John Price: Give peace a chance!

A UVic historian explains why western atrocities during the Korean War will influence Asian perceptions about the Vancouver Summit

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      By John Price

      Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump may deserve one another, I’m not sure.

      Of one thing I am certain—the peoples of the Korean peninsula deserve better than to be threatened with further sanctions or military intervention by the likes of Canada or the United States.

      The Vancouver Summit, convened by Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freland and Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, brings together foreign ministers of a number of states with the ostensible goal to toughen sanctions against the North in retaliation for its development of nuclear weapons.

      Some pundits even claim the Vancouver Summit is really about restraining Trump’s penchant for nuclear threats, and is an object lesson in the benefits of multilateralism.


      At a moment when people the world over seethe in response to Trump’s racist discussion of "shitholes", Justin Trudeau’s government is in bed with his regime, fostering its imperial goals. Or perhaps the government is just sacrificing Korea on the altar of expediency in an attempt to prove it is Donald’s best friend, and won’t he please continue NAFTA?

      Convening a summit that brings together the countries that fought in the Korean War is a warlike gesture, a vengeful reminder of the death and destruction of that era, one from which the wounds have yet to heal.

      Many of the scholars and activists I have worked with in South Korea consider that the war on the peninsula was not an international war but a civil one, brutally exacerbated and made insoluble by foreign intervention and racism.

      A young journalist in Korea at the time, the late Pierre Berton, recalled “moving back up the peninsula through villages roasted by our napalm and cities crumbled by our shells.”

      Racism, he reported, was rampant: “I have some vivid memories of Korea and many of them I wish I could forget. There is the memory of the old Korean who stumbled unloading a crate from a C-54 in Pusan, and the little pipsqueak of a GI private who seized him by the faded coat lapels and shouted in his face: 'You sonofabitch if you do that again I’ll punch you in the nose!' There is the memory of the wretched young man with his feet half eaten away, dying of gangrene and refused medical assistance by a succession of MOs because he was a Korean and didn’t count. There is the memory of the Canadian private who emptied his Bren gun into a Korean grave and the memory of the GI in the bus at Pusan who shouted loudly at a comrade about how much he hated the gooks and the look on the face of the Korean bus driver who overheard him.”

      Pablo Picasso expressed his horror at the atrocities in Korea in his 1951 painting Massacre in Korea. It hangs in the Musée National Picasso in Paris.

      Prejudice combined with the power of machine guns and bombers created a toxic mix. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Bridge at No Gun Ri, revealed how American forces strafed refugees during the war with devastating results. The American ambassador, John Muccio, stated clearly: “If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot.”

      In November 1950, the US-led forces began "fire-bombing" cities and villages, MacArthur instructing his pilots to “destroy every means of communication and every installation, factory, city and village in North Korea”.

      The indiscriminate bombing and first extensive use of napalm led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians. Air Force General Curtis LeMay recalled: “We burned down just about every city in the North and South Korea both—we killed off over a million civilian Koreans and drove several million more from their homes.”

      Reports on the gruesome deaths caused by these bombings led the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Hume Wrong, to conclude: “Nearly all Koreans, North and South, must now rue the day on which they became the victims of collective security.”

      Among their final acts, the UN-sanctioned forces bombed irrigation dams in North Korea, hoping to starve the Korean people. Nuclear bombs were shipped to Okinawa for use in the war and dummy nuclear bombs were deployed in the field. And for what?

      To defend a regime run by Syngman Rhee? Lester Pearson himself would later reflect, “Rhee’s government was just as dictatorial as the one in the North, just as totalitarian. Indeed, it was more so in some ways, based as it was on Rhee’s strong personal appeal as leader in exile for many years.”

      Through mechanisms such as the South’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, steps to heal the wounds have been made. And, left to themselves, there is every likelihood the North and South could make progress toward reunification.

      All sides committed atrocities during the war. Thousands gathered to commemorate victims of the war crimes on Jeju Island, 2004
      J. Price

      Instead of convening sabre-rattling parties to menace the Korean people or providing a liberal mantle for Trump’s racist tyranny, the Trudeau government might want to take a step back.

      Rather than listen to Chrystia Freeland and officials at Global Affairs Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau might want to listen to his father’s voice from an earlier era. Working in the Privy Council in 1950, Pierre Trudeau argued against participation in the Korean War. When Pearson ignored the many who advised against participation he remarked: “I’ve just heard Pearson’s speech on Korea in the House. Not a single original thought.”

      Canada has little to offer Korea. In fact it has much to atone for. Many Canadian soldiers committed serious war crimes during the Korean War, including rape and murder. Some were tried and found guilty of war crimes but in every instance military officials allowed the perpetrators to walk free. One Canadian historian described this record of remission and release as a travesty of justice and “another example of the institutional racism that seems to have permeated the upper echelons of the Department of National Defence”.

      Rather than lecturing Koreans, the Trudeau government might turn its mind to its own past and make amends to the Korean families who suffered from war crimes at the hands of Canadians soldiers.