Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen following the successful tests of long range nuclear missiles by North Korea and the following response by the American and allied militaries. To many, this is just the latest instance of a diplomatic holdover from the Cold War. American media also treats the tension this way, describing North Koreans more along the lines of comic book villains, rather than actual people. This disregard not only for the motives and experiences, but even the very humanity of Koreans is the cause and symptom of the further existence of this conflict.
To start, American media and educational systems do not grasp or properly convey the weight of the conflict. There is a reason that the Korean War is often called the “Forgotten” or “Unknown” war: coverage of the Korean War was eclipsed by the Second World War before it and the Vietnam War after it. Yet, for North Korea this war is a major part of their history and modern culture.
Why is this? Most likely because during the war, American and United Nations forces not only killed over 600,000 Communist soldiers, but also exterminated nearly 2.8 million civilians. This is a larger figure than the number of civilians killed in every American conflict since Korea combined. At the time this constituted 20 percent of the population of North Korea.
With the specter of the Korean War casualties still weighing heavily on the North Korean psyche, is it any wonder why they hate America? It certainly seems justified given the continued war games played every year by the American military, simulating a nuclear strike on the North Korean city of Pyongyang, a city of over three million people. It is arguable that these tests are not “serious”, but frankly, how is sincerity measured?
In Korea today, there are 30,000 American soldiers stationed. In Japan, there are 50,000 soldiers stationed. At sea, off the shores of Korea, roams the American Seventh Fleet, one of the most powerful naval detachments in human history. Why should North Korea see this as anything but an invasive force?
Talks of peace in the Korean peninsula can come to nothing while American discourse is dominated by headlines that demand the military “Take Them Out!” as was published in the New York Post this September by pundit Ralph Peters. “Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans,” reads Peters’ opening line, and that perfectly sums up the historical illiteracy that plagues diplomatic efforts.
The fact of the matter is that there are already millions of dead Koreans, dead by American bombs and aggression. The fear of a repeat of the Korean War drives the hostile stance from North Korea.
Unless American policy recognizes and addresses this, there can be no lasting peace. For years American policy has demanded escalation. It is time to now try backing down and honestly and truly offer an olive branch. Recognizing North Koreans as more than nameless and faceless enemies, as a people driven to desperation by half a century of aggression, is necessary to enacting change.