Book Review: Patriots, Traitors and Empires—The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, by Stephen Gowans

Review of: Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, by Stephen Gowans. Published by Baraka Books, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 6 x 9 inches. 280 pages. ISBN No 9781771861359. Paper, $24.95 CDN; PDF/EPUB, $19.99 CDN.

“It is easy to lose a country, but difficult to win it back”.
Kim Il-sung (quoted in Gowans, p. 65)

In 2018, on September 9, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), will mark exactly 70 years of existence as a nation-state. How did Korea come to be partitioned? Why has the partition remained in place? Why did communism become the political, economic and social program of North Korea? How did the North come to be an ally of the Soviet Union? What does Korean patriotism really mean, what is its substantive content? What are the practical, social, economic and political meanings of Korean nationalism? What are the prospects for peace between North and South Korea, and between Korea as a whole and the US?

Given the time and circumstances in which I read this book, it could not have been without a keen interest in re-examining the sources of the Korean–US conflict, and the prospects for successful peace talks, beginning with those that took place in Singapore on June 12, 2018. In North America we live in an environment saturated with US propaganda, whether official or otherwise, which advocates sanctions, silence, or war, in order to “tame” an “evil, thug regime” ruled by “psychopaths” (which if anything is dangerously ill-advised propaganda: it can easily apply to the US). Getting past the propaganda, of either side, is obviously an immense challenge—for all of us.

Having received a copy of the book for review purposes, I have to alert the reader to the fact that I could not evaluate it as an expert on Korean history. Instead, all I could do is to read the book just like any educated member of the public would, the same public for which I think this book was intended. For those who know little about the history of the DPRK, and would like a text that is free of the West’s official thinking that has locked away the DPRK behind a veil of obscurity, contrived mystery, and the subject of some of the most awful representations, then Stephen Gowans’ Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom will be an informative and thought-provoking volume that synthesizes some very interesting historical analyses. In a futile attempt at brevity, I chose to focus this review on the strong points of the book, particularly those that allow us to extend the material into current debates and focal points of public interest.

Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom is Stephen Gowans’ second book in a year, with the last one (reviewed on this site) also published by Baraka Books, which dealt with US intervention in the war on Syria. As readers may recall, Stephen Gowans is the author of the What’s Left web magazine.

After reading this book, most readers who have been steeped in the North American media environment will likely come away with one important realization: that virtually every single thing they have heard or read about North Korea is either an outright lie, or an exaggeration or other error, or at best a representation that is so selective that it constitutes wilful inaccuracy. For those interested in developing an independent perspective on North Korea, this book might serve as a useful starting point. If, on the other hand, you are comforted by the customary recitation of notions of North Korea as a “rogue state” led by “dictator” who is a “thug”…then perhaps reading books was never your interest to begin with.

Reading this book, at this particular time, was inevitably motivated by an interest in understanding what exactly North Korea would seek as desirable and rational outcomes of peace talks with the US. Reading this book at the same time as the meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore, I found that the two processes—watching unfolding reality, and reading the explanations in this book—seemed to easily reinforce each other.

The chapters in the book are as follows: Introduction—One Country, Two States; chapter 1—The Empire of Japan; chapter 2—Imperialism; chapter 3—The Patriot; chapter 4—The US Occupation; chapter 5—The Patriot State; chapter 6—The War Against Communists of the South; chapter 7—Suppressing a Worldwide Movement for Liberty, Equality and the Unity of Humankind; chapter 8—The Political Partition of Korea; chapter 9—The Campaign of 1950–1953; chapter 10—The Anti-Communist Police State; chapter 11—Washington’s Power Projection Platform in the Pacific; chapter 12—US Supremacy’s All-Conquering March; chapter 13—Sabotaging an Alternative to the US-Led Global Economic Order; chapter 14—Byungjin; and, Conclusion—The First Real Holy War.

Imperialism’s Bitter History for Korea

One of the advantages of Gowans’ text is its penetrating yet condensed synthesis of the facts behind conflict on the Korean peninsula, and between the DPRK and the US. Gowans refutes the assertion commonly made in the West that Kim Il-sung was merely installed by the Soviets, and that socialism was imposed on the North by the Soviets—and he shows why those assertions do not stand up. Gowans covers the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, and neighbouring China, and explains the lasting significance of this history, primarily in the form of Korean collaborators with Japanese domination who were then recruited by the US to continue the same basic pattern of domination that had been imposed by Japan. On the other side, Korean patriots collaborated with Chinese and Soviet communists in fighting the Japanese. Memories of the horrors of Japanese occupation help to explain why, for the majorities of both North and South Korea today, the best thing a Japanese leader can do is to stay far away from any discussions about the future of the peninsula.

The bitter outcomes suffered by Korea are an especially poignant feature of Gowans’ text: Korea was not an aggressor state in WWII, and more than that, Koreans died fighting against the Japanese, a key to the tripartite fascist alliance. The Soviet Union also played a vital role in driving the Japanese off the peninsula—whereas US forces never fought the Japanese in Korea. In return for their sacrifices, Koreans then saw their country occupied by foreign powers, and cut into two, with a permanent US military occupation. Which anti-fascist ally was treated anything like that after WWII?

Gowans reminds us that, in 1945, Soviet forces entered the Korean peninsula on August 8 and fought Japanese forces until they surrendered on August 15; US forces, on the other hand, did not arrive until September 8—“Soviet blood had been spilled in liberating the peninsula; US blood had not” (p. 80). Gowans then contrasts the Soviet and American declarations to Koreans: while the Soviets told Koreans that “happiness was in their own hands,” and that they should be the creators of their own destiny, US General Douglas MacArthur instead listed a series of oppressive instructions that read like the commands of a dictator, in fact. After imposing itself militarily, on Koreans, the US negated the four decades of armed struggle by Koreans against Japanese occupation, and then resuscitated the basic pattern of Japanese domination while enlisting actual military collaborators with Japan to govern the South. We are reminded again: Koreans never asked for partition; it was not a defeated aggressor state, like Germany (p. 73).

Gowans convincingly shows that while both the US and USSR were responsible for dividing Korea, it was the US which maintained that partition against the desires of Koreans themselves. Even after Soviet forces withdrew from the Korean peninsula, and Japan was under US occupation, US forces continued to remain in place in Korea even though there was no longer any obvious justification for doing so—except, that is, to prevent an independent, unified, and socialist Korea from taking its rightful shape.

When Did the Korean War Start?

There are various useful fictions, in time becoming fully fledged myths, that serve the purposes of generating war. One of the these is the myth of Korean international aggression, against other Koreans. As Gowans notes, while June 25, 1950, is the date associated with the start of the Korean War, the notion that it was caused by crossing the 38th parallel—an arbitrary, foreign imposition that had no standing under international law as an actual border—is one of those fictions. Gowans emphasizes that neither the North nor the South recognized the boundary as an international border, both claimed to represent the whole of the Korean peninsula and its people, and thus no movement across that line by either side could possibly constitute “international” aggression. If anything, it was actual international aggression that forged the 38th parallel into a de facto border.

However, the reality is that since the USSR did not recognize the government of the South, and the US did not recognize the government of the North, as legitimate sovereign entities, the basic conditions required for “international aggression” in a Korean vs. Korean struggle, did not exist. Yet the US obtained a UN mandate to intervene on June 25, using the argument that the North, in crossing the 38th parallel, had engaged in “international aggression”—but when US forces crossed that same line, MacArthur dismissed it as merely an “imaginary line” (p. 118).

Also interesting is the admission from William R. Polk, a former US State Department adviser quoted by Gowans, who argued that the real date of the start of the war was August 15, 1948, which is when the US erected a state in South Korea—this was a de facto declaration of war, since it marked the US formally impeding the reunification of a Korea that had been arbitrarily divided by foreign powers (p. 119). Some historians push the date back further, to 1932, when many Koreans organized to fight the Japanese while some joined with the Japanese, thereby laying the foundations for conflict between Koreans (p. 120). We thus encounter what is arguably the first instance of what became a recurring theme in the post-WWII order—of “civil wars” that were framed as “international conflicts,” and vice versa.

As for the reunification campaign, it has been North Korea, since Kim Il-sung first began proposing the idea in the early 1960s, which has continually backed the idea of a confederation (p. 147). The idea was to have one state, and two governments, overseeing different political and economic systems, but joined with respect to foreign affairs. We saw a symbolic incarnation of this unity during the recent Winter Olympics, with the unified Korean team. North Korea’s condition was that US military forces had to exit the country, thus the US has continued its opposition to reunification.

If we are not certain of when the Korean War actually began, we can be more certain that it has never ended. The DPRK, as Gowans points out, repeatedly offered to sign a peace treaty. The US has consistently rejected any peace treaty. What has persisted is a ceasefire, but the South even rejected that little (p. 121).

The lion’s share of blame for provoking the 1950 war is not placed on either the North or the South—Gowans, with the support of historians, notes that most of the armed skirmishes that preceded the 1950 war were initiated by South Korean forces, but that the North also engaged in armed provocations (p. 124). Discussion of which claims were credible about which side actually started the conflict in 1950 itself, is cut short, and Gowans seems to think that the question cannot be resolved (pp. 124–125). What is impressive about the history is the fact that, within mere weeks, the DPRK took Seoul, and about 90% of the entire Korean peninsula, with the government in the South disbanding and unable to resist (p. 125). Had it not been for US intervention, clearly a unified Korea would have been led by communists, at least as a military fait accompli; in terms of the politics that predominated across the Korean peninsula, one could make a similar argument (see below).

Killing Korea, Lecturing about Human Rights

In recent months and years we have frequently heard US politicians and media figures offer numerous assertions about the “brutality” of the North Korean “regime,” and the “human rights atrocities” of which it is supposedly guilty, making it often appear that the leading killer of Koreans is the state of North Korea itself. Yet, among the many atrocities committed during the Korean War, are those acknowledged in an official Truth and Reconciliation commission authorized by the government of South Korea in 2005. Among its findings was the fact that the government of the South, with what was at least the tacit consent of the US (and sometimes with supervision), massacred thousands of villagers, women, children, and elderly included, along with executing political prisoners and POWs (p. 128).

The US’ aerial bombardment of North Korea was a sweeping killing spree of an unprecedented intensity and extent, in a part of a century that was dominated by genocidal aerial rampages. General Douglas MacArthur, having witnessed all of his military gains on the ground reversed by the incursion of 300,000 fighting men from China, ordered US bombers to drop incendiary bombs on every city, factory, and village between the 38th parallel and the Chinese border—and apparently he wanted to do even more, such as dropping atomic bombs on China itself. Quoting US historian Charles Armstrong, Gowans presents these details: “US ‘planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea—that is, essentially on North Korea—including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theater of World War II. The number of Korean dead, injured, or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population’” (p. 130).

Dean Rusk, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, stated that everything “that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another” was bombed by the US (quoted on p. 130). By the end of the war, only two multi-story buildings remained standing in Pyongyang; US carpet bombing destroyed 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and 600,000 houses (p. 130). The US also bombed irrigation dams and destroyed water reservoirs, wreaking havoc in the countryside (p. 131).

Generals Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay, also testified to the horrors that they themselves had unleashed on Korea. Testifying in May of 1951 to the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, MacArthur stated the following:

“The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited….If you go on indefinitely, you are perpetuating a slaughter such as I have never heard of in the history of mankind”.

(In a sense, MacArthur was speaking in the mode of American humanitarian imperialism—if nuclear weapons were dropped on China, that would “save” Koreans more of the horrors that Americans had themselves wrought. This is the classic formulation of killing to “save” lives. However, in the process of making this argument, MacArthur confesses to having committed the atrocities above.)

General LeMay, for his part, made the following statement:

“So we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too. We even burned down Pusan—an accident, but we burned it down anyway. The Marines started a battle down there with no enemy in sight. Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure?” (Strategic Air Warfare, p. 88)

As if we were watching a horror movie, except that this one is not fiction, we have heard key figures in the US threaten to lay waste to North Korea. General Wesley Clark said North Korea would “cease to exist” if it challenged the US, while General Colin Powell said the North would be reduced to a “charcoal briquette,” and Senator John McCain, ever so ghoulishly threatened North Korea with “extinction” (quoted in Gowans, pp. 131–132). Add to this Donald Trump, as president, making a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, 2017, threatening to totally destroy North Korea. And then add to that the Pentagon publicly celebrating its acts that “almost destroyed” all of North Korea:

If anything, the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal was justified because the US is a proven threat to its existence. When we consider the expressions of cruelty listed above, it would take MacArthur’s stomach to refrain from vomiting at the hypocritical chorus of “human rights” concerns we heard from the US media during the Summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. This too is classic human rights imperialism: lecturing about human rights in North Korea, when the US has killed more people in the North than anyone else. Of course, such vapid virtue signalling was also aimed at Trump: it was cheap opportunism that instrumentalized notions of human rights in order to invalidate the outcomes of the Summit. Some obscure notion of “human rights” prevailed among the liberal imperialist press corps, one which managed to exclude tens of millions of lives extinguished during nuclear war from the list of human rights concerns.

And of course, along with vacuous virtue signalling we must also find selective outrage: US media figures never have anything to say about South Korea’s police state, with its long history of military dictatorship (South Korean “democracy” is a relatively recent development), persecution and imprisonment of political opponents, and as late as 2011, disbanding opposition parties if their ideology runs afoul of the National Security Law, with continuing pressure and penalties imposed on socialists and anti-imperialists in the South including the arrests of professors and students and the censorship of Internet content (see Gowans, esp. pp. 138–140).

The State of Terror

Though writing about US policy toward Cuba and China, Gowans is right to reproduce the following quote from Felix Greene in 1971 since it condenses all of the central components of the US approach—it’s a recurring program of US interventionism worldwide, a formula that has been recited too often to not be a part of a systematic menu:

“The United States imposed a 100 percent embargo on trade with these countries; she employs great pressure to prevent her allies from trading with them; she arms and finances their enemies; she harasses their shipping; she threatens them with atomic missiles which she announces are pre-targeted and pre-programmed to destroy their major cities; her ships prowl just beyond these countries’ legal territorial waters; her reconnaissance planes fly constantly over their territory. And having done all in their power to disrupt these countries’ efforts to rebuild their societies and by means of blockades to prevent essential goods from reaching them, any temporary difficulties and setbacks these countries may encounter are magnified and exaggerated and presented as proof that a socialist revolutionary government is ‘unworkable’”. (Greene, 1970, p. 292, quoted in Gowans, p. 195)

These are the conditions under which North Korea has been forced to live for several decades. Add to that fact that, as a country brutalized and destroyed by US aerial bombardments, it has routinely faced US “war games” that involve nuclear-capable US stealth bombers flying right up to North Korea’s border, only to divert at the last minute. In addition to the collective punishment imposed on all of North Korea’s people in the form of economic sanctions, US war games with South Korea occur at the height of the agricultural season in North Korea, forcing the country to divert hundreds of thousands away from fields and to prepare for defense—because it is impossible for North Korea to know for certain if US military moves are simply part of war games, or an actual start of an invasion.

The current US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, crows about sanctions as a “kick in the gut” to North Korea—and to this the US media responded with silence. When President Trump finally and honestly acknowledged that the war games were indeed provocative, he was blasted by the media. This is the same media that opportunistically postures as politically correct about “mothers separated from their children” at the US border, but which cheers mock bombing runs on a country razed by the US air force and which still lives with the collective trauma of that history (p. 200).

It is peculiar then that members of the same US media should be outraged when Trump called some of them enemies of the people. For me, the only valid question remaining to be asked is if Trump meant the American people alone, or all people worldwide. Given the stance on North Korea that prevails in the US media, it would seem that a wider interpretation of Trump’s statement would be warranted. Of course, on occasion the US media depart from the supremacist stance of aggravated dominance, especially when dealing with a few precious darlings that they can momentarily exploit as props in partisan squabbles.

Chapters 11, 12, 13, and 14 focus readers’ attention squarely on US imperialism, and how the history of warfare, sanctions, and enforced isolation were meant to either subjugate or destroy North Korea. That North Korea could even survive under such conditions is virtually a miracle—good to remember the next time you encounter the usual propaganda showing satellite photos comparing the two Koreas at night, the South shown as fully illuminated, and the North appearing almost totally dark. In fact, Gowans takes to task the commonplace assertions of the “South Korean development miracle,” by showing just how much it was a product of US militarization specifically, and US domination broadly speaking. Not only did the US finance South Korean development to the tune of billions of dollars in aid over decades—the equivalent of $108 billion in current US dollars (p. 196). In addition, Japan provided loans and grants to South Korea that amounted to five times the value of the South’s exports (p. 196). The US also tolerated South Korea protecting its domestic market against imports (along with state planning, and state intervention in the economy) (p. 198). During the war in Vietnam, the US provided South Korea with privileged access to the South Vietnamese market as an outlet for its steel exports and construction industries—on top of that, the US paid South Korea for every division it fielded in Vietnam, amounting to one-fifth of its total foreign earnings, and adding nearly 8% to South Korea’s GDP (p. 196). Having propped up the South, while enforcing the isolation of the North which it had terrorized into staying on a permanent war footing, the US could then turn to the world and boast of the “success” of capitalism and free markets versus the “failures” of socialism. Meanwhile at the US’ southern border for decades migrants have been arriving, fleeing the US’ other capitalist success stories: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

US supremacy, especially when expressed in the military domain, has been a driving force in shaping North Korean domestic and foreign policy. The US has consistently retained direct, or effective command of South Korea’s armed forces, which Gowans rightly describes as America’s Asian reserve army. South Korea has been a useful platform for the US to challenge not just North Korea, but China and Russia especially. The US refusal to give up its military foothold on the Korean peninsula, has led it to ensure that any reunification plans that fully returned sovereignty to the Korean people, were scuttled.

Genealogy and Conflict

The deep echoes of the past that reverberate in the present may be one reason why conflict has been so intractable. Here Gowans relates some striking facts: Kishi Nobosuke, imperial Japan’s commerce and industry minister in its colony in Manchuria, responsible for coercing hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Chinese into forced labour, was rehabilitated by the Americans and served two terms as Japan’s post-WWII prime minister. His maternal grandson is Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Kim Il-sung fought against Kishi Nobosuke, and now his own grandson is the leader of North Korea. In South Korea, Kim Sok-won, who served as a traitor in the Japanese Imperial Army, was recruited by the Americans and served as commander of South Korean forces on the 38th parallel. Likewise the case of Park Chung-hee, who also joined the Japanese Imperial Army, and took part in the campaign to hunt down the insurgent Kim Il-sung—Chung-hee later became president of South Korea, as did his daughter, Park Geun-hye, who resigned amidst scandal in 2017. Park, the daughter, thus led South Korea at the same time that across the border to the north, the grandson of Kim Il-sung was the leader. Generations later, and we have descendants of the original key actors still in place, and still in confrontation with each other (pp. 30, 32, 67, 68). What this means is that there is also a deeply personal side to the three-sided conflict and tension that continues between the DPRK (North Korea), the ROK (South Korea), and Japan, and that could make solutions much harder to achieve.

Why Communism?

There are many answers provided for this question, throughout the text (see esp. pp. 31–32, 75–76). One reason that the North chose Communism is the influence of the Soviet model as an inspiration to many underdeveloped nations—here was a nation in the grips of serfdom, that transformed itself into an industrial, technological, and military superpower, not to mention the patron of over a third of humanity, in the space of a few short decades, while isolated and attacked on all sides. Another was the success of the USSR in fighting and then defeating the Nazis, just as the Koreans were fighting to free themselves from Japanese colonial oppression. A third reason was that at the same time as Koreans struggled to drive out Japanese forces from their land, the forces led by Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) were freeing China from the forces of foreign capitalist penetration and colonial occupation. A fourth reason was that it was V.I. Lenin who offered a solid commitment to the national liberation of oppressed and colonized peoples, while Woodrow Wilson respected only the sovereignty of fellow colonial and imperial powers in Europe and the Americas, while strongly reinforcing racist segregation at home. Soviet socialists viewed colonized peoples as equals, Gowans argues, not as children to be schooled by stern, paternalistic masters, and denied their liberty until their tutors saw fit. A fifth reason is that the US simply took over Japanese imperial structures and agents in controlling Korean territory, representing continuity with the same fascist order that Koreans had fought and died to defeat.

Given all of the powerful push and pull factors discussed in the book, the only reasonable question becomes: would the entire Korean peninsula have chosen the communist path if not for US intervention? The answer is that Korea today would have looked quite different, given the wide range of nationalist, leftist, and anti-imperialist forces in the South, including hundreds of thousands of dissidents and guerrillas that were killed or imprisoned while fighting the US and its local proxies throughout the late 1940s and into the 1960s, with many Korean patriots massacred and imprisoned in virtual concentration camps along the way. On page 88, Gowans relates the words of Edwin Pauley, a friend and adviser to president Harry Truman—after touring Korea, Pauley told Truman: “Communism in Korea could get off to a better start than practically anywhere else in the world”. A number of key historians also agree that all of Korea would have been at least broadly leftist, led by a revolutionary nationalist government (p. 123). The coercive state developed in the South detailed by Gowans (see esp. pp.142–143), and the enforcement of the National Security Law, speak to the strength and thus the perceived danger of forces working for national self-determination and the working class.

In the North, Koreans secured highly valued outcomes: radical land reform, expulsion of Japanese land barons, education in the Korean language, reform of working conditions, and elimination of gender-based privileges that worked against women in the workplace. On page 98, Gowans’ argument is that,

“Most Koreans, no matter where they lived on the peninsula, wanted the same things: government by Koreans; land reform; the deportation of the Japanese and expulsion of collaborators from the government; and economic development to meet domestic, not foreign needs”.

Kim Il-sung’s government delivered on all of those fronts.

Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to the self-determination of peoples—with the major exception being the world’s colonized peoples—was revealed to leaders as Kim Il-sung for its duplicity. The hostility, or indifference, to Korea’s demand for self-determination led Kim Il-sung to articulate the North Korean philosophy of self-reliance, Juche: “Korea should not count on other nations for independence, because they do not care” (quoted on p. 27). Kim Il-sung bitterly recalled how Korean petitions sent to Woodrow Wilson, seeking his condemnation of Japan’s imperial occupation of Korea, went ignored and that Koreans became the “laughing stocks of the imperialists” (p. 35). Gowans has a quote from Stephen Kinzer’s article on Wilson and his hypocrisy, which I am also reproducing:

“In 1916 Wilson drafted a speech to Congress declaring, ‘It shall not lie with American people to dictate to another people what their government shall be.’ He sent it to his secretary of state for review. It came back with this notation in the margin: ‘Haiti, S. Domingo, Nicaragua, Panama.’ Confronted with this inconvenient reminder, Wilson decided not to deliver the speech”.

V.I. Lenin, on the other hand, had called in March of 1917 for “the liberation of all colonies, and of all oppressed nations” (p. 38). Lenin’s condemnation of Japan’s colonization, and the USSR’s fight against Japan, obviously attracted Kim Il-sung as it did many other Korean patriots (p. 63).

In echoes of contemporary debates, Gowans brings up the split between reformist socialists and communists in France on the subject of colonialism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks opposed colonialism, while French reformist Eduard Bernstein argued that without colonialism, poverty alleviation in Europe would be much harder to achieve, given the benefits of the colonies for those in the metropole, and thus the benefits to French citizens of colonialism outweighed the crimes of colonialism (p. 39; also see Cecil Rhodes on p. 54, in which he defends imperialism as a “bread and butter issue” for staving off social revolution in the mother country). For more on this subject, see the article on “social imperialism” on this site.

Exclusionary Sovereignty and Liberal Imperialism

“Exclusionary sovereignty” is explained by Gowans with reference to the liberal principles of US president Woodrow Wilson, who was himself a notorious racist (p. 36). Sovereignty was the property of peoples, and the only ones recognized as people by Wilson were the subjects of defeated empires. The subjects of allied empires, on the other hand, such as those colonized by Britain and France, were not recognized as people, but rather more as infants incapable of self-governance. At home, Woodrow Wilson segregated the civil service, removing all African-Americans, as well as re-segregating the public transport system in the nation’s capital, not to mention screening “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. Abroad, Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism meant equality for white people only, and the same applied to self-determination. Under Wilson’s command, US troops invaded Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico. (One can find traces of this kind of Wilsonian exclusionary liberalism in Trump’s speeches over the past year—however, in his summit with Kim Jong-un, Trump is significantly departing from the Wilsonian modus operandi.)

Gowans takes this a step further: he asks how was it that the US was ever seen as the repository of Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, when it practiced/practices racism, exploitation, and functions as an international dictatorship (p. 52). If the US is not really liberal, as Gowans argues, then where does one go to find the values above? Here Gowans takes more of a partisan approach, in strongly making the case that socialist nations, led by Marxist-Leninists, were more in tune with the values of the Enlightenment. Even if this were accepted without dispute, the argument would still be vulnerable on the grounds that it’s Eurocentric.

North Korean Principles of Self-Determination

Among the interesting things I learned from reading this book was its outline of three key North Korean principles of self-determination: Juche, Songun, and Byungjin. (Oddly, these terms are missing from the book’s index.) Juche, the policy of self-reliance, was already discussed above. Songun is the policy of prioritizing defensive military needs, which is precisely what North Korea’s leaders would ideally leave behind in order to focus on economic development. Byungjin is related to the last principle, in that it involves the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons as a deterrent against US aggression, without having to maintain or increase conventional forces in times of economic hardship resulting from US and international sanctions.

Defending Against US Nuclear and Conventional Weapons Threats

The first problem that North Korea faced, in terms of military threats, was the fact given the size and potency of the US’ always growing conventional weapons arsenal, North Korea could never mount a sufficient conventional weapona deterrent. North Korea’s current stock of conventional weapons is also aging. In addition, South Korea’s armed forces are larger than North Korea’s, measured in multiples, bolstered by having twice the number of people as the North, and a far larger economy. As Gowans further explains, the practice of staging joint US–South Korean war games during key times in North Korea’s agricultural production cycle, meant that the North had to divert the energies of tens and hundreds of thousands of men away from economic production toward military self-defense (p. 221).

Add to this the US’ nuclear weapons arsenal, which it is also modernizing (p. 216). As Gowans points out, during the Cold War the US maintained a policy that it had the right to the first use of nuclear weapons in response to any attack against the US, or its allies and partners, even if the attack was one using conventional weapons; in addition, President Eisenhower directly threatened to use atomic bombs against both North Korea and China by the end of the Korean War (p. 207). US officials, quoted by sources used in Gowans’ text, affirmed that for decades the Pentagon had developed plans for the use of nuclear weapons in any military conflict with North Korea—precisely because the North lacked a nuclear deterrent (p. 208).

The seemingly insurmountable reality was that North Korea could not realistically hope to deter US destruction of the North—without possessing a key armament of its own: the atomic bomb (p. 212). North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, and the development of missile technologies needed to deliver those weapons to US targets (thus doing without a vast air force and a string of air bases around the world), clearly changed US military calculations.

When North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, it did so in part on the understanding that the US would also abide by the Treaty, which clearly stipulates that member states must refrain from the threat or use of force in international relations. The US, however, had threatened to destroy North Korea, rehearsed its actual destruction in war games, and refused to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War—which directly contradicts the NPT. In 1993, the US announced that it was specifically targeting North Korea with its nuclear weapons—just a month later, North Korea exited from the NPT (pp. 208–209). When former US president Jimmy Carter worked out an agreement with Kim Il-sung, the result was to have North Korea return to the NPT, and the US would furnish the North with fuel shipments and help build two nuclear reactors to satisfy the North’s energy needs. However, North Korea noticed considerable foot dragging on the US’ part, made worse a few years later when George W. Bush named North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” and as a target of US foreign policy (p. 211). As US forces entered Baghdad, John Bolton warned the “Axis” that they should “draw the appropriate lesson” (p 213)—which North Korea promptly did: three years later it detonated its first atomic bomb.

Obama’s 2010 revision of US nuclear doctrine only said that the US would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states (p. 218). However, that did not mean the US would not use its vast non-nuclear arsenal against such states. Everything told North Korea that, if it were to survive, it had to weaponize, big time.

In the meantime, the UN Security Council continues in its failure to explain to North Korea, or the rest of the world, how North Korea’s testing of weapons is a breach of the UN Charter (pp. 223–224). If that were true, then all weapons tests by every member state of the UN would be outlawed—which is clearly not the case, nor is there any such provision in the UN Charter. There is no international law that prohibits the testing of ballistic missiles. There is, however, the support of international law for sovereign nations’ right to self-defense. Moreover, the UNSC has no authority to deny any nation the possession of nuclear weapons—if it did, there would have been no need for a non-proliferation treaty (p. 225). Until the US signs a treaty ending the Korean War, North Korea remains technically in a state of war with the US—a fact conveniently overlooked by the UNSC. The only way North Korea might be a threat, is on the assumption that it would engage in a first strike—that is an unproven assumption, while it remains a fact of US policy.

Clearly the UNSC exceeded its authority. Contrary to self-serving American moaning, the UN has functioned in this case as a classic tool of neocolonialism, at the behest of the US. In addition, the bulk of substantive violations and provocations, that either impelled or justified North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, came from the US’ side. The notion that North Korea erratically and unpredictably violates agreements and “can’t be trusted,” is among the most astoundingly egregious falsehoods raised to the highest order of mythological thinking in the US.

Thinking of the Singapore Summit

Obviously Gowans’ book was published before the Singapore Summit was even planned, but the book is still valuable for discussing “exclusionary sovereignty” especially as we can see vivid examples of the text in current events happening right now. For example, the “liberal” and “progressive” US media and the Democrats seemed to be outraged by the fact that the Kim–Trump Singapore Summit even happened. Had it been up to the media and the Democrats, the summit would never have happened. Trump’s press conference at the end of the summit on June 12 was in front of an almost uniformly belligerent press corps, with numerous assertions about the alleged atrocities of the North Korean “regime” and complaints about “legitimizing” it, not to mention the intense doubting of North Korean sincerity, and the anxiety about needing to maintain sanctions and continue military exercises. Supposedly politically correct anti-racists, American journalists have no problems with stigmatizing other nations and their leaders, and calling for harsh discipline. Dragging the miscreant brown child outside for a whipping in the shed is still in fashion, at least where international relations are concerned (even if at home they pretend to let their jaws drop at hearing Trump call MS-13 gang members “animals”).

Fox News rewrote Trump’s language, apparently too embarrassed to quote him directly. Revising Trump’s terms, Fox’s spin changed Trump’s statement that “war games will stop,” into a mere “pause”; “war games” became “joint drills”. Anything sounding like the US would lessen its heavy abrasion and overbearing coercion, was apparently unacceptable language. Some were upset that Trump called the war games “provocative”—how else would one describe the world’s leading military superpower rehearsing your destruction, right at your doorstep, after it had already destroyed your country once before? As Peter Beinart explained, “many of the exercises are indeed provocative”: “They simulate the invasion of North Korea and the decapitation of its regime”.

In live coverage there was repeated criticism, even disbelief, at seeing a row of DPRK flags interspersed with American flags as if to suggest they were equal. If the media had the power to choose, they would have had a row of giant US flags, and somewhere in a dustbin a tiny postage-stamp-sized DPRK flag.

Some figures in the US media vented their concern that mere photographs or a video of Kim Jong-un meeting Trump would be immensely powerful as “propaganda” back in the DPRK, always inflating the value of mere images of a US president, as if others shared this same idolatry cultivated by self-flattering Americans. As a former State Department official argued: “Imagining a summit as some sort of an award the United States can bestow on a country for ‘good behavior’ is beyond arrogant”.

We could also observe the continued media lynching of Dennis Rodman, for daring to build a friendly relationship with Kim Jong-un (there is nothing more nightmarish to white liberals than the descendant of servants bonding with a descendant of the colonized).

Finally, most of the US corporate media hastened to remove any prominent mention of the Kim-Trump Summit, a mere 12 hours after it ended, as apparently aggrieved as they were. All of the above are examples of the customary legacy of racism and colonialism in international relations, and they are values upheld by liberals, many self-identified progressives, and neoconservatives alike. I would suggest that North Korea is plainly still in great danger by the US, and should not hasten to rid itself of a nuclear deterrent.

For More on Gowans’ North Korea Book:

Thanks to Brendan Stone, colleague and a past author on ZA, we have a podcast of a radio interview with Stephen Gowans about his book on North Korea, as well as a video of a recent presentation of his about the book—see below.

Interviewed by Brendan Stone on Unusual Sources (mp3)—or listen below:

Stephen Gowans Korea Book Launch: On May 14, 2018, Ottawa-based political commentator and author, Stephen Gowans, presented his new book, Patriots, Traitors, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Patriots, Traitors and Empires—The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, by Stephen Gowans

  1. The review of Gowans’s book on Korea is spot on about the ongoing atrocities of US imperialism. But it is a total whitewash of the Stalinist Russian empire”s role, from 1945 to the present. Gowans recognizes that the Russian (aka “Soviet”) army had entered Korea on August 8 and had defeated the Japanese occupiers completely by August 15, while US forces were absent until a month later. So why wasn’t there already a Korean government led by those who had actually fought the Japanese for so long? The answer, the only plausible answer, is to be found in the still-secret protocols of the imperialist carve-up agreed between Truman and Stalin at Potsdam. And when the participation of the UNSC in the 68 years campaign against Korea is discussed it is absolutely silent about the fact that nothing at all can be done with the “authority” of the UNSC without the explicit support (including a strategic ‘absence’ in June 1950) of the Russian Empire whether under the “marxist” Stalin, the “democrat” Yeltsin, or the “christian” Putin. And of course also without mentioning the role of “Red” (in a sense akin to the description of, say, Alabama as a “red state”) China ever since the US allowed it through the UNSC portals.

  2. Very good points, Shane. I would agree that there are pieces to the story that are either missing or have been minimized, that would have cast the USSR, and its Russian successor in a more critical light. Of course one has to remember that the brutal sanctions now in place only got there with China’s and Russia’s agreement. The really challenging explanation would be one that accounts for that, especially as such agreement from Russia and China occurred while the first is under US sanctions, and the second is the target of a trade war. Other questions which Gowans could have explained further is why the USSR agreed to legitimize the division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Also, in boycotting the UN (p. 126), the USSR surrendered its right to veto the resolution of the Security Council that bestowed a UN mandate on US intervention and allowed several other nations to intervene militarily against the North. Kim Il-sung too would thus seem to have made a monumental miscalculation by not factoring in what the Soviet absence from the UN would mean, since the conflict could now be cast as the United Nations versus an unlawfully belligerent North Korea. The manner in which the Soviet side of the story is minimized might suggest to some readers, such as yourself, that Gowans is uncomfortable with anything that might result in the USSR’s role being judged as either questionable or sharing in culpability with the US.

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