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Historically, the Biggest Violator of Human Rights on the Korean Peninsula Isn’t North Korea

The US is to blame for the most abhorrent abuses.

US armed forces target rail cars south of Wonsan, North Korea, an east coast port city, in 1950 during the Korean War.

On February 22, 2018, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Vice President Mike Pence described North Korea as “the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet, an evil family clique that brutalizes, subjugates, starves and imprisons its 25 million people.”

As a rare, concrete example of North Korea’s “horrendous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity,” Pence trotted out the tragic case of Otto Warmbier, who suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause, according to the coroner in Ohio, and died at the age of 22 after being released by North Korea’s government.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that, in his estimation, the government in the North bears a “heavy responsibility” for the process that led to Warmbier’s death, but President Moon also warns, “We cannot know for sure that North Korea killed Mr. Warmbier.” Pence and the man he calls the “Leader of the Free World” (i.e., Donald Trump), on the other hand, know for sure that Pyongyang killed Warmbier. Somehow, they just know it.

Pence used the story of Warmbier to explain why he remained in his seat at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games as the athletes from North and South Korea walked in together: “So for all those in the media who think I should have stood and cheered with the North Koreans, I say the United States of America doesn’t stand with murderous dictatorships, we stand up to murderous dictatorships,” he said.

He also praised Trump for “restoring strong American leadership” through such actions as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and signing the “largest investment in our national defense since the days of Ronald Reagan.”

The audience who mindlessly clapped in support of Pence seemed to believe that North Korea’s government is guilty of “horrendous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity,” while ours is not. A curious position to adopt.

Consider the words of the American historian Bruce Cumings in North Korea: Another Country:

American strategy toward North Korea during and after the hot war concluded in 1953 is not a question of whether North Korea has been governed by people we like or respect…. The question is whether we have lived up to our ideals. North Korea has always posed the same question that Nazi Germany and militarist Japan did, namely, that morality in warfare always requires the separation of the enemy leadership from the innocence of the people whom they lead, whether in the 1950s, or today when 23 million human beings live in North Korea’s garrison state. In that, we have consistently failed.”

Of course, we have to agree with the form of Pence’s words — that we must confront “horrendous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.” It goes without saying that we must confront all governments, especially our own, for their past violations of human rights, to protect the rights not only of Americans, but also those of people in other countries — something clearly not germane to Pence’s mouth-frothing oratory.

As many have admitted, even US Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis, to restart the Korean War would be to initiate a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. He surmised that such a conflict would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” If that is true, then it would also result in the violation of the human rights of North Koreans on a massive scale. Preventing such a war is one of the ways that we Americans must protect human rights, and ensure the very survival of Homo sapiens, for that matter.

The bombing of cities in North Korea was even more thorough than the bombing of Japan’s cities during the Pacific War.

Washington will surely raise the issue of human rights violations during the June 12 summit in Singapore between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. It is a tragedy that the narrow definition of this concept employed by the US government and the mass media for their ends is sometimes also employed, or at least given lip service, by human rights organizations. Too many good-hearted, responsible people these days have been indoctrinated such that they ignore two fundamental types of such violations: those that are caused by a general state of war and those committed by our soldiers, who are commanded by our commander-in-chief and our generals, and therefore, are our responsibility.

In the Korean War, US soldiers committed many horrible atrocities contrary to our human rights ideals, such as those in the No Gun Ri Massacre. In July 1950, American soldiers, mostly inexperienced young men freshly arrived from Tokyo, were ordered to machine-gun down “hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge,” in the words of Chon Chun-ja, a Korean woman who survived the attack.

The victims, all dressed in traditional, white farmers’ clothes, were overwhelmingly women, children and the elderly. “The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and unarmed,” in the words of General Douglas MacArthur. In The Korean War: A History, Bruce Cumings notes that MacArthur was the same man who “ordered that a wasteland be created between the war front and the Yalu River border, destroying from the air every ‘installation, factory, city, and village’ over thousands of square miles of North Korean territory.” (The Yalu River forms a natural boundary between China and North Korea.) The “terrible swath of destruction” extended all the way into South Korea, one reason being that there were Chinese as well as Korean forces there.

The New York Times reported on June 20, 1953, that the US Air Force had bombed dams in two places, Kusong and Toksan. The bombing of the Toksan Dam produced a huge flood that destroyed 700 buildings in Pyongyang 20 miles away, 10 bridges, many roads, thousands of acres of rice; disabled two rail lines for days; and “scooped clean” 27 miles of river valley. Several other dams were also similarly destroyed, causing massive and instant death and destruction as well as long-term suffering for an untold number of Koreans. Bombing the Kusong and Toksan dams was a violation of human rights on an unimaginable scale, reported dutifully in the most influential American newspaper in fine print, and then ignored for decades. The bombing of cities in North Korea was even more thorough than the bombing of Japan’s cities during the Pacific War.

When a city is completely destroyed, so too, is much of the people’s history.

One of the greatest killing sprees in history was the napalm “firebombing” of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945, when 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. The bombing of Japan’s cities during the Pacific War was a violation of human rights of enormous proportions. The later US violations of the rights of North Koreans during the Korean War were arguably even worse, considering the fact that in the cities a higher percentage of buildings were destroyed.

When a city is completely destroyed, so too, is much of the people’s history. They lose their past. It is difficult for us to imagine what such a loss feels like because our cities have never before been bombed.

Historical massacres aside, every time the Trump administration talks about Pyongyang’s violations of the rights of North Koreans, we should remind ourselves that even now, US leaders themselves are violating the most fundamental human rights through the sanctions and the threat of annihilation. Trump’s threat at the United Nations last year was a war crime. Reflecting on the last 70 years of the US military in Korea, Washington can legitimately be called “North Korean Human Rights Violator Number One.” We should remind the world that the scale of human rights violations committed by the US against North Korea during that period overshadow anything perpetrated by North Koreans themselves. We should remember that the US invaded North Korea. Stating the obvious is tiresome, but many Americans have been kept in the dark about our history in Korea.

As part of the campaign to establish Syngman Rhee as president — the dictator who ruled South Korea from 1948 to 1960 — US government officials and military personnel committed egregious human rights violations, even against South Korean civilians. They sometimes looked on while Koreans tortured and massacred other Koreans. Worse, they helped put treacherous murderers of Koreans, such as former police and military personnel of the Empire of Japan, into powerful positions in government. Many of those murderers became legislators in the new government in the south, i.e., the Republic of Korea (ROK). That was before the Korean War. And during that war, both North and South Korean cities were bombed.

Nor should we ignore the successes of the North Korean regime in creating some conditions that have actually favored human rights. As Helen-Louise Hunter documents in her book, Kim Il-song’s North Korea, according to internal assessments of the CIA, these conditions included compassionate care for children and especially war orphans; radical, progressive change in the position of women; free housing; free health care; and good infant mortality and life expectancy rates. Remarkable that this poor country achieved all this by the 1980s, in the midst of the threat of a second invasion. Before applauding Pence as the freedom warrior, one might actually consider the part he has played in curtailing such rights for American citizens over the last year.

The notion of human rights violations must be expanded such that it includes violations that come from outside the country, not only from within the country.

The notion of human rights violations must be expanded such that it includes violations that come from outside the country, not only from within the country. Our government violates the human rights of Koreans as well as those of Americans. Like North Korea, our government incarcerates a large percentage of its citizens. Our prison system cannot be held up as a model for anything other than profound injustice and violation of human rights. Likewise, why is it that the notion of “denuclearization” does not usually include US nuclear disarmament?

In the end, one of the causes of our biased view of human rights is a combination of our belief in US exceptionalism, and our misplaced belief that American lives are more precious than are the lives of North Koreans. To bring up Pyongyang’s human rights violations at this moment in history — when there is a chance for peace, a chance to finally end the Korean War, before we have reflected on and atoned for our own country’s violations of the human rights of North Koreans — is sanctimonious hypocrisy on a truly grand scale.

Obviously, normalization of North Korea’s government will make monitoring of human rights inside North Korea easier. To focus at this time on the signing of a peace treaty is not to forget those victims in North Korea — neither those whose rights have been violated by their government, nor those that our government is responsible for. It is to do the very opposite, to lay the groundwork for the burgeoning of human rights protections. Imagine hundreds of thousands of Koreans flowing across the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel in both directions. What would that do for human rights in North Korea?


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