North Korea: The history behind the hostility

On Tuesday, Jan. 31, the History Department and the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics sponsored the lecture “North Korea and the World: Retrospect and Prospect” in which Dr. Donald N. Clark discussed the country that many U.S. citizens, he claimed, tend to “think ill of, and don’t know why.” Blanchard 339 was packed with students, faculty and local community members interested in discovering the history behind the hostility.
The lecture aimed to explore the tense relationship between North Korea and the U.S., especially in light of North Korea’s recent threat to test intercontinental ballistic missiles and anxiety over how North Korea will respond to the new American presidential
Dr. Clark is a retiring professor of East Asian history at Trinity University in San Antonio, and currently works with humanitarian organizations in North Korea treating tuberculosis and other life-threatening diseases. His interest in North Korea began as a young child living with his parents in North Korea as Presbyterian missionaries, and his passion for East Asian studies has continued throughout his life.
Dr. Clark began the lecture with an explanation of North Korean social and political culture throughout history and their effect on present day. Unlike the U.S., North Korea’s political culture was founded on a monarchy, and the ideals of a natural social hierarchy are “deeply part of the DNA of the Korean people.” These ideas of a social hierarchy decided at birth are still ingrained in the culture with the “Songbun social system,” which splits North Korean society into three main classes that determine what privileges they receive from the political system.
At the very top of society is Chairman Kim Jong Un. Dr. Clark remarked that Western media presents him in a satirical manner, expecting him to be a tool of the military and party, “But he’s not. He has total control … serious people don’t belittle him.”
But how did North Korea become North Korea? According to Dr. Clark, there are two main ordeals that “shaped everything we know about the Korean people.” The first was Japanese colonization from 1910-1945. Under 35 years of Japanese rule, there was “no one with a right to dissent or oppose” Japan. After Japan’s defeat in World War II and withdrawal from Korea, a new kind of ordeal began: occupation. Leaders of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. “were sent to the basement with a national geographic map and asked to come back in 30 minutes with a plan for the Japanese empire.” And so Korea “became part of two worlds,” splitting at the 38th parallel, and the power struggle between them began.
So how afraid of North Korea should we be? “Does anyone even remember what we’re mad about?” asked Dr. Clark. What the U.S. is really worried about are the nuclear missiles that could reach Chicago. If the armistice between the two countries failed, “three million would die in the first 24 hours, including 30,000 Americans … There are a huge number of lives at stake.” In fact, North Korea “just announced to Donald Trump that they are on the brink of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which is where we are today … how will the Trump react to that?”
The question and answer portion focused on the current relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. When discussing if North Korea is actually dangerous, Dr. Clark explained that what North Korea really wants is to be treated as a normal country and to be recognized by the U.S., as well as a lift of international sanctions that cause suffering within their country. “The best thing that could possibly happen would be more contact with the N.K. … the revolution will start if the information is let in.” In response to a question about his own personal experiences in North Korea, Dr. Clark explained that living among the people taught him “the common humanity of North Korea; what do we have against 13-year-olds trying to go to school?”

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