Introduction by Clifford Hague
Editor’s note: Thank you to Clifford Hague for composing the introduction to Donald Gibbs, Ph.D and for his efforts to have him compose this informational article. As most readers are aware, North Korea and the United States are on the verge of a historic meeting. This article will provide insights and educational background in light of the continued dialogue.
On May 16, Avalon Rotary had a distinguished guest speaker, former Harvard and University of California Professor, Dr. Donald Gibbs.
Gibbs served in military intelligence during the Korean War, stationed on the front lines and even north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea itself. He then had a career as an Asian language and cultural specialist, living in a number of countries in East Asia, serving as Ambassador of the University of California in China, writing books and articles, and leading cultural exchange programs, all in addition to his other professorial responsibilities.
After retiring, Gibbs and his wife Loretta, born in Shanghai, have continued their involvement in Asian art, culture, history, and public education.
The Gibbs, who currently live in San Francisco, journeyed to Catalina to visit friends, attend the Catalina Island Museum’s Silent Film Benefit, and to dance the night away at the Avalon Ball.
Professor Gibbs’s spoke to a mesmerized audience at a special Rotary meeting held at the Tuna Club. Many Rotarians suggested that his insightful talk be published in the Catalina Islander, so here it is:
“Will North Korea De-Nuclearize?”
“The past is still our best guide to the future. So, what does North Korea’s past tell us?
By Donald Gibbs, Ph.D
North Korea invaded South Korea beginning two and a half years of war that cost 36,000 American lives, and an estimated 1.5 million civilian lives. After signing an armistice agreement, North Korea in peacetime fired on South Korean naval vessels and in one case sank one by torpedo, killing 41 sailors. In 1983 When the president and cabinet of South Korea met with South East Asian leaders in Rangoon, North Korea sent assassins who planted a bomb that killed 21 diplomats, including two cabinet members, and injured another 41, just narrowly missing the president of South Korea.
North Korea tried again by sending infiltrators south to attack the South Korean equivalent of our White House. In both cases the perpetrators were caught and confessed so there is no doubt about their connection to North Korea.
A short list of North Korea’s behavior would include submarines used to kidnap Japanese citizens right off the sidewalks of beach towns in Japan, including one young student on her way home from school; in North Korea they were enslaved as language teachers. In 1994 while North Korean resources poured into military hardware, the worst famine in Korean history killed over a million people. Some say a million and a half died. Even today malnutrition is stunting children, according to United Nations sources, both physically and mentally, while money is still lavished on missiles, nuclear bombs, and the regime’s elites.
When the number two leader defected to the West some years ago, 2,000 of his friends, neighbors and members of his family were executed. His sister jumped off a bridge for fear of what kind of death the regime would put her through.
Seriously folks, how likely is it that North Korea under the dynastic leadership of the Kim family will change? Did any of the 20th century dictators change so long as they were in power? Franco, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini? Those countries did change, but not until those particular leaders were dead. The historical record of these and many other dictatorships tells us their nations don’t change until the leaders are dead.
Where did this dreadful
regime come from?
The atomic bomb project was secret, so when it ended World War II so suddenly, there had been no planning for the war’s end. There were tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers all over Asia and all of them had weapons. To disarm them immediately, the Nationalist army in China was assigned the heartland of China, Russia was assigned the Northeast and the US disarmed the Japanese in the Philippines and Korea. It was then decided that in the interest of time and manpower, Russia could also disarm the northern half of the Korean peninsula and the US the southern half. It was a hasty and fateful decision that hit upon the 38th parallel as the marker, a decision that was meant to be temporary. The Russians and Americans agreed that after one year there would be an election for all Koreans to decide on a new government.
The Russians broke the agreement and established a tight border that has separated North and South for over seventy years. A democratic election was held in the South, but the Russians had other plans. The logical individuals to lead North Korea were the guerrilla fighters who were national heroes in their resistance to Japan’s occupation, and many of them were conveniently in jail, put there by the Japanese. The Russians slaughtered them all and installed a Stalinist regime featuring assassinations, labor camps, a personality cult, myths, purges and propaganda. The patriots were removed because they had no loyalty to Russia; instead, they pushed into office Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader…a man who was poorly educated, not very smart, who spoke Russian better than Korean and who had spent most of his life outside Korea. His Korean was so bad others had to write for him. But, he owed everything to his Russian masters. As a puppet, he suited Soviet Russia’s purposes perfectly. Myths of his divine birth, marked by celestial phenomena, myths of his “heroic” role in defeating the Japanese and unrelenting propaganda cemented this first Kim’s place as the Dear Leader and national savior. It is a basic principle that if all information that reaches a population is controlled by the government, a population can be made to believe anything. Ask any North Korean and you will be told that the current leader hit five holes-in-one the first time he played golf.
An American team of ophthalmologists performed a phenomenal number of cataract surgeries in a single day as a gift to North Koreans. As the patients rose from the operating table with their newly restored vision, they rushed to the portrait of Kim to bow and thank him rather than the surgeons for their gift of sight.
In the South, after supervising democratic elections, the Americans withdrew all but a very small contingent of its forces. Later, to forestall an invasion of Taiwan by Communist China, the US drew a red line to geographically declare its areas of national interest…areas it would fight to defend. Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines of course were within the protected area. Inadvertently, or perhaps ignorantly, South Korea was omitted. Kim, eager to become known as the Great Uniter, interpreted that omission and also the withdrawal of all but a token US force as an indication South Korea was his for the taking, and so he invaded the South. Caught by surprise, the US returned in force and the Korean War (1950-53) began. North Korea was leveled through unrelenting and savage attacks by B-29 bombers on civilian targets, something that North Koreans today have deeply inscribed in their collective memories as an atrocity. One myth in North Korea is that America is poised and eager to do this again and the onslaught is imminent; so goes the propaganda.
Tyranny by proximity
Today, military force cannot be brought to bear on North Korea because there are 500 SCUD missiles that can hit any target in South Korea with only minutes warning. There are 10,600 artillery pieces, all aimed at Seoul, just 30 miles south of the border, as well as 200 multiple rocket launchers in hardened underground shelters, all ready to fire. Up to 500,000 rounds per hour can be launched against Seoul without moving a single piece of equipment.
Just one battery of rockets can deliver roughly one ton of chemical weapons. North Korea has 12 factories that can produce 4,500 tons of toxic chemical weapons a year, and there would be no counter against even a single rocket loaded with biological weaponry, which the regime also possesses.
Over 50,000 South Koreans would die in the first minute of war, and countless more over the days that followed. All bloviating aside, a preemptive military strike is not a practical option.
North Korea’s record
If the US administration should reach an agreement with North Korea, what would it be worth? I have mentioned that after signing an armistice, North Korea not only launched peacetime attacks on South Korean naval vessels, its artillery opened fire on a South Korean village destroying homes and unapologetically killing innocent civilians all without provocation. The regime blew up a South Korean airliner in 1987 killing 195. One of the bombers was caught and confessed, pinning the attack on Kim Il Sung himself. The new blue-colored hundred dollar bills introduced in the US in recent years are a response to North Korea flooding the world with counterfeits.
The Kim family, grandfather, father and the current leader, the grandson, all have preferred illegal activities for gaining foreign exchange because the money comes without strings, unlike foreign aid. Foreign dollars are used to acquire luxury goods that are used to buy loyalty from the elite close to the leader.
There are currently more than 130,000 political prisoners in North Korea, treated worse than slaves.
Does this latest Kim, the grandson of the founding Kim hold promise of change as some seem to believe? Again, the record is not promising: he murdered his uncle and not with the dignity of a firing squad but by disintegrating him with massive artillery fire, and more recently he ordered his half-brother murdered in public on foreign soil with toxic lotion.
What does Kim Jong Un seek from a summit meeting with President Trump? He wants to be seen as a world leader. I believe he feels he already has gained that. As for Trump, he wants to be regarded as the president who ended the Korean War (an armistice was signed in 1953 but that is a truce, not an official end to the war). Trump seeks a place in history as the one person who resolved the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
But it is hard to believe that anyone should really expect North Korea to discard the nuclear arms that it regards as its shield against regime change. Moreover, when Trump tore up the Iran agreements what did that tell Kim and the world about the value of our promises? What was the lesson Kim surely learned from the gruesome public assassination of Gaddafi following his dismantling of Libya’s nuclear program?
China was once like North Korea, sealed against the outside and militantly controlled inside. When there was a slight opening, the Chinese people asked, “Why are the communist countries the poorest and the capitalist the richest?” a question that led to more opening and eventually capitalist development that is making China so prosperous today. Why hasn’t North Korea done the same? If North Korea were to open up, the preposterous myths promulgated by the present regime would be seen as just that, and Kim’s government could lose credibility, and possibly be forced from power.
China is nervous about the unstable North Korean leader and China definitely favors a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. Perhaps the two recent meetings between China’s leader and the young Kim were to assure Kim that China, too, had its lies and myths, but it survived an opening up in order to develop the economy.
Partnering with the US, China could be a strong ally to influence North Korea toward peaceful development. China has an eye on North Korea’s mineral resources. A stable society with a sustainable economy is in China’s interests. The record, however, does not suggest that any influence by China will be greater than the destructive impulses of this youngest member of the Kim family. I have to conclude that prospects for disarming North Korea by a sit-down with President Trump are not good. However, I also have to say that those of us who specialize in the study of Asia are like seismologists; we can’t predict the future but after something happens we can certainly tell you all about it.”