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Operation Pressure Pump, the struggle with anti-Americanism, and the future of humanism (!?)

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capital tragedy – Pyongyang

Having succumbed to the strange lure of Korean period dramas, and the not-so-strange allure of the incomparable Ha ji Won, in recent times, I’ve been reading a real history of Korea, Michael Seth’s fast-moving, highly readable book in the Brief History series. 

Seth’s book moves perhaps a bit too quickly through the vast time-span of Korean civilisation before the twentieth century, but no matter, I was keen to find out more about the Korean War, its causes and consequences, about which I knew practically nothing.

In brief, the Korean War was an outcome of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, and its surrender and withdrawal in 1945. The vacuum thus left was occupied by the Americans in the south, and the Russians in the north, a division demarcated arbitrarily by the 38th parallel. This quasi-official division, which seemed to go on indefinitely and which the Koreans were never consulted about, came as a massive affront to a people who had effectively governed their own undivided region for centuries.

Nevertheless, communism was in the air, and held a certain appeal for some of the Korean peasantry and some intellectuals, fed by Russian and Chinese propaganda. In the poorer north, Russian and local communist leaders were able to introduce reforms which had a direct and immediate benefit for the landless peasantry, while the Americans, apparently clueless about Korean politics and history, tried to maintain order by continuing some of the hated repressive measures of the Japanese.

People on both sides of the 38th parallel wanted and expected reunification of the country in the near future, which makes what eventually happened one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. The north, under the discipline of Russian Stalinist policies of ‘x-year plans’ and ultra-nationalist workaholism, took the initiative, building up a powerful military force with which to invade the south and enforce reunification, and a Stalinist paradise. By this time Kim Il Sung had imposed himself as the Great Leader of the north, dealing ruthlessly with all rivals.

The north’s attack took the south completely by surprise, and was almost a complete success. They captured all the southern territory except for a small area around Busan, Korea’s second city in the south-east corner. By this time General MacArthur had been appointed to head the southern defence, and with American arms and reinforcements arriving quickly, the invaders were pushed back.

The northern invasion was extremely unpopular in the south, and few of the peasantry, who were generally better off than their northern counterparts, were interested in what Kim’s Stalinists had to offer. So – and again I’m simplifying massively – things eventually went back to a stalemate centred upon the once meaningless, and now very meaningful, 38th parallel. Warfare dragged on for another couple of years, mostly around that parallel.

And that’s how I come to the title of this piece. Operation Pressure Pump, which commenced in July 1952, came about as a result of American frustration with the stalemate. Here’s how Seth describes it:

Thousands of bombing raids destroyed every possible military and industrial target, the dams and dikes that irrigated the rice fields. Pyongyang and other northern cities began to look like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the A-bomb, with only a few buildings standing. More bombs were dropped by the Americans on this little country of hardly more than 8 million than the allies had dropped on either Germany or the Japanese Empire in WWII. As a result, the North Koreans were forced to move underground. The entire country became a bunker state, with industries, offices and even living quarters moved to hundreds of miles of tunnels. Nonetheless, civilian casualties in these bombing raids were appallingly high.

A brief history of Korea: isolation, war, despotism and revival – the fascinating story of a resilient but divided people, p 126

Now, this was new knowledge to me, and I haven’t heard too many Americans talking about it, in the various media outlets I’ve been listening to lately, as a black mark against the country’s name – and some Americans are self-critical in this way. Okay, it was sixty-odd years ago, and since then there’s been Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), and a few other ‘minor’ interventions, so, who’s remembering?

So, I’ve been quite critical of the USA on this blog, and I do actually worry from time to time that I’m being unfairly anti-American. I try to relieve this concern by noting that the USA simply follows the pattern of every other militarily and economically powerful country in history. It bullies its neighbours and exploits all other regions, including its allies, to enhance its power. It also falls victim to the same fallacy that every previous powerful nation falls victim to – that its economic power is evidence of moral superiority. Their myth of American exceptionalism is arguably no worse than that of British benevolent imperialism or the civilising influence of the Roman/Egyptian/Babylonian empire. In fact, all nations are 100% self-interested in their own way. A middling country like Australia bullies smaller countries, such as East Timor over oil in the Timor Sea, while kowtowing to more powerful countries like China and the USA, in which case its self-interest lies in how to kowtow to one country without offending the other.

But let me return to Operation Pressure Pump. The greatest casualties of war are ordinary people. It’s worth dwelling on this as ordinary people currently face the consequences of stupid decisions over Iran. ‘Ordinary people’ might seem a condescending term, but it’s always worth remembering that the vast majority of people – in Iran, North Korea, Australia, the USA or elsewhere – aren’t intellectuals or politicians or national decision-makers or religious leaders or general movers and shakers – they’re people whose lives revolve around friends and family and trying to make a reasonable living. Warfare, and the damage and displacement it causes, isn’t something they can ever seriously factor into their plans. It just happens to them, a bit like cancer.

So the US bombing campaign was something that happened to the North Korean people in the early fifties. Another thing that happened to them was ‘communism’ or the despotic nationalist madness of Kim Il Sung. So they were doubly unlucky. As a humanist, I like to think my politics are simple. I consider bullies to be the worst form of human life, and I expect governments to be most concerned about protecting the bullied against the bullies, the exploited against the exploiters. I actually expect government to be an elite institution, like the media, the judiciary, and the science and technology sector. I also expect governments to put humanism above nationalism, but that’s a big ask. The UN hasn’t so far proved to be an enormous success, as members have generally put national interests above broader global interests, but it’s certainly better than nothing, and some parts of it, such the WHO and the UNHCR, have proved their value. I don’t think there’s any other option but to struggle to give more teeth to the UN, the International Criminal Court and other international oversight agencies. We should never allow one nation to accord to itself the role of global police officer. Of course these international bureaucracies are cumbersome when flashpoints occur – the aim is always to prevent these things from happening. The current Iran situation was entirely preventible, and was entirely due to the USA’s appalling Presidential system, which has allowed an irresponsible, attention-seeking buffoon to hold a position with way too much power and way too little accountability. There’s no doubt that Soleimani was an unpleasant character, but reports were that his activities were much reduced due to the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, a famously well-crafted deal by most accounts, which was destroyed by the buffoon.

So, this piece of unilateral bad acting by the USA takes us back to the terror bombing of North Korea in the early fifties. I’m certainly not saying that this cruelty made North Korea what it is today, but it didn’t help. We just have to learn to be more collaborative, more willing to negotiate and to understand, to hear, the other side, and stop being such belligerent male arseholes. We have a long way to go.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2020 at 7:24 pm