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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Many Americans also may be unaware that North Korea's economy was doing quite well during the 1960s and 1970s, even surpassing that of its southern neighbor. But a reduction in trade with the Soviet Union, and the impact of the American embargo and sanctions, helped freeze North Korea's development. "The reason they don't have energy for all their infrastructure is ... the US and its allies who embargo them don't allow them to trade with anybody the US trades with," said Kim. As a result, for example, there are streetlights, but no electricity in them. Many North Koreans are extremely slight and seemingly malnourished. "This is a crime," she noted. "Talk about human rights — this is a crime against humanity that was allowed to happen. And they're trying to say that it's because Kim Jong Il is a dictator and wants to keep everybody enthralled, that's why it's like that?" she asked, incredulously. "Hello! Let's have some reality here."

Learning the whole story would go a long way in contextualizing why North Koreans loathe Americans, Kim continued. She recalled how North Korean sharpshooters, who won gold medals during the 1972 Olympics, said during an interview that they imagined their targets were US bombers. "I think the US was so horrified by them saying that, what they said was immediately squelched," she said. "That's an example of the truth being continually squelched." If Americans understood the extent of the carpet bombing in North Korea, Kim said, that kind of answer might be more understandable. "People do things because there's a historical context for them. They don't just do them because they're nuts. And the way we're told now is, 'It's irrational. Kim Jong Il is irrational and the Korean people are irrational.'"

To understand the activist's critique of US involvement on the Korean peninsula, it's important first to understand some history. Although the rabbit-shaped peninsula is rather small (about the size of Utah), it has been coveted because of its natural resources, desirable location (wedged between China and Japan), and the fact that it's surrounded by water, and thus a strategic port location.

For centuries, Korea was ruled by a succession of dynasties that adhered to a policy of isolation (hence its nickname "The Hermit Kingdom") — despite invasions by Mongols, the Manchus, and others. But by the late 19th century, the country became increasingly susceptible to geopolitics. Major forces were fighting for control in Korea, starting with the First Sino-Japanese War and continuing through the Russo-Japanese War. Those conflicts resulted in Japan, which was emerging as a superpower, making Korea its protectorate in 1905, then annexing it in 1910.

The end of World War II in 1945 closed the chapter of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. The United States and the Soviet Union occupied the country as a trusteeship, with the idea that it would be temporary. Control was divided roughly in the middle of the country, along the 38th parallel — a boundary that was hastily established by Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel of the US State-War Navy Coordinating Committee. The Soviet Union would disarm Japanese troops north of the 38th parallel; the United States would be responsible for the south. But the Cold War was in full swing; the two powers were unable to agree on the terms of Korean independence and ended up establishing two separate governments sympathetic to their own ideologies. In the south, the American military gave many government positions to Koreans who were seen as traitors for collaborating with Japanese rulers, and it didn't recognize the attempts to set up a provisional government because they viewed it as a communist insurgency. The United States helped install Syngman Rhee, an anticommunist who was exiled in the United States for decades. He became South Korea's first president in 1948.

As each side jockeyed for full control of Korea, North Korean forces crossed the parallel and invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, sparking the Korean War. The United States and the UN came to the aid of the South. A counteroffensive pushed North Koreans past the 38th parallel nearly to the Yalu River. Then the People's Republic of China, which feared US dominance on the peninsula, came to the aid of the North, pushing the United States back down below the 38th parallel. After more pushing by the United States, the fighting ceased with a 1953 armistice that divided the country near the 38th parallel and created the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone, the so-called Demilitarized Zone. Millions of civilians died during the conflict, and countless families ended up separated. To this day, the war technically continues, with the Demilitarized Zone heavily guarded and watched around the clock by the respective militaries.

Korean immigration to the United States officially started in 1903, when a ship of Koreans landed in Hawaii to work as laborers on sugar plantations. Many also were active in the movement to liberate Korea from Japanese colonial rule, which manifested itself in the Christian churches that had spread in Korea due to the presence of missionaries. Koreans were forbidden from immigrating to the United States under the Immigration Act of 1924, so the population remained relatively constant until 1940.

More immigrants came during the Korean War, mostly wives of US servicemen. But immigration really spiked after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system that had limited immigration up to that point. According to Census data, the Korean population in the United States jumped from 69,130 in 1970 to 354,593 in 1980 and 798,849 in 1990. Although many had professional degrees, their lack of English skills relegated them to low-paying jobs and many opened their own businesses, such as dry cleaners, markets, and restaurants.

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