2005/01/18

The long-forgotten US occupation of Korea

For 60 years the USA has held significant power over Korea; most Americans have no idea. They don't know about the American occupation of the South after World War II, they have only vague images of the Korean war, they don't know about the South Korean dictators the USA supported thruout the cold war, they don't know about the democracy movements that were repressed or massacred with US complicity, they don't know how those movements eventually triumphed.

They don't know how American cold war economic policies reluctantly gave South Korea's dictators room to industrialize and grow rich, they don't know about the sweatshops that followed, they don't know about the post-cold war market opening measures pushed by the US that culminated in economic disaster for South Korea in 1997.

All they "know" is that Kim Jongil, dictator of the North, is crazy.

But they should know more, starting with how American policies right after WWII returned the Japanese colonial elite to power and allowed them to dominate the government and economy for the next 50 years.

The New York Times recently ran an article on the South Korean movement to recognize that the postwar leadership was composed of the same people who had helped the Japanese to brutally dominate their countrymen. Yet curiously missing from the article was any mention of the American role.

Explaining how a discredited and widely-hated group of collaborators and landowners was able to cling to power without their Japanese patrons, the article says, "After the end of Japan's 35-year occupation in 1945, high-ranking Korean military officials and bureaucrats serving in the Japanese Imperial Army and administration were purged or imprisoned. But by 1949 they had been freed and rehabilitated by South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee [Yi Seungman]."

This is a major revision of history. In fact, the United States occupied South Korea immediately after the war, looked with horror at the countless popular local governing councils that sprang up to fill the power vacuum, and determined that only by bringing the colonial elites and security apparatus back to power could the "communist" scourge be suppressed. Widespread repression was necessary tho, since the group that the USA chose to govern South Korea was universally despised, and the hunger for land redistribution, unification with the North, and an end to foreign domination were great. It was not Yi Seungman who brought the collaborators back to power, but the USA who made a government of them and set Yi at the top of it.

Once it had crushed the popular nationalist forces and established a tiny elite within a police state, the USA prepared to leave. The civil war that followed, as the government of the North invaded the South and nearly overran it, taught the USA that only its continuing presence could maintain American power over Korea.

That presence continues to this day, as 37,000 American troops remain stationed in South Korea. In the intervening years the USA supported a succession of military dictators, who suppressed renewed calls for democracy with bloodshed. Eventually the efforts of students and workers forced democratic reforms, but parts of the governing elite and most of the economic elite are still descendants of those same Koreans who once helped Japan control and exploit the country.

After years of state indoctrination, propaganda, and anti-communist fearmongering, the South Korean people are finally starting to face the deep ambiguities of their history. When will Americans follow?

1 comment:

naureen said...

sometimes reading about US placement of troops is like remembering my old Risk strategies: always keep at least a 3-dice strong army in all segments of the board. piss people off so they're scared of you. dominate the world.

today i imagined a heart-to-heart between me and G.W.
I layed it all out. Tried to show him that he and I were n't really different - we're just crusaders for different ideologies. But that being the case, I had to k*ll him, before he k*lled me. metaphorically, of course.

(sup feds.)

also i have a close friend from home studying in beijing next semester. can i give her your number?