If You Must Bomb, Bomb Their Palaces

Now that Victor Cha has written that another Korean War is a very real possibility, that risk has become a matter of accepted conventional wisdom. Some in South Korea seem to be waiting for an excuse to restore deterrence through bombing. This is probably a mix of bluff and bluster, but there’s no arguing with South Korea’s right to self-defense and its need to restore deterrence.

A lot of unthinkable things have already happened this year, and I certainly hope the next one doesn’t lead to all-out war. I’ve already addressed the horrors that would follow if it does, and those risks are the main reason why I still oppose strikes against North Korea. Yes, those risks might still be justifiable if confronting them is the only way to to prevent war and save lives, but on the other side of this cost-benefit ledger, the prospect of a few more corpses to dispose of probably doesn’t deter Kim Jong Il much. If there is good news here, it’s that I’m reasonably confident that Kim Jong-Il still fears all-out war. Given Kim Jong Il’s age and health, I suspect his fears are more invested in the survival of regime and legacy. All-out war means the end of all these things, and his life. Fortunately, no one really wants an all-out war.

But if it’s now necessary for us to consider our military options, and I think it is, let’s at least tie those options to our policy objectives. My friend Kevin Kim proposes an idea that merits serious consideration, but to which I add some important caveats:

George Carlin once said, “I leave symbols for the symbol-minded. While it might not be a deterrent, per se, I’d love to see SK knock down one major symbol per NK provocation. Flatten the Ryugyong Hotel, for instance, then start knocking down those Great Leader statues. Shell the stadium where the Arirang Festival takes place, powder the King Il-sung hall of gifts, blast away one leg of the NK Arc de Triomphe and let it topple, etc. If nothing else, such strikes would drive NK nuts. Whether they would demoralize the populace, embolden them to rebel, or solidify their loyalty to the Dear Leader, I have no idea, but if we think purely in terms of symbols, Pyongyang is a target-rich environment.

I’ve argued that Kim Jong Il seeks to provoke a limited war, so that he can unite his population behind the regime and against foreign enemies. To this end, the risk of absorbing some military and civilian casualties is hardly more of a deterrent than the risk of inflicting some. But any attack that strikes at the state’s spiritual legitimacy and the its most unpopular aspects would advance our interests in neutralizing North Korea as a threat. Speculate with me about what ordinary North Koreans still believe today:

– North Korean memories of the Korean War may rely, in part, on exaggerations of the horrors of U.S. bombing, but our bombing was in fact directed at cities full of civilians, was legitimately horrific, and would certainly be considered a war crime by today’s standards. If we’re trying to shape North Korean public opinion — and that is the single most dispositive factor in ultimately resolving our problems with North Korea — then we should do nothing to reinforce the state’s propaganda about indiscriminate American bombing. Because we are not like the North Koreans, we should avoid cities, hotels, and stadiums. Seeing such places damaged would only authenticate the very hatred, xenophobia, and humiliation the state exploits, and increasingly needs. And because soldiers are expendable to the state but precious to their families, we should seek to avoid military casualties, too.

– Ideally, the American role should be to stand by and deter escalation, while avoiding direct involvement. Let South Korea do the fighting and show its own strength and independence. American involvement only feeds North Korea’s nationalist propaganda.

– Admittedly, the idea of felling the biggest Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang had crossed my mind, too, but refugee surveys have convinced me that there’s still significant residual reverence for Kim Il Sung. For obvious reasons, I can’t quantify the degree of that reverence, and I suspect that its character is complicated by ambivalence. Still, I’d counsel restraint when it comes to statues and monuments to him. Similarly, symbols of anti-Japanese resistance should be off-limits. Plenty of South Koreans might also react against this.

– People listen to state broadcasting because it’s all most of them still have. But within days, rumors and Open Radio catch up with the state’s narrative, and a lot of people tend to believe what they hear from the outside. Generally, however, people are more likely to believe the first thing they hear. If you disable state broadcasting, rumors and Open News might have much more influence than they might otherwise.

– For anyone in the Pentagon who is reading this, let me helpfully offer that palaces would be ideal targets for several reasons. The first of these is that they’re big, blue and almost impossible to miss. Politically, they’re even more attractive. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that Kim Jong Il is generally hated, and that Kim Jong Eun is universally despised. Most of their palaces are in rural areas that have been cleared of civilians. I’d bet that the North Korean people would actually approve if they learn that KJI or KJU’s fancy palaces were bombed, particularly by the South Koreans. The North Koreans can’t even show video of the damaged palaces without highlighting the gross inequality of North Korean society and suffering an even greater propaganda backlash. Instead, we should use the occasion to show the world, including the North Korean people, how KJI and KJU live in splendor while everyone else lives in squalor. Finally, bombing palaces has the advantage of punishing the guilty instead of the innocent.

– I don’t think there’s much question that the Anjeonbu and Bowibu security forces are widely hated. Most North Koreans would likely approve of the destruction of their offices, which would have the added effect of weakening the regime’s capacity to control the population.

With this being said, we should be prepared for a wide variety of unpredictable consequences if the South strikes back, with or without American help. Some of these are obvious. One that I haven’t seen anyone discuss yet is that retaliation might set off a popular uprising. When hated regimes are attacked from the outside, a frequent consequence is that they’re attacked from the inside, too. It was the case in Iraq in 1991, where we paid dearly for failing to seize the moment. In the case of North Korea, defectors will tell you that they often wished for war. This was code-talk for the end of the regime, but it also reflected their belief that only American bombs could effect this result. Military retaliation could cause discontented North Koreans to think that this is their moment. They’re probably mistaken, and the consequences are certain to be tragic no matter what happens (this is North Korea). I suspect that the regime would eventually suppress this uprising, but that result is not assured if the military fractures.

We need to think through just how much support we’re willing to give anti-regime forces, particularly if those forces include mutinous military units. I would argue for as much support as possible — to include clearing out North Korea’s air defenses and dropping arms to anti-regime forces. For now, leave aside the moral obligation to stand with people who oppose tyranny. The more prolonged the uprising, the greater the deterrent effect on North Korea and China, which will gain a profound realization of our capacity to sow chaos and deliver their worst fears to them. The more prolonged the uprising, the more troops North Korea will have to divert from the DMZ, and the less the risk of a wider conventional war. If some elements of the rebellion persist, we then acquire a network of North Korean allies inside the world’s greatest intelligence black hole, along with the capability to influence events inside North Korea itself. Leveraging the effects of dissent vastly increases our bargaining power and may be the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to our problems with North Korea. Conversely, failing to support dissent will embitter North Koreans against us as it embittered Iraqis, and will dissuade anyone from challenging the regime for years.

39 Comments

  1. First comment here. Though I obviously support the idea of minimizing the civilian effects of any possible military action against NK (and striking the palaces would be an excellent way of achieving that); I would not put it past the regime to attack their own population at that point merely to score the propaganda value of showing the mangled and bloody bodies in the rubble of civilian centers. They may conclude that it may be the best way to attempt to galvanize public support and head off or minimize any potential civilian uprising. They may claim it is either an SK/US attack or perhaps internal sabotage, along with a few (or more than a few) very public executions or the so called “saboteurs”.

    I do not know what the answer to this is, but I think we must assume the likelihood of it high.




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  2. Long time reader, first time comment….

    I agree that the palaces are a great mark.

    Personal thought: I think that, if a war were to be fought, both the palaces and the many worker prisons/gulags would be excellent places for special forces to seize and control as bases/staging areas for any counter-attack against North Korea. Especially the worker prisons, which are fortified with fenced perimeters, guard towers and existing infrastructure to control access. Liberating and protecting those imprisoned would, in itself, help lead a revolt against the NK regime.

    Great blog. I believe your efforts are crucial in helping get the truth out about North Korea.




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  3. I would not put it past the regime to attack their own population at that point merely to score the propaganda value of showing the mangled and bloody bodies in the rubble of civilian centers.

    I agree. Or they could just litter the rubble of whatever icons got bombed with corpses of political prisoners from their camps…either way the regime wins. Unless we can survey the area and catch them in the act, bombing any public place is likely to just give them more propaganda material…




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  4. If something is destroyed it should be highly visible. The palaces are hidden…you could take one down and the people of NK might never know. But if you could take out that Juche Tower in Pyongyang…now there is a symbol for you. I’ve seen pictures of people bowing and genuflecting before it. As hideously ugly as it is, it is a huge symbol to the NK regime. I know nothing about military technology…what’s feasible, what’s not. I wonder if a cruise missile could take it out.




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  5. This just in, former Nork military members ready to form special ROK unit:

    Defectors can make an important contribution to security because of their first-hand knowledge of the North Korean military, which could hasten the demise of the Kim Jong-il regime, according to the group’s leader Kim Sung-min. He added South Koreans seem complacent about the threat from the North because they do not know enough about it. “Real peace can only be achieved based on a firm sense of national security and strong defense,” he said.

    The Liberation Front will hold a forum at the Seoul Press Center on Monday to analyze the North’s military capabilities and discuss ways of dealing with them.

    The group also joined hands with activists Fighters for Free North Korea in floating balloons from Baeknyeong Island in the West Sea on Tuesday carrying 200,000 leaflets denouncing the North’s artillery attack and the three-generation dynastic rule.

    Maybe its me, but I am sensing a momentum change on pen…




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  6. Military strikes should aim at military targets: Strategic airfields, naval installations, etc.
    The people of North Korea will be the ones to tear down the symbolic signs and wonders, once they are able.




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  7. We really should send in a team to either scuttle or tow back our USS Pueblo. We owe it to Commander Bucher, his crew, and their families. How in the hell did they move it from Wonsan to the Taedonggang, around the South Korean peninsula, without detection?




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  8. “The people of North Korea will be the ones to tear down the symbolic signs and wonders, once they are able.”

    —————-

    I agree with this. Isn’t that what they did in E.Germany? Am I getting my communist countries confused?




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  9. Yes Theresa you are getting them confused. Unlike the xenophobic German bloc, the Koreans both north and south actually believe that they are a complete seperate Race from other Asians. Even the Germans were never crazy enough to believe that German people were a seperate Race from other Nordics. That is why the Korean Peninsula is a ticking time bomb. They actually “believe” that they are a seperate Race of people apart from anyone not Korean, both North and South. And,… for that reason, very reluctantly, China will concede to the world to silence yhe little spoiled brat of “Best Korea”, lest it changes it’s ways soon.

    In fact, very soon.




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  10. And BTW I knew that you meant it sardonically, in less than 3 years time, the north Korean populace will know sarcasm freely without fear of death.




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  11. Jesus I can’t believe what I’m reading here. You have systematically decided on the fate and outcome of population of another nation! This type of imperialist pencil-pushing is the main reason that the USA is hated the world over!

    The US should get away from the Korean peninsula. The reason this peninsula is on red alert all the time is down to the presence of US troops.

    No-one can know what goes on behind the border of the DPRK just by reading this website alone. People fear what they don’t understand and unfortunately the people who have commented above are the product of scaremongering and the instillation of fear that was introduced during the Bush administration. I implore people to look into both sides of the story. DPRK has every right to defend itself from foreign insurgence. This is a country full of proud people living the socialist dream. Leave them be.

    Barry Nolan




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  12. In that case, you’re going to love what I have planned for Berkeley!

    I don’t think you read or understood anything I’ve said here. I’ve just opposed any U.S. military action, while advocating helping the North Korean people get for themselves the kind of government they choose. Yet you seem pretty certain that the status quo is best for them, so I have to wonder who made you their proxy? Who’s trying to decide whose fate here?




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  13. Theresa, I was in Iraq when Baghdad fell. The Iraqi people, like the boll weevil in swarms defaced, defiled and destroyed every image of “Baba Saddam” (father Saddam) the minute Coalition Forces entered the city.

    I had the privilege of meeting with 3 nK defectors a couple of weeks ago. To my great surprise, they told me that North Koreans would do the same to the icons of the Kims if Pyongyang fell.

    It is definitely not business as usual on the peninsula right now…




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  14. Two questions:

    1. Hopping on a question another commenter provided, how do we stop the regime from spinning the news as an unprovoked attack by the ROK? And even if you do leave US forces out of it, what prevents the North Koreans from simply lying about it? As Bradley Martin states in his book, in 1993, many North Koreans were ready to go to war – how do you prevent even a limited strike like that from becoming the biggest North Korean propaganda coup in history? Drop leaflets?

    2. If there’s any target worthy of a military strike, it’s the concentration camps. During the Holocaust, Jewish advocacy groups begged Allied forces to bomb the camps: if there are going to be hostilities, I would do the same. But that’s a big IF.




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  15. Whatever else may be true, the North Korean People’s Liberation Front is among the least respected of all defector groups in South Korea; an NGO formed in advance of the discovery of a guiding idea. Or indeed an idea of any sort. Sorry, KCJ, but these are not the North Koreans you are looking for…




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  16. Ditto 81 wrote:

    Yes Theresa you are getting them confused
    ——————————
    I am thinking of the movie “Goodbye Lenin!” where an E.German mother goes into a coma during the fall of the wall. She awakens after the wall falls, and has a weak heart. The doctors tell her son that if she is told anything shocking, it could kill her, so her son goes to great lengths to not let her known that her country has changed. He brings her home and shelters her from the outside world, but she stumbles outside eventually and sees people tearing down a statue of Lenin and lifting it away….

    But I know that movie is “fiction”, but I thought it might be based on some true stories.
    ———————————–
    Barry wrote:

    No-one can know what goes on behind the border of the DPRK just by reading this website alone
    ———-
    Believe us Barry- no one on this board, read this website ALONE. So are you saying that all of the testimonies of the refugees, all the books written, all the documentaries of them telling their stories- are not true? I have heard that people deny these stories and it just kills me. Why would refugees make this stuff up? They are trying to get THE WORD OUT and want us TO LISTEN. They want the world to know how awful and repressed the NK regime is. Why are their testimonies so hard for some people to believe?
    ——————
    Joshua wrote:

    In that case, you’re going to love what I have planned for Berkeley!
    ——-

    I am dying to know what you mean by this! Don’t hurt me! I live here!! (well, technically Oakland, but I spend 80% of my time in Berkeley)




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  17. Chris, I was just sharing the story, not necessarily advocating the group. Just what is so suspect about former DPRK military members ready to fight their former regime? What do you know that we don’t?




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  18. Guys, the jig is up! Barry Nolan is on to our secret machinations. I guess we need to find new online meeting spot for our US Empire-Advocacy Club.

    After I loaded my bong with some of Barry’s super skunk and firing away, I realized he is, like, totally right. Gulags, mass starvation, class apartheid, nuclear weapons development, ensuring the Dear Leader has enough cognac and Big Macs while the commoners eat two meals of tree-bark-and-grass noodles a day, racist belligerance, and condemning three generations of a family to a concentration camp are all important components of North Korean culture. It would be really un-PC of us to comment on these things and if we don’t respect them, then that makes us arrogant imperialists who want to infect the East with Western notions like “democracy” and “human rights.”

    Hmmm….I wonder what Barry things about Apartheid-era South Africa? Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea? Hitler’s Third Reich? Stalin’s USSR? Mao’s China? I bet these guys were just “living their dreams to” and we should just “leave them be.”




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  19. Jack, about point 2, check out this Wikipedia article, especially the last paragraph:

    A 2004 documentary, Auschwitz; the forgotten evidence included interviews with historians William Rubinstein and Richard Overy. It mentioned the Jewish Agency’s request to the Allies on 6 July [1944] to bomb Auschwitz and showed the aerial reconnaissance photographs. It then examined the operational and technical feasibility aspects, in two categories: precision bombing by Mosquito-type aircraft, and area bombing by larger aircraft. It considered that precision bombing of railway lines was so common by 1944 that the Germans had specialist teams that could repair damage within hours or days. The inmates’ food supplies were assumed to come by rail, and so an unrepaired railway would cause them hardship. Area bombing risked killing too many prisoners.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_bombing_debate




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  20. KCJ, I don’t know anything that you wouldn’t also know if you worked among NKHR activists and kept your ears open… nothing conspiratorial, really.

    Basically, and this makes a lot of sense, most defectors look in some way or another for a group to belong to. In such a rudderless life, loaded up in many cases by a heavy burden of guilt at those left behind and an understandable fear of the future, not to mention the present, it is very logical.

    Unfortunately, not all those groups are created equal, or have leaders of the stature of, say, Lee Ae Ran.




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  21. Thanks for the clarification, Chris. I also learned today through my channels that these groups or associations are a cultural norm for Norks as they are appointed to them by the government (such as a factory group or farming group). Nork society is stratified, divided, class-conscious, and bound by fear of ubiquitous informants and suspicion. The transition to life in the ROK is rarely smooth and frequently unsettling.




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  22. I hope that Super skunk is me Joshua, forgive me for my sense of smell and/or audacity to think that retched funk is my own which you smell. Now back to reailty, Mr. Stanton, you know that all the world Governments read your considerations concerning North Korea by now, including Curtis’s entries concerning workings of the Turtle/Hermit Kingdom. Now know this, Kim Jong Il himself, along with the great aunt of the DPRK revolution, his sister, Lady,hui, reads this blog regularly. I think that it would be in polite manners, to spare her and her children for any crime her Husband or herself ever ever committed against the north Korean People if she Defects to the south,…




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  23. By the time that this North Korean Nightmare Regime dynasty is over, those still living in the DPRK Capitol and surrounding palaces will be the first to flee “paradise on Earth” if they can afford to. The average Korean outside the walls of evil is nothing to them.

    As I stated above, let his sister flee first. Give Kim Jong Il’s sister safe passage into either China, South Korea, Japan or the United States along with her husband. In 8 months time, August 2011, if she has done so, terminate the Juche Tower.




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  24. Ditto wrote:
    “The Koreans both north and south actually believe that they are a complete seperate Race from other Asians.”
    How can one say this and not reveal his own racism?
    This wide sweeping general statement makes an assumption easily discredited by simply conducting a poll, or informal interviews with people on the street.
    Korean people know that the Japanese have ancestral and cultural ties to the ancient confederation of Kaya in the Kimhae region of Korea; one example: the near-identical kayagum and koto instruments.
    They are well aware that Hanja, confucianism, rituals and customs come from China, but are as much a part of Korea as the Tae baek mountains.
    They are not much different than citizens of any other sovereign country in that they understand political and cultural differences.
    History plays a large part as well: Constant war, destruction of their cities, villages and landmark buildings (Hwangnyongsa, the 9 story wood temple in Kyong Ju, burned to the ground by Genghis Khan’s soldiers, and the scorched earth tactics of the Hideyoshi invasions, for example) has shaped the Korean character, as it would any nation unifying when attacked. This gives rise to the perception that “Uri nara” somehow means we are separate. It derives from historic and cultural influences over a 5,000 year period.




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  25. Ma Pae says, “It derives from historic and cultural influences over a 5,000 year period.” Do you have reliable informaton about Korea three, four, and five thousand years ago?




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  26. Korea does not have have “5000 years of history.” At best, they have around 2500 of history, and even that is disputed.

    Also, Korean did not face “constant war.” This is a myth perpetrated by nationalistic education in South Korea. Korean history was relativily serene, especially compared to European history.




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  27. The whole World knows that Korea is not 5,000 years old, only all north, and foolish aouth Koreans believe that. If it had some substance, it might even be a myth. Not even China would teach their children such a lie. Unfortunately, the Korean peninsula twins actually believe this lie.

    Can you imagine if the Ancient Egyptians actually met the “5,000” year old Korean race?

    Why by now, even Mesopatania would have eaten Kimchi thousands of years ago.

    THat is why current day DPRK is dangerous. It is full of Koreans who actually believe that they are “pure” and ancient.




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  28. Back to the subject matter. If we must bomb them, then bomb their palatial Gardens with knowledge. Those living outside the garden have access to information. Unfortunately they starve to death before going to the Den of thieves. Bombard those within Pyonyang with pamphlets. They always claim that U.S. drones fly over Pyongyang nightly.

    SOO FLY THEM!!

    Call thier bluff and make it true.




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  29. Glans: a very interesting point. However, without knowing the full facts behind North Korean logistics (and response times), my assumption would be that the North Korean case is drastically different. For instance, precision bombing in 1944 is somewhat different from the precision bombing we have today. Unless the North Koreans had foreknowledge of an attack (or we have faulty intelligence), collateral damage may be less of an issue today than it was in 1944.

    Second, the Germans at that point of time were literally years into a massive bombing campaign that had most likely fine tuned their repair operations; for the North Koreans, I’m not sure that this may be the case. Not to underestimate North Korean readiness, but a good indicator of North Korean response times is the Ryongchon train explosion, which neutralized a major train depot. Satellite photos taken five days after the incident show that the North Koreans were still trying to get the mess sorted out. Yes, there is an apples to oranges factor here (the North Koreans would probably be more hasty in the case of a bombed concentration camp) but if they had trouble at one of the major rail transit points, how much trouble will they have in remote northern areas?

    Third, most of these camps are situated in the remotest parts of North Korea – Camp 22 being the most interesting, both inaccessible yet only twenty clicks from the Chinese border. Trying to get reinforcements in would be more difficult than say, if the camps were situated in Hwanghaedo.

    Going back to point #1, I’ve been mulling over this a few days. If we can’t convince the Pakistani public, ten years later, that 9/11 wasn’t an Israeli job, how the hell are we going to win the information war within North Korea if we start bombing their palaces?




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  30. Ditto81 wrote:

    The whole World knows that Korea is not 5,000 years old, only all north, and foolish aouth Koreans believe that.

    The old chestnut of five millennia remark is hyperbole, the kind commonly found in cultural pronouncements and tourist literature. Coming from a professional and academic background that supposedly trades in facts where we can find them, I find such hyperbole grating.

    But how much is it believed? Break down what South Koreans learn in school, and Tan’gun established Kojosŏn 4343 years ago, not 5000. Whether a Tan’gunist believes the creation myth of simply understands Tan’gun as an ancient chieftain controlling a wide area, that falls a bit short of 5000. South Koreans also learn that there really wasn’t any real surviving written record about the place until about 300 BCE.

    This also begs the question: At what point does “history” begin? During the past eight to ten millennia or so of archaeological evidence of various degrees of cultural activity (primitive whaling and pottery and agriculture on up), where do we say history began?




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  31. Korean prehistory – Wikipedia says we have some knowledge of preliterate Korea:

    “The Jeulmun Pottery Period is an archaeological era in Korean prehistory that dates to approximately 8000-1500 BCE. It is named after the decorated pottery vessels that form a large part of the pottery assemblage consistently over the above period, especially 4000-2000 BC. Jeulmun (Hangul: 즐문, Hanja: 櫛文) means ‘Comb-patterned’. A boom in the archaeological excavations of Jeulmun Period sites since the mid-1990s has increased knowledge about this important formative period in the prehistory of East Asia.”

    Note that time range, 8000-1500 BCE. 5000 years ago would be in the Middle Jeulmun. The article doesn’t single out any event at that time that could be considered an origin of Korea.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeulmun_pottery_period




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