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On power and Koreans' American fear

  • 04 November 2019


Anyone interested in social justice knows that structures and systems, while necessary, can bolster the worst tendencies of human nature, can incubate 'social sin'. Korea: Where the American Century Began by Michael Pembroke presents an appalling case study of this undesired outcome. Pembroke is a judge of the NSW Supreme Court. His book is well researched and calmly argued.

Korean friends, when asked if they live in fear of North Korea, almost always say 'we fear America more'. Despite the US bases there, that has seemed a bit of an overstatement. Now I understand their response.

The book explains the establishment of the 38th Parallel, and works through the years of the Korean war (1951-53). It covers the planning and actions of top US political, intelligence and military figures as well as field commanders.

The story documents US duplicity in dealing with the United Nations and other allied nations, their total lack of moral compass in the treatment of Koreans, and readiness to obliterate the North Korean civilian population rather than reconsider the assumptions that underlie their decisions.

This period initiates the symbiosis between corporations and military which has seen the spending on arms, military might, and experiments with nuclear, napalm, biological and other forms of warfare, skyrocket. Pembroke articulates the dystopic reality of North Korea, but shows why North Korea is not prepared to trust American promises or surrender to American threats. His book provides some understanding of current moves by Korean leaders of both North and South and gives a clear warning to countries tempted to follow US leadership into war.

Korea is a case study of how people, working within a structure where certain assumptions are shared and the goal is unquestioned, can chose to act in ways they condemn in others. Since the Korean war follows so closely on the Nuremburg trials, this point is patently obvious. In 1951, principles which underpin the United Nations and the Geneva Convention, which had been closely argued and agreed to in 1949, carried no weight. Fear of any way that was 'other', and a hubris that believed their way was right, meant that any means were legitimate to enforce it. Inability to learn from experience is entrenched in any ideology.

But of course, this is not just about America in the Korean war, or its continuing blindness in the many covert or non-covert interventions in other nations' fortunes since then.


"Lack of transparency, fear of criticism,