Donald Trump has brought North Korea to the center of the national dialogue once again, and for reasons that do not seem to be entirely clear. Yes, North Korea fired an ICBM over Japan last week. Yes, they probably have nukes. But this is not really new, nor is the situation all that urgent. On the other hand, wars have a bad habit of producing positive polling numbers. At any rate, before you blindly advocate for the carpet-bombing of Pyongyang, here’s a brief overview of the two world Wars that directly contributed to the current crisis in the South China Sea.
Summer of 1914. Europe, ruled by monarchies and entangled in a labyrinth of complicated alliances established by confusing treaties, has not seen a major war in 40 years. Modern weapons developed during that time have not really been used in any major conflict. Among them, the Gatling gun, which can fire about 900 rounds a minute – a big deal when you consider that competent soldiers in the American Civil War could load and fire just three shots in the same amount of time. The nations of Europe, blinded by nationalism and pride, engage in an arms race, though nobody actually thinks any other nation would be crazy enough to engage one another on the battlefield.
In late June of 1914, The King of Austria-Hungary receives distressing news. His nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, has been assassinated while visiting Serbia. The man who killed him was a domestic terrorist named Gavrilo Princip, who was a member of an ultra-nationalist, Pro-Serb organization called The Black Hand. This is the spark that ignites the fire. Austria-Hungary, enraged by the assassination, declares war on Serbia. But Serbia is allied with Russia, which is bound by a treaty to defend them, so Russia mobilizes. Then Germany, which is bound to Austria-Hungary, declares war on Russia. Then France, who is allied with Russia, declares war on Germany. Then Germany invades Belgium, and so England, because it is allied with Belgium, declares war against Germany, and by August of 1914, the whole of Europe is at war – all because the King’s nephew had been assassinated.
There were five million casualties in the first year alone, with one million KIA. Every nation grossly underestimated the carnage that would follow, as did the millions upon millions of men who joined and who had no idea what happens when you introduce 20th century weaponry onto 19th century battlefields. The French, in particular, seemed completely unaware of how the world had changed since their last major engagement 40 years before. They marched onto the fields, still wearing their signature blue, red and white uniforms, which made them easy targets for snipers and infantrymen and for machine gun nests, with their intersecting fields of fire and their 900 rounds a minute firing rate.
World War One would last four years, until the United States intervened in the final months, forcing the Germans to sign an armistice, which the world would know as the Treaty of Versailles. It went into effect at 11AM on November 11, 1918. The expression “at the eleventh hour” comes from this date in history.
But instead of being magnanimous in victory, the Allied powers chose to cripple Germany and its allies with sanctions and debt that brought them to their knees. This angered the millions of German war veterans, who saw Versailles as nothing short of cowardly betrayal. Things were bad enough in the years immediately following the war. And then the US stock market crashes in 1929, and as bad as things got in America, they were 100 times worse in Germany.
Among those bitter veterans was an Austrian corporal named Adolph Hitler, who vowed to avenge both his native Austria, as well as his adopted home of Germany, which he perceived as victims of an international conspiracy perpetuated by communists and their “Jewish” puppets. In September of 1939, just 21 years after world War One ends, Hitler invades Poland, starting World War Two.
10 million people died on the battlefields in World War One, with another 20 million succumbing to disease and starvation. It was supposed to be the last great war. Instead, the world ignored the lessons on history, and by the time Japanese forces surrendered to American forces aboard the USS Missouri in August of 1945, another 55 million had perished, including 40 million civilians who died in concentration camps in Germany, ghettos and death camps in Poland, in purges throughout the Soviet Union, and in the whole of China, which was not only fighting the Japanese, but its own Civil War.
With Europe, Africa and Asia in utter disarray, colonial empires, and their holdings, collapsed into civil war – including Vietnam, a French colony, and Korea, which had been ruled by the Japanese for decades. Just a year later, in ’46, France starts fighting the first Indochina War, which begets US involvement 20 years later.
Just five years after World War Two ends, the Korean peninsula erupts into Civil War. Allied with the Democratic South, UN forces led by the US engage in a “police action” against communist North Korea, which is aided by China, which supplies both weapons and troops, many of whom died by American hands over the next three years. America bombs the North so badly the entire country becomes one large field of craters and bones. War crimes are committed by both sides. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and marines are killed. Hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese die, too. Finally, after three years of carnage, a ceasefire is called in 1953, which remains in effect to this very day.
The Korean War is largely forgotten by the American public, to say nothing of its collective conscience. This stands in stark contrast to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), whose national identify is founded on a narrative where America is a belligerent empire bent on total domination. To know the truth of this history is to understand why tensions are unlikely to ever cease on the Korean Peninsula, which is now arguably the most dangerous piece of real estate in the world.