Thursday, February 9, 2012
the last book I ever read (Nothing to Envy, excerpt two)
from Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea:
The line bore little relationship to anything in Korean history or geography. The little thumb jutting out of China that is the Korean peninsula is a well-delineated landmass with the Sea of Japan to the east, the Yellow Sea to west, and the Yalu and Tumen Rivers forming the boundary with China. Nothing about it suggests that there is a natural place to carve it in two. For the 1,300 years prior to the Japanese occupation, Korea had been a unified country governed by the Chosun dynasty, one of the longest-lived monarchies in world history. Before the Chosun dynasty, there were three kingdoms vying for power on the peninsula. Political schisms tended to run north to south, the east gravitating naturally toward Japan and the west to China. The bifurcation between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them. One story has it that the secretary of state at the time, Edward Stettinius, had to ask a subordinate where Korea was.
Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were "shrimp among whales," crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers.
Neither superpower was willing to cede ground to allow for an independent Korea. The Koreans themselves were splintered into more than a dozen rival factions, many with Communist sympathies. The temporary demarcations on the map soon hardened into facts on the ground. In 1948, the Republic of Korea was created under the leadership of the seventy-year-old Syngman Rhee, a crusty conservative with a PhD from Princeton. Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese resistance fighter backed by Moscow, quickly followed suit be declaring his state the Democratic People's Republic of Korea--North Korea. The line along the 38th parallel would solidify into a 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide thicket of concertina wire, tank traps, trenches, embankments, moats, artillery pieces, and land mines.
With both sides claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea, war was inevitable. Before dawn on Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung's troops stormed across the border with Soviet-supplied tanks. They quickly captured Seoul and swept southward until all that was left of South Korea was a pocket around the southeastern coastal city of Pusan. The daring amphibious landing at Incheon of forty thousand U.S. troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in September reversed the Communist gains. Besides the United States and South Korea, troops of fifteen nations joined a U.N. coalition--among them Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. They recaptured Seoul and headed north to Pyongyang and beyond. As they approached the Yalu River, however, Chinese Communist forces entered the war and pushed them back. Two more years of fighting produced only frustration and stalemate. By the time an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, nearly three million people were dead and the peninsula lay in ruins. The border remained more or less along the 38th parallel. Even by the dubious standards of twentieth-century warcraft, it was a futile and unsatisfying war.