Back to Korea

Gwangju National Cemetery, May 2015

Gwangju National Cemetery, May 2015

I’m heading back to Korea on Friday. I’ve been invited to Gwangju by the city government with the small group of Korean and foreign reporters who were there during the citizens’ uprising of May 18, 1980. The city is sponsoring several days of events, including a press conference and a major commemoration at the national cemetery where the hundreds of people who died fighting for democracy are buried. In my mind, Gwangju is the most overlooked anti-fascist uprising in history, and deserves great respect as one of the few times during the Cold War that a people directly took up arms against a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Last year, Gwangju made me an honorary citizen for uncovering the American role in those events, the greatest honor I’ve ever received for my journalism.

After Gwangju, I’ll be stopping for a few days on the island of Jeju, which was itself the scene of a bloody uprising against fascist rule in 1948 that was put down, at great cost in human life, by a South Korean army led by U.S. counterinsurgency specialists. There, amidst the splendor of one of Asia’s top tourist spots, locals have been fighting for years to stop the South Korean government (and its construction ally, Samsung) from building a naval base that will also be used by the U.S. Navy (it’s part of the human cost of the Obama-Clinton “Asia Pivot” you’ve heard so much about). I’ll then stop in Seoul before flying home via L.A. Along the way, I’ll be posting stories and pics here of what I’ve seen and experienced.

I come to South Korea at a time when repression against left and progressive forces is on the upswing under the increasingly authoritarian government of Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late dictator Park Chung Hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979. I experienced a bit of that repression last year, when I was subject to intense and unusual criticism from the Park government for an article I wrote for The Nation. Here’s a piece I wrote on that incident that was published in OhMyNewsone of the most widely-read websites on the Internet. It gives a flavor of what ordinary South Koreans deal with every day. 

THE CONSULATE-GENERAL AND THE NATION:

MY EXPERIENCE IN KOREA AS A JOURNALIST

By Tim Shorrock

OhMyNews, December 8, 2015

When I heard last week that the South Korean Consulate in New York had contacted my editors at The Nation about my article on President Park Guen-hye’s crackdown on the labor movement, I was surprised and a little shocked. I’ve been writing about South Korea for over 30 years for the Nation and other US publications. But until this call, I’d never heard a direct complaint about my article from the Korean government. So I wondered: why did this article catch their attention?

From what I’ve been able to piece together, the person at the Consulate contacted my editors on direction from his boss in Seoul. But he wasn’t contacted until after my article had been translated into Korean and posted on the Internet, drawing thousands of readers and comments. My article, which was quite critical of the Park government and included many details about her dictator father, Park Chung Hee, apparently deeply offended someone inside Park’s foreign ministry, which then instructed the Consulate to complain to the Nation.

Aside from the fact that I refered to “a dictator’s daughter,” however, there was little in my article that was new or unusual. I believe that it caught the government’s attention because it was so unlike most reports about South Korea in the U.S. press. For the most part, American reporters in Korea see the country only in Cold War terms, with the “bad” North Koreans always the villains and the “good” South Koreans always the victim of those villains. And of course they consistently see the United States as the ultimate champion of “good” South Korea.

Unfortunately, this framework obscures the complexities of South Korea, its political and economic system, and its ties to the United States. As a result, few Americans know that South Korea was ruled by many years by tough dictators who were supported by the United States despite their suppression of democratic rights. Fewer still are aware of the deep divisions within South Korea over this legacy and that the fact that many Koreans are opposed to the conservative policies of Park Guen-Hye and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Why would Americans think any differently when President Obama, America’s most liberal president, praises Park and Lee as champions of democracy and important military partners?

Therefore, my primary thought after the Consulate contacted the Nation was that the Korean government was upset that an American journalist was putting their country in an unfavorable light. Calling my editors and complaining about my article seemed to be a form of intimidation to pressure the Nation and myself to report more favorably about President Park. It angered me, and so I posted what they’d said on my Facebook page – not knowing of course that it would be picked up as a major story by the Korean media.

So I disagree with the government’s attempt to “correct” my reporting. At the same time, I found myself agreeing with something the Consulate told the Nation. He said that we should understand that South Korea has undergone tremendous change over the past 30 years. That is true, and I can’t disagree.

I lived in South Korea during the era of Syngman Rhee and witnessed his overthrow. And later, during the 1980s, I spend many months in South Korea writing about the citizens’ movement for democracy and meeting with labor organizers, religious activists and political organizers about their experiences and hopes for the future. On my last trip, in 1985, conditions were very difficult, and sometimes I would meet someone one day and learn they had been arrested the next. I also visited Kwangju, and learned much about what happened in that city during the uprising and afterwards.

After that visit, I didn’t return to South Korea for many years. But in reporting from Washington in the 19990s and in my visits in 2001, 2013 and 2015, I understood how much South Korea has changed since the dark days of dictatorship. I know that conditions are still bad for many people, particularly ordinary workers, farmers and the urban poor. But I also know that South Korea today is nothing like the authoritarian days of the 1970s and 1980s. My worry, along with many Koreans, is that under Park South Korea may be slipping back into the old ways. Instead of reacting angrily, the Korean government should welcome that critique and show the world that it is unafraid of criticism.

To the opposition party, Hankyoreh and other publications that have criticized the Park government for criticizing the Nation – thank you for your solidarity! You are showing that democracy is still vital and that you have no intention of allowing South Korea to slip back into dictatorship.

Lastly, I want OhMyNews readers to know that I have tremendous respect for what South Koreans have accomplished in building that democracy over the past 50 years. You should also know that I am extremely critical of my own government and the Obama administration for its undemocratic policies, particularly the widepread surveillance of U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency and its attacks on whistleblowers who try to expose these wrongdoings.

Last May I was made an honorary citizen of the City of Kwangju. So I feel like I’m a citizen of both Korea and the United States – and as a citizen and a journaliist, it’s my duty to shed light on what’s wrong with both of our countries and seek ways to make us better. No government should be afraid of the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hiroshima: Yes, an apology is long overdue.

New Years, Tokyo, 1948. By the end of the war, the Japanese people were literally starving in the streets.

New Years, Tokyo, 1948. By the end of the war, the Japanese people were literally starving in the streets. The atomic bombs were unnecessary. Credit: Hallam C. Shorrock, Jr.

President Obama will visit Hiroshima on May 27, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Should he apologize, pundits ask? Absolutely. My thoughts, just posted at The Nation.

The idea that the atomic bombings brought an end to war has always seemed ridiculous to me. By the summer of 1945, Tokyo and dozens of other cities had been obliterated. People throughout the country were, literally, starving amid the ruins, and any national pride and hopes for the future were long gone. My stepmother, Yasuko, survived the war in Kokubunji, a western suburb of Tokyo, where her preacher father had a church. She and her teenage brother were so weakened by hunger by the war’s end that they used to grab onto telephone poles to steady themselves while they were walking.

As the historian John Dower has written so eloquently, the “unthinkable” surrender of Japan was accepted with little question by the stricken population. Others have documented that the Emperor and his military advisers were ready for the final terms of surrender weeks before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those events will undoubtedly be the source of much debate as Obama’s visit approaches, with many voices demanding that he forgo any expression of regret. I respectfully disagree. I believe an apology for unleashing the first nuclear holocaust in human history—and targeting civilians in those attacks—is in order, and long overdue.

There’s a precedent. President Eisenhower, who understood war better than any American leader, didn’t apologize, but he did express remorse. “I was against [use of the atomic bomb] on two counts,” he said in a postwar interview. “First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” And in The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s film about Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense (who helped plan the destruction of Japanese cities) suggested that the US firebombing in the final months of the war should have been considered a war crime—but only if the United States had lost the war.

Click here to read the full article.

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A Plea for Peace in Korea

Koreans demonstrate in Seoul against US-South Korean war games.

Koreans demonstrate in Seoul against US-South Korean war games. The signs read “Stop War Preparation Drill.”

The wars drums are beating in Pyongyang and Washington, and the official media in both North Korea and the United States are eating it up. Time for a little sanity: a guest post by my colleague Simone Chun.

“Heart speaks to heart.”

By Simone Chun

The latest sanctions on North Korea are having immediate effects, including jingoistic reports from the foreign media on Korea and the halting of humanitarian aid to the North from international NGOs. Now is the time to bolster efforts to promote humanitarian and people-to-people exchange with North Korea: it’s the only channel left under the current political climate. Here’s the latest:

The bellicose and jingoistic U.S. media’s spin on recent events on the Korean peninsula: Mark Thompson in Time: “Is It Time to Attack North Korea?”

Taking out North Korea’s two major nuclear sites with air strikes would be dangerous but probably not too difficult, U.S. officials say. The possibility of North Korean retaliation against Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million and only 35 miles from North Korea, would be a complicating factor, they concede.

The latest humanitarian crisis for North Korea: The Washington Post on North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk as sanctions hamper medicine shipments:

The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.”…“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.”…“These people need additional medication to finish the program, and if they don’t get it, they run the risk of developing additional resistance and dying,” Linton said. “Should they return home to die, everyone who comes into contact with them will be at risk of contracting this particularly dangerous type of ‘super-TB’?” he said.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 09.49.12

 

“Heart speaks to Heart” – From the Catholic HeraldFather Gerard Hammond, American Maryknoll missionary, visits North Korea as a silent ‘apostle of peace’

Maryknoll Father Gerard Hammond, 81, who has lived in South Korea since 1960, first crossed over into the North in 1995 and since then has made 51 trips. During Pope Francis’s visit to South Korea this month the Pope met Fr Hammond and personally thanked him for his work in the North…. “You’re present to a people whom you cannot speak to and they can’t speak to you, but it’s the old adage: ‘heart speaks to heart,’” he said. “They see compassion. Well, they’re in a country where they’re told that [the late dictator] Kim Jong Il gives them everything. But then they see, well, in this case he isn’t. So you’re also creating a thought pattern in their own life: ‘What do these people help bring us? What are they doing here?’

Pay attention: the real story is not being told by the U.S. media. Don’t let pro-war reporters lead us into another conflagration. Over 3 million Koreans died in the Korean War. Here’s some thoughts from the Korea Peace Network, an initiative of the American Friends Service Committee and other peace organizations.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 10.15.06

Screenshot 2016-03-11 10.15.30

 

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Chomsky on Korea, U.S. Foreign Policy, Sanders and Clinton

chomskyNoam Chomsky has long had a deep interest in Korea. Ever since his involvement in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, he’s paid close attention to the country and the controversial role played by the United States on the peninsula since 1945.

This interview on the Korean War and its origins illustrates the depth of his knowledge and clarity – both of which are sadly missing from most discussions about the peninsula. In his 1993 book “Year 501,” Chomsky wrote in detail about the U.S. backing for the dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan – and, to my astonishment, quoted from articles I’d written for various publications during the 1980s.

In 2010, some of his writings were banned by the South Korean military because, according to officials quoted by TIME, “the literature in question sympathizes with communist North Korea and criticizes the economic systems of South Korea and the U.S.” In South Korea, that usually covers pretty much everything the government doesn’t like.

Professor Chomsky has also been outspoken in his support for the democratic movement in South Korea, and in 2013 was one of the first signers of a petition I worked on condemning the South Korean government and its National Intelligence Service for “launching a witch hunt to purge progressive voices from the political process.” 

Last month, Professor Chomsky was interviewed in Boston by the writer and activist Simone Chun for the Hankyoreh newspaper. Here is the English translation of the interview, courtesy of Ms. Chun. She was accompanied in her first meeting with Prof. Chomsky in November 2015 (pictured) by Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, which led a historic march across the North-South Korean border last May (full disclosure, Ms. Chun, Ms. Ahn and myself are all affiliated with the Korea Policy Institute). 

Ms. Chun’s interview took place on January 19th, 2016, at Professor Chomsky’s office at MIT. Here is the Q&A. chomsky christine simone

Chun: Do you feel that there will be any significant change in the foreign policy of the United States after President Obama?

Chomsky: If Republicans are elected, there could be major changes that will be awful. I have never seen such lunatics in the political system. For instance, Ted Cruz’s response to terrorism is to carpet-bomb everyone.

Chun: Would you expect that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would be different from President Obama’s?

Chomsky: Judging by the record, she is kind of hawkish—much more militant than the centrist democrats, including Obama. Take for instance Libya: she was the one pressing the hardest for bombing, and look at what happened. They not only destroyed the country, but Libya has become the center for jihad all over Africa and the Middle East.  It’s a total disaster in every respect, but it does not matter.  Look at the so-called global war on terror. It started in 15 years ago with a small cell in a tribal sector in Afghanistan.  Now it is all over, and you can understand why. It’s about comparative advantage of force.

petitionsChun: How about Bernie Sanders–what do you think his foreign policy will be?

Chomsky: He is doing a lot better than I expected, but he doesn’t have much to say about foreign policy. He is a kind of New Deal Democrat and focuses primarily on domestic issues.

Chun: Some people in South Korea speculate that if Bernie Sanders gets elected, he may take a non-interventionist position towards foreign policy, which would then give more power to South Korea’s right-wing government.

Chomsky: The dynamics could be different. His emphasis on domestic policy might require an aggressive foreign policy. In order to shore up support for domestic policies, he may be forced to attack somebody weak.

Chun: Do you believe that Americans would support another war?

Chomsky: The public is easily amenable to lies: the more lies there are, the greater the support for war. For instance, when the public was told that Saddam Hussein would attack the U.S., this increased support for the war.

Chun: Do you mean that the media fuels lies?

Chomsky: The media is uncritical, and their so-called the concept of objectivity translates into keeping everything within the Beltway. However, Iraq was quite different. Here, there were flat-out lies, and they sort of knew it. They were desperately trying to make connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.

Chun: Do you think that the Iran nuclear deal is a good thing?

Chomsky: I don’t think that any deal was needed: Iran was not a threat. Even if Iran were a threat, there was a very easy way to handle it–by establishing a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which is something that nearly everyone in the world wants. Iran has been calling for it for years, and the Arab countries support it. Everyone except the United States and Israel support it. The U.S. won’t allow it because it means inspecting Israel’s nuclear weapons. The U.S. has continued to block it, and in fact blocked it again just a couple of days ago; it just wasn’t widely reported. Iran’s nuclear program, as U.S. intelligence points out, is deterrent, and the bottom line is that the U.S. and Israel don’t want Iran to have a deterrent. In any case, it is better to have some deal than no deal, but it’s interesting that Obama picked the day of implementing of Iran deal to impose new sanctions on North Korea.

Chun: And do you think that the same can be said about North Korea?

Chomsky: You can understand why. If North Korea doesn’t have a deterrent, they will be wiped out.

Chun: What is the most constructive way to address the nuclear issue in the Korean peninsula?

Chomsky: In 2005, there was a very sensible deal between the U.S. and North Korea. This deal would have settled North Korea’s so-called nuclear threat, but was subsequently undermined by George W. Bush, who attacked North Korean banks in Macau and blocked the North’s access to outside the world.

Chun:  Why does the United States undermine efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea?

Chomsky: I don’t think that the United States cares. They just assume that North Korea will soon have nuclear weapons.

Chun: Can you elaborate?

Chomsky: If you look at the record, the United States has done very little to stop nuclear weapons. As soon as George W. Bush was elected, he did everything to encourage North Korea to act aggressively.  In 2005 we were close to a deal, but North Korea has always been a low priority issue for the United States. In fact, look at the entire nuclear weapons strategy of the United States: from the beginning, in the 1950s, the United States didn’t worry much about a nuclear threat. It would have been possible to enter into a treaty with the one potential threat—the Soviet Union—and block development of these weapons. At that time, the Russians were way behind technologically, and Stalin wanted a peace deal, but the U.S. didn’t want to hear the USSR’s offer. The implication is that the U.S. is ready to have a terminal war at any time.

Chun: What do you think about U.S. “Pivot to Asia” policy?

Chomsky: It is aimed at China. China is already surrounded by hostile powers such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Guam, but the United States wants to build up more tension. For example, few days ago, a B-52 nuclear bomber flew within a couple of miles of China.  It is very provocative. Nuclear war ends everything, but the United States always plays with fire.

Chun: What do you think about Japan? Do you think Japan is remilitarizing, and if so, does this pose a threat to the region and the world?

Chomsky: Yes, Japan is trying very hard, but it is not certain that it will succeed. Take for instance Okinawa. There is no actual military purpose, but the United States insists on maintaining a base there.

Chun: As you know, part of my work centers on supporting individual activists in South Korea who do not tend to receive media attention.  Your statements of solidarity in support of them enable them to receive much-needed attention by the Korean media.  It has been very effective.

Chomsky: I hope that my support has been helpful. Is there any hope or mood in Korea in support of Sunshine Policy?

Chun: It is difficult due to the incumbent right-wing government.

Chomsky: How about South Korean public opinion?

Chun: As you know, successive conservative governments have obstructed engagement with the North, and this has greatly deflated the public mood on the matter. Opposition parties remain divided and ineffective, and the current government exercises tight control over the media and represses any activists who would express criticism. South Korea appears to be heading back to the authoritarianism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Chomsky: Part of the reason why the United States doesn’t care about North Korea is that the North Korean threat provides justification for the right-wing conservative regime in the South.

Chun: Yes, many people argue that the biggest obstacle in dealing with North Korea is South Korean right-wing politics.

Chomsky: Relaxation with North Korea would mean conservatives losing power in the South. That’s why, for instance, we have to keep the war on terrorism.

Chun: Professor Chomsky, thank you again for your time and your support.

 

 

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Zounds! US military contracting is up! Way up!

Screenshot 2016-02-24 16.32.42That’s the word yesterday from Defense Onea military publication that’s itself funded by Honeywell and other big defense contractors.

The number of private contractors working for the U.S. Defense Department in Iraq grew eight-fold over the past year, a rate that far outpaces the growing number of American troops training and advising Iraqi soldiers battling Islamic State militants.

The sharp increase, disclosed in a recent Pentagon report to Congress, underscores the military’s reliance on civilians even for missions with relatively small troop presence.

“If you look at the size and the composition of the forces that have been deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, that’s changed markedly in the past year,” said Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. and a retired Army officer.

As of January, 2,028 contractors were in Iraq, up from just 250 one year earlier, according to the Pentagon’s data. There are roughly 3,700 American troops there now, compared to 2,300 in January 2015.

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This is all according to a report to the Pentagon from the Central Command that’s supposed to improve “DoD efforts to improve management of contractors accompanying U.S. forces.” As Defense One points out,

That number of military contractors represents just a fraction of the contractors employed by the U.S. in Iraq. In addition to the 2,028 Pentagon contractors, another 5,800 are employed by other agencies, including the State Department.

But as you can see from this chart in the report, less than half of the contractors are U.S. citizens. The rest are from the host countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, or other nations.

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 Also interesting is the breakdown by mission category. As you can see, the vast majority of contractor jobs are for maintenance.
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If you’re a reader of this blog or my posts at The Nation, you already know that Obama’s wars are being increasingly fought by contractors and, in some cases, mercenaries. You also know that it’s a highly dangerous occupation, as the recent kidnapping of three U.S. contractors working as military trainers for General Dynamics in Iraq shows (that case has yet to be unresolved, and the three are presumably still being held). Here’s some of my recent posts on this phenomenon, from The Nation and Salon:

 

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