This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.
Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).
Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.
Why did North Korea attack South Korea? "Because Kim Jong-Il is a loon." Get better material. We need to take a closer look.
First, let's look at Korea's tough, tragic history in recent centuries. The large ethnic, geographic, linguistic and national entity known as Korea has been fucked over by its neighbors about as often as Poland has been in Europe. Weak and vulnerable, it's been a military playground for giants. It suffered terribly under Japan's cruel, racist thumb during that nation's expansionist period leading up to World War II. Before then, it was a battleground between Russia and Japan.
We all know about the Korean War between North and South Korea, a war financed and encouraged by eager global "allies" on both sides. But the Korean War of 1950 to 1953 was the second Korean War of massive, global scale. The first, known to us as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905, was largely fought to establish control over Korea and Northern China. Japan won, and Russia's defeat contributed to the fall of the Tsar's government. But Korea itself was the harshest victim, the raped, forgotten battlefield. Neither Russia nor Japan had Korea's interests in mind when they fought each other over its control.
I learned some disturbing facts from James Bradley's fascinating history book The Imperial Cruise about the role the United States of America played in the Russo-Japanese War. The USA was building a new relationship with Japan, and agreed to enthusiastically support Japan's occupation of Korea. We had a separate alliance with Korea's rulers at the time, and simply betrayed this alliance to cement our relationship with Japan. After World War II, Japan was kicked out of Korea and two puppet governments led by the Communist and democratics nations in the world were established as North and South Korea.
Well, it's no wonder that Korea doesn't like Japan, Russia or the United States of America very much. It's no surprise that this one of the most troubled regions in the world. We are all sums of our history.
It's strange, though, that some loudmouth American commentators think the best way the USA could respond to the Korean crisis would be to back Kim Jong-Il into a corner with a show of military strength. I bet many of these armchair strategists couldn't find Korea on a map.
It turns out that Korea has seen plenty of shows of military strength already. We don't need to teach Koreans any lessons about how to back down and swallow their national pride. They can't be humiliated much more. No wonder North Korea's leaders sometimes appear snarling mad when we try to catch them in 15-second sound bites between commercials on TV news.
I wish for a better understanding of different global points of view, for wider perspectives of our planet's shared history. I especially think that when a new war is threatened, our informed citizenry needs to insist on some smarter analysis than we've been getting. "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" won't cut it anymore. Dig a little deeper, please.