Seunjoo Yoon discusses conflicts on the Korean Peninsula

Carleton Professor of History Seunjoo Yoon gave a lecture at St. Olaf on Thursday, Nov. 9, about the history of conflict on the Korean peninsula. The talk, entitled “How to End the Korean War?: A Historical Perspective,” was sponsored by the Korean Culture Association and Diversity Celebration Committee (DCC). Yoon’s lecture discussed Korean history, the colonial imposition of Western norms on Korea and the history of the current nuclear crisis. Underlying Yoon’s lecture was his thesis that Westerners have forced claims about sovereignty and international law upon Korea and that Koreans ought to question these claims.

Yoon began his lecture by noting that President Donald Trump’s trip to South Korea has provoked divided reactions among the Korean public, with younger Koreans voicing their opposition to his visit and older Koreans expressing support. Yoon displayed images of these two groups demonstrating, showcasing their wildly different sentiments regarding President Trump. 

“What I’m going to accomplish today is to put these images into historical context by looking at the question of sovereignty,” Yoon said.

Yoon then gave a brief overview of past military conflicts on the Korean peninsula, noting that there has been more than one Korean War. He also delved into the foundations of Korean identity, describing how Koreans began to venerate Mt. Paektu as the site of their collective birthplace. 

“Most of them [Koreans], by 1905, came to identify their national or ethnic origin with that particular mountain … where, as the legend goes, the Korean ethnic progenitor has descended from heaven and begotten the Korean ethnic groups.”

Yoon went on to describe the Japanese colonization of Korea, and how European-trained Japanese legal scholars promulgated Western notions of international law. One of the key ideas was that sovereignty should entail equality of states in the eyes of the international community. The Japanese also spread certain economic norms developed in Europe after the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War. 

“The Westphalia System … regularized tariffs and taxation in a rational manner based on the idea of presumed equality among the nations, irrespective of size.”

Yoon described how the Japanese disseminated the idea of property rights, accompanied by the concept of “custodiancy” wherein a responsible actor takes care of neglected land in place of the lawful owner. Yoon explained how the idea of property custodiancy came to justify political custodiancy in the form of colonialism. 

“That kind of custodiancy is an integral part of colonial legality,” Yoon said. “Colonialism became legalized in the name of international law.”

Yoon went on to explain how after World War II, American legal advisers continued the Japanese tradition of instilling Western political ideals in Korea. America’s presence on the peninsula increased as the Cold War brewed and military conflict broke out between North and South Korea.

After describing the history of conflict on the Korean peninsula, Yoon turned to current events and the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Rather than immediately focusing on the current state of affairs, Yoon traced the history of North Korea’s nuclear program, and gave an overview of various U.S. initiatives to thwart its efforts. He described how the current policy towards the North’s nuclear program is known as CVID: Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement of the North’s weapons. 

Yoon then outlined the various ways in which American and Korean policies towards North Korea have differed throughout the past, and how many liberal South Koreans are increasingly skeptical of the Korean-U.S. alliance. As evidence condemning the utility of this partnership, many critics point to U.S. pollution of the Han River, U.S. support for the repressive 60s-era military dictatorship and covert CIA interference. Yoon concluded his speech by exhorting the audience to question the U.S.-Korean alliance, and ponder whether Western notions of sovereignty ought to persist given the history of their imposition.