashed Japanese hopes of expansion in that direction and focused attention south, especially on the oil, rubber, and other strategic resources of the Dutch East Indies, and contributed to the attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact, a move of obvious, if temporary, benefit to both, avoiding a war on two fronts. In 1945, for reasons which are unclear given the inevitability of Japanese defeat and surrender and progress in developing nuclear weapons, Roosevelt was anxious to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and at Yalta in February 1945, Stalin agreed that within 3 months after the end of the German War, the Soviet Union would enter the Pacific War (Deparle ; Mankoff ). If Roosevelt had not insisted on Soviet intervention, the USA would have had an easier task dominating East Asia and would not have needed to share Korea.

These issues were in the future as Japan began its process of assimilating and transforming Korea after 1910.

Economic and Social Transformation: The Destructive Creation

The traditional Korean economy was a familiar one, seen throughout the world in pre-modern times, except in proto-capitalist economies such as Athens. The family and village were the basic units, production was focused on agriculture with handicrafts as an accompaniment, and wealth was measured in terms of land. The coming of the Japanese transformed that, and there was considerable modernization and development of the Korean economy. Some have argued that this enabled the country to escape the Malthusian trap, where the stagnant economy of the Choson period inevitably led to destitution and capped population growth (Cha ); that, of course, begs the question of what would have happened with modernization without Japanese colonialism even if that had been slower without the imposed forced march.

The Library of Congress country study on South Korea skips all too quickly over the subject of the Japanese colonial development of Korea – 1 page out of 472 – perhaps partly because the successful “top-down government management of the economy” which was taken up again by Park Chung-hee in the 1960s contravened economic orthodoxy (Metraux ). The Japanese colonial government developed the infrastructure of a modern economy, with railways, roads, ports and shipping, mining, electricity generation and light, and chemical and heavy industries.

Railways, which were important not merely for economic reasons, but also for military ones providing a facility for moving troops and materiel into Manchuria and further afield, increased to 6362 km by 1945. Similarly the road network was expanded to 20,000 miles by that year. Ports were built and shipping reached 230,000 tons. Manufacturing’s share of industrial output rose from 11% in 1911 to 40% in 1943, and between 1936 and 1943, the number of employees in manufacturing jumped from 188,250 to 549,751. Stimulated by the war, heavy industry’s share of industrial output rose from 38% in 1930 to 73% in 1942 (King ).

And so the statistics roll in. Two sets capture some of the complexity and consequences of forced imperialist development.

Firstly there was established “a well-developed network of post offices, almost all equipped to transmit telegrams, 7,100 telephone lines, 5,600 miles of telegraph lines, 15 radio stations, 440,000 radio receivers, 72 theaters and 51 cinemas” (King ) quoting (Henderson ). We have the makings here of a modern society with communications (second in Asia only to Japan) with social implications as well as the obvious commercial and military ones and radio and cinema facilities which seem to have penetrated quite deeply into the Korean populace, excluding the destitute which constituted about a quarter of the population in1929 (King ). This provided entertainment but also social control and indoctrination, perhaps not up to Hollywood standards, but serving the same function.

Secondly, after the rice riots in Japan in 1918, the government made determined efforts to spread the use of the high-yielded varieties that had been developed in Japan to Korea and Taiwan, along with the necessary investment in infrastructure and irrigation, and by the late 1930s, yields in these two colonies were much higher than elsewhere in Asia (Booth ). But although rice production went up 50% in the period between 1915/1919 and 1935/1939, exports, mainly to Japan, rose 279%, so that Korean consumption actually fell. Some of the shortfall was made up by the import of sorghum (a grain traditionally used by the rich as animal feed and by the poor as sustenance), but even so the per capita consumption of grain fell during the colonial period (King ).

Thus there was considerable economic growth, but the development was structured principally to serve Japan as a component of the Japanese empire, and Koreans were to a large degree excluded from the management of the modernization process; “in manufacturing, the Japanese occupied the high-paying technical jobs and Koreans performed the low-paying manual labor” (Chung ). Only in Manchuria, “a land of opportunity not only for Japanese but also for Koreans,” did there seem to be some access to higher positions (Han ).

This entailed a commensurate transformation of the social structure. The traditional Confucian hierarchy in which the yangban elite dominated government and military positions had been abolished in 1894, formally if not in actuality, and the Japanese took this further and then displaced Koreans from positions of power replacing them with Japanese. Some yangban managed to hang on to wealth and power through collaborating with the Japanese, and the yangban in South Korea experienced a certain restoration in the late 1940s under Syngman Rhee. Abolition of the traditional strictures would normally have had a progressive and liberating effect, but this was muted by the constraints of Japanese control of Korean society.

This control was welcomed by some, accepted by most, yet resisted in various complex ways, with all of this changing over time as the grip of Japan tightened and the exigencies of the expansion into China and then the Pacific War with the USA generated new economic imperatives.

The Japanese Legacy

There has been a considerable academic debate over the years, especially in the USA (and Britain), South Korea, and Japan, on the impact of Japanese imperialism on the economic development of Korea after liberation (Booth ; Haggard et al. ; Kohli ). Given the provenance of the academics and the imperial mindset, this has tended to focus exclusively on South Korea, ignoring North Korea. This exclusion is unfortunate since Korea was one entity under the Japanese and a comparison of the two halves would have helped to disentangle the Japanese legacy from the subsequent impact of US imperialism. The USA has impoverished North Korea through physical war, 1950–1953, and continued military threat and economic warfare ever since, and because of the North’s very existence, the USA has privileged the South with economic aid, military spending, and access to Western markets and technology. If US imperialism had not faced the challenge of China, Vietnam, and North Korea, then the four “little dragons/tigers” – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea – would not have had the rapid growth they had. Overlooking this fundamental reality has tended to vitiate the debate.

There is a need to distinguish between the “Japanese model” of economic development when utilised as part of Japanese imperialism, and so serving Japan at the expense of its colonies, and that same model when applied to a particular country, such as South Korea under Park Chung-hee. It can be argued that Park was very successful (Pearlstine ) but this success was largely due to it being focused on developing South Korea as such rather than Korea as part of the Japanese empire. The role of the new imperial framework must be taken into account. The USA poured in huge amounts of civilian aid to bolster the competition against North Korea. It also incurred large military expenditure in South Korea as part of its strategy of containing China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea itself. Moreover South Korea benefitted, as did many others especially on the arc from Korea through Japan around to Thailand from American expenditures in its war in Indochina.

The Japanese period produced huge changes. A forced economic and social development that Bruce Cumings has aptly described as a “pressure cooker” (Sheng ; Cumings ). There was a massive disruption of Korean society in terms of class structure, occupation (from farm to factory or army), and physical location. Large numbers of Japanese moved into Korea and on to Manchuria; an even greater number of Koreans was forced into Manchuria and further into Asia and to Japan – some 700,000 labor conscripts among them (Underwood ). Clearly in the long term, there were many positive outcomes, and that is true of the impact of imperialism in general. We cannot undo the past, but then again now that is over and the price has been paid, perhaps we do not want to either. At the same time, it goes without saying that progress could have been made without the accompanying brutality.

NBC sports commentator Joshua Cooper Ramo ignited a furor in Korea during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics when he said “But every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, and technological, and economic example, [that] has been so important to their own transformation” (Essertier ; “NBC apologizes after praise for Japan’s ‘example’ angers Koreans” ; Pearlstine ; Selk ).

If appraisal is so contested after 70 years, it must have been even more difficult for those living through the Japanese occupation who had to cope with reality on a daily basis. Some fled to Manchuria, the Soviet Union, or China and took part in the armed struggle; most did not but had to find other ways to resist, accept, or embrace the colonial experience.

Collaboration, Acceptance, and Resistance

Conservative Japanese see their rule over Korea as benign and disinterested, producing great economic and social benefit and indeed requested by the Koreans themselves – an attitude which is widely mirrored in other imperialist countries and similar, for instance, to textbook portrayals of America’s colonization of the Philippines (Caprio ). That might be expected but what is intriguing, though unfathomable, is how many Koreans privately, if not publically, shared and still share that opinion to some degree (Editorial ). Looking back at the Japan period before 1945, we must also bear in mind the American period after 1945. Most Americans would see their country’s role in Korea as similarly benign, disinterested, and welcome, and many (South) Koreans would agree; how many, for what reasons and how inculcated, and how that has varied over time are a complex matter. Complicating matters further, there is the question of empire-resident diaspora, those Koreans who for various reasons – forced labor, migration, or birth – ended up in Japan or America and, again for a variety of reasons, remained there. In 2016 it was estimated that there were some 330,000 Koreans in Japan (Ishibashi et al. ) and the US census for that year gives 1.8 m ethnic Koreans (“Asian alone or in any combination by selected groups” ). Imperialism, in association with globalization, the two being often intertwined, shifts incredible numbers of people from their traditional homelands and renders fixed concepts of nationality (and culture) problematic.

History is not only written by the victor; it is, by definition, written with hindsight. The historian knows what is to come but the historical actor does not. The empire, whether it be Roman, British, Japanese, or American, might well seem permanent to colonial subjects, a natural state of affairs to which man must adapt and get on with life. Resistance is often invented after the empire has fallen. Few Koreans today would freely admit that their parents and grandparents collaborated actively with the Japanese, although many obviously did, and not merely out of self-interest (Han ; Park ). From the late nineteenth century onward, for many Asians Japan was the wave of the future.

However there was also considerable resistance to Japanese rule, covert and overt, and two specific events among many others require special note. Firstly there were the demonstrations which started on March 1, 1919, and which became known as the March 1st Movement. This was not merely a movement demanding democracy and national sovereignty but also an expression of the disappointment that the USA and the other (victorious) imperialist powers had so soon betrayed Woodrow Wilson’s lofty rhetoric of “self-determination” first outlined to Congress in 1918 and proclaimed at the Versailles Peace Conference in January 1919. The Korean protests were mirrored elsewhere, notably by the May 4 Movement in China that year.

It is perhaps in the nature of rising imperialism to promise liberation to colonies and then to forget that promise when the former imperial power is displaced; this is very much the story of imperial Japan in Asia. However talk of self-determination and freedom holds a special place in US imperial rhetoric even as that rhetoric is contradicted by reality; Richard Nixon’s 1972 report of US foreign policy, as the battle to subjugate Indochina was reaching its inglorious end, “was filled with encomiums to American support for self-determination as a principle of U.S. policy” (Simpson ).

The March 1st Movement (called in the North “March First People’s Uprising” (“The March 1st Movement in ‘Korea’s Fight for Freedom’” )) did mark the beginnings of resistance, initially non-violent protest but subsequently armed struggle against Japanese colonialism. After its suppression there was some temporary softening of Japanese rule. But the main result was that it became the symbol of Korean desire for independence which resonates today. It is significant that Moon Jae-in has claimed that March 1, 1919, marks the beginnings of the “Republic of Korea.” This can be seen as an attempt to appropriate historical legitimacy, though the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has of course an equal claim, but it also sidelines the US establishment of the Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee in 1948 which did, in many eyes, lack legitimacy. This was how it was seen in an attack by the conservative Chosun Ilbo which charged President Moon with refusing “to acknowledge Syngman Rhee as the country’s first president..[with] its national security firmly anchored in its steadfast alliance with the United States” (Jong ).

The other main event was the establishment of a Korean government in exile in Shanghai on April 11, 1919. This again was mainly of symbolic importance since its military arm, which became the Korean Liberation Army in 1940, never achieved substantial size or effectiveness and was, in any case, under Chinese (nationalist) control although toward the end of the Pacific War, there was cooperation with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. The OSS cooperated with various liberation movements during the war, including the Viet Minh of Ho Chi Minh (Bergin ), but not it appears with Kim Il-sung. In any case US relations with wartime allies – Ho, Tito, and of course the Soviet Union itself – quickly soured after victory as their interests diverged.

That the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (or KPG) was established in China was significant. There were strong parallels between the Chinese and Korean experiences of the Japanese incursion and the failure of the West, despite the rhetoric, to support self-determination, until of course Japan became an enemy after Pearl Harbor. The USA never recognized the KPG although it did make use of its standing in Korean eyes by taking Syngman Rhee, who had been its first president for a short period, and installing him as the first President of the Republic of Korea in 1948.

If we had to take three individuals to exemplify different Korean responses to imperialism, it would be Syngman Rhee, Kim Il-sung, and Park Chung-hee. Only Japan and the USA can be truly classified as imperialist but China, both before and after 1949, and the Soviet Union/Russia being great powers necessarily exhibit some of the characteristics of imperialism. Koreans often compare their country to a shrimp among whales, and although it would be simplistic to consider that all whales are the same, it has to be recognized that they are all large, potentially dangerous, and self-centered.

These three Koreans, for all their differences, were contemporaries, straddling the Japanese and American periods.

Syngman Rhee took a political stand against the Japanese, but his main activity was ingratiating himself with the Americans, seeking their support for an independent Korea, under his leadership. He collaborated with the Americans and manipulated them for his own and national ends. He was no mere obsequious puppet but a calculating and ruthless operator. The conservative American historian Robert Dallek suggests that he precipitated the Korean War:

In 1949 Rhee’s government had initiated a series of attacks upon the North Korean forces stationed along the 38th parallel. Because he lacked sufficient troops and equipment to launch a serious push north, Rhee provoked the fighting not only to command Washington’s attention and stimulate an outpouring of military and financial aid but also to provide a pretext for cracking down on leftist opponents. (Dallek )

He opposed the armistice, wanting the Americans to keep on fighting, and at one stage there were high-level deliberations going up as far as President Eisenhower on removing his from power (Gwertzman ). In the event the Americans decided against his arrest, but in 1960 Rhee was toppled by student riots and flown, by the CIA, back to the USA, taking, in is alleged, $20 million with him (Lee ).

Park served in the Japanese puppet Manchukuo army after submitting a letter pledging loyalty to the Japanese emperor signed with his own blood (“Evidence of Park Chung-hee’s military allegiance to Japan surfaces” ). During the American period, he carved out a degree of autonomy and developed the South Korea economy, at the expense of the people certainly but also by defying American “advice,” following the Japanese model of state-guided development, with a focus on heavy and chemical industries aiming to build a comprehensive economy, rather than one which just serviced the American (Kamiya ). In this he was following somewhat the same road as Kim Il-sung in the North, who refused to join COMECON (the Soviet-led common market) because it would have trapped the DPRK in a position of economic and technological dependency (Person ). The history of Park’s collaboration with the Japanese was largely suppressed during the period of the military dictatorships only being publically revealed during the progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (Choe ). The conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park’s daughter Park Geun-hye tried to restore amnesia, partly by diverting attention, as Park Chung-hee had done, by waving the nationalist flag and criticizing Japan (Han ; McGill ). As late as 2012, there were reports of South Koreans being surprised to learn of Park Chung-hee’s collaboration (Lee and Shin ).

Kim Il-sung, the most famous leader of the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, was in a very different position to Rhee and Park, though there were obvious challenges in common. He was independent of Japanese and American imperialism, but he did have to cope with the Soviet Union and with China who necessarily had their own agendas and priorities. Since the Soviet Union was the occupying power in the North after the Japanese surrender, it clearly was in a position to determine, within limits, the successor regime. According to the Washington Post, he was not the “first choice” but “…they turned to Kim, who had a reputation in Korea as a heroic fighter in Manchuria against the Japanese” (Fifield ). Over the years he became adept at playing the Chinese off against the Soviets with the aim of developing a state which was independent politically, militarily, and economically (Beal ). Having two competing patrons was an advantage denied to his Southern counterparts. Unlike Rhee he was genuinely popular – there is only so much a “personality cult” can achieve – and his enduring reputation is indicated by American annoyance in 2012 that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, was utilizing memories of his “revered grandfather” to establish his position (Associated Press ; Choe ). Of course the Soviet Union was anxious to establish a friendly regime in post-liberation North Korea but neither they nor Kim Il-sung and his colleagues were burdened with the corpse of Japanese imperialism the way the USA was. The Soviet footprint in North Korea was very much lighter than the American one in the South. The Soviet occupation ended in 1948, and while Soviet pilots – flying MiG-15s to great effect according to Russian reports (Malishevski ) – were sent to the war, the involvement was negligible compared to that of the Americans. The USA reassumed operational control (OPCON) of the South Korea military during the war and still holds that today along a substantial military presence.

Korea, being a small country, was unable to gain its own liberation from Japanese rule; that came about through the intervention of the major powers, principally the USA and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union. Whether it will be able to wrest full independence from the USA is as yet unknown; it is an unfinished story. This has meant that Koreans have had to work with more powerful foreign countries in a varying mélange of collaboration and manipulation.

In the aftermath of wars, there is an understandable tendency to vilify, persecute, and sometimes execute those charged with collaborating with the defeated occupier. With the passage of time, historians develop a more nuanced appraisal, moving away from a Manichean dichotomy of good resistance fighters and evil collaborators (Brook ; Duara ; Kwon ). While it is valuable to move away from simplicities toward a deeper analysis of a complex phenomenon, most of this is from the perspective of the victorious imperialism, discussing those who collaborated with “them” while ignoring those who collaborate with “us.”

Stephen Gowans in his book Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedomreminds us that the story of modern Korea is a continuing relationship with imperialism that continues to this day (Gowans ). While the dichotomy patriot/traitor might be considered too neat, the essential point that acknowledging the role of imperialism is the key to understanding Korea is quite correct (Beal ).

Three Decisions that Shaped Contemporary Korean History

1945 marked the beginning a transformative era in East Asia. The old empires were swept away, unleashing dynamic new forces, principally, though by no means exclusively, the resurgence of China, while the USA became the dominant power. The USA had been active in the region for a century, notably with the opening of Japan and the Open Door Policy toward China, but now it was the mighty hegemon. This imperialism was to face an increasing challenge but in 1945 it was supreme.

In that year the USA took three momentous and decisive actions that were to shape the future of the Korean peninsula, and since by then the USA was becoming a global empire, these actions had worldwide ramifications. These were the atomic bombing of Japan, the division of Korea, and the inauguration of the policy of imperial succession.

The Inauguration of the Nuclear Age

The American decision to use atomic weapons against Japan – the first and only use – has generated considerable controversy. By August 1945 Japan was clearly on the threshold of defeat although it seems that Hirohito had fantasies that he could play off the Soviet Union against the USA to get a better deal (Bix ). With the USA having mastery of sea and air, their forces moving inexorably across the Pacific and the Soviet Union poised to launch a huge ground offensive from the west, it is often claimed that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary and so was a dreadful crime. That is no doubt true but imperialism moves to the tune of other calculations.

Firstly, and mundanely, the new weapons had to be tested and calibrated in a real-world situation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among a handful of other Japanese cities, had been spared conventional bombing so that they would provide a virgin target. Secondly this enabled the power of nuclear weapons to be demonstrated, to the world and specifically to the Soviet Union. By that reckoning Japan was merely collateral damage and the real target was the Soviet Union. It is likely that Truman prolonged the war against Japan in order that the new weapon could be tested in the USA and then be employed against Japan. While the atomic bomb was untested, Truman followed Roosevelt’s strategy of urging Stalin to join the war against Japan; once it had been successfully tested, Russian participation became unwelcome. Soviet intervention could not be reversed, but its consequences could be diminished. Thirdly by thus hastening the end of the war with such a coup de grace, the USA was able to exclude the Soviet Union from a share in the disposal of Japan and much of its empire (Alperovitz ; Wilson ). The atomic bomb greatly strengthened Truman’s hand, but dominance was not absolute, and concessions had to be made. The chief of these was the division of the Japanese colony of Korea.

The Japanese emperor had acknowledged in his surrender speech that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” – surely one of the most bizarrely euphemistic phrases in history (Hirohito ). Ironically it so happened that nuclear weapons would also turn out not to be in America’s advantage as anticipated. Firstly the nuclear monopoly inevitably did not last long. In particular the Soviet Union tested its first device in 1949, China in 1964, and, cruelest off all, North Korea in 2006. Secondly, nuclear weapons are by their nature primarily a deterrent. Paradoxically, because of their huge destructive power, they are not suited for offensive war even against an enemy who cannot retaliate because they destroy the spoils of war. The invasion of oil-rich Iraq in 2003 is a case in point. By contrast nuclear deterrence is primarily of interest to the weak, who may consider it the only defense against the predations of the strong. The USA does not need nuclear weapons to deter a far weaker country such as North Korea, but for North Korea deterrence is the only defense (Beal ). So nuclear weapons which seemed to give the USA unrivalled superiority in 1945 have turned out to be a great leveler. It is North Korea’s nuclear deterrent that has brought the USA toward the negotiating table (although not, at the time of writing sitting down and seriously negotiating), and the concern for Washington is that this example could be followed by others, thus diminishing imperial power.

Division of Korea

It is often claimed that Korea was divided in 1945 by the Soviet Union and the USA acting in unison. In reality it was a US initiative on 10 August to which Stalin acquiesced immediately, perhaps unnecessarily and unwisely. Certainly Perry Anderson thought so, calling it “one of Stalin’s two great timorous blunders in the last months of the War” (Anderson ). Whether that is a fair assessment given the demonstration of American power and ruthlessness at Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August the advantages to the USA of the division are obvious. By capitulating to the American demand, Stalin was in no position to insist on Soviet involvement in the Japanese surrender process. Stalin, admonishes Anderson, agreed:

….that US troops occupy the southern half of the country, when none were anywhere near it, and the Red Army could without breaking any agreement have strolled to Pusan. Naturally, Truman did not reciprocate the favour and allowed not so much as a Soviet military band into Japan. (Anderson )

Furthermore the division of the peninsula created a cordon sanitaire between leftist and anti-imperialist Eurasia and the new American possession and gave the USA a beachhead on the continent that might be utilized in the future. Interestingly the beachhead idea, though it does seem fanciful in the context of the dangers of getting involved in a land war in Asia (the USA avoided that in China but not in Vietnam), still holds purchase in US strategic thinking. One of the charges laid against Donald Trump in negotiations with Kim Jong-un in 2018 was that he might not realize that “American strategy in Asia … necessitates a forward military presence in places like South Korea” (Jackson ).

If Korea had not been divided and the Koreans left to their own devices at liberation, it is likely that the People’s Republic of Korea, which was proclaimed by the broadly-based Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence in Seoul on 12 September, would have prevailed and Korea would have become some sort of “socialist republic” although not necessarily one in which Kim Il-sung was preeminent.

The conservative journalist and one of Park Geun-hee’s unsuccessful nominees for premier, Moon Chang-keuk, had no doubts about that:

“in retrospect, it was also God’s will” for Korea to be divided…. Noting that there were many Communists among Korea’s elite at the time, Mr. Moon said, “Given the way we were then, had Korea been liberated as a whole, it would have been Communized.” (Choe )

In reality as events elsewhere have shown (Vietnam comes to mind), such a regime would over time temper both its socialism and its independence making what it considered to be the necessary compromises to adapt to the realities of a world dominated by the USA. But this is not how the USA saw things in the 1940s or today for that matter. In those days and for decades after that, Washington policy makers viewed local struggles for independence and social change, what might conveniently be labelled anti-imperialism, as being orchestrated and controlled by Moscow, or later by Beijing, or both. Soviet expansion is the key phrase which colored all thinking.

The mindset is well illustrated by a memorandum from George F. Kennan, the “architect of the Cold War”, to Secretary of State George Marshall (he of the Marshall Plan that did so much to preserve the US position in Western Europe) in November 1947 on the world situation:

As to Korea, there is no longer any real hope of a genuinely peaceful and free democratic development in that country. Its political life in the coming period is bound to be dominated by political immaturity, intolerance and violence. Where such conditions prevail, the communists are in their element. Therefore, we cannot count on native Korean forces to help us hold the line against Soviet expansion. Since the territory is not of decisive strategic importance to us, our main task is to extricate ourselves without too great a loss of prestige. In doing so, however, we should remember that it makes no sense to yield in Korea and then to try to insist on the elimination of Soviet influence behind Korea, in northern Manchuria. (Kennan )

By 1950 the USA decided that Korea was after all of decisive strategic importance, probably because of the Communist’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. Back in 1945 that was not a forgone conclusion.

In the event the People’s Republic of Korea was banned in the American zone in December and in the north became absorbed into the Soviet administration which favored Kim Il-sung and was a component of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) established in 1948 and which survives today.

The idea of “Soviet expansion” was in fact a self-serving myth which served to obfuscate US imperial expansion. The American historian William Stueck contrasts the Soviet and US objectives as played out in Korea. For Moscow its acceptance of the American proposal to divide Korea was a manifestation of “the determination of the Soviet Union to protect its eastern frontier.” In other words it was defensive, rather than offensive. This is consistent with its policy in Eastern Europe where it wanted to create a cordon sanitaire to protect itself from the USA and from German revanchism. The USA, on the other hand, had rather more ambitious objectives. It wanted “to create a stable world order” (Stueck ). This bland description was rephrased a bit more forcefully by the (South) Korean historian Lee Won Sul who regarded the division of Koreas as “part of a grand scheme to put the whole Pacific basin under American influence” (Lee ). In fact the division was an expression of, and a temporary pause in, the course of America’s Manifest Destiny. The dreams had come true, and the USA was now hegemon, primarily maritime, of the Pacific Basin and of course further afield (Clark ). In the Pacific it was to “lose China” in 1949 (Kifner ) and Vietnam in 1975, but the line it drew across Korea still holds. And dreams of continuing Manifest Destiny and of North Korea collapsing and China collapsing extending American dominance into the heart of Eurasia persist (Chang ; Mattis ).

The American division of the Korean Peninsula was to have momentous and long-lasting consequences. It led to the Korean War, still not formally over and the concomitant confrontation with the DPRK. Korea is still divided.

The Western press sometimes indulges itself in describing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) as “freedom’s frontier,” especially when an American president makes an inspection tour (McCurry ). Freedom can have various connotations; one could stand at the DMZ and looking east see the American military, currently some 25,000 troops and under its control the South Korean military, then to Japan the headquarters of the US military presence in East Asia and home to some 50,000 US troops, then across with Pacific with its innumerable American islands, the fruit of an earlier stage of Manifest Destiny, and the bases that constitute such a large part of their economies, to the shores of continental America itself. Turning around and looking in the other direction the landscape is different: no American bases (or of any foreign power for that matter) in North Korea or China or the Russian Federation. The DMZ can thus be considered as the western boundary of the American empire.

In 1945 Korea in itself was of slight importance to the USA. It was primarily the place where the line was drawn between the USA and the Soviet Union, the line that marked a temporary boundary between the empire and the land beyond. It was a pragmatic consolidation in much the same way as the Romans would create a frontier on the Rhine. Since then there have been four major developments. China has replaced the Soviet Union/Russia as the main challenge. The myth of “monolithic Communism” has faded, and no serious observer thinks that North Korea is anyone’s puppet. The Korean War was the first that the USA did not win and North Korea’s independence and resistance since then have infuriated generations of American policy makers so that an animus against Pyongyang has become hardwired in the system. South Korea has become a major economy. Nevertheless the reasons for the original division of Korea still obtain, albeit in a form modified by these developments. In other words, any analysis of US policy toward North Korea must be situated within this geopolitical context, the main component of which is at the moment the challenge from China (Beal ; Kim ; Petras ).

Imperial Succession

1945 marked a major turning point in US imperialism. Germany and Japan were both defeated with the USA in de facto control of Western Germany and complete control of Japan – neither the Soviet Union nor the European powers were permitted to play any significant role there. The USA was the global hegemon – the “American Century” was at hand (Hunt ; Luce ) – and in Asia moved inexorably to take over the French and Dutch possessions, though in Indochina that did not go well. The Soviet Union, despite the brouhaha about Soviet expansion, was exhausted by the war and, despite the historical links with Socialist, Communist, and anti-colonialist movements, was basically on the defensive.

Empires, once established, then have to be governed. In Japan plans to abolish the “emperor system,” remove the Showa emperor Hirohito, and prosecute him for war crimes and thoroughly “democratize” the country were abandoned. In an act of astute imperial statecraft though one scarcely consistent with “American values,” Hirohito was left on the throne, to reign if not to rule, and apart from a few token executions and imprisonments, the Japanese elite was essentially allowed to continue in power under American supervision. There was no Japanese equivalent of “denazification”; Kishi Nobusuke, for instance, one of the signatories of the Pearl Harbor declaration, was released from jail and subsequently made Prime Minister (Schaller ). His grandson, Abe Shinzo, has followed in his footsteps as Prime Minister, even being award the accolade of “Trump’s loyal sidekick” (Nakamura ). This failure to exorcise the past still enrages East Asia today, as is exemplified by the “comfort women” issue (Nozaki and Selden ).

This change of policy was incredibly successful, and although there have been protests and demonstrations over the years, especially in Okinawa where the bulk of the American military are stationed, and despite earlier fears of a bloodbath (which is why Roosevelt and Truman begged Stalin to enter the war), the occupation was unopposed. Hirohito had said “we must endure the unendurable,” and so they did. Korea was different. American officials noted that while there was “relative order and docility” in Japan, there was turmoil in Korea. “Southern Korean can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark” wrote H Merrill Benninghoff State Dept political advisor on Korea 6 September 1945 (Stueck ).

Here again the Japanese imperial system came to the rescue. The solution was to utilize the remnant Japanese colonial administration and the police and security apparatus they had set up. In the north there was revolutionary transformation, with land reform producing dispossession of the landlords and retribution against Japanese collaborators. This violent turmoil sent landlords and collaborators fleeing to the south, along with many Christians who were perhaps neither but who feared living under an atheistic regime. Some 400,000 people went south. As a result the north lost a lot of human capital. The fleeing collaborators who had acquired skills serving in the Japanese military or civilian, “with few exceptions, [] passed smoothly into the higher echelons of the new US-controlled South Korea” (Han ). Japanese colonialism continued, under new management and staff changes, “Japanese colonialism without the Japanese” as Stephen Gowans expressed it (Gowans ).

Japanese colonialism had been deeply hated in Korea, and there was widespread and enthusiastic desire for freedom and independence and a mélange of other aspirations such as democracy and socialism. The Soviet-backed administration in the north, though economically straightened (there was a desperate need for rice from the south, for instance), was politically well equipped to ride the tide of change. The Americans, for all their wealth and resources, were not. As Kennan had put it, “[Korea’s] political life in the coming period is bound to be dominated by political immaturity, intolerance and violence” (Kennan ). Because of this “political immaturity,” the USA imposed a Military Government (USMGIK) which ruled South Korea until 1948 when the Republic of Korea was established with Syngman Rhee as president.

Hugh Deane, an American journalist who covered South Korea in the late 1940s and into the Korean War, quotes with approval the aphorism of historian Bruce Cumings that “For Americans, the war began with a thunderclap in 1950”. For Koreans, it began in 1945 to support the title of his book The Korean War, 1945–1953 (Deane ). Cumings in 2010 suggested that the USA had “inherited a Japanese-Korean enmity that broke into a decade of warfare in Manchuria in the 1930s, and in that sense is almost eighty years old—and no one can say when it will finally end” (Cumings ). However the Americans not merely inherited and fostered this enmity; they elevated it to a higher stage as part of a global struggle for hegemony.

Deane describes the repression, executions, beating, and massacres in South Korea that preceded the outbreak of hostility in 1950. The horrors were amplified during the actual war itself and then continued into the postwar period (Ahn ). Rhee was toppled in a popular uprising in 1960, ferried by the CIA back to the USA but replaced before too long by General Park Chung-hee, who inaugurated what might be called the “Manchurian period” when South Korea was largely run by a clique of fellow Koreans who had served under the Japanese in Manchuria (Han ). Thus Japanese imperialism continued after 1945, and to some respects up to today, a vampire enclosed within, feeding upon American imperialism (Park ).

The Road from 1945 to an Uncertain Future

It is now nearly three-quarters of a century since 1945, and naturally there is an immensely rich and complex history that could be explored. This could take many directions. A political perspective would focus on the domestic politics in each of the two Koreas and their interrelationship and their relationships with the outside world, mainly China, Soviet Union, Japan, and, above all, the USA. During this period there has been staggering economic growth and social transformation in differing ways in both Koreas. This of course has been happening in many other parts of the world, but the Korean case has its own special characteristics emanating from the bedrock of Korean culture and geography, the Japanese inheritance, and American ascendancy. Here we briefly take five themes to illustrate aspects of this history within the overarching perspective of the role of imperialism.

The Korean War

Although the Korean War has been labelled “the forgotten war” (Blair ), it is surely the one thing, apart from the well-publicized malevolent belligerence of North Korea, that most people outside the peninsula know about Korea. Both the standard description of this war being an unprovoked invasion of South Korea by North Korea and the more nuanced and plausible analysis that North Korea reacted at an opportune time, when the large contingent of Koreans fighting on the side of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War returned home, is somewhat irrelevant (Hart-Landsberg ). Just as civil wars erupted in other places and times – the USA in the 1860s, China in the 1940s – because of the buildup of irreconcilable forces, so too the Korean Civil War had the markings of inevitability given US policy in Korea since 1945. The war caused immense death and destruction of the peninsula, and casualties among the participants, although as the way with imperialism, the USA which bears the greatest responsibility came off by far the lightest. In fact, apart from its casualties on the battlefield – 33,686 out of 1.3 million (Lacina and Gleditsch ), with millions of Korean civilians – in many ways it and the empire did well from the carnage. The Korean War rescued the Japanese economy from the doldrums and set in on the path to high-speed growth. More importantly, at the imperial center, Korea was the Hot War that bedded the Cold War into the American political system along with the permanent war economy and the military-industrial complex (Melman ; Eisenhower ).

Park Chung-hee, Vietnam, and the Imperial Framework

Park Chung-hee, who had served the Japanese in Manchuria, as an officer in the puppet Manchukuo army, also served the Americans, both at home and abroad, principally in Vietnam. The rightwing Chosun Ilbo encapsulated the imperial service and its benefits:

A total of 312,853 Korean troops were sent to Vietnam until March 1973, when all Korean soldiers were pulled out. In the intervening years, they had carried out 1,170 large-scale operations and 556,000 smaller-scale operations, killing about 41,000 Vietcong.

The dispatch brought enormous economic benefits to Korea. Exports to South Vietnam rapidly increased as materials and services necessary for soldiers were produced here. The country earned more than US$1 billion in total from the wages for soldiers and workers and the profits of companies operating in South Vietnam.

The dollars earned in Vietnam were used as a key financial source for the government’s second and third five-year economic development plans. The term “Vietnam” became a buzzword of the times. (“60 Years of the Republic: Troop Dispatch to Vietnam” )

The word “Vietcong” is used here in the usual fashion to refer to foreign dead, even babes in arms. The South Korean troops were particularly notorious for their brutality, which can be seen as a natural consequence of the history of serving imperial Japan and implementing Syngman Rhee’s bloody rule. In recent years there has been a growing awareness and shame in South Korea over the atrocities committed by their troops in the “pacification” of South Vietnam (Armstrong ; Cho ). In 2017, on a visit to Vietnam, President Moon Jae-in attempted to apologize for the past but was ignored by Vietnamese media (Choi ).

By contrast Kim Il-sung sent support to the Vietnamese and also to the various anti-colonialist struggles around the world, including Africa. Although American pressure has recently compelled various Africa countries to curtail or sever ties with the DPRK, there is still gratitude for past solidarity and resistance to US demands (Harris ).

Park’s policy was certainly more profitable than Kim’s, and the growth of the South Korean economy owes much to the blood money earned in Vietnam. In fact, much of the success of the Four Asian Tigers (or Dragons) – South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore – was due to US imperial expenditure in Vietnam and elsewhere in the region.

However, with the USA facing defeat in Vietnam in the early 1970s, and the opening to China, Park Chung-hee became very worried that the USA might cut and run in Korea and that he would be the victim of “strategic abandonment” (Sneider ). The domestic response was the Yushin Constitution which increased the repressive power of the presidency. Whatever popularity Park had garnered during the high growth of the 1960s, following from the disaster of the Syngman Rhee period, began to evaporate, and “dissidence became an enduring feature of student life at that time” (Avery ). North Korea was still stronger than the South – economically, militarily, and politically – and with US support uncertain, Park made the decision to develop nuclear weapons. The North would make the same decision later and for similar reasons, not so much for fear of the South but because of the overwhelming military superiority of the USA. For those that could achieve it, a nuclear deterrent became the obvious choice when faced with a much more powerful adversary.

Park, in fact, could not achieve it because the Americans found out and forced him to abandon the program (though there are indications that aspects of it continued even more clandestinely than before) (Eum and Ser ; Hayes and Moon ).

Park’s increasingly unpopularity with the people, and sections of the elite, led to his assassination in 1979 by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (Breen ). Park’s defiance of the USA over economic policy, and his attempt at developing nuclear weapons, gave him a cachet in nationalist thinking, and there was a very popular novel published in 1999 which ascribed his assassination to the USA (Moon ). At his funeral procession, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke cruelly observed “There wasn’t a wet eye in Seoul” (Oberdorfer and Carlin ).

Park Chung hee is survived by a daughter, Park Geun-hee who, inheriting her father’s standing among conservatives and a wider public approval of her father’s role in South Korea’s economic development, became president in 2013 until she was toppled by popular protests – the Candlelight Revolution – and is now in jail on corruption charges (Fifield ). Exile, assassination, or disgrace is the norm for South Korean leaders (Lee ).

By contrast, north of the imperial divide, both Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il died peacefully, to great popular distress (the father more than the son), and the third in line, Kim Jong-un, is in power, unchallenged it would seem and with popular support (Ryall and Irvine ; Kong ).

Jeju: From Massacre Island to US Naval Base to Encircle China

Jeju (formerly usually spelt Cheju) is the Korean peninsula’s largest island, and its subtropical climate makes it a popular tourist destination. It also has Hallasan, South Korea’s highest mountain and symbolic twin to Paektusan in the north, considered to be the spiritual home of the Korean people, and where it is claimed Kim Jong-il was born.

Jeju was the site of the most infamous massacre of the Syngman Rhee period. On March 1, 1947, a rally was held commemorating the March 1st Movement against Japanese colonialism and protesting against the forthcoming election to be held by the US Military Government in Korea (USMGIK) in 1948 that would finalize the division of the peninsula and install Syngman Rhee as president. Police fired upon the meeting killing six people and injuring eight. This led over the next year to strikes and various protests which cumulated in the Jeju Uprising of April 3, 1948. The authorities reacted with a scorched earth policy, and by the time the island was finally pacified, 7 years later in 1954, at least 30,000 people – 10% of the population – had been killed (Heo ; “Remembering the April 3 Jeju Uprising” ; Song ; Yetter ). The massacre was kept under wraps, with severe penalties against anyone who publicized it until 2000 when the Kim Dae-jung administration allowed an investigation. In 2003 his successor, President Roh Moo-hyun, apologized on behalf of the national government: “Due to wrongful decisions of the government, many innocent people of Jeju suffered many casualties and destruction of their homes” (Song ). The phrasing was significant. Not only was there no mention of the scale of the massacre, which was merely attributed to “wrongful decisions” (would the Holocaust be so described?), but the use of the word “innocent” implies that others – those who took up arms for Korean sovereignty and against repression and perhaps even those who merely protested – were guilty. The description reveals the dilemma that South Korea “progressives” such as Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and now Moon Jae-in face. They wish to exorcise the crimes of the past and build a peaceful and just Korea but are unable to confront the reality of the domination by US imperialism. Sovereignty always remains beyond their grasp (Elich ). However the ghosts of Jeju refuse to go quietly away and in 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the uprising there have been a number of articles in the South Korea press on the subject, with rallies and demonstrations outside the US embassy and a petition with over 100,000 signatures called on the US Government to apologize for its role in the massacre (Huh ; “Special features on the 70th anniversary of the Jeju April 3rd Incident” ).

The subservience of South Korean progressives (also termed liberals in contradistinction to conservatives) is manifest in the issue to the Jeju naval bases. Back in the late 1940s, there were rumors that the US Navy was planning to establish a base on the island which had been used by the Japanese to bomb China during the war. That might have had some attraction being halfway between its two major possessions in Northeast Asia, but at the time the USA still “owned China” (then under Chiang Kai-shek) and the issue was clearly not pressing and nothing seems to have come of it (Heo ). Subsequently America “lost China” which by the twenty-first century became the major challenge to US power, especially in Asia, and the desirability of a base on Jeju took on a new lease of life. However an explicit US naval base would cause political problems, certainly within South Korea and in a different way with China. In addition, naval bases are expensive to construct, and little of the expenditure would come to US corporations. Better to have the locals pay the bills and be the front man. The South Korean government, then under Roh Moo-hyun, came to the rescue (“West Sea Becomes New Arena for Big-Power Rivalry” ). The base would be South Korean, not American though of course “The United States, according to its Status of Forces Agreement and its Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea, can use at whim and at will any South Korean base” (Kang and Hong (Interviewer) ). Moreover it was not really a naval base but a “Civilian-Military Port” (Kim and Kang ). One problem with this ploy was that no doubt the Chinese were not taken in nor were South Korean activists and there have been continuing protests over the years, even attracting the attention of US filmmaker Oliver Stone (Gwon ; Huh ). The current president, Moon Jae-in, rather gave the game away with the International Fleet (or Naval) Review of October 2018.

The Review, the third in a series, was held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Korea (Oh ). That it was held in a place where, at their birth, those same Armed Forces had massacred 10% of the population is significant (Kim ). It might be an expression of the sense of impunity of the Korean military for past crimes and their power over the civilian presidency. Clearly any ROK president that wants to claw back sovereignty from the US, and make peace with the North, has to reckon with the possibility of a military coup.

Although it was ostensibly a South Korean affair, the Review was also an expression of enthusiastic fealty to the USA. It brought together a motley collection of US “allies” – although the Japanese dropped out over a furor over Korean protests over the flying of the Imperial Japanese Navy ensign (Hurst ). The Jeju base and activities connected with it such as the review are clearly aimed at China. At the review ceremony, President Moon declared, “I will further strengthen the Republic of Korea Navy so it may go beyond the Korean Peninsula and contribute to peace in Northeast Asia and the entire world.” This may have been no more than boilerplate rhetoric that politicians indulge in but it may have been a commitment to something more. Not only are the South Korean military under the wartime command of the USA, but modern weapons systems are merely a component of an integrated whole and cannot really function on their own; this is termed “interoperability.” Large countries, especially the USA, have a comprehensive capability, but small ones can only operate as subordinate units within this wider framework. In the 2011 invasion of Libya, for instance, the British and French air forces did not have the signals intelligence to operate on their own but had to depend on US leadership, a fact that has not been lost on Korean analysts (Song ).

A preventive war precipitated by the USA to impede the “peaceful rise” of China is the main danger facing the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps the world, today. Whether to support US belligerence toward China or to seek ways to avoid being embroiled is the major question facing countries in the region; Australia for one is a source of some forceful debate (Menadue ).

Why then does Moon Jae-in endorse a strategy fraught with danger? The controversy over the US deployment of THAAD – a component of the US missile defense system whose radar can be used for surveillance of Chinese missile sites and which is seen as an important part of an American first strike capability – demonstrated Chinese sensitivities and resolve (Beal ). THAAD not merely makes South Korea a prime Chinese target in case of war but led to substantial and continuing economic costs (Yonhap ). It may be that Moon calculates that by displaying such enthusiasm for the military and its supporting role in maintaining the US containment of China, he will be allowed some leeway on North policy. If so, it is surely a miscalculation.

OPCON and the Military Presence

When the Republic of Korea was formally established in 1948, USAMGIK was dissolved, and control of the armed forces passed in theory to the new republic, though US advisers continued to be influential and allegedly complicit in the massacres, such as in Jeju, leading up to the Korean War (Heo ). The ROK Army (ROKA) was an ineffectual force certainly in in the early fluid stages of the Korean War despite American advisors (Ramsey ). This was not surprising as the first officers trained by the USA from 1945 were selected from those who had served under the Japanese in pacification operations in Manchuria and China, and this is what they continued to do in Korea after 1945. They were not experienced in fighting another army. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) formed in the north was very different. The first cohorts were formed from those who had fought against the Japanese, mainly in conjunction with the Chinese Communists in Manchuria but also with the Soviets in Korea. The Americans claim that it was well equipped compared to the ROKA. In 1949 the KPA was greatly supplemented by thousands of Korean who had fought in the Chinese Civil War. When full-scale war broke out in 1950, the ROKA crumbled, and had it not been for American intervention, the war would have soon been over (Scobell and Sanford ).The American response to the debacle was twofold.

The US intervened massively, not merely with its own troops but troops from 15 other countries; this was perhaps the zenith of American authority. By comparison only seven countries sent supporting troops to the Vietnam War, and a mere three countries participated in the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Because of the Soviet boycott of the UN Security Council over the refusal to transfer the China seat to the new government in Beijing, the USA was able to dragoon the UN into endorsing American intervention, which came under the auspices of the United Nations Command (UNC). Despite its name the UNC is not controlled by the United Nations but exclusively by the USA (Norton ).

The USA also reasserted Operational Control (OPCON) over the South Korean military which it holds to this day. Initially this was done via the UNC, but in the 1970s the UN General Assembly passed a motion declaring that the UNC should be abolished. The USA seems to have ignored that, but it did transfer OPCON directly to the Combined Forces Command (CFC). This is the unified command over the ROK military and US Forces in Korea (USFK), which might suggest some joint ownership. In fact the Commander of the CFC is the Commander of USFK. It is, in other words, a front organization. That is under discussion and may conceivably change, though that is unlikely.

OPCON has changed slightly over time. Park Chung-hee tried to get it back in the late 1960s but the Americans refused. General Roh Tae-woo raised it again in the later 1980s when running for president, and on 1 December 1994, during the Kim Young-sam administration, the USA handed back peacetime control, retaining control in wartime, when of course it really mattered (“Experts address misconceptions about OPCON transfer” ). Peacetime control did have some significance because it meant, for instance, that General Chun Doo-hwan needed US permission in 1980 to move troops from the DMZ to Kwangju in the south to repress demonstrations (Shorrock ). Protests in Kwangju were part of a democratic upsurge following the assassination of Park Chung-hee. US complicity in the massacre in Kwangju, which may have left over 600 dead, was well-established, and US peacetime control was part of the evidence (Kim ) (Shorrock ). Why the USA insisted on hanging onto what was a minor part of OPCON is a mystery. Or alternatively, since they had the power, why did they not use it more wisely; massacres that passed unnoticed in the 1940s were less easily covered up in the 1980s. Moreover, from the US point of view, there was little point to Kwangju. The generals had done their job, and by then democracy did not pose the challenge to US control in Korea as it had in the aftermath of liberation from the Japanese.

US control over South Korea was also eased, although temporarily, in respect of the massive joint military exercises it holds with the ROK military. The USA had handed over management of the exercises to the ROKA in 2007/2008 but reasserted control in 2010 following the Cheonan incident (Jung ; Kim and Ser ). The Cheonan was a ROK Navy ship which sank, probably in an accident with South Korean mines off the coast of North Korea. The inquiry held by the ROK Ministry of Defense predictably pinned the blame on North Korea (Elich ; “Russia’s Cheonan investigation suspects that the sinking Cheonan ship was caused by a mine in water” ; Gregg ). What the real reason for the US resuming control of the exercises is unknown.

Full transfer of OPCON, namely, wartime control, has been postponed numerous times. It is rumored that Moon Jae-in had wanted it to happen during his term in office but has instead called for “early transfer,” whatever that might mean (Park and Lee ). He has expressed frustration that despite having a GDP claimed to be 45 times that of the North and massive military spending, “our troops can’t handle the North Korean military on their own” (“Moon vows to push for early takeover of wartime troop control, enhance deterrence against North” ; Park et al. ). He might also have mentioned that the South has far better military equipment (it jostles with Saudi Arabia for being the biggest purchaser of American weapons) and could field twice as many troops (Kim ). And moreover, because of the US-ROK alliance, war would automatically bring in the USA in support irrespective of OPCON. It is hard to imagine any country less in need of foreign control of its military, something which has been described by a former commander of USFK no less as being the “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world” (Son ).

Both the US and ROK governments claim that the postponement of OPCON transfer is consensual and the conservative press in the past has suggested that delays were at Seoul’s request (“Korea Asks U.S. to Delay Troop Control Handover Again” ). However, even though the ROK military establishment might have its own secret reasons to approve of the postponement it seems that the real reason for the delay is American reluctance to lose control over what is one of the most powerful militaries in the world, at probably the most strategic location in the world. The ostensible reason for the delay is that conditions are not ripe, and since it is really the USA that decides, there is potential for indefinite postponement (Salmon ). The “conditions” usually refer to North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, and since that will not be laid aside without some sort of security guarantee from the USA, which Washington is unwilling to provide, there again matters are in American hands.

Nevertheless negotiations on OPCON transfer must continue and a framework for a superficially new, if essentially unchanged command structure agreed upon.

There are four major components in the existing structure – the South Korean armed forces (ROKA for convenience), the US forces in Korea (USFK), the United Nations Command (UNC), and the Combined Forces Command (CFC). The CFC has overall wartime command of ROKA and USFK, and the Commander of USFK is also Commander of CFC, under OPCON. The same American general also heads UNC. A number of different entities within the military command structure but all controlled by Washington.

United Nations Command

The UNC does not appear to have any warfighting function, but apart from providing a fig leaf of respectability for the US military presence in South Korea, it does control the southern side of the DMZ. When the USA wanted to block attempts to rejoin the North-South railway network in August 2018, and important part of the détente process, the US commander spoke as head of UNC (“Korean rapprochement efforts stymied by UN rail block” ). That the United Nations was being used to prevent peace rather than promote it went largely unnoticed.

However the UNC has an uncertain future. If there were a Peace Declaration ending the Korean war, as advocated by the two Koreas (supported by China and Russia), then UNC would lose its raison d’etre (Park ). This would not necessarily be an insuperable barrier to American utilization of the UN flag in Korea. When a raison d’etre is a pretext, its disappearance can lead to other justifications. NATO was ostensibly founded to “deter Soviet aggression,” but when the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO not merely continued in existence but expanded both its membership (into Eastern Europe) and its role (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya) (Chomsky ; Daalder ; Rice ). It is no surprise then that thought is being given to how to continue UNC if the Korean War is declared over (Shorrock ; Yoo ).

Combined Forces Command

The CFS oversees USFK and ROKA and so OPCON transfer is focused on it. The transfer and the post-OPCON structure have been discussed for many years, but it has now become established that the envisaged new structure would, on the face of it, be quite revolutionary. Up until now the commander of CFC has been the American general commanding the USFK, with a Korean general as his deputy. Under the new arrangements, the roles would be reversed. This was confirmed in a meeting held in Washington on 31 October 2018 between US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and ROK Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo which stated that:

The Secretary and the Minister decided to maintain the current CFC structure and reaffirmed the mutual commitment that the future CFC is to have an ROK four-star general as the Commander and a U.S. four-star general as the Deputy Commander. (“Guiding Principles Following the Transition of Wartime Operational Control” ; Mattis and Jeong )

Earlier Andrew Salmon in Asia Times had noted that having a Korean in overall command “might prove politically impossible in Washington” (Salmon ). That seems a reasonable assumption and yet Mattis agreed to it. There has been curiously little coverage in the US media on this. Clint Work, perhaps the leading American expert on OPCON, writing in the Washington Post a month before the agreement, makes no mention of Korean control (Work ), though in the specialist magazine The Diplomat in 2017, he had commented:

The obvious obstacle to this option is that it would require the U.S. president, Congress, and public accept putting U.S. forces under the OPCON of a foreign commander. Considering the current political climate and Trump’s brand of politics, such a shift would require thorough public explication. (Work )

Defense News, in an article a few days after the Mattis-Jeong agreement, did mention the CFC transfer to South Korea but buried it a long way from the headline which merely mentioned the control of Korean troops – “South Korea could soon take control of its own wartime operations from the US” (Jeong ).

It was as if they did not want Trump (or the general public) to find out that US troops were being put under foreign command. The reticence of the US media is curious since the story is so obviously newsworthy, a case of man biting dog rather than dog biting man as the old adage has it. Yoo Kang-moon, writing in the Hankyoreh, pointed out that:

The case has been mentioned as the only exception to the so-called “Pershing rule,” which holds that the US military does not assign command authority to a member of another country’s armed forces. (Yoo )

Pershing was the commander of US troops in Europe in World War I, and he later criticized the deployment of American troops under foreign command. He did not trust the British, or the French, and since he was famous in the aftermath of the war – he was the only general to be awarded six stars – his opinions were influential and have passed into conventional wisdom (Maurice ). For instance, Karl Rove, election strategist to George W. Bush, claimed on Fox News in 2011 that “American troops have never been under the formal control of another nation. Why should we start now?” (Jacobson ). Rove was factually incorrect when it came to details but political, and essentially he was right (Bruner and Serafino ; Schuler ). Since Pershing’s day various US units have been under foreign command, but the importance of those cases has decreased and in recent years has been confined to US peacekeeping operations of no substantial military consequence and where, in reality, the USA is in overall strategic control. Why, in Korea of all places, start now?

It is unclear how the idea of relinquishing CFC control to a Korean initially got traction, but it did and is now the subject of a formal agreement. It may be that the transfer will not happen until it no longer matters. There is no fixed date – the latest prediction is 2023 – and it is contingent of conditions and capabilities, so the opportunity for postponement is always there (Jun ). But if it does take place and there is a formal transfer of command, what then?

The world has been distracted by Trump’s strident calls to put “America First,” foolishly dismantling America’s soft power strengths (Beal ). In the meantime the bureaucracy and here the Pentagon have been working away at more sophisticated ways to run the empire in a time of decline where brute force is increasingly ineffective.

One technique is embedment where senior officers of “friendly and responsible allies” – usually from English-speaking countries and certainly from subservient one – are embedded into high-ranking positions in the global US military structure (Williams ). Thus, for instance, we have Harry Harris, in a speech in Australia, claiming that the present international framework has:

… been made possible by a security order underwritten by seven decades of robust and persistent U.S. military presence, alongside a robust network of allies and security cooperation partnerships – alliances like the one we’ve shared with Australia for the greater part of a century.

Our alliance is so important that Australian Army Major General Roger Noble is the Deputy Commanding General for Operations at U.S. Army Pacific – he followed Greg Bilton. That’s right; an Aussie General Officer is a fully integrated partner at the top of one of my service component commands.

Leading U.S. troops is a responsibility that I take very seriously and isn’t something we just give away. In fact, the first offensive action by American Expeditionary Forces serving under non-American command was during World War I in the Battle of Hamel under the overall command of the Australian commander Lt. Gen. Sir John Monash. … At the end of the day, friends help friends… and it’s an honor and privilege to have our Australian friends working alongside us every day. (Harris )

Alliances are very much stuff of empires and how to co-opt elites into the imperial structure, without abandoning control is a continuing challenge. Harry Harris was then the Commander of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), since May 2008 United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). He was subsequently Ambassador-designate to Australia before being transferred to Seoul after Victor Cha, for unspecified reasons, was not appointed ambassador. Harris, incidentally, is an embodiment of modern US imperialism; his father was a US naval officer and his mother Japanese. Unlike his nineteenth-century predecessor Lieutenant Pinkerton, who abandoned Madama Butterfly for an American woman, Harris senior moved his Japanese wife and family to Tennessee.

Embedment might be seen as the human resources equivalent of interoperability, whereby weapon systems are integrated into the imperial military architecture making independent action by subordinate alliance members difficult if not impossible. A key component of interoperability is Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) capability (Elich ; Song ). We might see ISR as the brains of the military machine which directs the various tools – fighter, bombers, missiles, aircraft carrier, and troops in the field – to carry out appropriate functions. He who controls ISR controls the army, irrespective of the formal chain of command. It is no accident that the air force – the battlefield kingpin to ISR – is to be kept under separate US control (Yoo ).

This might be seen – in a nod to Barack Obama’s policy of “leading from behind” – to be one of “leading from below” (Lizza ). Indirect rule is an old imperial technique, employed, for instance, by the British in the Princely States of the Raj and by the Japanese in Manchukuo. Indirect rule, as Dirks has pointed out, is generally more advantageous to the imperial power than direct rule:

…. providing ultimate sovereignty could be reserved for the colonial power, and it was frequently the case that indirect rule was both cheaper and easier than ruling by direct means. It was not only more efficient to conquer territory when rulers were allowed to maintain local control, it was also less likely to provoke serious resistance down the line. And yet, in early years of British expansion, the siren of full and direct control was hard to resist; it was only after years of learning the difficulties of imperial rule that Britain began to devise new strategies of indirect rule. (Dirks )

Both the British and the Japanese used a mix of direct and indirect rule in their empire. American control in South Korea at the governance level was direct up to 1948, under the Military Government, and then indirect after that through the Republic of Korea. At the military level, it was direct until 1948, indirect until the USA took over Operational Control in 1950, and then direct after that especially in respect of wartime control. However, even during the Korean War, American military “advisors frequently found themselves working with a counterpart two to three ranks above their rank and advising units larger than the ones they had served in, much less commanded,” a classic indirect rule function (Ramsey ).

Indirect rule incurs a certain loss of control, but it is usually advantageous, and sometimes for historical reasons becomes inevitable. If OPCON is finally transferred to the South Koreans, it may really have little effect on American power in Northeast Asia.

US-NK Negotiations and the Sad Failure of Moon Jae-in

The USA and North Korea have been in negotiations of various sorts since 1945, but they entered a new stage in the 1990s and since then have seldom been out of the news. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea was militarily secure, and the economic relationship provided a reasonable environment for development. The Soviet Union was much poorer than the USA, and costs of trade over the trans-Siberian railway were much higher than those which South Korea experienced with seaborne trade to the USA and the world capitalist economy. The USA gave South Korea access to its market – the largest and richest in the world – and to its technology and education. American military spending, especially but not exclusively with the Vietnam War, was another bonanza. Despite these advantages the North did better than the South for some decades; according to a South Korean authority, the South did not overtake the North in terms of per capita GDP until 1986 (Hwang ). When the head of the BBC World Service China section visited North Korea in the mid-1980s, he found it wealthier than China (Hoare ).

The collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the reintroduction of capitalism in China, changed all that. Agriculture had been industrialized to circumvent the geographically unfavorable environment caused by the lack of arable land and the short growing season (the warmer south had traditionally been the main agricultural area of the peninsula). This policy had been successful but was dependent on industrial inputs such as oil and fertilizer from the Soviet Union and agriculture went into a tailspin when they dried up. During the “Arduous March,” perhaps hundreds of thousands of people died prematurely because of malnutrition and other consequence of the economic breakdown.

On top of this catastrophic domestic situation, North Korea was faced with two overriding international challenges. One was to gain security from the ever-powerful but now triumphalist USA which, freed of restraint from the Soviet Union, was embarking on new crusades, such as the destruction of Yugoslavia. The obvious solution to that was to attempt to develop a nuclear deterrent.

The other challenge was to come to some sort of rapprochement with the USA and to get it to accept peaceful coexistence. Here again perhaps a nuclear deterrent was the solution.

The challenges for the USA were different and of course far less pressing and only a small part of global concerns, even if greatly overblown by government for domestic reasons and the media for commercial ones. Again two are preeminent- nuclear weapons and East Asia strategy.

Military and Political Dimensions of the Nuclear Weapons Challenge

North Korea’s small and uncertain nuclear capability is regularly touted as the greatest threat to the USA and an existential one (Graham ; Landler ; Reich ). This narrative goes back to at least 1991, 15 years before North Korea even conducted a nuclear test, let alone had anything approaching a credible capability (Gelb ). The American public certainly seems to believe this (Choi ; Yoon and Cho ). This is a striking demonstration of the fact that people will usually believe something, however, untrue and indeed preposterous, if it is repeated constantly and not contradicted. Adolf Hitler, who considered that English propaganda was so much better than the German during World War I, concluded that the trick was simplicity and repetition:

But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success. (Hitler )

The idea of North Korea being a great, perhaps the greatest, threat to the USA is certainly frequently repeated and often by what most Americans would reasonably, if naively, think of as authoritative and dependable voices, such as James Clapper then Director of National Intelligence (Landler ). It is very seldom challenged, and on the rare occasions when it is, it is inserted into a propaganda envelope which obscures the real relationship between the USA and Korea (Fish ).

And yet on examination, the idea is preposterous. Even if North Korea had a handful of ICBMs capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the USA, there is no likelihood of an aggressive attack. What would be the point? There would be nothing to be gained. No country could conquer the USA let alone a small one like North Korea. Nothing would be achieved except retaliation that would destroy their country. This obvious and incontrovertible reality is, to be fair, occasionally admitted by experts:

Some US officials and pundits are fond of talking about the “threat” from North Korea. But what are the chances that its leader Kim Jong-un would initiate some kind of conflict or attack on the United States?

The suggestion prompts snorts of amusement from some Korea experts.

“The likelihood of a sneak attack by North Korea,” says Frank Jannuzi, “especially one with nuclear weapons, to me, is infinitesimally small.”

Jannuzi was the policy director of East Asian and Pacific affairs for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2012. He’s now head of the Mansfield Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC.

Sung-Yoon Lee, of Tufts University’s Fletcher School, agrees. “In the short term, the threat level is low and manageable,” he says. “North Korea is not suicidal, so it would not initiate a conflict.” (Woolf )

Unfortunately these experts, and the journalists who interview them, seldom get round to analyzing the real situation. If North Korea is not the threat that James Clapper et al. claim it to be, what is it all about? What is the role of North Korea’s nuclear capability?

Nuclear weapons, as mentioned earlier, function primarily as a deterrent, and that is the case here. North Korea cannot attack the USA, though many Koreans would no doubt like to follow the example of George Washington and expel foreign power from the peninsula. That is not feasible and there is no reason to suppose that anyone in Pyongyang thinks it is. North Korea cannot effectively defend itself from an American attack; it might perhaps do better than Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, but the real danger to Americans comes when they put boots on the ground. There would be no stopping US missiles and bombers. If attack is out of the question and defense is ineffective, that leaves deterrence.

Deterrence is an amorphous concept revolving around bluff, credibility, and acceptable risk and a deterrent that is used is a deterrent that has failed (Beal ). From the point of view of America, North Korea is a high-risk, low-value target. For North Korea it is what Seymour Hersh called, in respect of Israel, the “Samson Option” in that its use would entail destruction (Hersh ). There being no other military way to counter possible American aggression, North Korea is left with the nuclear deterrent, not a good option but unfortunately the best.

If North Korea’s nuclear capability is not a threat to the USA but rather an ability to retaliate if attacked, what is the fuss about? If there is no attack, there can be no retaliation. Besides, Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is by far the smallest of all the nuclear powers and of course dwarfed by that of the USA.

The answer lies with imperialism. It makes an attack on North Korea unpalatably dangerous and strikes at the heart of imperial power. The USA may, or may not, attack a particular country, but it wants the option to be able to. What is the point of military power if it cannot be used to subjugate those who resist? The very smallness of North Korea and its deterrent and the historical circumstances in which it was developed make it especially challenging for US imperialism. Even the strongest of empires – and the USA is the most powerful in history – recognize that large countries cannot be attacked with impunity. Small countries should be different. It is frequently observed that if Iraq or Libya had possessed a meaningful nuclear deterrent, they would not have been attacked (Frolov ; Sanati ; Taylor ). North Korea thus poses a strategic challenge to US imperialism rather than a direct military threat. There is always the danger that the Korean example might be contagious spreading to Iran and further afield.

US-East Asia Strategy and Its Contradictions

US difficulties are compounded by the contradiction inherent in its East Asia strategy. On the one hand, there is the long-standing desire to destroy the North Korean state, thus extirpating the shame of the failure to achieve victory in the Korean War and extending American power to the very borders on China. This might take place through direct military action (Read ; Thompson ). Alternatively and very attractively, there is the fantasy that North Korea will “collapse” and that all the USA will need to do is to “manage” that collapse, utilizing the South Korea military (Foster-Carter ; Glaser and Snyder ; O ; Olson ). Obama seemed to believe this, hence his policy of “strategic patience” (Foster-Carter ; “Obama: North Korea is bound to collapse” ). There are myriad problems involved in all this for the USA. These include North Korean retaliation, nuclear or conventional, and resistance – one authoritative study estimated that up to 400,000 troops would be required for pacification even if there was no significant military resistance (Bennett ; Bennett and Lind ). On top of these dangers Chinese intervention is almost certain (“Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018” ).

Leaving all this aside and assuming that the USA now has another scalp on its belt without being locked in a war with China, there is the problem of justifying the huge US military presence in the region (Holmes ). USFK has no plans to leave whatever happens, and President Moon has agreed that the presence will continue even if peace is declared (Cho and Kim ; Kim ). Nevertheless it is clear that pressure will mount.

The presence has two components – one is the actual physical deployment of troops and assets such as THAAD in South Korea and elsewhere in maritime East Asia such as in Japan and Guam – the “military presence.” The other is the alliance structure that locks South Korea, as well as Japan and Taiwan, into the encirclement of China. Some analysts have realized that the latter is the important one and have been prepared to consider a slimming down of the physical presence (Sokolsky and DePetris ). Others, including Congress, have been loath to see any withdrawal of US troops from the front line, even though that might be strategically a wise decision (Yonhap ).

The Military Presence and Its Complications

The North Korean position on the military presence is interesting and shrouded in some fantasizing. Ever since the 2000 summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il Seoul has been claiming that Pyongyang has accepted that the US military presence should continue: “Kim Jong-il clearly agreed with President Kim Dae-jung that United States forces in Korea (USFK) should remain in Korea even after unification for peace keeping and maintaining the balance of power” (“NK Backs Continued USFK Presence” ). This assertion has been continued in 2018 regarding meetings between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un (Yi ). It is obvious why South Korea should claim this because it allows them to talk détente with the North without challenging US dominance, but the South Korean claims, as presented, appear preposterous. It seems like that neither Kim Jong-il nor Kim Jong Un, realizing the South Korea presidents’ predicament, made the US presence a confrontational issue for strategic reasons. The small US contingent (roughly 23,000 at the moment) is of no great military significance in itself and would probably mainly serve to facilitate the bringing in of an expeditionary force in the event of war (Elich ; “Joint Press Conference with Secretary Panetta and Defense Minister Kim in the Pentagon Briefing Room” ).

Moreover USFK might well be a hostage against attack. Over the last 15 years, US forces have been drawn back from Seoul to Pyeongtaek some 60 km to the south to take them out of range of North Korean artillery (“N Korea angry at US army plans” ). This would have made the USA more likely to launch an attack on the North, with its bases being safe, but would leave Seoul vulnerable to retaliation. One might have been thought that the South Korean government would have objected and attempted to block the move. Though there have been long-running protests by the inhabitants of Pyeongtaek, the South Korean government seems to have remained silent (Choe ). As with the deployment of THAAD and the naval base on Jeju, South Korean interests were sacrificed on the altar of American strategic objectives, yet another manifestation of the imperial-client relationship.

However the US sense of security may be misplaced. The KPA has claimed that its long-range artillery can now reach Pyeongtaek and even Pusan (“U.S. Troops in S. Korea Can Never Escape Strikes by KPA’s Long-range Artillery: Panmunjom Mission” ). That may be an exaggeration, but in any case the US bases are vulnerable to missile attack (Oh ). This makes Korea a special case, though the Iranians now claim that they can retaliate against US bases in the region if attacked (Sharafedin ). Pearl Harbor is the only instance of a US base outside the theatre of operations ever having been attacked; US wars – Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to name a few – have always been prosecuted from bases at a sufficient distance to be invulnerable to counterattack.

Moreover the US bases at Pyeongtaek – Osan Airforce Base and especially United States Army Garrison (USAG) Humphreys, where USFK is now headquartered – is home not merely to troops but also an increasing number of dependents. It is now US policy to encourage dependents to live on base in order to discourage the sorts of things that soldiers on their own get up to, such as drunkenness and the occasional rape. If the USA were to launch an attack on North Korea, it would almost certainly have to evacuate the dependents first, thus giving warning to Pyongyang and antagonizing the South Korean people aware of the implications for their own safety (Lamothe ). The evacuation problem in fact extends far beyond the military presence issue since there are also hundreds of thousands of other civilians – Americans and citizens of core allies such as Australia and Britain – who would also have to be evacuated (Hayes ; Jun ). Nuclear retaliation aside, the reported confidence of President Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham that in the event of a war with North Korea “it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here” leaves out this inconvenient fact (Ortiz and Yamamoto ).

Another drawback in the US military presence is that it reminds Beijing of the US containment of China and the role of the Korean Peninsula in that. USAG Humphreys is not merely the largest overseas US base (and mainly paid for by the South Korean taxpayer), but it is also the one closest to Beijing (Hincks ; Lee and Jung ; Letman ).

The US military presence in South Korea is an affront to Korean sovereignty but whatever opprobrium that would attract from South Korean citizens would fall on the government in Seoul which endorses it rather than that in Pyongyang which condemns it.

North Korea policy toward the USA is therefore not straightforward. Being so much weaker, it must attempt to be flexible and pragmatic, sometimes being conciliatory and at other times defiant. Nevertheless its very weakness and vulnerability mean that peace and security, coupled with economic development, are the overriding and simplifying objectives. The Byungjin policy which attempts to use the relative cheapness of a nuclear deterrent compared to conventional defense to allow space for economic development despite US economic warfare is the expression of this (Beal ; Feron ; Toloraya ).

The USA is in a very different position. It has security and no need for peace – indeed peace is anathema to what is termed too simply the military-industrial complex. It has innumerable options. They may come with costs as well as benefits, but there are still many choices to be made. Often that is an uncomfortable place to be in, and the solution is to defer difficult choices and opt for the status quo.

Pushback and the Attraction of the Status Quo

The USA has constantly considered and frequently threatened war against North Korea since the armistice of 1953 and yet has never taken the decisive step even though it has engaged in military action around the world, overt and covert many times over that period (Blum ). A large part of the reason is clearly the military dangers of retaliation, resistance, and Chinese intervention. There are those who engage in wishful thinking, arguing that resistance would be minimal, that China could be persuaded to approve of an American-led invasion, and that only South Koreans would suffer the costs of retaliation (Luttwak ). However wiser or more cautious counsel has so far prevailed, and it is noticeable that when politicians ramp up the threats, as Trump did before Kim Jong-un’s peace overture in 2018, the military and their affiliates in the media have been careful to cool matters down warning of “catastrophic consequences” (Marx ; Shankar ).

On the other hand, the military wants to preserve its military presence in South Korea and its forward strategic position in Asia, and tension on the Korean Peninsula is seen as a necessary justification for that. President Jimmy Carter tried to scale down the US military presence on assuming office in 1977 and to withdraw the 700 nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea. He was outmaneuvered by US intelligence which exaggerated the strength of the KPA and ascribed, without evidence, an intention to invade on the part of Pyongyang if Carter’s plan was put into effect (Gady ; Whyte ). Carter gave in and the military presence continues to this day, at a slightly lower troop level and, in theory, without land-based nuclear weapons since 1991, though this is disputed (Staines ). However, since the focus of US-Asia strategy is China, with Korea being merely a part, albeit an important part of that, then even a successful invasion of North Korea would be counterproductive.

However if war in Korea presents dangers for the United States peace perhaps poses greater challenges. It is just conceivable that a domestically strong and deeply strategic US administration might be able to construct a deal with North Korea that would not greatly undermine the global position of the USA in respect of proliferation (the “North Korean example”). If North Korea could be quickly integrated into the global capitalist system, the deal might even be passed off as a victory. If the USA could tolerate an independent North Korea and an autonomous South Korea in some sort of pre-unification confederal system, then it is possible that the old dream of harnessing the Korean Peninsula to the anti-China alliance, as is attempted with countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and India, could be pursued (Carlin and Lewis ; Cumings ; Richardson ). None of this is likely to come to pass. The Trump administration is extremely weak with its hold on domestic political power quite tenuous. The foreign policy establishment despises it for incompetence and has been trying through various devices – Russiagate and Mueller – to remove Trump from office. In addition the Democrats have taken the House of Representatives in the November 2018 midterm elections, and many Republications in Congress have a profound hatred for Trump’s foreign policy, the late John McCain being an obvious example. Strategically the administration is incoherent and disheveled. Although Donald Trump might hanker after a Nobel Peace Prize and the legacy of being the American president who “solved the North Korea crisis,” he has so little understanding of the issues that he allows his North Korea policy to incorporate elements, such as “maximum pressure” of sanctions and a refusal to negotiate meaningful security guarantees that ensure there will be no deal. The process of derailment of negotiations is especially facilitated by his very own Rasputin, John Bolton (Jeong )

Moreover these machinations within the bureaucracy are complemented by obstruction from the Democratic Party (Hwang ; Manchester ) and by the media. An important example of the media serving as a megaphone for those in the establishment wishing to derail any progress toward a peaceful settlement was the article by David Sanger and William Broad in the New York Times on 12 November 2018 with the tendentious heading “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception” (Sanger and Broad ). The thrust of the article was that North Korea was “cheating” on commitments made at the Singapore Summit in June. This was untrue and easily debunked by commentators (Essertier ; Shorrock ; Sigal ). The South Korean government was dismissive:

Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyum stressed that Pyongyang “never promised to dismantle its missile bases, nor did it sign any agreement obliging it to dismantle its missile bases.”

“It seems inappropriate to refer to that as ‘deception,’” Kim suggested. (Noh )

Interestingly the article was also derided by some fellow mainstream journalists such as the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor and CCN’s Will Ripley (Ripley ; Taylor ). The lead author of the NYT article, David Sanger, has a nickname going back at least to the 1990s of “Scoop Sanger” from his success in publishing journalist scoops deriving from his role as a mouthpiece for elements in the intelligence community who wanted to influence government policy (Cumings ; Lewis ). The mainstream media is of course part of the state propaganda system, but presumably Taylor and Ripley thought that Sanger was being rather too blatant. The obvious inaccuracies in the article, and its agenda, were so egregious that the Executive Editor of the Hankyoreh, South Korea’s leading liberal newspaper, wrote a personal open letter to his counterpart on the Times protesting (Kim ).

However it would be a mistake to lay too much stress on the foibles and foolishness of the Trump administration. American presidents find it very easy to make war and, even when they do try, very difficult to make peace. It is a systemic issue which transcends individuals though specificities are important.

Empires are by their nature, warlike animals and although they may impose peace within their domain – as euphemized by the phrases Pax Romana and Pax Britannica – they are created and continue through force. Traditional empires may have wanted stability on their borders which were far away in terms of time and control, and what was on the other side might not have merited further conquest. Competitor empires also imposed constraints. The US empire is different. Globalization means there are no limits and technology has largely abolished the former constraints of time and control. The military has always been a powerful force in previous empires, but the modern American military-industrial complex – encompassing all those who make their living from not so much from war itself but from the possibility of war, from generals and arms manufactures to journalists and politicians – has grown mightily in influence. The military-industrial complex, it should be noted, does not necessarily want war itself so much as the prospect and likelihood of war. Nothing is more threatening to the permanent war economy than the prospect of peace. This does not mean that militarism is not a force in target countries such as North Korea. Having been under existential threat from the world’s hyperpower for all of its existence, it would be strange if the North Korean military was not a powerful political force. But it is constrained by the overwhelming necessity of peace and security. The USA is different. For all the talk of the “National Security State,” the national security of the USA has not really been under threat since the ebbing of British power at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Fordham ; Hendrickson ; Hogan ). The USA is indeed exceptional; all other countries to varying degrees have to be concerned for national security. The US, for reasons of geography, size, and power, has little need for such concerns. Rather it is a matter of projecting power with relative impunity. The “National Security State” is really a euphemism describing a new, globalist stage in US imperialism.

This power and impunity means that the USA can conduct its foreign affairs in ways which would be fatal for other countries. An aspect which is of special relevance here is the two-party adversarial system. The USA has developed a political framework in which there are effectively only two political parties (though the maverick Trump has dented that somewhat). The parties are very similar ideologically, and in fact their foreign policy positions are easily switched. They differentiate themselves for the voters not so much by policies as by being adversarial, opposing what the other party is doing. This gives the voters the illusion of choice without the reality. It has an important consequence in terms of foreign policy because it automatically engenders discontinuity and incoherence of which there are many instances. George W. Bush was famous for his ABC foreign policy – Anything But Clinton (Delury ; Sigal ). One result was that he tore up the Agreed Framework that Bill Clinton had signed with the DPRK in 1994 on spurious grounds (Cumings ). Trump has torn up Obama’s deal with Iran, and in turn the Democratic Party is attempting to sabotage his negotiations with North Korea (Hwang ; Kristof ; Manchester ). Since political principles are not a major factor, there is a tendency for American politicians to compete with the opposition by waving the flag of “patriotism” every more vigorously, even when it is strategically counterproductive. Dropping bombs on foreigners, or at least those with no air defenses, is a sure way of upstaging the competition and winning praise; after Trump launched a missile attack on Syria in 2017, prominent foreign policy analyst Fareed Zakaria proclaimed on CNN that by doing so, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States” (Chasmar ; Naureckas ).

Apart from the structural forces underlying the reluctance of the USA to accept peace in general in the case of the Korean peninsula, there is also the overriding need to contain China (Fullilove and Lemahieu ). From the division of the peninsula in 1945 up until today, Korea has essentially been a subset of wider geopolitical concerns – first the Soviet Union and subsequently China.

If a hostile North Korea disappears whether through war or through peace, the USA faces a challenge of justifying its military presence in East Asia and specifically in South Korea. With war too dangerous, peace unpalatable, and an incapacity of both the current administration and the foreign policy establishment to surmount these challenges, the USA necessarily prefers the status quo. Whatever Trump’s hankering for a Nobel Peace Prize today or a yearning to be a great war president tomorrow, it is likely that his attempts in either direction will be frustrated.

The Dilemmas and Impotence of Moon Jae-in and the South Korean Elite

If the USA is an imperialist state and North Korea an independent, resistant state, then South Korea can perhaps best be characterized as a “swing state.” Both the USA and North Korea have fixed positions which are unlikely to change. North Korea may be fluid in negotiations, but there is no reason to suppose it will succumb to US pressure and surrender. The USA may make various peaceful pronouncements, but its essential thrust for domination will remain, and it will not, in Mao Zedong’s phrase, lay down its butcher’s knife and become a Buddha. South Korea is different. Created by the USA from the detritus of the Japanese empire as a client state, it has wrestled ever since with the conflicting demands of subservience and wresting a degree of autonomy. Japan itself became a client state at the same time, and the parallels are intriguing (McCormack ). The OPCON issue is a formal expression of its client status, but American domination is more extensive and invidious than that, extending throughout society both at popular and elite levels. South Korea has the potential to swing toward independence; it is a major economy, with a stable society and a powerful military. Its military budget is far greater than that of the North; in 2013 it was claimed in the National Assembly that it was 33/34 times greater (Kim ). In its first decades, it needed the USA to protect it from domestic rebellion and the threat from North Korea. But ruthless repression, economic growth, American support, and indoctrination have produced great changes; even today challenging the official government line can lead to prosecution under the National Security Act (NSA or more commonly NSL) (Shim ). The North has been greatly weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and by unrelenting pressure from the USA. South Korea now has the potential to make its own way and to escape from American domination. It also has the necessity to do so, for as long as it remains a client state, it will be used by the USA as a pawn against China. If the USA goes go to war against China – something which is frequently discussed (Berg ; Heath ; Kagan ) – then South Korea will be on the front line and will face devastation.

However the structural forces of potential and necessity do not necessarily translate into action, as is brought home by the presidency of Moon Jae-in.

Paik Nak-chung has argued that the “Candlelight Revolution” of 2017 which led to the downfall of Park Geun-hye, and opened the way for the election of Moon Jae-in, was a “real revolution” (Paik ). It may well have been real in aspiration, but the Moon administration has not fulfilled that desire and promise. “Revolution” does imply an overturning of domestic social relations and international relationships, the two being intertwined, certainly in the Korean context. Moon’s popularity has plummeted, mainly so far because of inherited economic problems and his failure to address them (Park ; Rhyu ). More important here is his failure to stand up to the USA which will dash prospects for detente and peace. Paik claims that the Candlelight Revolution produced a new government able to respond the Kim Jong-un’s peace overtures of 2018 (Paik ). That is true but the response is constrained and vitiated by domestic forces, particularly the military and the conservatives, and subordinated to the policies of the United States. Since the USA does not want peace, South Korea will not attain it unless it defies America, and Moon shows no signs of doing that. This was apparent months after he took office in 2017 and has been continually reconfirmed since then (Beal ). Moon clearly faces formidable obstacles. He has limited formal political power, and, more substantially, there is always the danger of some sort of coup, either political (Roh Moo-hyun narrowly escaped impeachment in 2004) or military. The USA can apply immense pressure to achieve its aims, even instigated a coup if necessary. So the challenge for Moon is to nudge the USA into a meaningful peace dialogue with Pyongyang without inciting a counteroffensive from the conservatives and military in South Korea. There are various aspects to that, with sanctions having high visibility, but the fundamental one is persuading the USA to accept peaceful coexistence with an independent North Korea which retains the right and ability for self-defense a compromise which could be called “capping” (Dalton and Levite ; Miller and Sokolsky ; Sigal ; Work ). It is unlikely that any such persuasion would be successful since the USA, for reasons discussed above, is not able to make the geostrategic adjustments necessary and will opt for the status quo. Nevertheless, if Moon is to help remove the specter of devastation from the Korean peninsula, he must try. North Korea has developed a nuclear deterrent because of the threat from the USA, so Pyongyang will not move toward denuclearization unless that threat is addressed. However, despite pretensions, South Korea has no direct role to play in the negotiations between the USA and the DPRK on the nuclear issue. What it can do is, on the one hand, improve bilateral relations with the North – the détente process – and on the other address the issue of sanctions.

While a number of useful and productive moves have been made during 2018 to promote détente with the North, there is a limit to what can be achieved at the bilateral level. Enthusiasts abroad, often Korean Americans, were carried away with the thought that, at last, Koreans were able to take their destiny in their own hands and forge peace (Feffer ; Freeman-Woolpert ; Lindorff ; Shorrock ). In South Korea the government, naturally, and the liberal media echoed this fantasy (Editorial ; Lee ; Noh ; Yi ; Yu ). In reality there was very little of substance that South Korea could do with the North that did not require US approval (Jeong et al. ; Kim ; “Korean rapprochement efforts stymied by UN rail block” ; Lee ; Shin ; Yonhap ).

Much of the constraint that the USA is able to impose on the detente process is exercised through its dominance of the United Nations (and the UNC) and is manifested through sanctions. It is well established that sanctions are usually ineffective in compelling governments to succumb to US demands and that their main function is a domestic one, to “satisfy the need to appear to be acting while avoiding the risks of action” (Friedman ). In respect of small countries such as North Korea, they are a particularly cowardly weapon, costing little and posing no danger while inflicting great pain on the target population, especially the most vulnerable, that is, the elderly and children. They produce disease, ill-health, malnutrition, and sometimes starvation. Currently the UN estimates that 40% of the population of North Korea “require humanitarian assistance” (“UN Humanitarian Chief to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 9–12 July ” 2018). Maternal mortality is eight times higher in North Korea than in the South (Kim ). Sanctions are fanning a TB epidemic in North Korea, and Seoul has fears it may spread south (Talmadge ). The US attitude toward sanctions was famously summed up by the US Ambassador to the UN Madelaine Albright who when asked on CCN in 1996 about reports that sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children replied “…we think the price is worth it” (Stahl ).

In the present context, sanctions have an added dimension, with two aspects. As long as Washington thinks that it can achieve the unilateral surrender of North Korea with sanctions, it will not find it necessary to negotiate on the security issue. That is wishful thinking and we may suppose that more astute minds see sanctions as a convenient device with which to scuttle negotiations. North Korea is not going to believe any US professions of peaceful intent while it is carrying out economic aggression.

Sanctions therefore have become a key element in current negotiations. Unless there is movement on sanctions, there will be no progress. If Moon Jae-in is to have any effect on US-DPRK negotiations then sanctions alleviation is the button to push. He has made some noises, but as soon as he has encountered opposition from the US, or its subordinate allies, he has backed down. On his trip to Western Europe in October 2018, he raised the issue (how strongly we don’t know) with Macron and May and was rebuffed by both (Jeong ; Ryall ; Yi ; Yoon and Norman ). He went to New Zealand, and the message was the same: Prime Minister Ardern “said New Zealand would not be receptive to any calls to ease sanctions” and “sanctions would continue to be essential until Pyongyang completely abandons its nuclear program” (Beal and Wilson ; Kim ). Moon capitulated to this pressure from the imperial periphery and from the center and reiterated his subservience to US sanctions policy (Kim ; “Seoul to Maintain N. Korea Sanctions until Complete Denuclearization” ).

Moon could have attempted to stand up to the USA over sanctions. There is a moral opprobrium; sanctions are variously described as “war crimes” (Cockburn ; Pilger ; “Rule 53. Starvation as a Method of Warfare” ) or “economic terrorism” (“Iran’s Rouhani denounces US sanctions as ‘economic terrorism’” ). This opprobrium is latent because the facts are usually suppressed or glossed over – blaming the victim is a common technique – but could be activated. Moreover the key sanctions are those emanating from the United Nations Security Council, and since they are ostensibly largely to protect South Korea, then an appeal to the UNSC by President Moon would have traction. The actions would not be without danger to Moon or his administration, but if sanctions continue, then the possibility of war with the North, and with China, will continue.

It may be that the current measures between South and North to develop détente will create sufficient momentum and become unstoppable, but this is unlikely since at any time the USA can put its foot down and bring things to a halt.

The failure of Moon Jae-in to stand up to the USA over sanctions is but one instance, albeit a crucial one, of a wider incapacity of the South Korean élite, over generations, to wrest autonomy from the USA. While it is subservient, it will continue to be used as a pawn by US imperialism in its broader struggle to maintain hegemony, especially in respect of the Chinese challenge. For the moment the best strategy for the USA is to preserve the status quo in respect of the Korean peninsula. Both war and peace would be less preferable to the present situation where a constructed fear of the “North Korean threat” produces sufficient tension to justify the US military presence in Northeast Asia, along with missile defense and other components of the permanent war economy. Moreover it comes with little cost or danger. Much of the forward military presence is funded by the host countries (Elich ; Lim et al. ; Park ). Sanctions may cause huge damage to North Korea – $65trillion according to one estimate (“KCNA on Tremendous Damage Done to DPRK by US” ) – and danger to South Korea, but have no meaningful effect on the American economy. And since the “North Korean threat” is essentially bogus, the risks are quite manageable.

Themes and Issues

If an analysis of the role of imperialism is essential for an understanding of the Korean peninsula, and its history, then Korea, being a principal site of contestation, throws much light on imperialism, in particular on contemporary US imperialism. The Trump presidency adds another dimension because of its disjunction with standard imperialist practice and thinking. Trump, as president, is charged with running an empire but, to the dismay of the establishment, does not comprehend the task. This opens up fissures – counter challenges of “fake news” – that scarcely surfaced in the past. The screams of outrage are a useful indication of just how important the empire is perceived to be and what are its most valuable assets. However since Trump is not anti-imperialist, merely incompetent, these protests from the establishment are not a comprehensive guide.

Trump, the roche moutonnée, and the Unravelling of the Imperial Idea

An empire, at one level, can be considered a conglomeration of states. It is hierarchal with the imperial state at the center surrounded by others at various levels of influence and subordination. Traditionally empires have boundaries, either geographical or with contestant states, and these are marked by a band of liminal states in between which may move either way to one empire or the other. And then there are states which are similar to a roche moutonnée, or sheep rock, hard outcrops over which glaciers pass and surround but do not destroy and sweep away. North Korea is such a roche moutonnée. The major crime in the eyes of an empire is rebellion from existing subordinates and resistance from states at the periphery. Independence is not easily tolerated, and naturally the smaller the defiant state, the greater the frustration, hence the animus towards North Korea, so much smaller than the US. Historically empires have tended to recognize the idea of limits, though with internal quarrelling over where those limits should be, and strategists and historians often warned of imperial overreach. Though there have been very large empires before and the later European empires straddled the globe – the British had an empire on which the sun never set – it is only with the USA that we have an empire with a truly global, all-encompassing appetite which sees no limit to its domain. Hence the frequent talk of war with Russia, or China, or sometimes both together (Farley ). There are those that warn of overreach, and urge restraint, but the prevailing trend is aggressive, leading to the eastward expansion of NATO and shenanigans in the South China Sea (Buruma ; Fraser ; White ).

Empires are of course dynamic, expanding, declining, collapsing, rising, and falling. Within the empire the hierarchy is in a state of flux with the subordinate states rising or declining in power and consequently in influence, although size and inherent power is an important factor. South Koreans are often aggrieved when it becomes clear that Washington considers Tokyo more important than Seoul (Cumings and Park (Interviewer) ; Kang ; Nakamura ). The process is historical with strong cultural factors. Britain, for instance, has claimed and has been granted a “special relationship” with the USA since it handed over the baton of hegemony in the twentieth century. This may decline if Britain leaves the EU and so loses its position as the USA’s “best friend in Europe” but will retain something as long as American leaders remain monolingual, judging foreigners on their ability to speak English (Birnbaum ).

The preferred American term for empire, in polite mainstream circles, is alliance over which the US exercises leadership. From this it follows that the major foreign duty of the US president is management of the alliance, to keep the subordinate states compliant and unified against any competitors. It might be termed Imperial Management 101. Although Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw (in theory) from Syria might have been the trigger which led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis in December 2018, his resignation letter does not mention Syria but focuses exclusively on the importance of the alliance structure for the USA (Mattis ). Trump’s incompetence in managing alliances is his besetting sin, in the eyes of the US establishment, one that leads to the various measures, principally Russiagate, by which they hope to pull him down (Sullivan ; Tharoor ). The basic reason for Trump’s failure, more important than any personal inadequacies, is that he does not understand that he is supposed to be running an empire. Niall Ferguson once commented that Americans were imperialists in denial – they had an empire but would not admit to it (Ferguson ). The American elite has tended, except in unguarded moments, to perform this charade, but subconsciously they were not taken in. Words might go in one direction, but actions in another. The curious thing about Trump, due perhaps to his famous incuriosity and his lack of political experience, is that he does believe the denial myth.

The curiosity does not stop there. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, he outlined his view of the world as being composed of “sovereign nations” – he used the word “sovereignty 21 times – which “with different values, different cultures and different dreams not just coexist but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect” (Jaffe and DeYoung ). This, in fact, is the vision of the world enshrined in the UN Charter and one espoused by North Korea, among others, “Sovereignty is the life and soul of the Korean people” (“Rodong Sinmun on DPRK’s Bolstered War Deterrent Force” ).

Trump was as usual inconsistent, and he singled out North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela whose sovereignty did not merit respect, so it was not quite all the way with the UN Charter. Nevertheless his worldview is strikingly different from the global system that the USA has been at such pains to construct since World War II and with considerable success. For an American president, putting America first among the world’s sovereign nations is a very different concept from exercising leadership over the international community and harnessing its alliances to preserve the Liberal International Order (Haass ; Ignatius ; Mathews ; “Petition: Preserving Alliances” ).

Alliances are the keystone of this imperial order. Trump sees them as an encumbrance by which allies “are ripping us off” (Sherlock ; Zeynalov ). Leaving aside things such as host countries paying much of the cost of US troops stationed there and the purchase of US military equipment (which enriches the manufactures, keeps costs down for the Pentagon and, through interoperability, locks foreign forces into the US military machine), a quick look at statistics for military expenditure indicates why the establishment is so horrified by Trump’s ignorance of the benefits of alliances for US military power.

According to the annual Military Balance 2017 published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a standard source, the official military budget of the USA in 2016 was $604 billion. The total for the main allies – Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, etc. – together came to $450 billion bringing the grand total to $1054 billion. In other words, to the degree that the USA could utilize the military of its subordinates, it augmented its military budget by 75%. This is merely a rough, indicative measure for obvious reasons, but it does quantify the military value of its empire to the USA (“Military Balance 2017” ). It is not surprising then when analysts write of US military power, they often mention the “globe-spanning alliance structure that constitutes the core of the existing liberal international order” (Brooks and Wohlforth ). The total military budget of the empire is also the metric to be used when comparing US power with that of its adversaries. That $1054 billion was, using the same source, 7 times that of China, 22 times that of Russia, and 64 times that of Iran. The Military Balance does not give data for North Korea, but using estimates from other sources, the imbalance in military spending ranges from about 300 times to a thousand (“World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 2016” ; Kim ). Trump has frequently claimed that US “allies” are freeloading and should pay more for the US forward presence in their countries (Cloud ; Yoon ). He has it the wrong way round; it is the allies who subsidize the USA. The US presence is primarily to serve Washington’s geopolitical strategy with the claim that it is providing protection a pretext. A war on China to protect its hegemony might make sense for Washington, but it is difficult to conceive how it could benefit South Korea in any way.

However the alliance structure has value extending far beyond the military aspect. It allows the USA to claim that it speaks for the “international community.” That supposed community may leave out most of the world’s population – in China, Russia, India, and much of the rest of the world – but it does include, from an American perspective, the countries that count or at least their governments. It endows the USA with huge diplomatic power which is evidenced most significantly in international bodies such as the United Nations.

For historical reasons the USA has an automatic majority in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It “owns” three of the five permanent members – itself, the UK, and France – and inevitably most of the nonpermanent members. The Soviet Union used to use its veto with some vigor, China less so, and currently the veto is used sparingly with Russia and China attempting to horse trade on unwelcome resolutions then, if pushed through, implementing them with reluctance. UNSC resolutions, and the ensuing sanctions, have been an important weapon of the USA against North Korea. To most people they appear legitimate because they bear the imprimatur of the UN even when they violate the Charter of the UN and the norms of international law (Weeden ). However the UNSC is a political construction within which power is very unevenly distributed. In general its resolutions privilege the USA even when they are clearly illegal (McCormack ; “UN Security Council exceeds its authority” ; Xavier do Monte ). North Korea has been condemned by the UNSC for, of all things, attempting to launch an artificial satellite. This was done on the spurious grounds that it employed “ballistic missile technology”; however, all satellites are launched by ballistic rockets. Such rockets are only missiles if they have a warhead (Beal ). Moreover ballistic missiles themselves are not illegal or uncommon, and of course the USA has thousands of them.

The problem with the UNSC exceeds far beyond the North Korea issue. Not merely do its resolutions often punish the innocent but it often fails to condemn, let alone punish, infringements of international law by the USA or its allies. For instance, in April 2018 it rejected a Russian-sponsored resolution condemning US airstrikes against Syria (Chan ). Indeed it appears that the USA has never been condemned for its flagrant violations international law such as the invasion of Iraq. It does not have to use its veto because its alliance system gives it a virtually guaranteed majority whatever the composition of the nonpermanent members. The UNSC is a place of political power, not the disinterested dispensation of international law.

US influence penetrates far deeper into international institutions such as the United Nations than formal resolutions. The CIA has long been thought to have been involved in the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 (Cowell and Gladstone ; Lynch ). More prosaically the USA can make or break careers. Presumably both Russia and China have an informal veto over senior appointments, but the balance of power means that only US-supported people get the jobs. Nevertheless the USA has fallen out with the chosen ones when they have not lived up to expectations of deference and they are forced out of office and did not have their appointments renewed or left under a cloud. Notable examples include UN Secretary Generals Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director General José Bustani (Urquhart ; Meisler ; Linzer ). Bustani had the particular pleasure of reportedly being threatened by John Bolton: “We know where your kids live” (Hasan ).

US influence extends far below the highest levels of the international bureaucracy. Even modest positions in international agencies are well paid and have prestige. It is unlikely that in general any person who is considered anti-American could expect a good career in this milieu. At the same time, pressure to conform to US policy must be immense and would not require a Boltonesque threat but would just be internalized through the ordinary course of administration. Moreover these people are not merely individuals but also citizens of a country whose government may well be subject to US influence, so in sensitive areas the pressure comes from two directions. One instance of this, unfortunately under-researched, is the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the DPRK chaired by Michael Kirby assisted by Sonja Biserko and Marzuki Darusman. Marzuki had been a henchman of General Suharto, largely responsible, with the help of the CIA of one of the biggest massacres of the postwar period, perhaps half a million Indonesians, so he knew something about human rights, and how to ingratiate with the powerful (McBeth ; Scott ).

The statement by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights announcing the appointment of the CIO is telling (emphasis added):

The President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Remigiusz A. Henczel (Poland), announced today the appointment of Michael Donald Kirby of Australia and Sonja Biserko of Serbia who will join Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to serve as the members of the commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, mandated by the Council at its last session. Mr. Kirby will serve as Chair of the three-person commission.

The Council decided to establish, for a period of one year, the commission of inquiry at its twenty-second session on 22 March 2013 to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity. (“Council President appoints Members of Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic in Korea” )

It will be noted that the word “allegation” does not appear. The task of the COI was not, as would be the case in any normal court trial or inquiry to assess the veracity of allegations but merely to confirm the guilt of the accused. In other words a show trial with a pre-determined verdict and the confirmation of guilt duly provided. The investigation contented itself with hearing testimony from what the South Korean government calls “defectors” – North Koreans who for whatever reason had left their homeland to live in South Korea or elsewhere. The general motive for this appears to have been economic; a South Korean Ministry of Unification survey in 2004 found that only 9% cited “political dissatisfaction” (Park ). This is not what the COI wanted to hear. Defectors or people in similar situations are notoriously unreliable. Being desperate they tend to say what they think their interrogators want to hear, which is why countries which do not want them – such as EU countries faced with a flood of asylum seekers – use overly rigorous screening techniques to give themselves an excuse for refusal (Souter ). The same method applies for Britain barring unwanted North Koreans or South Korea refusing asylum to Yemenis (Bell ; Park ). There are many instances of defectors in South Korea fabricating stories (Fifield ; Jolley ; Song ). Moreover there is an incentive to make fabrications as lurid as they can (Yun ).

It appears that the CIO heard the testimony of defectors, selected presumably by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in South Korea and its equivalents elsewhere, and without demur or scrutiny predictably concluded that:

Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. (“Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (main findings and recommendations)” )

The assertion that these “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations” were an “essential components of a political system” had the useful implication that any action taken by the USA to destroy this political system would be both justified and virtuous.

It is clear what is going on here. Demonization of the enemy is a standard tactic and particularly important for a democratic imperialism. The French with their mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) or the Spanish and Portuguese spreading Christianity had their own justifications; the USA dwells a lot on human rights and democracy which it claims it embodies (Walt ). In American eyes the most potent form of delegitimization of a foreign government, thus providing justification for its overthrow, usually euphemistically described as “regime change,” is the accusation of the violation of human rights and deprivation of democracy. A “dictator” who “starves his own people” ticks all the boxes (Von Drehle ). Since all governments, not least the American, fall short on human rights and democracy, albeit in different ways, there is always plenty of ammunition around, so all it needs is a powerful propaganda machine to amplify, decontextualize, and distort then spew it out.

Akin to demonization (“they are evil”), although rather different, is dehumanization. This is used in the sense of portraying the adversary as so different from us that the ordinary rules of human behavior do not apply, and we can believe narratives about them which we would not entertain about ourselves or fellow humans. Thus we have the idea that North Korea deliberately and with malice “starves its own people” or the opinion of General Westmoreland, US commander in Vietnam, that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient” (Jackson ). Of course Vietnamese don’t like dying any more than anyone else, and of course the North Korean government does not starve its people – what would happen to the army, who would work in the factories and fields? Of course it was General Westmoreland who thought that Vietnamese life was cheap, not the Vietnamese, and of course it is the US government not the North Korean that inflicts starvation – that is one of the functions of sanctions after all. Why is it that US imperialism is so often successful in getting people to overlook the obvious and to accept self-serving falsehoods?

Despite the ineptness of Donald Trump, the growing power of China, the resurgence of Russia, and the resistance of the roches moutonnées such as North Korea, Syria, and Iran, US imperialism is still incredibly strong. It has unparalleled hard power – carriers, missiles, bombers, submarines, and an array of other instruments, including the chemical weapons we are not supposed to notice (Higgins ). However it is in soft power spectrum that US strength is most manifest. The alliances greatly magnify its military power and enable it to use international bodies such as the United Nations to further its objectives. Trump may have eroded the alliance system, but it was still able to get Canada, at great cost and danger and to no benefit – to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou (Karabell ; Landler et al. ; Sachs ). Although the dollar’s role as the world’s trade and reserve currency is under threat, the USA still has considerable influence over the international banking system; it can, for instance, force Chinese banks to stop dealing with North Korea (Kim ). It still dominates the Internet and on global telecommunications, hence the attack on Huawei (Fifield ; McCarthy ; Zhong et al. ). It has huge resources to corrupt a bribe – General David Petraeus even wrote a manual for the army on how to use money as a weapons system (Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System ; Thompson ). The armory of US imperialism is extensive and varied, but perhaps its most effective weapon is propaganda.

The USA dominates the global intellectual space. It controls perceptions through an extensive array of instruments – universities, thinks tanks, popular culture, literature, news agencies, media, and so forth. Its influence permeates the world. Even in adversarial countries such as Russia and China, the media tends to follow the American narrative unless national interests are at stake.

Harold Pinter, in his Nobel Prize lecture, expressed it well:

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American Presidents on television say the words, “the American people,” as in the sentence, “I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their President in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.” (Pinter )

It is this awesome act of hypnosis that enables the USA to condemn North Korea for having a handful of nuclear warheads when it has thousands itself, for having conducted six nuclear tests when it has conducted over a thousand and for being belligerent and aggressive and a threat to the region and the world, even though North Korean troops have scarcely ventured beyond the peninsula and then only by invitation while the USA is a country in a state of permanent war. The list of such instances of hypocrisy and inversion of reality is extensive and is, of course, not confined to Korea. However the USA has conducted an unremitting propaganda campaign against Korean independence for over 70 years, so it probably provides the best example of the awesome power of sustained propaganda to distort the perceptions of people, not merely Americans, about imperialism and its criminal ways.

Korea has long drawn the attention of imperialism and because of its location that will surely continue. The Mongols and the Japanese were attracted by Korean resources, both natural and human, but for both the peninsula was primarily the route to a larger prize. For the Mongols, that was Japan, and for the Japanese, that was China and Eurasia. The Americans saw Korea as a place to erect a barrier to protect its recently acquired war booty, Japan, from the influence of the Soviet Union. It also provided a beachhead on the Eurasian mainland. China has replaced the Soviet Union as the main challenge, but the desire to maintain US hegemony remains the primary underlying driver of US policy toward Korea. However imperialism is also a complex historical process and in the course of that an obsession with North Korea has assumed a distinctive importance. Moreover the development of the Permanent War Economy also fuels US imperialism, complementing and reinforcing geopolitical considerations. It used to be said that the business of America was business but with American decline and loss of civilian competitiveness war, and the profitable preparation for it is becoming the core business.

Underlying momentous historical forces intersect with the quotidian. Donald Trump is a symptom of American decline and the alienation and disenchantment which is it producing. He is accelerating the decline but doing it in erratic ways. One day he threatens war against North Korea, the next he is talking peace. Even if he is not removed from power by the establishment, he is unlikely to bring about either peace or war.

Whatever happens it is certain that the Korean Peninsula will continue to be a focal point for imperialism and the resistance to it.

A Note on Spelling

Korean, and other non-Latin scripts, can be transliterated (a process usually called Romanization) in a variety of ways. The forms most familiar to Western readers are usually constructs by the nineteenth-century missionaries and scholars, who often disagreed among themselves. With decolonization and reassertion of national identity, governments have engaged in script reform; thus Tokio became Tokyo, and the PRC developed the pinyin system in the 1950s, with Nankingbecoming Nanjing. For transliterating Korean the American McCune–Reischauer system, dating from the 1930s, is the most commonly used, but in 2000 the South Korean government introduced a revision so that, for example, Pusan becomes Busan and Chosun becomes Joseon. North Korea continues to use what is essentially the McCune–Reischauer system, so Pusan remains Pusanalthough the correct P’yŏngyang usually appears simply as Pyongyang. However, even in South Korea, there is no thorough consistency; the Chosun Ilbo has not revised its title to Joseon Ilbo, but it does use Busan for the name of the city while retaining the original in titles such as Pusan National University. The reader must be prepared for inconsistency.

This chapter tends to use the McCune–Reischauer to preserve continuity with the past and most foreign writing on Korea, as well as providing a link to North Korean usage. There has been a talk in the past of a joint North-South revision, but that has not yet come about.

Korean names, like those in China and Japan, place the surname first, and while the Japanese often Americanize their names, with Abe Shinzo becoming Shinzo Abe, both Korea and China keep to the original order. However in South Korea the given names are hyphenated, thus Moon Jae-in, while in the North they are written separately and capitalized, thus Kim Jong-un. Here we follow the usage of the country of origin.


By Dr Tim Beal

1 Hart St., Featherston 5710, New Zealand

Asian Geopolitics:



Landline: +64 6 308 9991






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