On the brink on May Day
The air was filled with propaganda on May Day of two distinct genres. On a foray downtown, I picked up leaflets singing the praises of Marxism and Marxism-Leninism.
Then I found another one on old-style communism but without much if any reference to either of those hoary old figures. Somewhat longer treatises on the glories and lessons of communism were on sale at small stands around the plaza in front of City Hall. I had to wonder if the same stuff would be on offer in Pyongyang ― or would the North Koreans ban them for failing to display the requisite images of the Kim dynasty?
Probably so. Can anyone imagine the North Korean thought police countenancing a book on revolutionary socialism that failed to credit Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with having offered the proper ``guidance?” Kim Jong-un should be equally quotable when he gets around to coming up with his own revolutionary philosophy. Right now the kid is too busy pumping up the enthusiasm of his soldiers to have formed a worldview on the scale of ``juche,” self-reliance, or ``songun,” military first, as dreamed up by his father.
While I was mulling such weighty matters, several thousand people were ensconced on the grass of the City Hall plaza, shouting slogans, singing songs or watching stuff on stage. The mood was festive. Revolution did not appear to be in the offing. The hundreds of policemen lurking around the edges didn’t seem too worried about crowd control.
The other May Day outburst was in the North Korean media. Tempting though it is to laugh at the diatribes from Pyongyang, they are so full of venom you have to wonder what people up there are thinking. ``The just retaliatory war will rid the Korean nation of the military demarcation line and bring reunification to it,” said a commentary in Rodong Sinmum, assuring devotees that ``resolute special actions would soon be launched to mercilessly destroy the bases of provocations.”
What’s all this nonsense about? Are ``special action” teams awaiting orders to annihilate ``the rat-like Lee Myung-bak group of traitors”? Judging by the insouciance of the people ambling by the plaza, as oblivious to the Marxist leaflets as they are to North Korea, there’s not a lot to worry about. Then again, you realize some people worry that no one has found a way to temper North Korean wrath.
It’s at this point that you’re tempted to turn back the pages of time. A ``new diplomatic and strategic history” called ``Rethinking the Korean War” by professor William Stueck at the University of Georgia offers glimpses into how the Korean Peninsula got into this mess in the first place. We all know the rudimentary details; the deal between the old Soviet Union and the United States to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel; the litany of misunderstandings and mixed signals; the mistaken belief of Kim Il-sung that the Americans would fail to stave off his invasion of the South; the American failure to realize the will of the Chinese, newly communized under Mao, to rescue him and his regime.
The bottom-line lesson that Stueck imparts, though, is that of the Korean War as setting the course for ensuing generations of tussles among great powers. The major participants, the Chinese, Russians and the Americans, got a sense of how far they could go from the success or failure of offensives and counter-offensives. Stueck thinks the Korean War may have headed off World War III. Had they not discovered their strengths and weaknesses, they might have been at one another’s throat somewhere else.
Maybe. Scholars love to worry about the ``ifs” of history, but nobody knows. One realizes, though, how little has changed over the past 60 years and more. Or maybe it’s, the more things change, the more they stay same. After the terrible fighting in the first year of the war, thousands more died over the next two years of fitful negotiations, promises made and broken. In the end, Stueck writes, the brains in the Pentagon saw the experience in Korea as a success in ``limited war” ― so much so they believed they could replicate it in Vietnam.
Now it seems we’re approaching the precipice again. President Barack Obama has said he’s not paying attention to North Korean ``provocations,” and President Lee Myung-bak has vowed to strike at the sources of shelling or torpedoing or anything else the North Koreans do to show they mean it with their vows of ``special action.” Neither of these two Presidents, though, has that much leverage. They both face presidential campaigns ― Obama in a tough race for reelection, Lee in a battle to do what he can for a conservative successor who may want to ignore him.
As Stueck notes, however, other realities intrude. ``Although the war had left the peninsula bitterly divided, an armed camp licking severe wounds, the circumstances of its end made unlikely a repeat performance.” All sides may be forgetting these lessons while North Korea whips up emotions for ``a patriotic and just war” against ``the group of traitors on the death-bed” ― and people peddle Marx on a sunny May Day afternoon.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, author of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine,” may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.