Fears of a New Korean War

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?

With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank in Haengju, Korea, June 9, 1951. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. R.V. Spencer)

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.

Seriously wounded North Korean soldiers lie where they fell and wait for medical attention by Navy hospital corpsmen accompanying the Marines in their advance. September 15, 1950. (Photo by Sgt. Frank Kerr, USMC)

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.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) addresses the Security Council ministerial-level meeting on the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). At right is Rex W. Tillerson, U.S. Secretary of State and President of the Security Council for April. Behind Tillerson is U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

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.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.

11 comments for “Fears of a New Korean War

  1. R Davis
    May 6, 2017 at 22:52

    P.S. The whole of the European Union is a total basket case .. both financially & as any kind of defense force capable friend. The reason the most powerful woman in the world Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany abolished conscription .. was not because she is a peace loving bleeding heart .. but because no one would have turned up .. those conscripted would have simply gone abroad instead.

    • R Davis
      May 6, 2017 at 22:54

      Ukraine called in their young men for military duty & only a handful came.

  2. R Davis
    May 6, 2017 at 22:36

    I read that Donald Trump wants to sent more troops to Afghanistan.
    The war in Syria needs to be tied up.
    According to the pentagons ‘WISH LIST’ told to the world by General Wesley Clark .. war with 7 countries in 5 years .. albeit they are way behind scheduled .. Lebanon is next.
    A US defeat of Iran, will be the make or break of total control of the Middle East for the US.
    Both the US & Australia have been waving a war stick at China for several years now.
    And they feel that they can also squeeze in a war with North Korea.
    But wait .. we have forgotten Russia.
    Of course ‘we’ have the man power & hardware to cover all these areas of interest to us ?
    It is also for certain that home soil will be hit .. this time around .. both USA & Australian HOME SOIL.
    Bombs away.

  3. Richard DeBacher
    May 4, 2017 at 19:52

    The U.S. has contributed to the suffering of the Korean people for more than a century. What gave us the right to hand over the “Hermit Kingdom” to the Japanese by way of the Treaty of Portsmouth at the end of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905? MacArthur’s reckless aggression during the Korean War provoked full Chinese involvement and led to nearly 70 years of division across the peninsula and between thousands of divided families.

    One thing might allay Chinese fears about having a U.S. ally on its borders — a pledge to withdraw all American forces from the peninsula once certain conditions are met: 1. An extension of the demilitarized zone another 30 kilometers in both directions. 2. A commitment by both Koreas, the U.S., and China to commence immediately after the pull-back from the DMZ a peace conference to end the Korean War. The stated aim of the conference: A peaceful, neutral, and largely disarmed, unified Korea. Both China and the U.S. must pledge to allow the people of Korea the freedom to find their way to reunification, free from interference from the outside.

    Certainly the vision I hold of a reunified and peaceful Korea is difficult to imagine. But there will be no progress to a peaceful, secure Korea as long as American troops and advanced weapons are stationed on the peninsula. America took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust when Russian missiles were deployed on Cuban soil. Do you think China will make a serious effort to rein in Kim Jong-un so long as our forces and weapons are poised to move? Put that chip on the table — all US. forces out of Korea IF China and North Korea agree to peace talks following an extension of the DMZ — and give peace a chance.

  4. elmerfudzie
    May 4, 2017 at 00:58

    Mr Bernstein, on this one point; and I quote from your article:” Washington imperialists are intent on carrying out no matter what the cost”.. I’m sure you would agree that the final decision for a new war does not entirely rest at the White House. There’s the MIC’s very own, Secretary of Defense-Mattis, and his deputy-Mr Work?, the CFR clique, cabals with names like Robert Rubin, Colin Powell, AIPAC’s cheerleaders, Kristol and Lindsey Graham, the Kagan family lord-ships,..Who, in heaven’s name, really wants to be POTUS these days? I suppose, the person must have a personality that thrives on stress, problem solving, compromising, and delaying the outset of WW III. I say “delay” rather than “avoid” because all the historical elements for third world war are now firmly in place; the rise of corporate fascism, collapsing fiat currencies, a hysterical press/media (concerning Russian intentions), run away inflation, domestic riot, false flag terror, demise of civil liberties, the repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act, mad dogs in high places who constantly beat the war drum mantra-it’s all there for CONSORTIUMNEWS readers to evaluate and connect the dots. The current political climate in The USA strongly resembles pre-WW II Italy..Lastly, Trump must “make nice” in the middle east, now that a new sizable war front is about to commence in the Korean peninsula -since it’s already an open secret that our military is sooo stretched, that fighting on two major fronts simultaneously is no longer possible. A few weeks remain before a fully activated THAAD is deployed. In response, the Chinese have moved their ICBM’s to Russia’s border and Trump will find himself answering to one, Viktor Nikolaevich Bondarev, Commander of the Russian Air Force for any last minute, under-the-table treacheries! I suspect the Russians, to (again) show off their new Electronic Warfare devise aboard an Su-34? with ECM modules “Khibiny” on the wings-it will jamb every damn missile, battleground communication, ground-to-satellite communication, drones and cruise missiles guidance systems too (over large swaths of land and air)… So whatever the MIC, the Washington Neo-Con plague and POTUS have in mind, the confrontation had better last but a few days, follow a prearranged script, and unfold, according to a formal, back room agreement with Xi and Putin. A forewarning is required here; Mr President Trump, Bondarev dons one of those U.S. military equivalent to our Congressional Medal of Honor decorations- for bravery…no miscalculations now!

  5. Drew Hunkins
    May 3, 2017 at 20:53

    North Korea’s been acting very rationally over the last several years, very rationally indeed.

    What Pyongyang has witnessed since the dissolution of the USSR is a rapacious and imperialist Washington attacking each and every independent state that 1.) runs its state economy to the benefit of its people and not the predators and parasites on Wall Street, the Fortune 500, and the City of London, 2.) offers diplomatic support to the Palestinians and criticizes the grotesque violence and land grabs Tel Aviv routinely carries out, and 3.) does NOT possess nuclear weapons.

    If you’re an independent state, watch out! Washington-Zio militarists and the state-corporate media nexus will target you unmercifully with a demonization campaign like no other, with the ultimate goal being regime change via proxy forces or actual imperial soldiers.

    Be it Panama, Somalia, Iraq I, Yugoslavia-Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq II, Libya and Syria, Pyongyang understands the paradigm Washington imperialists are intent on carrying out no matter what the cost. The militarists and Zio madmen running the show in Washington are currently putting the world on the brink of nuclear war. No matter, they will carry out capitalist imperial dictates until their last breath.

    Kim Jong Un fully understands that the only way to possibly stave off a violent and bloody attack from the Western militarists is to demonstrate that a state has thermo nuclear weapons capability. Only then will the greedheads and moneybags of Washington even consider backing off.

    Although 95% of them don’t even realize it, the people of the world are paying dearly for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Washington-New York capitalists and Zionists have really taken the gloves off. No longer is there a competing socio-economic state to act as a bulwark of sorts and to demonstrate a relatively decent social welfare state.

    Kim Jong Un is cognizant of the fact that he’s virtually all alone running an independent state that could easily be bombed, occupied, and obliterated by Western militarists, ergo he fully understands he has to demonstrate he’s capable of acting the madman, not unlike Israeli objectives for decades. Act like a madman so they leave one alone, in the former case it’s a matter of survival, in the latter case it’s a cynical ploy to run an apartheid regime hell bent on ethnic cleansing every 6 to 7 years.

    • Marc
      May 4, 2017 at 12:03

      You are spot-on with this comment.

      • Drew Hunkins
        May 4, 2017 at 20:31

        Thank you Marc. Positive words are always encouraging.

  6. mike k
    May 3, 2017 at 18:24

    This story is so transparent – except to the gullible, brainwashed US public, who believe whatever the MSM serves up to it. If we all perish, ignorance will be to blame. Conformity is not a substitute for study and independent thought.

  7. john wilson
    May 3, 2017 at 14:53

    Over here in the UK the main stream media never stop talking about the menace of North Korea whilst at the same time glorifying the American naval fleet. They have also made much of the new anti missile defence system the Americans have just installed near the border between North and South. However, they have nothing to say about the hundreds of thousands of South Korean protesters who are hopping mad about this deployment because its their families, homes and lives that will be destroyed if anything happens. If it wasn’t for RT and the net this information would be completely blacked out

    • Realist
      May 3, 2017 at 15:53

      So, nothing has changed. Oceania has always been at war with East Asia. Take care you don’t commit thoughtcrime by listening to RT.

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