Korea: Where the American Century Began ~ By Michael Pembroke
(One World Publications, London, 2020, ISBN #978-1-7860-7661-8)
Review by Bill Drucker (Spring 2023)
Australian author and historian Michael Pembroke takes a revisionist view of the conflicted history between the U.S. and North Korea in this historical policy analysis. Pembroke contends that, “Few people, and even fewer Americans, know the true story of Korean War; few understand the reasons for North Korean hostility toward the United States; and few acknowledge any historical responsibility for the current impasse.”
The author points out that, since President Harry Truman, issues with North Korea have evolved to be seemingly more contentious and insoluble with nearly every successive president. The hard-won armistice that halted the Korean War in 1953 never was parlayed into a permanent peace treaty. Instead, the halted Korean War escalated to be a Cold War showdown in which the ideologies of Western democracy and Eastern communism took center stage.
Recent history has showed that on the diplomatic front, relations with North Korea seem to have gone from bad to worse. President Trump’s mistimed speech at the September 19, 2017 UN General Assembly allowed that one option of solving the diplomatic crisis with North Korea might be to bomb and kill a nation of 25 million people. This rash remark, apart from its being its own diplomatic bomb, directly contradicts the UN Charter. Trumps public ridicule of North Korean leader Jong Un Kim as the “Little Rocket Man” was as bad as George W. Bush calling the current North Korean leader’s father “that loathsome pygmy.”
In the post-Korean War era, the Cold War standoff was a continuation of what happened during the war, when Korea was politically and militarily sidelined as U.S. and NATO nations took one side, and Russia and China took the other. As the war went badly, U.S. military leadership discussed nuclear options with the president.
The author tracks the issue up to the modern day, with the U.S. making no progress with North Korea on denuclearization, and dealing with the country by making military threats and imposing economic sanctions. From Pembroke’s perspective, the U.S. policy is misdirected. Iran, India and Pakistan are all nuclear countries and pose existential threats of their own. In his view, escalating hostilities are due to misguided diplomacy, which has made new diplomatic in-roads difficult to achieve.
The U.S. policy on North Korea remains unresolved, and militarily tense for the entire Northeast Asia region. These countries have politically and militarily been interrelated since the 1900s, and the continuing instability is a joint concern.
In modern history, U.S. has intervened and occupied the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China. It is a fact that the U.S. since WWII has acted like a neo-Imperialist and military global power, and it is understandable that these actions have been seen as extreme by those countries and others with a stake in this region.
Pembroke has done his research, and critically analyzes the facts and reasons behind these historical events. The author’s analysis of the “why” of past actions is the most interesting.
U.S. experts have predicted that North Korea would collapse under its own delusional hubris. However, North Korea has survived despite starvation taking a million lives, and despite severe Western sanctions that have crippled its economy. In this environment, North Korea’s nuclear technology has also advanced. How were Western analysts so far off the mark?
The author discusses how North Korea and the U.S. are the major actors in the unfinished Korean War, with Russia, China, South Korea and Japan as secondary participants, and the United Nations a distant third.
Pembroke sees the U.S. as a failing to make any constructive policy around this struggle. Long U.S. military campaigns in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan have been costly to the countries in lives lost and other long-term post-war negative consequences. American hubris, global interventionism, and the hawking of democracy, Christianity, and capitalism are either ineffective or work negatively with Asian nations. The author argues that the U.S. has been no global peacekeeper and has not saved the countries it has invaded from military and economic consequences of Communist antagonists.
The author discusses the experiences of U.S. presidents with both Koreas, and how none have been diplomatic success stories. For example, President Jimmy Carter went to South Korea, ostensibly to discuss flagrant human rights violations with South Korean President Chung Hee Park. Carter threatened to withdraw the 10,000 U.S. troops from South Korea, and Park reportedly dared him to do so, causing Carter to back down. He also writes that, in more recent times, President Donald Trump had two eventful meetings with North Korean leader Jong Un Kim, but any positive gains in diplomacy that may have resulted, have quickly dissolved.
Pembroke’s analysis is authoritative on topics not usually voiced by Western experts. Sharply critical of U.S. culpability in continued Korean policy bungling, Pembroke points to how much of the tension is related to U.S. unilateral policies toward North Korea. U.S. confrontational policies with North Korea also irk the South Korean government, because they exclude South Korea from policymaking in its own region.
There have been periods of high anti-American sentiment in South Korea, related to U.S. military operations and its dismissal of South Korea as a stakeholder. For example, in 2010, North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, in an area of disputed international waters, which resulted in military and civilian casualties. President Myung-bak Lee saw it as a “clear act of provocation.” The U.S. stepped in, ostensibly to defuse the situation, or, as interpreted by some critics, to commandeer the crisis from South Korea.
After 70 years, the 1953 armistice agreement remains, without a viable trajectory toward a peace treaty. The U.S. military does its drills in the coastal waters, despite loud objections from North Korea. Every Northeast Asian country has upped its military defenses in response to an increased threat from the instability. The two adversaries remain locked in their inflexible mindsets, and there is little diplomatic hope on the horizon.
Pembroke is a scholar, historian, naturalist, and judge with the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia (since 2010). His father was a British infantry platoon commander during the Korean War, which may have influenced the author to research this complex topic.