Bluster and North Korea

Nobody would be worried about missiles fired from North Korea if the Yalta Conference of February 1945 had turned out differently.

The Yalta Conference was the second of three meetings involving the heads of state of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin had met in Tehran, Iran, in 1943. All three also attended the Yalta Conference on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. The third meeting, held in Potsdam, Germany, also included Stalin, but Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S Truman. Churchill was still alive, but Clement Attlee had displaced Churchill as Prime Minister.

These meetings had two purposes. They helped the allied governments cooperate in their war against the Axis powers, and they also helped those governments plan for the post-war era. For example, as the United States and the United Kingdom planned their D-Day invasion, they were able to persuade Stalin in Tehran to launch an invasion of German-held territory at about the same time to pin German troops on the eastern front. The partition of Germany following the war was also determined at these conferences.

Probably the most important agreement made in Yalta was that each of the allied powers would set up governments in the lands that they captured from the Axis. Aside from eastern Germany, the Soviet Union also formed governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary at the end of the war. Churchill and Roosevelt had insisted that free elections be held-especially in Poland-and Stalin promised that such elections would be held. Instead, all those countries were placed under governments following the Soviet system, and they remained under Communist Party rule until 1989.

Stalin also promised that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan roughly three months after the surrender of Germany. This promise he kept. In the beginning of August, Soviet troops entered Korea and began battling the Japanese forces occupying the country. This Soviet invasion factored into President Truman’s decision to rush the end of the war by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, although his fear of the loss of life that would be caused by a conventional invasion of Japan was a larger concern. When Japan surrendered, Soviet forces had captured the northern half of Korea, and they invoked the Yalta agreement to create a Soviet-sponsored government there as well. Roosevelt and Churchill had never intended Korea to be divided, but Truman and Attlee were not about to concede all of Korea to the Communists. Korea was split into two countries, and today it remains two countries under separate governments.

North Korea is the only Communist nation to be ruled by a single dynasty. Three generations of the Kim family have ruled North Korea since 1945. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, setting off a three-year war which would later spawn an eleven-year television show called MASH. The United Nations condemned the invasion. Soviet representatives in the UN were absent that day, so they failed to veto the UN’s decision to send troops to support South Korea. (This is generally offered as proof that Kim and North Korea were invading on their own and not under instructions from the Soviet Union.) When the UN forces prevailed against the North Korean army, Chairman Mao sent reinforcements from the Peoples Republic of China, and the war became a stalemate that was settled by treaty in 1953, leaving things much as they had been before 1950.

The division of Korea became an interesting test case for different economic beliefs. With the support of the United States, South Korea built a capitalist economy, while North Korea built a socialist economy inspired by that of the Soviet Union. South Korea has blossomed into an economic power, while North Korea has remained stagnant economically. The government of North Korea has invested heavily in military equipment, including atomic weaponry and missile technology. With little opportunity to boast about anything else, the North Korean government regularly reminds the world of its power. The United States in particular has responded to these reminders with its own reminders of American military power.

I teach history classes. I am more qualified to discuss the past than to predict the future. I can say with confidence, though, that governments like those in North Korea and Cuba are doomed to failure sooner or later. No matter how hard they try, despots can only fool their people for a while. News of what people in other countries possess leads to discontent and a desire for change. At some point the mistakes made at the Yalta Conference will be upended and freedom will prevail, even in North Korea. J.

 

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