By Michelle Xie | December 2, 2021 | Originally published in Breaking the Chains
Bio: Christine Hong is Associate Professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an executive board member of the Korea Policy Institute. She has spent time in North Korea, including as part of a North American peace delegation.
Breaking The Chains (BTC): How did women fit into the Korean War, and what roles did they play, both roles in resistance but also burdens and attacks that singled out women?
Christine Hong (C): What was imperialist action on the part of the United States was experienced by the Korean people as a total war. One of the predictable outcomes of the Korean War is that it can be forgotten in a U.S. context, even though it was absolutely central to the rehabilitation of a U.S. total war economy. But, on the Korean side, it can’t ever be forgotten. It is the lived, ongoing reality for people North and South of the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] on the Korean peninsula.
The North Koreans and the Chinese People’s Army were fighting a revolutionary war that was total in nature. There was no part of Korean society that wasn’t targeted. Curtis LeMay, the American general, openly conceded and boasted about destroying 20 percent of Korean society. He viewed this as a singular accomplishment, but there are statistics that suggest that it was even worse than what he indicated. There are some Chinese statistics that indicate that 30 percent of North Korea was destroyed. That is utterly indiscriminate in nature. There were an estimated 4 million Koreans killed, some people say 5 million. The vast majority of the dead were civilians. The United States, in waging a total war on the Korean peninsula, did not discriminate in terms of the logic of the target, between soldiers and civilian women and children. It was accordingly the case that North Korean women played a role in fighting what they profoundly understood, and is seldom understood in U.S.-based scholarship, as a people’s war for liberation. That’s also true of North Korean children. We are in an era where it’s understood that children should not go to war, but if you go to North Korea to the Fatherland Revolutionary War Museum, you see that children did things like placing pieces of wood studded with nails on the road to try to deter forces from coming forward. Why was this? Was it because North Korea was weaponizing its children? No, it was because the destruction was so indiscriminate that every single demographic of society had to fight in this war. So the question of how women fit into the Korean War is multiple-fold.
I think it’s also important to recognize that a people’s war is very different in political philosophy from an imperialist war. Even the very problematic white American feminist, Susan Brownmiller, who wrote a book called “Against Our Will,” in which she makes a bunch of racist claims, actually concedes this very interesting point about the U.S. war in Vietnam. She indicates that the North Vietnamese did not rape women — virtually not at all — in sharp contrast to U.S. forces and the South Vietnamese. That illustrates very different principles about revolutionary warfare, which is basically that a people’s war is fought by a people’s army, and the soldiers of a people’s army are not separate from the people — you do not wage a campaign of sexualized terrorism against the very population that you are from. On the other hand, imperialist warfare is characterized by an invading force that has no connection to the people. It might have its collaborationist forces that are drawn from local populations, but there isn’t that identification with the people. That is a crucial distinction.
Few people understand the continuity that existed between the Japanese imperial system of sexual slavery and what ensued, which was the U.S. “comfort women” system. A couple of years ago, there was a group of South Korean lawyers and activists who were working in solidarity with former camptown [local communities formed around occupation army installations] military prostitutes from South Korea. They had won in a Seoul district court a ruling that found that the South Korean government was guilty of massive human rights violations against these women for illegally detaining them for being suspected of having venereal disease. Well, of course the system of militarized prostitution around U.S. military installations in South Korea was not done by the South Korean government alone, which was in the first instance a puppet government of the United States.
We have to recognize that the system of camptown military prostitution was jointly administered by the U.S. army. According to these lawyers and activists who actually scoured the Library of Congress here in the United States, the United States entered into this system in which women who were military prostitutes were described as “wianbu.” “Wianbu” is the Korean term for “ianfu”; “ianfu” is the Japanese term for comfort women. The United States continued a system of organized, racialized, imperialist sexual exploitation of Korean women, even after Japan was defeated, and, in a number of cases, actually singled out North Korean women who were known to be party [communist] members. They were targeted for rape, which was wielded as a political weapon of terror and warfare.
BTC: In July 1953, an armistice was signed by the U.S., North Korea and China. Why has a peaceful settlement not yet been achieved?
C: It’s such an urgent question. The question of why there has been no peace on the Korean peninsula even though that is the overwhelming desire of the Korean people both on the peninsula and within the diaspora has to be understood in terms of the geostrategic utility of a divided Korea. In the very first instance, it was two junior U.S. army officers, Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, who drew a line through the middle of the map bisecting the Korean peninsula after the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki. That bisection of the Korean peninsula precipitated a war of national reunification. That was predictable. Partitions are never bloodless affairs.
The armistice called hot fighting to an end, but did not in any way, shape, or form conclusively or legally end the Korean War itself. The Korean War is ongoing to this day, and we have a perpetual war system in place. It’s important to realize that that armistice called for all foreign forces to depart from the Korean peninsula within a reasonable amount of time, and it also urged that the three signatories, North Korea, China and the United States, would turn to the negotiating table within three months’ time to hammer out a permanent peace agreement. China left the peninsula within a short period of time. The United States to this day militarily occupies the Southern part of the peninsula. The United States has roughly 30,000 forces. It has about 80 military installations. Even those military installations that aren’t under formal U.S. name can be used, according to mutual defense agreements, at the whim and will of the United States. The United States maintains command control over the South Korean army at times of heightened warfare. The United States has historically practiced the largest war exercises in the world on the Korean peninsula. These are a combination of actual live-fire drills as well as virtual exercises, which simulate the invasion and occupation of North Korea, and in a classic counterintelligence move, the decapitation of North Korea’s leadership. They also simulate a nuclear first strike against North Korea. If you think historically about the Korean War and about the supposed post-Cold War period (the Korean peninsula has never been post-Cold War), the purpose of all of this geostrategically has been the encirclement of China. It still remains the goal today.
BTC: In the U.S., we see all kinds of propaganda demonizing North Korea. Recently, North Korea tested two short-range missiles, firing them into the sea — the New York Times calls this a “significant provocation.” Can you talk more about this and myths we are told about North Korea?
C: A nuclear North Korea has been viewed as irrational, menacing, and liable to strike out at any moment. This is really a camera obscura inversion of the truth. The dominant discourse around North Korea is akin to the inversions that we see around Palestine and Israel to some degree. In the post-9/11 era, the convenient North Korea boogeyman has justified the acceleration of U.S. military designs throughout Asia and the Pacific, throughout not just the George W Bush, but the Obama era, when there was the accelerated deployment of the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] system to different sites throughout the Pacific. It was justified in the name of defending against a nuclear-armed North Korea.
When we see North Korea as the enemy, what does that prevent us from seeing? North Korea is not an imperialist power that has ever attacked other countries. Imperialist wars usually involve intervention across national borders. North Korea has never done that. It has never attacked its neighbors in the way that the United States has waged wars throughout Asia. The language of provocation always ascribes to North Korea the status of being out of bounds for simply taking measures to defend itself. What the Black Panther Party clearly saw was self-defense in North Korea; the United States sees unreasonable actions. The assumption is that North Korea should consent to its potential extermination by the United States, as though that would be the reasonable stance to take.
This also demonstrates the unevenness and asymmetry of the politics around non-proliferation. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty specifies not just that would-be nuclear powers should not take the road of nuclearization. It’s that existing nuclear powers actually have to destroy their arsenals and denuclearize. The United States has taken zero steps toward denuclearization.
There has been no shortage of apocalyptic designs that U.S. war planners have cooked up for North Korea. During the Korean War, General MacArthur wanted to create between China and North Korea a radioactive zone by using nuclear weapons — a zone of cobalt — where he envisioned that no life could live for a hundred years or more. North Korea has ceaselessly, throughout the duration of its existence, been placed in the crosshairs of a nuclear U.S. war machine. That is the key backdrop for understanding why North Korea has dedicated so much of its national resources to take to the nuclear path. Instead of viewing this as a rational measure of self-defense, a form of deterrence that buys the possibility of North Koreans being able to live, this is viewed so flippantly and superficially as being incomprehensible. The rhetoric that is adopted by the United States is that it needs to defend itself against North Korea, when the historical truth of the matter is that the United States waged a war of destruction, having complete mastery over the skies, raining ruin from above.
BTC: As socialists, feminists and anti-imperialists, what’s the most important task for us to take up in a global movement?
C: The tasks are multiple. It just so happens to be that I am in education, so I think one of the most critical tasks that I can undertake is working collectively with a number of other organizers, activists and activist-scholars to create a political educational curriculum and to center political education in what we do. The task of de-imperialization begins with de-mobilization. Countries around the world feel the military boot of the United States, but why is it that those of us who live in the belly of the beast can turn a blind eye to U.S. military imperialism? There are connections between the U.S. war machine and police power. U.S. police power has a certain trajectory in the United States, but is one and the same as U.S. war power, because that police power is the waging of war on domestic populations. When we talk about the militarization of the police that presupposes that the United States is waging a series of invisible wars abroad. We need to foster a more broad-based anti-imperialist approach to abolition.