Listening to panel discussions and reading articles about the current standoff, I’m struck by the general tendency to regard the South Koreans only as bystanders, or as potential victims of a US-DPRK clash. It is nowhere stronger than in South Korea itself.
It’s high time America recognized the key role that its ally has played in bringing the crisis to this point – and the role it can and must now play in helping to contain it.
I’m not referring to the billions of dollars in unilateral aid that went into the North’s armament program, but rather to three South Korean administrations’ commitment to the June 15 Joint Declaration (2000) – and especially to the part in which both Koreas pledged to work “among our own people” (uri minjok kkiri) toward a confederation.
Note that while the agreement hinted at a compromise between the South’s old, pro forma proposal of a very loose league (yŏnhap) and the North’s call for a “low-level confederation” (najŭn tangye ŭi yŏnbangje), the latter concept is more often referred to. This although Kim Il Sung, who originated it in 1960, is on East Bloc record as admitting that confederation would mean the swift end of the South Korean state. More on all that later.
In 2012 Moon, confident of victory in that year’s election, pledged that the next government would “definitely realize a North-South league or low-level confederation.” In June 2017 he called for legislation that would bind all South Korean administrations to the summit agreements of 2000 and 2007.
I will deal with this topic in two parts, starting with
Part 1: An Analogy
A woman hires a man – let’s call him Sam – to protect her from the stalker next door. The new bodyguard takes up residence in her house, much to the neighbor’s fury.
One day she returns home, smiling broadly, to tell Sam that she and the neighbor have formally agreed to court each other with a view to marriage – “and not be put off by meddlers.”
“Meddlers?” Sam repeats. “That sounds like it’s directed against me. As if I were keeping you two apart.”
“Nonsense,” she replies brightly. “It’s the only way to calm him down. It would be an open marriage anyway. We’d continue to live separately.”
“Yes, but if you’re married, and he breaks in, I can hardly…”
“Relax. I know him better than you do.”
But sure enough, the neighbor goes around town touting the agreement as an anti-bodyguard one, and threatening to attack Sam’s family.
After a few weeks the woman returns home with a black eye. “He didn’t mean it,” she sobs. “Your presence here frightens him. It’s my fault too; I’ve been cool to the poor fellow lately.”
“Don’t tell me you’re sticking to that agreement?”
“Of course I am.”
“That’ll just give him the wrong idea. He’s already broken the deal by assaulting you.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“And what about my family?” Sam cries out, exasperated. “He says he’ll attack my home.”
“I’ll play go-between, and tell him to go easy on you.” She looks critically at him for a moment. “You’re not going to bail on me now, Sam?”
“After all we’ve been through? Never!”
While she sleeps serenely in her bedroom, Sam sits in the living room, wringing his hands. Suddenly, brightening, he says to himself, “I know! I’ll go ask his landlord for help.”
Part 2: North-South Confederation vs ROK-US Alliance
After 15 years of warning against extrapolation from the Cold War, and thinking I had made some headway, I now see the commentariat reverting to its old ways with a vengeance. It’s 1994 all over again – or worse really, because America now knows and cares even less about foreign ideologies than it did then.
Comparisons of the current standoff to the Cuban missile crisis are as dangerous as they are misinformed. Khrushchev could yield to Kennedy without the Soviet state losing its perceived right to rule, because its legitimacy had never derived wholly, or even primarily, from the perception of its military strength. In contrast, the military-first regime in Pyongyang cannot back down without making a mockery of its ideology and personality cult.
I heard another trendy line of Cold War-inspired optimism while participating in a live show on NPR the other night. I’m not oversimplifying when I say it went roughly like this: “Long ago we were afraid of China’s nukes, but it did nothing with them; we are now afraid of North Korea’s, but it will do nothing with them either.”
I’m afraid that doesn’t even rise to the level of extrapolation; it’s caveman thinking, the logic of magic. North Korea will put a stop to it soon enough. While it may not fire its missiles at anyone, it will certainly use them to aggressive ends. This will force the commentariat to turn its attention to inter-Korean issues, and we all know what sort of reassuring comparisons will then be bandied about.
My point in writing the analogy above was to get ahead of the curve, and to make clear how different divided Korea is from divided Germany.
In getting this point across, I am hampered by the almost complete lack of English-language writing on the South Korean left’s historical ties to Pyongyang. The subject seems to be no less taboo in Western news coverage of the peninsula than it is in Korean Studies.
But there’s no understanding what Pyongyang is now up to without understanding a) that the South Korean left started out as an avowedly pro-North force, organized from above the DMZ with the goal not of socializing the ROK but of eliminating it, b) that Kim Il Sung was the idol of the protest movement of the 1980s and 1990s, many former leaders of which now sit in the top echelons of government, and c) that the South Korean left has never developed an anti-totalitarian tradition of the sort exemplified by Western leftists like Orwell.
Since the famine of the 1990s, pro-North sentiment has merely cooled into the anti-anti-North kind; instead of praising the other state, one criticizes its critics. The Kim regime’s behavior is now so egregious as to force the Moon administration to lodge sporadic formal complaints, if only for American ears, yet like the left-wing media it continues putting an apologetic spin on everything. (The missile launches are but efforts to unify the domestic public, etc.)
This brings me to the “open marriage” referred to in the analogy above. It was on 14 August 1960 that Kim Il Sung, emulating East German proposals to the Federal Republic, first called for
a North-South Korean confederation as a temporary measure…. Let us implement a method whereby, preserving the political systems of North and South Korea in their current state for the time being, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the government of the Republic of Korea maintain their independent activities, while a supreme national council made up of representatives of both governments manages mainly the economic and cultural development of North and South Korea in a unified manner. (From a Rodong Sinmun article of 15 August 1960 quoted by 배정호 in 연방제 통일과 평화협정, Hyungseul, Seoul, 2016.)
No wonder the Chang Myun government rejected this proposal outright, just as Adenauer had rejected a deutsch-deutsche Konföderation. To accept it would have been to recognize North Korea as an equally legitimate state. Chang also knew that Kim expected the two contingents at any such council to be equal in size, despite the South’s far larger population. While the North’s delegates would form an ideologically unified and unchanging bloc, the South would have to follow democratic procedures in appointing its own. If such a body were to effect the transition to unification, it was all too obvious what kind of state would result.
As we now know from declassified East Bloc archives, Kim Il Sung admitted to his Bulgarian counterpart in 1973 that
if they listen to us and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.
The South’s rejection of the proposal did not stop Pyongyang from routinely renewing calls for it under slightly different names. Its patience paid off when Kim Dae Jung moved into the Blue House. In 2000 the new term “low-level confederation” featured in the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration:
The North and the South, recognizing that a proposal for a low-level confederation [yŏnbangje] advanced by the North side and a proposal for a North-South league [yŏnhap] put forth by the South side for the reunification of the country have elements in common, agreed to work for the reunification in this direction in the future.
[One translation in circulation refers to a low-stage federation – a choice of words that, even with the qualifier attached, implies a greater loss of each signatory’s sovereignty than either would have signed off on. I also find “low-level” preferable, if only slightly so.]
The wording is vague enough to allow each Korea to work only in the direction of its own proposal. Still, the agreement runs counter to the South Korean constitution, according to which the republic extends over the length and breadth of the peninsula. One must also keep in mind Pyongyang’s line that no substantial improvement of inter-Korean ties (and therefore no confederation) can take place before the withdrawal of US troops.
The South Korean left, however, has since 2000 used the terms confederation and league interchangeably. It has also persisted in interpreting the summit agreement, despite the North’s violations of it in word and spirit, as binding the South to the realization of such a union.
Although the electorate’s interest in the issue was never great, and dwindled away after the Kim Jong Il regime’s twin attacks of 2010, Moon Jae-in repeatedly renewed his party’s commitment to a North-South yŏnhap or yŏnbangje. (To encourage this talk, Pyongyang began referring to the yŏnhap–yŏnbangje method of unification, as if some hybrid had been agreed upon.)
In 2012, less than two years after the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, Moon Jae-in said that the very next (progressive) government would “definitely” bring about a confederation / league. Asked during his 2017 campaign if he supported the North’s proposal, he responded by describing the differences between the two plans as insignificant. Since then, as I already mentioned, he has proposed legislation binding South Korean presidents to the summit agreements of 2000 and 2007.
I have no interest in imputing sinister, “North-obeying” motives to the current South Korean administration. It may simply be obtuse to the constitutional implications of the confederation proposal, or confident that it can keep the upper hand in any such set-up. It’s always difficult with appeasers to figure out where sympathy for the other side ends, and underestimation of its intelligence begins. I refer my readers to that ghastly Aesop fable — so deeply insulting to the Sun of the Nation, so richly expressive of bad faith — from which Kim Dae Jung took the name for a policy aimed at building mutual trust and respect. (Don’t get me started again on our own softliners’ public calls for “subversive engagement.”)
My point is that whatever the South Korean left may believe, it has never conveyed to Pyongyang that firm support for liberal-democratic values which West Germany’s social democrats, even at the height of Ostpolitik, conveyed to East Berlin. It seems only natural, in retrospect, that the Sunshine Policy should have done more to spur on the North’s armament than to discourage it. The weaker the government in Seoul appeared, and the readier it became to abase itself, the more it seemed to confirm the North’s belief that the US military presence was the only obstacle to an easy takeover. Hence the need to develop the capability to strike American territory as soon as possible, in line with Kim Il Sung’s conviction that the Yankees would pull out rather than risk getting a taste of their own medicine.
South Korea has succeeded in making the world see it as a bystander caught up in the current standoff, as if it were extraneous to some fundamental ideological animosity between Pyongyang and Washington. Here too a role is played by the misperception of North Korea as a communist state, and the DMZ as the last front line of the Cold War.
In fact the ultra-nationalist regime’s only real problem with the US is its perceived obstruction of unification. The end of the alliance would remove the cause of hostility – and weaken the North’s hand considerably even if it didn’t, because the US would be able to strike it without worrying about a retaliation against Seoul.
At present the North is heightening pressure on both the US and South Korea, in the expectation that one partner to the alliance will break ranks. The strategy is not unrealistic. Seoul is likely to balk soon at some hardline measure or military action of Washington’s. Such perceived disloyalty could well encourage the Trump administration to cut a Paris Accords type deal with Pyongyang, as so many millions of South Korean conservatives already fear will happen. (“It’ll be fine for you,” an elderly Busanite said to me the other day, “but where do we go?”)
Things don’t need to get to that point. The bodyguard in the analogy has a right to make the continuance of his protection contingent upon the woman’s ceasing to send the wrong messages to her neighbor. The United States has as much of a right — and a duty to its own citizens — to demand that South Korea disabuse the North of the false hopes that pledges of confederation have encouraged.
UPDATE: 17 August 2017: Moon Jae-in’s August 15 Address
I’ve always found it odd that South Koreans would want to celebrate their transition from colonial rule to military occupation. For those who don’t know the history, the latter was administered from 1945-48 with all the cultural sensibility for which we Americans are so famous. Things changed for the better, but that’s not saying much, considering what Koreans had been through in the last year of the Pacific War. In one passage in Kim Sŏng-ch’il’s diary, he records his burning humiliation at being pushed out of a military-operated public transport vehicle by an American soldier. The gist of his reflection: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss — when do we get our country back?
It says a lot about South Koreans’ lack of identification with their republic, a problem relevant to discussion of the nuclear crisis, that they should still consider August 15, 1945 worthier of commemoration than August 15, 1948, the date the holiday was created to honor.
To return to my parable: I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect validation of it than the address Moon Jae-in delivered last Tuesday. Simply put, the woman told her stalker that as long as she had any say in the matter, her bodyguard would never lay a hand on him; and that she would respond peacefully to whatever he chose to do, struggle being out of the question. She also indirectly reiterated her commitment to that open marriage.
The text can be read in full here.
Like a well-tapped croquet ball, Moon’s address sailed high over most Western pundits’ heads, but conservatives here were quick to remark on his pose as a mere intermediary between North Korea and the US, and one more interested in protecting the former from the latter than vice versa. “Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action [on the peninsula].” Except North Korea of course. Chŏng Kyu-je spoke of an “anti-alliance” address.
Yi Hae-sŏng, a young podcaster, was one of many conservatives who lamented Moon’s reference to 1919 as the year in which the Republic of Korea was established. With those and other words, the president declared himself the heir to a nationalist and not a constitutional-democratic tradition, a man who will rule more in the spirit of the exile government that strove to liberate the minjok than of the republic that joined America in resisting North Korean aggression.
Last autumn’s candlelight demonstrators were posited in the anti-Japanese tradition, the implication being that Park Geun-hye and her supporters had betrayed the race, much as Pyongyang’s propaganda had asserted. Clearly, the kungmin chugwŏn of which Moon spoke – “popular sovereignty” in the English translation – does not mean democratic consensus or majority rule. It means the minsim or volonté générale as represented by nationalist-left citizens, whether they are in the majority or not. Children here learn in their history textbooks that it finds its noblest expression outside the parliamentary system. This is the same force which, in defiance of opinion polls supporting the installation of the anti-missile system, has set up roadblocks around the THAAD site, and presumes to stop and check even police cars.
So reluctant is Moon to praise the republic for anything, to credit the system with having worked, that he endorses the myth according to which Park was toppled as directly by demonstrators as Rhee had been in 1960. The Constitutional Court, we are to infer, simply put its finger in the wind – an inference supported by the astonishing text of the ruling, with its references to news reports and public indignation. Heading to work on the most important day in the court’s history, the chief judge walked past the flashing cameras with her hair in curlers, making plain how much dignity she ascribed to her own office — and, by extension, to the state itself. The press loved it.
Make no mistake, South Korea has no more in common with West Germany than Kim Jong Un has in common with Erich Honecker. The sooner we all stop extrapolating from the Cold War, the better.