In the 1950s, the Korean War — pitting the U.S. against China — devastated the Asian peninsula and inflicted an estimated 2.5 million civilian casualties, but some fear even worse if war is renewed, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
The danger of a major conflict — potentially even a nuclear war — in the Korean peninsula is spreading concern among the Korean diaspora, including many Korean-Americans.
Hyejin Shim, a second generation Korean-American living in the San Francisco Bay area, told me she now fears the worst in terms of the possibility of a US war against North Korea. Shim, a co-founder of a new group, HOBAK: How to Organize Bay Area Koreans, said she is clearly not alone in fearing an all-out war if President Trump takes some kind of aggressive military action.
I spoke to Hyejin Shim during an April 27 protest in front of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco Senate offices.
Dennis Bernstein: Tell us why you feel this has now reached critical mass?
Hyejin Shim: In the past few weeks our communities, both in the United States and also in South Korea, have been watching … as tension has continued to escalate on the Korean Peninsula, with a lot of fear, anxiety, concern about the safety of us, our loved ones, and remembering just all the devastation that the Korean War caused, for people on both sides of the border.
So, we’re here today because we want to make our voices heard and share our perspective and stories as Korean-Americans, on why we want to pursue an option of peace for the Korean Peninsula and not continue to escalate things because there are so many millions of lives at stake. So, that’s a little bit about why we’re here today.
DB: What are some of the pictures that go through your mind when you hear the Trump administration, the Vice President was just in the region, everything is on the table. They’re tired, they’re getting impatient, they might have to take unilateral action. What are the pictures that you see when you hear words like unilateral action and this kind of unusual meeting at the White House?
HS: I think the pictures that go through my mind first are images of my loved ones, who are on the Korean Peninsula, and my family members who have come from there. My entire mom’s side of the family is still actually in Korea, and I have other friends and loved ones there. So that’s who I think of first, the humans, the lives that are at stake.
I also think of the images of devastation of the Korean War that I saw as I started to learn more about the Korean War, in my adulthood. And those images of devastation, of refugees scattered throughout the peninsula, people displaced, of people carrying all their belongings on their backpacks, of children carrying other children, dead bodies everywhere. Those are the images that I think of when I think of unilateral actions, and when I think of escalation, military escalation, again on the Korean Peninsula.
I do not believe that a military action is what any Korean person wants, no matter where they are. Because we all know that the capitals of South Korea and North Korea, Pyongyang and Seoul, are actually just about 130 miles apart from each other, which is about the distance from San Francisco to Monterey Bay. So we’re talking about a very, very small, small, small country here with lots and lots of people packed in. So I think when we’re talking about all options being on the table, I’m not sure what kind of option unilateral action is, considering the human toll that it would take. That doesn’t seem like a viable option at all, actually.
DB: You have relatives, you have friends, who, I guess, on the one hand are sort of hopeful because a very corrupt president has now been indicted [former South Korea President Park Geun-hye], and there’s somebody who might make a change [by engaging in a more conciliatory attitude towards North Korea, for instance, front-running presidential candidate Moon Jae-in]. On the other hand, they’re facing World War III and, again, as you say, that’s nothing new. The kind of extreme slaughter brought by the United States and the West is nothing new to Korea.
HS: Right. I think there’s a lot of anxiety currently on the Korean Peninsula, with the presidential elections coming up on May 9th. So, right now there is a vacuum in leadership, and I believe that, so far, all presidential candidates have actually made some kind of statement around any kind of action that’s taken around North Korea needs to also be approved by the South Korean government, as well, because it is a matter of life and death for South Korea.
DB: You’re at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in San Francisco now. You are there trying to call attention to your concern about the dangers, the close line, the way in which the Trump administration is pushing this policy. If you were sitting down with the senator, what kinds of things do you want her to hear? What would you like her to do?
HS: I think what I would like her to hear is our stories, to hear the voices of ordinary Korean people both in the diaspora and the United States, and also living in Korea currently. People who are experiencing the impacts of U.S. militarization already in South Korea with the installation of U.S. naval bases and missile defense systems, and what human toll that takes too, on people living in those regions. I think I would really want her to consider all sides of the picture, and not just the narrative of “North Korea needs to be deterred through military force, and that’s it.” Because, I think, that has really not been working.
So, I would really want her to think about what are other solutions besides military escalations. Because … that’s just not helpful at all. I think she should also consider the ways that war really devastates entire generations of people, entire regions of people. You can just look to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. to see the U.S. is already wrapped up in multiple unwinnable wars. Wars on concept that devastate entire countries, entire nations, and entire peoples. So I would want to encourage her to think about how can we actually reduce these conflicts instead of adding another unwinnable war to the agenda that would also take millions and millions of lives.
I know sometimes the United States, like what we saw with Syria, was that human rights was kind of used as a justification for dropping bombs on Syria. And I know that there’s a lot of conversations here around North Korea and human rights. But, while I think that conversation is important to have, I don’t think a conversation about human rights can actually happen when it’s situated in a conversation about bombing or not bombing. To me, human rights and humanitarianism are absolutely polar opposites from warfare escalation and bombing.
DB: Is part of the reason that you’re out there, your sense that most Americans really don’t understand the idea when they hear “We’re going to teach them a lesson because they’re sort of a bad boy country.” The history isn’t there. People’s understanding of the extraordinary suffering is not there. Is that a problem? And the corporate media doesn’t really include that in the reporting.
HS: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely part of why we’re out here, because we’ve been watching for weeks and many, many years actually, just the rhetoric around North Korea, and the situation in Korea, in general, continues to be this very one-sided, a very flat narrative of good and evil, heroes and villains. And I don’t think that that’s how any story actually works. And when I first learned about the Korean War when I was a young person, when I was in high school, I read about it in my history books maybe just a couple sentences and it was called “the forgotten war.” And so I think that that nickname for the Korean War is very telling “the forgotten war.”
Many Americans have forgotten what happened in Korea, what they did in Korea, what we as a country did in Korea. And I think many people just never even knew to begin with, so there isn’t even a chance to forget because they never even knew. So, I think it’s absolutely important for people to have more information, and be offered different perspectives and narratives around what is happening. Particularly some people who are actually from these communities that are directly impacted.
DB: Alright, and just finally, because you wear two hats. This is… you’re there, this is about Trump policy, they’re into 100 days. You … work with domestic workers. You want to talk a little bit about that other side of the work that you do?
HS: Oh, yeah sure. I actually work with domestic violence survivors. Primarily immigrant and refugee survivors of violence. And, as you and many people might know, since the Trump administration took office, there’s been widespread fear and panic around escalations around immigration enforcement, detention, deportation. And … that kind of political climate, has been impacting the work that we do with domestic violence survivors. And what we also see is a lot of survivors… domestic violence survivors are also experiencing the harmful impacts of the political climate that we live in.
So, we have people fleeing from wars in different regions. We have people who are afraid to reach out for help because they are told by their abusive partners they can get them deported, or no one’s going to believe them. And just feeling like all these doors are closed to them. So, I do think that there’s a connection between all of this.
And when we think about gender violence, sometimes people don’t always make the connection that war and gender violence are absolutely interrelated issues. When war happens, violence against women increases. When war happens, children and parents are separated. When war happens, sexual assaults and intimate partner abuse can heighten and become much more commonplace. So that’s kind of the other hat that I wear. And I think, as a Korean woman, as someone who is a victim advocate, and as someone whose family is impacted by war, these are all parts of my story, these are all parts of the story that we’re trying to tell today.
DB: And, you say your family is directly impacted. I imagine many of the people that you’re working with are directly impacted. I wonder if you see a big difference between Trump and Obama. Because, [Obama] was called the Deporter-in-Chief. His policies contributed to the kinds of problems that come up in the work you do. So your thoughts on that?
HS: I think there are differences, but there are a lot of similarities, also. So when Trump came into office it wasn’t that he invented this whole new deportation system, or cornered the deportation machinery, or that he started all these seven brand new wars, or that he started a brand new policy on Korea. But these are all things that are continued even in the past eight years.
But I do want to be just mindful about paying attention to the similarities, but also paying attention to the differences. I think in this political climate with a President Trump, fear has definitely heightened and I think repression–politically repressive policies–have also taken hold.
And so, for example, [the new government office] called VOICE [Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement] that the Trump administration just unveiled in the last couple of days. Things like that, that really overtly criminalize undocumented people, immigrants, and their attempts to pass a Muslim ban. Those things [happened under] the Obama administration, although much more maybe subtle or a little bit dialed down, but I think there has been a dialing up of intensity in terms of this year and violence and repression… under the Trump administration. Even just in the past 100 days … the changes and the escalation both domestically and abroad have been very palpable.
DB: Before you leave us, what’s the picture look like there? You’re out at a protest that we hear chanting in the background. What are people saying? What do the signs say?
HS: Well, the signs say “End the Korean War.” People are chanting “End all Wars,” “Korean Peace.” People are playing Korean drums, and I’m actually up to speak in a couple of minutes. But we have about 50 people here. A mix of all different kinds of people, and a solid contingent of Korean community members as well.