On power and Koreans' American fear



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.

Korea, where the American century began by Michael PembrokeKorean 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, and being powerful enough to get away with it are factors in every case. Such thinking creates a vortex which consumes all principles."


Think of the Australian government's current policy which keeps asylum seekers in a virtual concentration camp on Manus Island and prevents those on the mainland from taking up useful lives; think of the bank officials exposed by the royal commission on banking; think of the churches and other organisations exposed by the royal commission on abuse of minors.

The government uses fear to 'justify' destroying people under the guise of protecting citizens; the banks were simply following their star of financial gain, regardless of where it led; the Catholic church allowed an outmoded theology of ordination to protect abusers and sought to ensure no dirty linen was aired in public.

From within the safe confines of any small coterie in power, decisions are made without anyone speaking for those affected by the decision. Lack of transparency, fear of criticism, and being powerful enough to get away with it are factors in every case. Such thinking creates a vortex which consumes all principles.

The current Synod on the Amazon in Rome has consciously chosen an alternative means: listening to those who have been oppressed by political, religious and economic colonisation. It is meeting resistance from the few who have most to lose, but has much to offer in process and outcome. Its process, while needing further development, suggests a move that others can follow: listening attentively opens the possibility to change.

For me this book is a call to examine our own assumptions on what is right, on how one uses whatever power one has, and for whom it is used. It challenges whether the end can ever justify the means.



Christine BurkeChristine Burke is an Australian Loreto/IBVM sister, whose main background has been in Theological education, especially working with members of the local church in the Adelaide Archdiocese. She brings a feminist critique to her engagement with church and a concern to make stronger links between faith and life.

Topic tags: Christine Burke, Korea, United States



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Existing comments

Thank you. well written and interesting
joe Sicher | 06 November 2019

Towards the end of Pembroke's book, the author sadly exposed his naive belligerence referring to the current Premier of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea as a 'brutal dictator'. I guess to show that he still is a western liberal and that does not support socialism.
STEPHEN ALLEN | 06 November 2019

Thank you for a very interesting and timely article Sister Christine Burke. I can fully understand why Koreans fear the actions of the US more than those of North Korea. We only have to look at history: * the number of nuclear weapons held: North Korea - 20 to 30 US - 4018 * the number of nuclear weapons dropped on civilian populations: North Korea - None US - 2 * the number of democratic governments overthrown since WW2: Korea - 0 US: many * the number of wars started since WW2: North Korea - 0 or 1 US: numerous [Many claim that North Korea started the Korean War, but others claim that the divisions between North and South Korea came about because of US interference in Korean politics] Having made these observations, I certainly would not like to live in North Korea, but I would not want to live in the US either. Both nations have very strange leaders!
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 06 November 2019

Great Work, Christine! Thanks for the analysis and bringing it to our attention. It goes without saying that both Koreas also fear Japan, the US's biggest stooge and their historic oppressor in their geovicinity
Michael Furtado | 07 November 2019


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