Understanding North Korea 

For years, East Bay activists have been trying to influence US policy toward North Korea. Finally, Washington may be listening.

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When it comes to North Korea — aka the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — there's a lot the American public doesn't know. For instance, few may know that the majority of North Korean defectors say they fled their country for economic reasons, not because of political or religious persecution. Or that the United States scorched North Korea during the Korean War, dropping more napalm than during the Vietnam War and 420,000 bombs on Pyongyang, whose population numbered about 400,000. In fact, most people don't even know that the Korean War technically never ended — a peace treaty was never signed, only an armistice — and that approximately 30,000 US troops are still stationed in South Korea. Every year, the militaries of the United States and the Republic of Korea stage a joint exercise, simulating an invasion of the North. This year, that event happened to coincide with the entry into North Korea of journalists Ling and Lee. Knowing that, the public might view their capture somewhat differently.

But lawmakers and the public continue to be uneducated about Korea, due in part to the fact that the mainstream media generally portrays North Korea as a giant gulag run by an evil, unpredictable dictator hell-bent on starving his people, developing nukes, selling arms to hostile states, and obliterating human rights. While there's undoubtedly a lot of repression and heinous acts committed in North Korea, activists say the situation is far more complex than that. The dominant narrative leaves out historical context that they believe implicates the United States in some of the problems and serves America's self-interest in maintaining influence in Asia. The ongoing US military occupation of South Korea combined with our punishment of the north via sanctions only stokes the militaristic ambitions of the country and continues to divide families that have been separated for 56 years, they believe. Worst of all, the end result makes life much harder for everyday North Korean citizens and heightens the humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula.

"If more and more Americans knew about the kind of diversity of people that are really questioning US involvement, US military occupation, 30,000 troops still on the Korean peninsula, all the kind of crimes committed towards the civilians by the US military ... I think they would say, 'Okay, it's like the Korean War has got to end,'" said Ahn. "Enough is enough. We need a new kind of way, a new way of moving forward on US-Korea policy."

Ahn and her cohorts at the Korea Policy Institute are trying to do just that. Formed in 2006, the Los Angeles-based group aims to provide a unified, coherent, and informed voice on US-Korean policy that it hopes will one day lead to the signing of a peace treaty.

A just-released study seems to support the activists' claim. "North Korea Inside Out: The Case for Economic Engagement," authored by the Asia Society and the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, advocates for the United States to adopt a long-term policy of economic engagement with North Korea, which would "benefit the North Korean people as a whole and would generate vested interests in continued reform and opening, and a less confrontational foreign policy." While sanctions have been useful at times, "their long-term effect has been to harden the D.P.R.K.'s resistance to international cooperation."

Yet alternative information that challenges the narrative that the US role in South Korea has been completely positive typically has been suppressed over the years. Ahn points out that journalist I.F. Stone's book The Hidden History of the Korean War, which provided a radically different version of events, had trouble getting published in 1952. Crimes committed by the US military during the war were concealed for decades, until 1999, when journalists unearthed the story of the US massacre of hundreds of South Korean civilians, which they published in the book The Bridge at No Gun Ri. (The US military has disputed the exact number killed.) Other historical atrocities are now being investigated by South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2005. So far, there are more than 200 incidents of US soldiers attacking South Korean refugees in 1950 and 1951, according to petitions filed by citizens; a final report is expected to be released next year.

And when it comes to opaque North Korea, there's even more that we don't know. "Most people in the United States have no idea how US operations on the Korean peninsula shaped the way North Korea is right now," said Professor Elaine Kim, coordinator of UC Berkeley's Asian American Studies Department. Kim noted how the American carpet bombing impacted not only the physical landscape of the North, but also the people's identity. When she visited North Korea in 1999, she noted that brush paintings sold on the street depicted the one area that had not been bombed. The entire city of Pyongyang looked like it was built in 1955. "So that means that everybody in Pyongyang can be made aware every single day, walking around, that the place was destroyed by somebody aerially," she said.

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