Sunday, July 03, 2011

Gaipiligro i Taitiningo'

I receive regular updates about news on the Korean peninsula from a group called the Korea Policy Institute. The description from their website is as follows:

The Korea Policy Institute is an independent research and educational institute whose mission is to provide timely analysis of United States policies toward Korea and developments on the Korean peninsula.
If you would like to receive their emails and updates you can easily sign up. You can also donate to support them by clicking here.

After traveling to South Korea last year, I keep up with news there about places that I visited and people that I met. One reason I appreciated visiting there was the way it helped deepen my understanding not just about South Korea itself, but about the larger network of US bases in the Asia-Pacific region. From Guam you know the US has bases all over the place, but you think about that network and much of the world through those bases and not through the countries that "host" them. Although Chamorros are hardly thought of as being a cosmopolitan people, that network of bases actually gives them the chance to be so. By serving in the military Chamorros can end up traveling to almost every corner of the globe, although much of their global interactions are minimal since overseas bases have become increasingly self-contained in order to minimize the chance for problems to arise between civilians and the military and for those stationed there to lose morale for being so far away from what is home or what is familiar.

So for most Chamorros, bases in other places such as South Korea are known, but not really known. Even if you spent years there, the place can remain very abstract, as so many of your experiences are mitigated through areas meant to cater to you, whether the base towns around bases or the base towns within bases.

My relationship to the bases in South Korea was very abstract. I knew they existed. I knew that there were protests and problems there. I knew that sexual crime was a huge problem, and that they played a huge role in giving South Korea the sense that it could be aggressive with North Korea. But I really didn't grasp too much of the history or the dynamics there. It was for me just another dot on the map of bases that the US has in other people's backyards.

When I went there, things changed quite a bit. I saw the similarities with Guam, I saw the differences. It was a good awakening in terms of how you relate to the place you assume are part of the chains of equivalences that feed your ideology. How much do you actually know about the things which you base yourself as a political person upon? There are signifiers, public references which we all use to position ourselves as a person. Each signifier can be interpreted in different ways, but the way they are shared give us ideological identities. So for example, me being someone who is against US militarism around the world, there is a collection of names I always have floating around my head, which are sometimes countries, colonies, the names of bases, but are all a part of that network of bases which give US power global reach and global projection. I haven't been to them, I may not even know much about them, but I wrap them around me as I speak, feel and think and they give me the power to articulate and sometimes exemplify my thoughts against militarism.

I've found it funny sometimes how little we know about South Korea or the Korean peninsula. Despite the fact that North Korea remains on Guam a signifier of bad things, we know almost nothing on Guam about them. Although so many Chamorros fought in the Korean War we know very little about it. Despite being poised on the edge of Asia, which is for the United States where most of it's future fight lies (outside of the Middle East), and we are the tip of its spear, we know so little about it. Even if we were to accept the principles of being in constant danger and surrounded by enemies (which I don't), how stupid are we as an island to know so little about things? Gaipiligro i taitiningo'. This is of course the paradox of enemies; the more you know about them, the strong you are supposed to be. But the problem is, the more a people know about their enemies, the more likely they are to sympathize with them and not think of them as the soon to be deceased, but as fellow precious life, just trying to endure and carve out a place of happiness for themselves in this harsh, cruel world.

The film All Quiet on the Western Front displayed perfectly this dynamic. People rush off to war when they know very little. They accept platitudes and horrid-sounding rhetoric as reality and it is easy to feel the need or be excited at the prospect of snuffing out life if that is all you know. The dehumanization of your enemy is essential to destroying them. If you cannot accomplish that in one way or another, then humans tend to have trouble with the crushing precious life part. A society finds it difficult to stomach it, the soldier becomes more hesitant to pull the trigger, less motivation transform the economy for the sake of obliterating a distant part of the world.

You reduce them to small things. Insignificant, but ideologically potent things. Things which mean little, but can take on a life of their own through various nationalistic, jingoistic and racial assumptions. They become the basis for the psychological enjoyment of national hate, the lens through which you can expend an amorphous cauldron of hatred by ignorantly directing it towards another large-scale community. Intelligence about an enemy is a good thing, but knowledge about them is not.

From the film All Quiet on the Western Front, we see this in the experiences of Paul, who is spurned to war by the superficial, virile rhetoric of nationalistic hatred. He and so many others accept the dangerous caricatures of their "enemies" and volunteer to protect the Mother/Father land from such threats. The war is for the most part dehumanized, even as the human costs reach outrageous proportions. Machine guns killings thousands from great distances. Everything reduced to numbers, even in terms of the amount of space each day which an army moves and is then forced to move back. But for Paul, so much changes when he engaged in close combat with a French soldier and kills him. He spends the night in a pit in no-man's land with the dead soldier and is forced to accept the greatest knowledge in war, that of the ultimate humanity of the enemy. That no matter what was said, what was done, you take life in war. You take something which God has created and you extinguish it.

In Eric Altermann's recent column in The Nation about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, he reminds us of this:
The Talmud tells the story of angels dancing and singing as the waters of the Red Sea close over the heads of the Egyptian troops after the Israelites have safely crossed over, only to be rebuked by their God: “How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the sea?”
Knowledge is always the enemy of war, since knowledge can lead to the rehumanization of a dehumanized enemy.

In the case of Guam, our ignorance is bliss, not truly for ourselves, but for the interests of the United States. Our island is the tip of the spear, and so it exists as a weapon regardless of what we think or feel about it. Our consciousness, our desire, our beliefs are not taken into account, since we are here in this part of the world, we are a territory and so we are something which as more than one national security expert has claimed, the United States would be crazy not to use to poke their enemies. (Este na klasin dinekka', ti taiguihi ayu giya Facebook).

That is of course why, despite the fact that the movement of troops to Guam, the transfers which are planned to head here are not isolated, part of a single move, we rarely ever actually see or care to discuss that larger picture. This is part of a larger re-alignment which is proposed in terms of modernizing US forces and positions. It is articulated as making their locations and their compositions more relevant to changes in the world, which is a very nice way of saying, preparing for the possibility of war in this part of the world. But if we refuse to accept this sort of extremely abstract portrait of force movements and posturing, what we can see across the Asia-Pacific region, is the US making somewhat aggressive preemptive moves towards China. This is especially so in South Korea. It is important at this point to recall that while the United States is unlikely to ever lose a conventional war at this point in history, Guam will lose any war the United States fights in this part of the world, especially if it involves China and Taiwan. Moves which bring the world closer to a large scale conflict between titans is something Guam should seek to avoid at all costs. What good are thousands of new low-paying military buildup jobs, if all the potential employees are buried beneath layers of radioactive ash? Or perhaps to make the metaphor stronger, all the potential employees are the ash?

But this is one reason why Guam's ignorance, its cluelessness cannot be blamed on others. Sure, others profit and benefit from it, but we ourselves are truly at fault. We chose to put "blind faith" into the United States, that whatever it does, it does for Guam as well as itself. We chose to assume that whatever the military does will mean more money and should have no negative impacts. We chose to see ourselves as a privileged appendage of the United States and not see ourselves in a more global context and as such as only see ourselves through their limited strategic desires and little more. And for those who consider the idea that America increasing it's presence or strategically boxing in a country such as China might be dangerous, with the drug that is America, almost all prescriptions say that anything can be solved by simply ingesting more. Thus we come to the point where even if we can recognize the danger, there is a feeling that more America can solve any problem, including the problems it will create with its very implicitly antagonistic presence.

This post began with a discussion of the Korea Policy Institute and quickly transformed into something else. I'll conclude by mentioning that a recent article from the KPI is pasted below for those interested in reading more about what is happening on the Korean peninsula today.


Weaponizing Food Aid

Christine J. Hong*
June 28, 2011

Every so often, we are reminded that the Korean War is not over. Typically, jolts to the memory come in the form of heated spectacles or near-spectacles that flash into view and then fade away. Last year, we witnessed the sinking of a South Korean warship and an artillery exchange off the coast of North Korea. More recently, it has come to light that the South Korean military mistakenly fired upon a South Korean commercial airliner believing it to be of North Korean origin. For war-weary readers, these international headlines, while alarming, do not have the tug-and-pull of the latest news about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, hot zones of current U.S. intervention. We might be tempted to reason: hasn't volatility long been the substrate of intra-Korean relations? What does this constant "code-red" in Korea have to do with us, anyway?

As historian, Bruce Cumings, points out, the Korean War marked "the palpable birth of interventionist policy abroad and a state apparatus to go with it." Inaugurating permanent war as a feature of our foreign policy, the Korean War serves as an ominous model for our current wars in the Middle East and North Africa. We are, to be clear, still at war with North Korea, yet stateside, we have little first-hand grasp of the impact of the unfinished war. Moreover, signs that the war is still actively being waged are not always visibly "hot."

To wit: last week, we learned that the House of Representatives voted to bar humanitarian food aid to North Korea. Ed Royce (R-CA), the policy's architect, has stated, "the aid we provide would prop up Kim Jong-il's regime, a brutal and dangerous dictatorship." Quoting a North Korean defector—a source of intelligence about which we, post-9/11, should be cautious—Royce has argued that giving food aid to North Korea "is the same as providing funding for North Korea's nuclear program." Royce doesn't mention that the defector in question, Kim Duk Hong, offered the following recommendation during the Bush years: "If we really want to destroy Kim Jong Il, we should be brave. We shouldn't be afraid of war." The intention, here, is plain: through hard or soft means, regime change.

In stark contrast to advocacy for emergency food aid from the UN's World Food Program and Mercy Corps, respected humanitarian relief organizations with longstanding on-the-ground programs in North Korea, this House amendment cynically leverages food to crush the North Korean regime. Having suffered devastating frosts and floods, with an estimated 50-80% of all winter crops lost, North Korea has taken the unprecedented step of asking the international community for food for its people. The current situation, according to David Austin of Mercy Corps, has gone from "chronic to acute," with North Koreans resorting to "alternative food," an admixture of wild grasses, twigs, straw, and corn gruel, to create a semblance of fullness in their stomachs. As WFP and Mercy Corps attest, food aid can be tracked from entry into North Korea to arrival at the household level. Indeed, the UN's policy clearly specifies "no access, no aid." Never a cause célèbre to begin with, however, humanitarian food aid to North Korea has been hampered by U.S. aversion to Pyongyang. We must be clear on this point: the miasma of unfinished war should not cloud our conscience.

Following a recent visit to North Korea, former President Jimmy Carter—who has described the deleterious impact of U.S. sanctions against North Korea as "fifty years of deprivation" in which "the people [have] suffer[ed] the most"—spoke out about the necessity of a moral distinction between politics and humanitarianism: "to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation." Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham, the head of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief agency, also predicted that "there is going to be starvation, malnutrition. There will be death." He reminded Americans that North Koreans "want to have peace yet we know so little about them."

This June 25th marks sixty-one years of war with North Korea. After the "good fight" of World War II, no war that the U.S. has waged abroad has been triumphant, let alone popular. If these wars have stimulated the economy, the benefits have not been evenly or broadly felt. At a time when we are mired in several hot conflicts around the world, we must urgently envision peace as the only sustainable and ethical long-term option. To be clear: the people of North Korea are the collateral damage of any regime-change policy that wields food as a weapon. This is a pyrrhic victory of the worst kind.

*Christine Hong is a KPI fellow and a professor of Asian American and critical Pacific Rim Studies at UC Santa Cruz and a steering committee member of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea.

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