North Korea has been in the news a lot in the past year and a half. It’s been a real rollercoaster of unexpected diplomacy, and very much expected nuclear anxiety. In all the serious news coverage, late-night talk show monologues, and Tweets, Americans have had a tendency to fixate on Kim Jong-un. There is, of course, a clear logic to this: he is easily the least opaque point of access to North Korea. But Kim is also a mechanism to dismiss and dehumanize all of North Korea, to consider neither the deep history that led to their isolationist policies nor the human toll that over half a century of tensions has taken on average North Koreans.

In the Special Collections reading room at the University of Minnesota, I find evidence that this problem of not understanding—or even trying to understand—North Korea is more than six decades old.

On August 2, 1954, Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, addressed a crowd of 1500 at the Waldorf-Astoria. The crowd included diplomats from the US, UN, and South Korea, as well as bosses from banks, movie production companies, and export corporations, and a slew of politicians, businesspeople, and reformers affiliated with the American-Korean Foundation.[1]

Rhee’s speech, delivered a year after the Korean War armistice, served as a call to arms—literally and figuratively—for Americans. Rhee asked for the continued commitment of American funds, both through government spending and private charitable donations, to build and support infrastructure and relief in Korea. He also asked for American recommitment to military efforts, expressing doubt that the armistice would hold, and the belief that only a preemptive blow could stop a communist onslaught by the Soviet and China-backed North Koreans.

The South Korean president couched his appeal for support in an affinity between Americans and South Koreans: As nations with strong Christian influence and staunch anticommunism, in Rhee’s reckoning, the U.S. and R.O.K. were uniquely positioned to fight the Soviets’ growing global influence. Two veins vital to this formulation were emphasizing the suffering and resilience of South Koreans, and obscuring the humanity of North Koreans. Rhee’s words, “Your clothing has kept our people warm during the cold of winter, and your other activities have given them immediate material hope that they need so desperately. But I think that the spiritual bond that the [American Korean Foundation] and other agencies have forged between Americans and Koreans is of even greater consequence,” were driven home by a performance by Korean child prodigy Tong Il Han, and the recorded music of the Korean Children’s Choir. Rhee’s message was clear: by helping Korea you are helping children, and people longing for a free world just like you.[2]

But Rhee also called for a renewed military commitment to Korea, and swift action against the North. In so doing, he obscured the continued destruction this would cause Koreans north of the 38th parallel. At the same time that he asked for support for the victims of war, Rhee implicitly stated that it was communism, not war, that robbed people of human rights—and thus only those under the anti-communist South Korea regime, the victims of communist aggression (again, not the victims of war), required American support. As for those north of the DMZ, Rhee spoke about reunifying Korea and freeing the North from Soviet influence, but only in vague terms that obscured the reality that more war would further damage the already devastated population and infrastructure of the DPRK.

We cannot fault Rhee for his omissions, for the realities he obscured would not have served his cause: of course it would do him no good to talk, while asking for military aid, about the people on whose homes the bombs would be falling. But his remarks are informative, because they show the persistence of a failure to humanize North Koreans. These days, absent the specter of global communism, and the call to fight it, the dehumanization takes a different form: North Koreans are simply the faceless, starving victims of an oppressive regime. When Americans look past Kim Jung Un’s antics—which is rare—it is to note the suffering and dispossession of North Koreans. Real as that suffering is, to focus solely on that is its own form of dehumanizing: positioning the North Korean population as only the sad victims of human rights violations obscures that these are indeed human beings, as prone to love and laughter and mourning and resistance as people under any other regime in the world. The ignorance of this basic humanity has long facilitated American foreign policy that does not consider the human costs of lasting tensions and economic sanctions.

I cannot claim that Rhee’s speech to this exclusive group—however widely publicized it was—planted the seeds of distrust toward the North Korean regime and any of their peaceful overtures. Dismissal and mistrust of North Korea began as soon as the DPRK was formed. But this does demonstrate that that sentiment has been present in the United States for 64 years, and that sentiment has long kept the United States from considering the humanity of the North Korean public. Perhaps if the human toll of continued aggression, isolation, and international trade sanctions were kept at the forefront of American negotiations with North Korea, and with every nation we consider hostile, we might strive more expediently for a lasting peace.  

Works Cited:

[1] Nicholas John Matsoukas, “The American-Korean Foundation,” 1954, Korea Reports and Correspondence Aug.-Dec. 1954, Korea Correspondence and Reports June 1953-1959 (Box 5), YMCA International Work in Korea, Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis.

[2] Syngman Rhee, “Text of the Address Delivered by Dr. Syngman Rhee, President of the Republic of Korea, At a Dinner Given in His Honor By the American-Korean Foundation,” New York, August 2, 1954, Korea Reports and Correspondence Aug.-Dec. 1954, Korea Correspondence and Reports June 1953-1959 (Box 5), YMCA International Work in Korea, Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Archives and Special Collections, Minneapolis.