During the election campaign in spring 2017 the main presidential candidates agreed on the need to curtail the “royal presidency.” All made the same pledge: If elected they would work towards seeing some form of revised constitution through the National Assembly, so that South Koreans could vote on it during the local elections in June 2018.
Here’s what the constitution (1987) says about amendments:
(1) A proposal to amend the Constitution shall be introduced either by a majority of the total members of the National Assembly or by the President.
(2) Amendments to the Constitution for the extension of the term of office of the President or for a change allowing for the reelection of the President shall not be effective for the President in office at the time of the proposal for such amendments to the Constitution.
Proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be put before the public by the President for twenty days or more.
(1) The National Assembly shall decide upon the proposed amendments within sixty days of the public announcement, and passage by the National Assembly shall require the concurrent vote of two thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly.
(2) The proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be submitted to a national referendum not later than thirty days after passage by the National Assembly, and shall be determined by more than one half of all votes cast by more than one half of voters eligible to vote in elections for members of the National Assembly.
(3) When the proposed amendments to the Constitution receive the concurrence prescribed in paragraph (2), the amendments to the Constitution shall be finalized, and the President shall promulgate it without delay.
In early 2017 a year seemed enough time to wrap up the relevant public discussion and see a draft through the National Assembly to a referendum, in accordance with the stipulations above. But no sooner had Moon been elected than the opposition began telling him not to rush things. In fact it fears the symbiotic effects of holding the referendum and local elections on the same day, June 13; the more important the day’s voting appears, the more young people will turn out. It also wants to postpone the public discussion until Moon’s approval ratings go in the direction all his predecessors’ have.
The opposition has thus ignored requests to present its own proposed amendments to the National Assembly, which may leave Moon with no choice but to introduce his own proposal (as Article 128 allows him to). The conservative press has criticized the opposition for giving the impression of blocking all constitutional reform.
As for the Minjoo, its interest in weakening the Blue House has declined markedly since its own man moved in. Its proposal to have the constitution stipulate American-type term limits (4+4) may enjoy strong public support, but it wouldn’t necessarily make the presidency less “royal.” Moon’s term would not be affected anyway; see the second clause of Article 128.
The ruling party’s push for constitutional revision now presents itself mainly as an effort to decentralize the republic, so as to give the provinces and special cities more power over their own affairs. By calling for decentralization Moon conveys at least the superficial impression of a readiness to curtail his own powers, but his main interest in this change is in facilitating North-South confederation, which could be put over more easily as a coming together of provinces than of states.
Ever since the Pyongyang summit of 2000 the left has sporadically called for a “unification-preparatory” (t’ongil taebi) constitution, and extolled the benefits of greater provincial autonomy in this context. Last year saw an increase in press editorials and public discussions conveying the same message.
For example, at a conference in Daegu in July 2017 one presenter spoke on how constitutional revision could expedite unification.
The greatest ill in South Korean society is the extreme concentration of power…[It] must be spread out among provinces and special cities at the level of a federation if North Korean authorities and intellectuals are to be given the latitude to be able to think about unification. The most realistic proposal for unification is for North and South to create a unified state out of multiple regional governments with a high degree of autonomy.
Naturally the ruling party doesn’t try to sell decentralization to the general public in those terms, but the above is not a fringe opinion in intellectual circles. Our journalists pay too much attention to South Korean polls indicating widespread aversion to unification, or even to aiding the North; they seem to think Moon has to heed them. Does our own government heed the polls on gun control? More attention should be paid to the perhaps disproportionate influence wielded inside the candlelight camp by people who want unification sooner rather than later.
Across the country, town-hall meetings are now taking place to drum up support for the “decentralizing” reform, mainly with arguments of an economic nature. The goal at the moment is to get 10 million citizens to sign a petition urging the National Assembly to vote for it. That may seem a lot, but in one month alone last fall, 10 million signatures were rounded up in favor of enshrining “agricultural values.”
At this point I should warn against assuming that the forces for constitutional reform are neatly divided between a) left-wing supporters of “unification-preparatory” amendments and b) right-wing supporters of assembly-empowering amendments. The situation is more complex.
Many lawmakers and commentators on the left have long supported the shift to a parliamentary system, which — as Yi Hae-ch’an made clear in 2006 when he was premier — is compatible with a “unification-preparatory” constitution. They may intend to push for a second, more substantial constitutional revision at the time of parliamentary elections in spring 2020, in the hope that power can then be more safely shared between Moon and a National Assembly under left control.
By the same token, many conservative advocates of a parliamentary system also support decentralization. The prospect of greater regional autonomy and thousands more civil-service jobs exerts such a strong appeal on the right-leaning southeast that it might overlook even the distinctly left-wing amendments the ruling party is now proposing.
A spokesperson made these public on February 1 at a gathering of Minjoo lawmakers, among whom they had already been discussed. Most conformed to proposals made a month earlier by a (left-stacked) citizens’ advisory committee.
What made headlines on both occasions was the one regarding Article 4.
The original version:
The Republic of Korea shall seek national unification, and shall formulate and carry out a peaceful unification policy based on the free and democratic basic order.
Just as the advisory committee had recommended, the Minjoo spokesperson announced a proposal to amend this to:
The Republic of Korea shall seek national unification, and shall formulate and carry out a peaceful unification policy based on the democratic basic order.
Article 1 has always defined South Korea simply as a “democratic republic,” so the deletion of the word free/liberal (chayu) from Article 4 would not be as dramatic an assault on the nature of the state as all that. Besides, in South Korea as in many other countries the term free/liberal democracy has more distinctly right-leaning or capitalist connotations than it does in the US.
Still, the proposed deletion changes the whole meaning of Article 4. The original version appears to call on the South to seek the extension of its own “free and democratic” order over the whole peninsula. In contrast, the amended version can be read simply as a call to pursue peaceful unification with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the word democracy on its own being open to the loosest interpretations.
Announcing the proposed amendment at 6:45 pm on February 1, the Minjoo’s spokesperson explained that the goal was to broaden the sense of democracy. Having complained for weeks about the advisory committee’s proposed deletion of the same word, the right rushed to make its indignation public.
Almost four hours later, at 10:30 pm, the Minjoo Party released a statement saying that “because there are many articles” the spokesperson had erred. The draft for a new constitution would retain the current wording for Article 4.
More interesting than the excuse for that volte-face was the would-be reassuring information that of 120 Minjoo lawmakers polled, about 70 had expressed opposition to the deletion of “free.” Meaning about 50 had been fine with it.
On the other hand, the ruling party held firm to its proposal to change the preamble. The current version starts off as follows.
We, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Revolution of 1960….
The Minjoo proposes extending that last bit to include the Busan-Masan uprising against Park Chung Hee’s rule in 1979, the Gwangju uprising of 1980 and the candlelight movement of 2016-2017.
The challenge for me here is to help other Americans understand the discussion without digressing into history. Let’s imagine that the preamble to our constitution explicitly committed the USA to the ideals of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Few of us would find that hugely problematic, the civil rights movement having long since ceased to be identified with any one political camp.
Enshrining the protests against the Vietnam War would be another matter. Even the many Americans (probably a majority) who now agree the war was wrong would not want the constitution taking a side in what is still a lively debate between legitimate political camps.
This is how South Korean conservatives feel about the proposed change to the preamble, and all the more so because the left-wing jealously guards the Gwangju uprising as its very own tragic-heroic hour. (Even center-right politicians have been made to feel unwelcome at the annual ceremonies.) The candlelight protests too – which an important legal document would surely have to admit were LED-light protests – are already remembered as an anti-right movement. The conservative journalists and lawmakers who did so much to oust Park have been written out of the official history.
Other proposed amendments commit the state to do more for equality, workers’ rights, social welfare, etc; the right opposes these as well, claiming that a socialist state is being planned, although they don’t seem to me all that radical, or necessarily relevant to inter-Korean relations.
Also controversial is the proposal to change the word citizen to person throughout the text. Considering how quickly Moon cracked down on illegal immigrants, there’s probably more to it than the party’s professed commitment to a more inclusive society. Critics trace it back to the protest movement’s hostility to the state. They also note that the constitution put out by the self-described “people-centric” regime in Pyongyang also refers to saram and not kungmin.
In short, many conservatives see the ruling party’s proposed amendments as an effort not to make the presidency less “royal,” but rather to identify the constitution with the left, de-legitimize conservatism, and lay the groundwork for North-South confederation. Their fears are easier to understand in view of calls by prominent Minjoo Party members to “wipe out” the conservatives, or at least to ensure that the left stays in power for 20 more years.
Considering that the main opposition party alone has more than enough seats to block any constitutional revision, it’s remarkable how little effort the ruling party is making to win it over. At the very least one would expect less polarizing rhetoric and more emphasis on the benefits of decentralization for all South Koreans.
Instead Kim Min-seok, the chairman of a Minjoo think tank, told a gathering of journalists on February 18 that the constitution must be changed so as to align it with the values represented by “legitimate forces” such as Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. This as opposed to the line and values of “Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Park Geun-hye and … Lee Myung Bak,” who together represent “anti-democracy, treason, collaboration with Japan, [North-South] division and the Cold War.”
In other words, the only legitimate South Korean president not distinctly on the left of the spectrum was Kim Young Sam. Note also the familiar insinuation that only progressives carry on the tradition of the anti-colonial struggle. Make that: only progressives and the regime in Pyongyang.
The contrast to divided Germany is thought-provoking. For all the differences between the two West German camps, the social democrats generally felt ideologically closer to the Christian democrats than to East Germany. In contrast, South Korea’s nationalist left has always felt more ideological affinity with ultra-nationalist North Korea than with the “traitorous” right.
The implications for the US-ROK alliance become more obvious and troubling when one keeps in mind that conservatism now boils down here to pro-American security-mindedness.
The in-your-face nature of some of the left’s proposed amendments has had the effect of not only uniting conservatives behind the drive for a parliamentary system, but also inducing them to speed things up. Influential commentators and “non-Lee”/pro-Park lawmakers who had hitherto opposed it are now going with the flow. Their reasoning is that the left’s proposal cannot be effectively countered so long as the right is squabbling over its own vision for change.
There has been much speculation as to whether Moon really wants to get the constitution changed on June 13 or merely to trap conservatives into playing the villains. It’s very hard to tell, especially now that the Minjoo has just announced proposals for giving the National Assembly more say over things like cabinet appointments and the budget. Perhaps it will keep adding proposals in piecemeal fashion to the president’s draft until it feels confident of getting 2/3 of the assembly behind it. The draft is expected to come out in full in mid-March.
If a compromise cannot be reached and the draft is rejected in the National Assembly, a public backlash against the conservative opposition may well ensue, carrying the ruling party to a solid victory in the mid-June local elections. Moon could then present this as a mandate for all his policies.
The danger for him, however, is that supporters of a parliamentary system, perhaps including some Minjoo lawmakers, would continue to push for it regardless. If 2/3 of the National Assembly were to vote later on for the relevant amendments, Moon would become a lame duck at once. Were a majority of citizens to vote for them in the ensuing referendum, the new constitution would go into immediate effect. Some experts go so far as to say the current president would then lose all right to rule, on the grounds that he was elected in 2017 to lead a different system. (With the same logic one could argue that the members of the current, “weak” National Assembly should run again for election before exercising different functions.) At the very least there would be a new and more powerful premier.
Such a turn of events seems unlikely now, but should Moon’s approval rating drop below 50%, there’s no telling what might happen.
Kim Jong Un knows all this as well as Moon does, which is another reason why inter-Korean talks have gone so smoothly. (An Asahi report seems to confirm my earlier assumption that the Olympic activities were agreed upon last year.) Kim Jong Il’s ostentatiously cold reception of Roh Moo Hyun in October 2007 in Pyongyang indicated that he expected the South Korean left to win the ensuing election anyway. Kim Jong Un, whose rule is under greater pressure from sanctions, seems unlikely to make that sort of mistake. Whatever Pyongyang can get from Seoul, it will try to get as fast as sanctions, the alliance, and Moon’s approval ratings permit.
[The rapid pace at which the two governments on the peninsula are now pursuing rapprochement has much to do with the looming struggle in the South over constitutional reform, an issue to which the foreign press has so far paid little attention. In this part I will introduce the right’s push for a parliamentary system and the role it played in the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. In the next part I will explain the left’s push for a “unification-preparatory” constitution.]
When the former US senator and presidential candidate Mike Gravel talked to my class in Busan several years ago, he praised South Korea’s constitution for allowing more room for direct democracy than the American one. My students nodded benignly enough, but were unmoved. People here feel no great love for their constitution, which was promulgated in 1948 and revised in 1987, under Chun Doo Hwan’s rule. Not that average people can put their finger on what they don’t like about the actual text. At most you tend to hear calls for an American-style system of two four-year terms for presidents, instead of limiting them to one five-year stretch.
In the political elite, on the other hand, there has long been support for changing the presidential system to a parliamentary one, in which most executive power resides in a premier chosen by the National Assembly, while a president elected by direct popular vote handles foreign policy and exercises a symbolic unifying function. This change is necessary, advocates say, in order to end the chronic abuse of power attendant upon the “royal presidency.”
Perhaps some lawmakers really do want the constitution revised for that noble reason. Although there is less disgusting outward pomp to the office here than in the USA, the South Korean president has some powers broader than our own — in regard to the budget, cabinet appointments, pardons and so on. Still, it must be kept in mind that the majority of advocates of the parliamentary system are now on the right side of the aisle, and revere the memory of the very “royal” Park Chung Hee.
The cynic in the street is probably right in assuming that the idea of such a set-up appeals to many in the National Assembly because it would mean a widening of the trough, or at least of opportunities to play premier or minister for several months. Despite the unpopularity of the current system, most South Koreans would rather have to keep a close eye on one president than on hundreds of lawmakers. Older folk also remember the dismal experiment with the parliamentary system in 1960-1961. Opinion polls have thus shown consistent opposition to the restoration of it. This was Kim Dae Jung’s reason (or excuse) for not fulfilling his campaign pledge to make the presidency less “royal” if elected.
Not until Park Geun-hye’s presidency (2013-2017) did the issue make a strong comeback. Conservatives in the National Assembly were then roughly divisible into a faction loyal to Park and one loyal to her predecessor Lee Myung Bak. Naturally his followers had learned to like the presidential system during his occupancy of the Blue House (2008-2013), only to find it inherently despotic again the moment Park took over. What really worried them was the likelihood that she would take revenge for the “nomination massacres” that had occurred during Lee’s rule, when he had excluded many of her followers from candidacies in parliamentary elections.
Sure enough, there ensued the “nomination massacre” of spring 2016, in which even some of the most popular pro-Lee or “non-Park” politicians were bypassed for nominations in favor of the president’s people. From then on calls for a parliamentary system grew in intensity until the Lee-conservative press broke the story of the Choi Soon-sil scandal in the autumn of 2016.
It was just what many pols had been waiting for: a chance to get the public so angry about the status quo that it would finally sign off on a whole new system of government. Conservatives were confident they could remove Park with left-wing help without losing the presidency altogether. They would simply make the returning hero Ban Ki-moon their candidate while pushing hard for constitutional revision, then trounce Moon in the election. What could go wrong?
The bipartisan nature of the push to impeach Park was what led most South Koreans and foreign journalists to assume that either a) the political scene was finally cleaning up its act or b) she had abused power to a particularly heinous extent.
The evidence has turned out to be thinner than was initially believed. The tablet PC on which Choi allegedly edited Park’s Dresden speech had so obviously been tampered with that the court did not consider it in Choi’s trial. It is still unclear how Park’s pressuring of businesses to contribute to this or that national team or foundation differed to a criminal degree from established presidential practices. We have to wait and see, but the recent decision to charge her even with meddling in her own party’s nominations suggests a desperation to find things that will stick. While she may well have deserved impeachment by absolute standards, she was probably less deserving of it than a few of her predecessors.
Someday the role sexism played in the grass-roots fury will be acknowledged. Average people intuited from the start that Park had not been out to enrich herself. What bothered them more than the allegations of corruption was the thought of her being incompetent enough to rely for political and foreign-policy advice on another woman, and a mere housewife at that. This is reflected in many of the jeering songs, pictures and performances that were thought hilariously funny during the candlelight protests. (A “satirical” painting of Park with legs splayed in a gynecological chair had come out in 2012.) As Americans will realize very soon, these aren’t liberals in our sense of the word.
But however the South Korean public was strung along is beside the point. It was conservatives who provided the votes needed to oust Park (and then some), thereby demonstrating, ironically enough, how far from royal the presidency really is. I’m guessing this was the first time in history that the right carried out the wishes of the North’s Rodong Sinmun, which was already demanding and predicting Park’s impeachment in the spring of 2016.
Naturally Park followers and security-minded right-wingers now feel animosity for the “traitors” whom they see as having handed the republic to the left on a platter. What went wrong? The constitutional court upheld Park’s impeachment after a much shorter review than expected, leaving no time for a discussion of constitutional reform; Ban Ki-moon withdrew from contention, for reasons I needn’t go into; the main conservative party nominated a man repellent to most people under 60; and Moon sailed to victory in May 2017 if not to a majority of votes.
The once bipartisan pretense that removing Park was a non-ideological response to her abuses of power is now upheld only by the right-wing impeachers and the foreign press. Upon his election Moon appointed several Gangnam leftists with records of tax avoidance, real-estate speculation, and the Choi-like pulling of strings on relatives’ behalf. This prompted much use of the crypto-Sinitic compound naero nambul, short for “When I cheat, it’s romance, when others do, it’s adultery.”
The left has since boldly reinvented the 2016 candlelight protests as a revolutionary outpouring of mass support for its whole ideological package. Accordingly the trendy pejorative “accumulated ill” (chŏkp’ye), which in 2016 referred to a manifestation of deep-seated corruption, cronyism, etc, is now used in formulations such as: “The closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone was an accumulated ill.”
The Unification Minister and several other Pyongyang watchers in Seoul have come up with various reasons why the regime’s decision to stage a military parade on the eve of the “Peace Olympics” should not be seen as a sign of bad faith. The consensus is that the two events are unrelated.
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said it would be “preposterous” to assume the Olympics are the reason for holding a military parade, saying Pyongyang has its own political calendar. The professor noted that the decision to change the military anniversary was made by North Korea’s supreme decision-making body, the Political Bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee. “However much reclusive North Korea has been, it is still a country run by its own rules and organizations,” the professor said. (Korea Herald, 24 January 2018)
I don’t know Professor Yang, but I’m wary of assuming he was properly quoted or summarized here. Needless to say, the actual supreme decision-making body in North Korea is Kim Jong Un. Yet I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more journalism and commentary in this vein in the months ahead.
By having so many officials killed on his own orders, Kim has made it impossible even for the most fanatical softliners to go on presenting him as a reform-minded dove constrained by military hawks. We are now to believe something different: that while he can abandon his hawkishness at short notice if treated right, the one-party state will need more time to come around. All encouraging developments are thus to be credited to Kim, all unpleasant ones blamed on the System (unless blamable on Washington).
Still, there’s more at work here than just apologetics. The tendency to overestimate the importance of formal hierarchy and procedure in dictatorships has long been common in the West. (See for example the focus on party congresses in Soviet studies, which Boris Groys has complained about.) While this face-value approach makes research much easier, it also reflects an honest misperception of the total-minded dictatorship of the left or right as an all-controlling, inflexible, total state, “run by its own rules and regulations.”
In vain have political thinkers tried to disabuse people of this fallacy. Although Hannah Arendt is better known, the best writer on this subject was Hans Buchheim, who passed away in 2016. Since his classic work Totalitäre Herrschaft (Munich 1962) and the English version Totalitarian Rule (which I don’t own) have been out of print for many years, I can perhaps get away with translating a few key excerpts relevant to North Korea:
True totalitarian thinking is anti-state in the most general sense of the word, because it represents the antithesis of the state form of the exercise of power…. The totalitarian movement … claims to represent only the will of the people or the class, and divests the state of its essence as a sovereign legal institution. (p.110)
The totalitarian movement enslaves the state…. The state’s function is essentially of a regulative or normative nature: It gives order to political life…. The aim of the totalitarian movement is diametrically opposed to this … every norm appears to it as the hindrance of its own leeway and freedom of decision. (p.113-114)
It is a dangerous error to regard totalitarian rule as an excess of state power, when in reality the state, and political life if rightly understood, belong to the most important preconditions for protection from the danger of totalitarianism. (p.118)
These points are all valid for the regime in Pyongyang too, even though it was installed more or less whole instead of attaining power through a movement.
Granted, the Workers’ Party is a step above the republic in the hierarchy, but in such dictatorships the ruling party — as Buchheim points out (p.112) — is but another of the external forms that the totalitarian leadership assumes and discards at will. How little the WP’s statutes matter in North Korea can be seen by the infrequency of its ostensibly quinquennial congresses, as well as by the unorthodox way Kim Jong Il became General Secretary in 1997. Even the word “became” is too suggestive of something higher than him. Better to say “began calling himself.”
The idea of any party body in North Korea even attempting on its own initiative to change a military holiday, let alone call a massive number of troops and weapons into the capital city, is far-fetched enough. That it would succeed in overriding the Supreme Commander’s own wishes, however mildly he might have expressed them, is out of the question.
We have also been hearing that the parade of February 8 has nothing to do with the Olympics because a) the restoration of this day for commemorating the KPA’s founding took place in 2015, after a 37-year interval, and b) 2018 marks a “round” year in special need of a big splash. The obvious retort is to ask why the Kim Jong Il regime, for all its militarism, saw no reason to restore the holiday in time for the much “rounder” anniversary in 1998. Besides, in 2015 everyone already knew when and where the 2018 Winter Olympics would take place.
In line with an older tradition of South Korean apologism is the effort of the Unification Minister and other Pyongyang watchers to argue that the parade is no cause for alarm because these displays of resolve and might are merely for “domestic propaganda use,” for “unifying the North Korean people,” or for “maintaining the system.”
This recalls the wishful approach to propaganda with which many foreigners and even German Jews deceived themselves in the first years of the Third Reich. “Anti-Semitism,” they argued, “is too central to the legitimacy and popularity of Nazism for the regime not to profess it constantly in the strongest terms. Were Hitler to give the Judenhetze a rest even for a month or two, the public backlash would be swift and harsh. Yet we aren’t to worry too much, because he can’t possibly intend to act on that nonsense.”
If anything, the South Korean variant is even more irrational. After all, what the Nazis were planning was without precedent, whereas that same North Korean military whose founding is to be celebrated on February 8 once came very close to destroying the Republic of Korea.
All the same, I welcome the Moon camp’s recognition of the fact that the communication of ideology is no mere sideline or diversion for the Kim regime, but rather is crucial to its efforts to maintain mass support. If it is to survive, it has to keep putting out bellicose anti-American rhetoric, calling for unification as soon as possible, and routinely displaying its growing military strength.
Must the North do so even at times like this? Yes, especially at times like this. Kim cannot afford to let his people think that either inter-Korean talks or joint Olympic activities will undermine his commitment to routing the Yankees and unifying the homeland. Domestic political realities leave him no choice but to stay on the military-first road to “final victory.” No other way of “system maintenance” is possible over the long term.
Where I differ with South Korean softliners is in seeing in all this a very obvious and insuperable obstacle to peaceful co-existence. A regime that cannot afford to let its people think it’s warming to the rival state cannot afford to warm to it in “the real world” either. The same political realities that prevent the one thing prevent the other.
I suspect that the Moon administration’s special envoy Moon Chung-in is yet again speaking for the president, despite avowals to the contrary, when he says that if Pyongyang wants to exploit the Games for propaganda ends, the South should just let it, while making better use of them itself. Such complacency shows up the self-contradiction in the softliners’ thinking: We must acknowledge that ultra-nationalist militarism is indispensable to the Kim regime’s survival — yet we mustn’t consider the frightening implications of that indispensability.
By forbearing to march behind the yin-yang flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the South Korean athletes are making a bigger sacrifice than the North Koreans, in whose iconography the banner of the DPRK ranks lower than the party standard, which in turn ranks much lower than the Supreme Commander’s standard, the flag of the personality cult — something to which the North Korean athletes may end up paying homage anyway by wearing their leader badges.
More importantly: the peninsula flag means two very different things to the two Koreas. In the South it symbolizes a desire for peaceful co-existence, or at most for a unification of equal partners in the reassuringly remote future. In wall posters above the DMZ it has always symbolized the southern masses’ yearning for “autonomous unification,” meaning absorption by the North. It’s worrying to think how inner-track propaganda is certain to misrepresent the South Koreans’ eschewal of their state flag for this of all symbols — and at this of all events.
UPDATE: 8 February 2017
In the above posting I should have pointed out what Ha Tae-gyung, Yi Ae-ran and others have noted, namely, that North Korean calendars printed for 2018 identify April 25 as Military Foundation Day (kŏn’gunjŏl) and not February 8.
When a mathematician solves a problem for colleagues on a blackboard, he leaves out the most obvious steps, so as not to insult them. I’ve always taken a comparable approach when discussing the North’s unification drive.
Yes, I could have stated explicitly that if South Koreans wanted to be ruled by the Kim dynasty, or were so untroubled by the prospect that they would willingly dissolve the US-ROK alliance, the North would never have needed to develop nuclear weapons in the first place. I haven’t done so, because I’ve always thought that point too obvious to spell out.
Evidently I was wrong. Quite a few Westerners are now fussing over the latest ROK polls, which bespeak a growing aversion to unification, as if they rendered obsolete the notion of a North Korean commitment to subjugating the South!
We’re dealing here with something Schopenhauer recognized long ago, and Freud confirmed (yet which many ignore in their glib assertions of a rational and therefore peace-minded North): if we don’t hold our reason to high standards, our instincts and interests will have their way with it.
As someone who loves South Korea and wants to stay here, I too want the regime in Pyongyang to be all talk and no action. I too want it to be concerned only for its indefinite survival, yet somehow dumb enough to think peaceful coexistence with the thriving South is the way to go. This is probably why it took me until 2010 to understand what I should have understood much earlier.
Sustaining many Westerners’ wishful thinking is the overestimation of young South Koreans’ hostility to the North, and the conflation of it with liberal-democratic, constitutional patriotism. You’d think the acquiescence in the joint hockey team by the people directly disadvantaged would have spoken for itself. The point holds true even if the players reckon on finding the government not ungrateful later on. (In their place I would expect some lowering of the requirements for an athletic achievement pension.) “There are plenty of North-hating young’uns out there,” I’m told, “but unlike their progressive counterparts in 2016, they have other things to do than stand out in freezing weather and protest.” I would agree with that, but this tells us something about the level of their commitment too.
Let’s assume for a moment that young conservatives now outnumber those fervent Moon supporters whose slogan since early 2017 has been, and I quote, “We will do everything our Inny wants to do” (우리 이니 하고 싶은 거 다 해; forming an affectionate diminutive with the last syllable of someone’s name is especially common here in Gyeongsang, Moon’s home region). This doesn’t change the fact that the administration sees itself as executing only the will of the minsim, a candlelit whole from which anyone right of center is excluded almost by definition, or at best considered deluded, brainwashed.
This is nothing new. The nationalist left’s stock response to poll results it deems unfavorable (especially in regard to inter-Korean affairs) has always been to blame rightist propaganda and education, and to pledge to set the public straight. This is how the Moon administration has responded to these polls, which the North is hardly likely to interpret differently.
In my speech last December I stated clearly that no amount of re-education would diminish South Koreans’ support for the alliance or their aversion to unification fast enough for the North’s liking. The polls of the last few weeks — and developments like the “relayed” burning or tearing of Kim Jong Un photographs — only bear me out.
In that same speech I also warned that the young dictator’s impatience would result in efforts to force the Blue House and White House to disagree ever more fundamentally about the proper way to handle him.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the stage in which the allies now find themselves?
The signaling of deep research is often the only thing distinguishing allegedly expert analysis of North Korean politics from journalism. It tends to involve the bandying about of words that lay readers find imposing.
Confucianism is one of them. All the man in the street associates with the term is respect for the elderly and an emphasis on education, but he knows there must be more to it than that. Pyongyang watchers who describe North Korea’s hierarchical society, personality cult or hereditary succession as Confucian can therefore appear a cut above the rest.
Chances are slim that anyone will notice their failure to specify anything distinctly Confucian about those things, or to explain away their very un-Confucian aspects. The occasional Koreanist who sees through the sham will likely keep his tongue, knowing that the fallacy in question a) makes the Soviet-installed dictatorship look more like the outgrowth of a respectable tradition and b) conduces to a more benign view of the North, thanks to associations with Singapore and Asian whiz kids. The only people I see complaining are Sinologists.
Another expertise-signaler is the word juche. For decades the field has deferred to the judgment of its most prominent political scientist, which he has repeated almost verbatim in articles and books since the early 1980s.
The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning is ever-receding into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and therefore ultimately inaccessible. (Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, 2004.)
And I’m supposed to be the unscholarly one; my approach is too “literary” because I focus on actual texts. Why, one might almost think the respectability of a scholar’s methodology had something to do with his perceived power and influence.
Needless to say, it’s precisely the misperceived opacity of the word juche that makes it a special favorite of Pyongyang watchers; they can use it any way they like.
This brings me to Stalinism, the application of which label to the North Korean system my research has done little to discourage. Ironically enough, one of the ways the Coterie sought to shoo people away from The Cleanest Race (2010) was by claiming there was nothing new in it. North Korea not a Stalinist country?
For most longtime observers of North Korea, this is not news. American journalists may routinely call North Korea Stalinist, but few scholars do so. The influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union … [was] no more important than the influence of the Chinese revolution, not to mention North Korea’s own political culture….(Armstrong, “Trends in the Study of North Korea,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 2011.)
This from someone who in an article in 2001 had said we can “call the Stalinist state in North Korea a success” and who in a book in 2004 had called its ideology a “local replication of Stalinism.” The year after the above article appeared, he wrote in an op-ed that Pyongyang
looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. (“The View from Pyongyang,” New York Times, 15 August 2012.)
[Note to learners of English: Every Anglophone would understand the formulation, “Anna looks more like a milkmaid than the world’s highest-paid supermodel” to mean that she is the latter, especially if, rightly or wrongly, she were already known to the public in that way. True, one could always proceed to argue that she was something else entirely. What followed in the above case was reference to the regime’s “classic Stakhanovite labor mobilization.”]
The increase in hardline references to Stalinist North Korea over the past year or two is unfortunate. South Korea was once invaded by a state that really was Stalinist in many ways, not least because the ruling elite abounded in Soviet-Koreans. But the North is a different place today, with a different strategy for taking over the South. The last thing we need is Washington thinking a repeat of 25 June 1950 is in the offing.
I was initially puzzled to see Pyongyang watchers on the other side of the spectrum applying the Stalinist label in these dangerous times. Then I realized they don’t mean much by it. They just need a word more suggestive of expertise than communism, which is all they really mean; it’s East Germany they want you thinking of. They also want you to ignore all assertions that the North is a far-right state. Were they simply to call it communist, the obvious differences to the relatively placid GDR (or today’s China) would embolden lay readers to pipe up. The academic or political-scientific ring of Stalinism keeps them in their place.
No one who has done any reading in North Korean speeches, newspapers or journals published up to about 1962 can fail to notice how different the idiom was from the stuff put out by the KCNA today. Most editorials written then are impossible to understand fully without knowledge of the Soviet trends, key-words and pejoratives of the time: national nihilism, say, or formalism. (I have seen Koreanists marvel at allegedly Moscow-defying parts of Kim Il Sung’s famous speech of 1955 — “Marxism-Leninism is not a dogma,” for example — that were stock formulae in the USSR.) In contrast, I find that young South Koreans have no problem understanding the latest Rodong Sinmun editorials, to say nothing of what Uriminzokkiri produces mainly for their consumption.
I’ve never been one for argumentum ad verecundiam. I wrote an M.A. thesis about the (Russian) Stalin cult, a Ph.D. thesis on North Korean literature’s incompatibility with Stalinist aesthetic theory, and a book devoted to arguing that North Korea is not Stalinist, but that doesn’t mean my assertions should be accepted on faith. All I ask, with dwindling hope of being listened to, is that the other side take into account the arguments I have made, and make some effort at refuting them.
I know I’ll harden my reputation for curmudgeonliness by singling out young scholars, but again: this is a nuclear crisis we’re in. Things are too dangerous for them to enjoy the license to make sweeping, uncorroborated remarks without criticism, especially when they already identify themselves in public as analysts and historians (something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing as a Doktorand), and presume to set journalists straight on matters of enormous importance.
No single tweet or tweeter is a problem, of course; it’s the daily mass of very confident misinformation I find worrying. The following is one of the milder things I’ve seen in the past few days, but the subject matter is relevant to the issue at hand.
I wonder how many North Korean articles and editorials from the past day or week or month or year or five years Young can find that “speak primarily in a Stalinist lexicon,” a distinctly Stalinist one of course. Whatever time frame he chooses, and however many articles he comes up with, I pledge to find far more that speak in terms incompatible with that label.
… perhaps those of us who regularly read his blog will have to be content with watching Myers shoot unemployed fish in a (Twitter) barrel over issues like Stalinism in North Korea which were already covered in his 2010 book.
“Unemployed fish in a barrel” seems to me more insulting to the graduate student in question than anything I wrote, but perhaps I should better explain to non-academic readers the context of my original post.
A tough job market awaits graduate students in Korean Studies, who have only a few years to draw public attention to the sharpness of their critical faculties. At the same time they must stay on the right side of everyone in a position to affect their careers, which means virtually every professor in the US and Western Europe at the very least. The complete silence with which even the most prolific and judgmental tweeters in the field greeted the biggest scandal in its history spoke and still speaks for itself.
The brunt of their efforts at oneupmanship must be borne by scholars perceived as being too far removed from the Western scene, or too unpopular with the big shots, to cause trouble down the road. Graduate students are thus avid readers of people like Adam Cathcart, who signal through their own writings and silences which academics are fair game, and which ones are to be spared from criticism no matter what.
I understand all this of course.
The problem, as I said in the original post, is that things are getting very dangerous on the peninsula. If I again see someone claiming the view of North Korea as a race-based state is based on “cherry-picking” — on deceptive scholarship, in other words — then I will again call the fellow out, whether he has a job or not. I will do so not only because I am the scholar associated with that view (as the journalist who replied to the tweet recognized at once) but because there can be no understanding the nuclear crisis without a proper grasp of the ideological issues.
Last December, when the Royal Asiatic Society requested a picture it could use to advertise my talk on the North’s unification drive, I chose the blue-and-white peninsula flag, which had faded from South Korean consciousness since the Sunshine years. A prescient choice, if I say so myself; the flag is now back in a big way.
The remarkable thing is how smoothly the inter-Korean talks of the past few weeks have progressed. As the Unification Ministry’s annual reports attest, reaching North-South agreement even on procedural matters is usually a laborious affair, ridden with setbacks and delays. This is partly because the North refuses to acknowledge the South as its equal, and partly because officials on both sides are unable to decide much on their own initiative.
It seems very likely, then, that the North and South had discussed the Games and agreed on key points well before Kim Jong Un’s “surprising” reference to the event in his New Year’s address. In another sign of close coordination, key phrases from that speech turned up in the joint statement issued after the first talks.
I have seen a few American op-eds warning Moon not to be naive, but I don’t believe he seriously expects the current round of talks to make the North more amenable to discussing disarmament. Regardless of his astute rhetoric to the contrary, which is aimed at Washington, denuclearization is not a priority to him or the left in general, which has long seen the North’s nuclear program as America’s problem, and no serious threat to the South.
The two Korean governments are now getting on so well because they share the short-term objective of making the North look better despite its refusal to disarm — better to the South Korean people above all, but also to the world community, whose support is vital if the South is to regain its ethnic license to bypass UN sanctions on the North. It’s hardly unrealistic for Moon to hope for such a result.
A truly liberal or center-left president would use the Olympics not only to bring citizens together, but also to reconcile the right to inter-Korean rapprochement. Instead Moon has put out a television spot in which a candlelight morphs into the Olympic flame, a visual effect of which the IOC would probably disapprove; to drive the point home, Moon then appears in front of a painting of an impeachment demonstration. Obviously conservatives are not to feel welcome. All who oppose appeasing the North or suspect the government of sympathizing with it are now branded “far right,” whatever their opinions on other issues, and posited outside the hallowed minsim or popular will. Last year a former prime minister said they should be “wiped out” altogether. Although the police’s recent investigation of the bank accounts of 20,000 contributors to conservative organizations turned up nothing untoward, it probably had the intended chilling effect anyway, to borrow that American campus cliché.
It’s no coincidence that the joint hockey team is the first issue on which the Moon administration has stood firm in the face of intense public opposition. (It folded on Bitcoin in a matter of hours.) Contrary to the wishful assertions of those who in May 2017 mocked predictions of trouble in the alliance, Moon is indeed putting his inter-Korean agenda above all else. His commitment should have been clear to everyone from the backgrounds of the people he installed in the Blue House. Their most salient shared credential: some record of strong support, strong to the point of (post-democratization) illegality or imprisonment in several cases, for — I must phrase this carefully — a fundamentally different relationship with the North.
It wouldn’t do, in any case, to make too much of young people’s dissatisfaction about either the hockey team or the planned entrance into the stadium under the peninsula flag. Moon is right in distinguishing it from principled opposition to inter-Korean reconciliation. (Not that he would be put off by that either.) As I have written before, the young here generally shift between nationalism and state spirit depending on which of the two requires less action or sacrifice from them at the time in question. The default mindset is nationalism, the race being an abstract, feel-good thing in no position to levy taxes, enforce laws or send someone into battle. When young people manifest state spirit against nationalism, it is not in defense of the state itself, but of their rights and perks as citizens. The same millennials who deride their republic as “Hell Chosun,” and enjoy thrillers glamorizing North Korean soldiers and security forces, insist that the government take better care of its own citizens before helping anyone above the DMZ. This is why they are angry at the ukaz about a joint women’s hockey team, and at the last-minute dilution of the state-branding and touristic benefits of hosting the Olympics.
Some foreigners appear to think that South Koreans’ loss of Sunshine exuberance gives the lie to any suggestions of a co-ethnic confederation or even a North Korean unification drive. I keep having to repeat that it’s likely to bolster support for confederation, which has long been promoted in academic discussion as a way to enjoy the benefits of unification (London-Busan railroad, etc) while indefinitely postponing the real thing. No doubt that is how the administration will try to sell it — perhaps in genuine unawareness of the attendant risks — when the time comes.
As for the peculiar notion that the fratricidal dictator in Pyongyang will be deterred from his top priority by opinion polls of any sort, I see it tossed out more often than argued; someone re-tweets this or that poll result, with some jibe at the “hawkish” side of the discussion, and moves on to the next tweet. Note that even the South Korean government does not resign itself to the young people’s lack of enthusiasm for the upcoming spectacles; it pledges to “educate” them in time for the Games. The finlandization process now in full swing, which includes government harassment of journalists writing critically about the North, shows how serious it is.
But while we’re talking polls, let’s keep in mind that the only significant South Korean party raising the alarm about either confederation or the unification drive now has (after Moon’s worst week ever) a popularity rating of 9%. Having read up on how these polls are conducted, I think we can safely add at least 5% to that number, but that’s still not much. Supporters under 40 are very few indeed. Last Saturday I walked by a rightist rally at Seoul Station, and saw only two people in their twenties in the whole crowd. So surprising and heartening to the other flag-wavers was the two young ladies’ presence that they found themselves the object of approving grins and raised thumbs. The many high-school and college students I saw rushing past chuckled and shook their heads if they noticed the rally at all.
To repeat what I said so many times last year: There is indeed less pro-North sentiment than ever, but principled, security-minded opponents of appeasement have dwindled down to an elderly and generally lower-class fringe. That is by far the more important political development from Kim Jong Un’s perspective.
I will refrain here from once again setting out all the reasons a) why it is anything but hawkish to acknowledge North Korea’s unification drive; b) why propaganda that accords with a 70-year pattern of behavior and makes sense of the nuclear program must be taken more seriously than the kind that doesn’t; c) why peaceful coexistence would bring about North Korea’s demise faster than it brought about East Germany’s, so that Kim Jong Un must press on to “final victory” if he wants to live out his life in power; d) why the North believes the South can be subjugated without war and e) why a unified peninsula need not look exactly like a dictatorship shaped in its formative years by rivalry with a co-ethnic state.
But I see deniers of the unification drive making no serious effort to counter those reasons; they simply ignore or misrepresent them instead. I understand their horror at seeing the discussion turn inter-Korean, really I do, but turn inter-Korean it must. Perhaps they should spend less time tweeting, soundbiting, drawing attention to their latest article, etc, and more time reading North and South Korean newspapers and modern history books, learning the language first if need be. Simply repeating the old conventional wisdom in the tone of someone pounding on a table, with a telling lack of reference to information not available in English, is not helping anyone. Close followers of the discussion are well aware that only one side takes the trouble to refute the other.
The venom with which so many North Korea scholars, observers and hobbyists now rail against the notion of a unification drive suggests that the issue is a very personal and emotional one for them. Otherwise, if the idea were as preposterous or hopelessly outdated as they claim to think, they would be content to sit back and let the course of events prove it wrong – much as I did in 2011/2012 when everyone else was predicting that Kim Jong Un would break with the military-first policy and reach out to Washington.
At the beginning I derived their anger from the fear that awareness of the North’s unification drive might induce Donald Trump to order a strike on the country. I therefore made clear in my RAS speech that it conduces more to a peaceful resolution of the crisis than the conventional wisdom, and called on the United States to address the ideological problems inside the alliance instead. This only made everyone angrier.
Oddly enough, the most furious people are on the softline or apologetic part of the Pyongyang-watching spectrum. They never get this worked up when North Korea is called a gangster state, a drug-running operation or a giant gulag. Nor do they express such fervent opposition to (say) imperialist proposals for the US and China to get together and decide the fate and political character of the peninsula on their own.
No, it seems that the craziest, most reprehensible thing one can possibly say about North Korea is that it wants to unify the peninsula with as little bloodshed as possible. And apparently the worst thing one can say about the South Koreans — “INSANE” “psychobabble” even – is that the North might have reason to believe they wouldn’t fight to the death against such an effort. (Needless to say, I never said South Koreans are ready to “give away” their republic, as “T.K.” is no doubt well aware.)
I repeat: it is self-styled progressives and liberals who find these ideas so scandalous. True, I have often clashed at conferences with South Korean conservatives who bristle at my emphasis on the North’s nationalism. Being nationalists themselves, albeit of a more moderate sort, they think it makes the regime look too respectable, dignified, legitimate. I am told to chalk up the unification drive to a communizing urge — “it sounds scarier that way,” I was helpfully advised — or to the regime’s evil desire to cause as much suffering as possible. But the other side of the spectrum now seems far more upset.
Particularly striking is the general tendency to identify the idea as my personal thing. “T.K.” has not yet questioned the sanity of South Korea’s Minister of Unification, though he too is alarmed by increasing signals that Pyongyang wants to use its nukes to take over the peninsula. And many quite moderate analysts in South Korea have been saying much the same stuff since the 1990s. But for the Westerners now raging on Twitter, this is my trademarked idea. (As it becomes harder and harder to refute, the tendency will no doubt go in the opposite direction.)
Now, these are very America-centric people, which is one reason why my call for a more inter-Korean understanding of the nuclear crisis bothered them so much in the first place. Even when young Europeans begin to study Korea they first turn West and not East, the better to view the peninsula through the orthodox US-academic prism. (The proud inaugural issue of the new European Journal of Korean Studies was advertised as containing a lead-off article by an Ivy League professor; take a wild guess which one.) No idea merits discussion, it seems, until an American expresses it.
But the more obvious explanation for the pretended assumption of my original and exclusive authorship is that it’s much easier to identify the idea with one person, and then engage in ad hominem attack, than to do the work of refutation.
My natural tendency is simply to ignore this stuff. Show me a persona non grata, and I’ll show you a persona non give a shit — which is to say that I’ve always found my outsider status more of a liberating force on my research than anything else, and don’t want to give it up. I hate to think how I would have prevaricated and fudged things had I been one of the boys. Something else I’ve learned: Arguing with people in an intellectual rut is the quickest way to end up in one yourself.
But unfortunately we aren’t talking Etruscan pottery here. The issue of North Korea’s intentions is one of enormous and immediate importance to the lives of millions of people. I have therefore decided to respond to the ad hominem attacks in order to force the other side to begin taking the effort to refute my arguments. And no, just apodictically stating that North Korea has no interest in unification (as is done en passant in many articles) is not refuting anything. Many people seem to regard their own gut feelings as reliable instruments of political analysis; if they can’t imagine something happening, if they just don’t see it, they rush to Twitter to announce the news. But that’s not refutation either.
Vague and indignant noises have long been made about my allegedly unscholarly approach to North Korea. Apparently I am to be dismissed as a researcher of literature or comparative literature who applies that “incredibly weak methodology” to everything. No textual examples are ever provided of this.
It is of course true that I wrote the first — and for many years only — English-language history of the North Korean cultural scene, in which I focused on the propaganda writings of Kim Il Sung’s chief iconographer: Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature (Cornell East Asia Series, 1994).
That work is also, as far as I know, the only American book on North Korea published during Kim Il Sung’s lifetime to have remained consistently in print ever since – which isn’t bad for a doctoral thesis. Let this serve as a reminder that my assertions in regard to the country, however much controversy they arouse at the beginning, tend to hold up very well over time. I have made my share of mistakes, but I know of no Pyongyang watcher of comparable seniority with a better track record than mine.
In any case, I haven’t researched literature per se for decades, instead focusing on ideology and propaganda as a whole. My discussion of these subjects is not only much more extensive than that undertaken by any Western political scientist writing on North Korea, but also much more political-scientific in its approach. In addition, I make far heavier use of untranslated primary materials than anyone else I can think of; more North Korean sources are cited in a single chapter of North Korea’s Juche Myth than in entire well-funded tomes on the country.
I hereby challenge anyone to compare the length, content and methodology of my writings on Juche with Bruce Cumings’ or Han S. Park’s and to argue anything different. But of course it’s much easier to dismiss my latest book on the grounds that it was self-published.
Let me digress here to explain why I put North Korea’s Juche Myth out myself. 1) I was aware of how a colleague’s manuscript had been brazenly plagiarized in the pre-publication stage, and by someone I had every reason to expect would be asked to vet my own. 2) I did not want a relatively short book put out at some outrageous library-bilking price by the likes of Routledge. 3) Due to the book’s relevance to the nuclear crisis I wanted it out as fast as possible. 4) Having funded my own research – out of principle I have never applied for or received a grant in my life – I needed to recoup my costs with a greater percentage of the profits than a publisher would have given me. 5) Books count for very little in South Korea’s tenure system, so I had nothing to lose. 6) I believed that the book would be judged on its own merits. Naïve, I know – but this was a year before the non-reaction to the Tyranny of the Weak scandal woke me up to the field’s true priorities.
Speaking of which scandal: None of the people who have long professed to find me unscholarly registered the slightest indignation when the field’s most hyped-up North Koreanist was revealed (by me among others) to have fabricated sources on a scale never before seen in Asian Studies. None of those who find me so arrogant thought it arrogant of him to engage — over several years — in systematic plagiarism of a professor earning a tiny fraction of the money he himself was getting. On the contrary, the victim and I were scolded for drawing attention to the scandal. To this day I remain the only one of the many reviewers of Tyranny of the Weak to have withdrawn his recommendation of it. The blurbs and rave reviews by established scholars are all still there on Amazon.
In closing, then, let me urge everyone who is outraged by the notion of a North Korean unification drive to calm down and engage in the work of argument, of refutation. I dare say there are much better forums for that than Twitter.
For the last time: The issue is not whether the South Koreans really would yield to the North, but whether the North Koreans have sufficient reason to believe they would. In this context I also want to call on journalists to cease filtering out news they perceive as bolstering the case I and others are now making. It was remarkable, for example, how many reporters (and academic analysts on blogs) said nothing about Kim Jong Un’s many references to unification in his New Year’s address.
UPDATE (9 January 2018)
“T.K” (whose real name is apparently Nathan Park) has responded to my post as best he knows how: in a series of tweets, each one throwing out a different point without actually arguing it. Among them, however, is one that says:
As I said before, I think Myers largely gets N. Korea correct.
I take this to mean that he and I are in agreement as to North Korea’s intentions, which, as I have repeatedly said, is the main issue here. What angers him, it seems, is my refusal to rule out the possibility that North Korea could ever succeed in subjugating the South.
This is yet another of the many contradictions I see in softline or progressive discussion of North Korea. On the one hand these people are at great pains to argue that it’s not such a bad place after all, and that it gets better, more South-like, every year: cell phones, pizza shops, gourmet coffee, ski resorts, and so on. They sneer at the old conservative propaganda that showed North Koreans with horns and red skins, and stress that people up there are no different from people down here when you get right down to it. Those who travel there themselves can’t seem to get enough of the place. On the other hand they think it “INSANE” to cast doubt on South Koreans’ readiness to fight the North to the death.
“T.K.” apparently finds it absurd of me even to suggest that South Koreans could assent to North-South confederation. I have written a blog post on the subject, but let me point out again here that Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun both committed themselves to the joint pursuit with Kim Jong Il of some form of league (the South’s weaker term) or confederation (the North’s stronger one) during their visits to Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007. No public outrage ensued. In fact, in 2010 Lee Myung-bak’s refusal to implement the summit agreements was held up by many as a cause of the North’s twin attacks.
In late 2012 Moon Jae-in pledged to implement confederation — note that he insisted on using the North’s term — during his presidency. He went on to win 48% in the election that year. (To hear his own camp tell it, he would have beaten Park Geun-hye if not for NIS meddling.) After reiterating his commitment to confederation in the presidential campaign of 2017, and stating that his concept of it was not significantly different from the North’s, Moon was elected with 41% of the vote. The Justice Party candidate, another supporter of confederation, got just over 6%. I should add that a large part of the People’s Party is known to support confederation too; see for example Pak Chi-won’s avowed, unconstitutional interest in becoming the South’s ambassador in Pyongyang.
As I made clear in my RAS talkand in an ensuing Slate interview — though “T.K.” appears to have missed those parts — the South Korean left has too much to lose to want a North Korean takeover. (Judging from the clothing and coffee cups I see at rival street demonstrations, the left’s rank and file is generally much more affluent than the right’s.) Those who support confederation do so precisely because they see in it the possibility to drag the process of unification out over years and even decades, at the end of which time, so the general hope, the two Koreas would coalesce as equal and like-minded partners. Needless to say, the expectation is that by that time the North would look and think a lot more like the South.
The problem is that North Korea would almost certainly demand (as its own propaganda and statements to diplomats make clear) the pull-out of US troops either before or in the first stages of confederation; and that it would then do what it has always pledged to do.
“T.K.” may well be right in believing that the South Koreans would never agree to the withdrawal of US troops, or that they would fight an aggressing North inside a confederation even after such an event. I have stronger doubts, perhaps because I live in South Korea and talk on these subjects not only with academics (some of whom are now in or connected with the Moon administration) but also with students both at my own and at other universities. But at the risk of repeating myself — and it is not a “dodge” but the very crux of the issue! — the question is what North Korea believes is likely.
At the very least it must be conceded that there is great potential for a disastrous miscalculation down the road — certainly great enough for the issue of the North’s intentions to merit calm and open-minded discussion right now. Again: Twitter is not the place for it.
[Below is the text I used for about 90% of my speech on December 19 at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, Seoul. I would like to thank everyone who braved the very cold weather to attend. I also apologize to those in the back of the hall who sometimes had difficulty hearing me.]
Ladies and gentlemen, historians are going to look back on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and wonder why it took us so long to see what was always staring us in the face. Here we have a rapidly arming country that keeps pledging to eliminate a rival state, which it invaded in 1950 and attacked twice only 7 years ago, and most Western observers still think it can’t possibly be serious. They believe it’s nuclearizing only to formalize a de facto security from American attack that its artillery, aimed squarely on this city, has afforded it for decades.
Not everyone is thinking quite that wishfully. South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyun told the Wall Street Journal on November 16 he is “alarmed by increasing signals that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a way to … unifying the peninsula.”
Cho was to quick to add that “the unification North Korea wants” will “never happen,” but please note that he does at least accept that it wants unification. So do most South Koreans. The left tends to deny that the North would ever try anything, but very few would claim it doesn’t want to put the race back together again. On the contrary, the North’s righteous refusal ever to accept ethnic division has always made up much of its appeal. It’s mainly Westerners who now find it ridiculous or even belligerent to attribute nationalism to Kim Jong Un, which is one reason why the signals Minister Cho talks about go way over their heads.
Only this year did the possibility of a unification drive begin featuring regularly in foreign press talk of Pyongyang’s motives, and it’s usually mentioned only to be dismissed. Many people fear that imputing this goal to the North might encourage Donald Trump to attack it. That would be bad, therefore this “narrative” must be false.
But if Kim’s goal is to take the South, which says it wants to avoid fighting no matter what happens, Trump can hardly justify taking military action on its behalf. Recognition of the unification drive is therefore less of an inducement to rash American behavior than the orthodox notion of a jumpy failed-communist state, which somehow manages to be terrified of America and utterly unafraid of it at the same time, a state with nothing to hope for except becoming a poor man’s version of South Korea. That sounds like a much more dangerous state to me.
But the Western press clings to the old groupthink, and filters the news accordingly. Minister Cho’s statement was not picked up by other newspapers, and most journalists who covered Thae Yong-ho’s testimony in Washington last month left out his warning that Pyongyang’s goal is the subjugation of South Korea.
The West’s attention has been focused on the Pyongyang-Washington axis for so long now, it’s as if North Korea had never invaded the South. This has much to do with how Kim Il Sung shaped our expert pool by allowing only a few very sympathetic Americans access to his regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hardly any Westerners were even allowed in the country. During the crisis of 1993-94, Washington felt it had no choice but to consult these experts of the North’s own licensing, as it were: Han S. Park, Tony Namkung, Selig Harrison, and so on.
These are the people who established the now-orthodox narrative of a broken state with no greater ambition than to survive. They also reported on hawk-dove struggles that the Americans could tip the doves’ way with some bold concessions. That must be the oldest diplomatic ruse in the book, but it was taken at face value – and still is, by some.
The North has helped usher additional people onto our conference panels and op-ed pages ever since. Its main interest in participating in Track 2 talks, it seems, is in strengthening the Pyongyang-watching credentials of the predominantly apologetic Americans it chooses to talk to. These include former government officials who worked on deals the North has not only broken, but even gloated over as Yankee defeats.
Their cooperation is not as surprising as all that. In the German car company I used to work for, it was quite common for colleagues who had negotiated a JV contract or license agreement to excuse the other company’s violations of it later on, sometimes even taking that company’s side against our own. Their self-esteem and reputation were simply too invested in the deal, which some of them had been promoted for having brokered; it’s a negotiators’ syndrome, if you will, that books on international business warn against.
This pool of North Korea experts has always avoided the most obvious explanation for the regime’s behavior. It may be the only one they haven’t given us over the past 25 years. The regime just wants its own energy supply; it wants to trade in the nuclear program for a big aid package, or for the normalization of DPRK-US relations; it just wants to be a member of the nuclear club. About 10 years ago I attended a conference in Washington where more than one speaker claimed Kim Jong Il wanted America as an ally. This begged the question of how the North could justify its separate existence as a second Korean ally of the US, but if memory serves I was the only one who asked it. Optimistic interpretations of the North’s behavior are always held to a lower standard than pessimistic ones.
My advice to historians: Get a list of all the panelists at State-hosted conferences since 1993. You’ll see that the Air Koryo Mileage Club, as I call it, was always well represented, just as the Great Leader would have wanted. I’m not suggesting anything sinister. The State Department has a vested bureaucratic interest in experts who advocate engagement. Every time the US sits down with North Korea, a dozen Foggy Bottomed angels get their wings, which keep them aloft long after the regime has flouted the resulting agreement. But just because we’re a soft target doesn’t mean the North Koreans don’t deserve praise for the sureness of their aim. They were mastering “subversive engagement” long before our side, with such farcical indiscretion, began calling for it in public.
The North has also handled foreign media well. The co-opting of the Associated Press was a brilliant move, especially considering how those who have worked in the AP’s so-called bureau in Pyongyang go on to join the ever-swelling ranks of apologetic commentators.
The current consensus, it seems, is that the regime “only” wants a balance of power; the word equilibrium was bandied about too, but the Korean word means balance. I am old enough to remember when balance-of-power seeking was considered a textbook cause of war, but people today think it’s a harmless affair.
The problem is that no two countries can be thought equally strong while one occupies half the other’s territory, as US troops now occupy what Pyongyang considers the southern part of Chosun. I get blank looks when I say that, because many Anglophones don’t distinguish between nationalism and state chauvinism. They’ll tell you the North is very nationalist and uninterested in unifying the nation; they don’t see the contradiction.
So you see, the commentary is devoid of historical and political context, of all context really. College graduates used to remember their Psychology 101 if nothing else, but every day I read that because Kim Jong Un is rational, he wouldn’t do anything irrational.
This whole discussion has become a kind of French Foreign Legion for would-be pundits with nowhere else to go, people who lack the background knowledge or language skills to weigh in on any of the world’s other flash points. It’s Trump versus Kim, so anyone can mouth off, and too often that mouthing off is motivated more by dislike of Trump than by interest in the crisis itself.
Particularly lamentable is the general contempt for North Korean intelligence and resolve. You have to have a very low opinion of Kim Jong Un to think he now risks nuclear war to maintain the division of the peninsula, the very thing his grandfather fought a conventional war to overcome. He’s a young man all right, but his regime has a huge institutional memory. No one remembers better than those people how Ostpolitik – which has since been defined as “destabilization through stabilization” – helped bring down East Germany.
That event looms much larger in the North Korean mind than Gaddafi’s death. Our inability to stop this regime from acquiring nuclear weapons shows they were never vital to its security. If a North Korea without them were as vulnerable as Libya without them, it would have been bombed by 1998 at the latest. And no, our betrayal of Gaddafi did not break the North Koreans’ trust. It was always clear even from our olive branches that we too wanted destabilization through stabilization.
They’ve never trusted Seoul either, not least because its efforts to replicate the West Germans’ success were always so heavy-handed. Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo should have known that the word Nordpolitik would only make the North hunker down more. Kim Dae Jung was tactless enough to liken his own state to the sun – a metaphor the personality cult did not like to see infringed — and explained his policy as an effort to warm the coat off the North’s back: to tame it down into a more South-like state, in other words, which would have no pressing reason to exist. Sensibly enough, the Dear Leader took all the money he could while vilifying Kim Dae Jung in domestic propaganda.
People seem to think that while the regime may have smart scientists and hackers, it’s not too smart itself. This condescension is the product of wishful thinking and apologism. If you’re going to claim the North Koreans want better relations with Uncle Sam, and just don’t realize a rogue nuclear program is the wrong way to go about it, you have to persuade yourself they’re stupid. If you want to claim they’ve never played any role in political unrest here, you have to tell yourself they’re a hell of a lot dumber than the East Germans were. You can then spin their duplicity as the result of fear or panic: “They’ve broken agreements because we spooked them, not because they were only buying time all along.”
But these are intelligent people. They know their system has lasted until now thanks to an atmosphere of war without war, which cannot be plausibly sustained for long once the nuclear program is finished. Some foreigners may think Kim Jong Un’s subjects were all shaking in their boots until now, and will forever praise him for giving them security. But unlike most South Koreans, most North Koreans have never seen their state attacked in their lifetime. The guaranteed extension of a peace that’s already 64 years old isn’t something they’re going to “feel on their skin,” as the Koreans put it. They expect much more from the nuclear program than that.
Nothing is less likely than Kim devoting himself to the economy once he’s finished arming. Unlike our leaders, he can’t be content with outshining his predecessor; he has to outshine the South, and the economic front is the last place that can be done, what with the North’s per capita GDP at about 5% of the South’s.
Many observers seem to regard its political culture as a vanity project the regime doesn’t take seriously itself. But a country’s vital interests don’t arise automatically out of its size or geographical position or the traumas it’s been through. It decides what its vital interests are, and that decision is always to some degree an ideological one.
If you prefer to talk hard-nosed Realpolitik, at least be consistent. If security is the North’s main problem, why wouldn’t it want to eliminate the rival state? At the very least, you must accept that nothing less than US troop withdrawal could justify the enormous costs and risks of the nuclear program. A peace treaty that did not entail it would be more trouble than it’s worth. As Carl Schmitt said, The definition of the enemy is the definition of the political. Burying the hatchet with the Yankees while they keep defending the rival state would mean burying the entire political culture, personality cult and all. It would render meaningless the sacrifices made by whole generations of North Koreans. Kim must ride the tiger of nationalism to final victory or be thrown off it.
What I want most to impress on you all tonight is that the North cannot be understood without understanding the South. An end needs to be put to the whole idea of North Korean Studies. I’m a fine one to talk, because I focused on the North until about eight years ago. I therefore made the same mistake so many people are still making: I grossly overestimated South Korea’s resolve to defend itself. I saw aggression coming that the “hardline” Lee Myung Bak government, as the press was calling it, would successfully retaliate against, plunging the North into a crisis comparable to the one that brought down the Argentine junta after the Falklands War.
Sure enough, those acts of aggression came in 2010. But to my surprise, the Blue House thought that neither the sinking of the Cheonan nor the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island even warranted closing the Kaesong Industrial Zone. All Lee did was reduce aid, and even that move was considered too extreme by many here. It was then that I realized the peninsula can be grasped as one ideological community, the two parts differing by the degree of their nationalism and not by any fundamental ideological divide such as the one that separated East and West Germany. I also began arguing, as I did in a Newsweek cover article in 2013, that the North’s commitment to unification was serious and urgent.
No one paid the slightest attention. Most foreigners still assume, despite what happened in 2010, that South Korea would never yield to Kim Jong Un without a war he knows he couldn’t win. And since he’s not visibly crazy, he must be arming only to defend his half of the peninsula.
South Koreans tend to give a much less sanguine assessment of their republic’s will to defend itself. Many will tell you US troops are needed not just to give the South an edge, but to motivate it to fight at all. This is why many here are nervous about the OPCON transfer.
The North, for its part, never forgot the ease with which it took Seoul in 1950, and how placid residents were until the Incheon landing. It has since believed that if the Yankees leave again, and stay out this time, the entire South can be subjugated with little fuss. This can be inferred not only from Kim Il Sung’s speeches and remarks to East Bloc diplomats, but also from the state of the KPA. A regime that expects hard fighting — whether to offensive or defensive ends — does not starve its army while spending billions on luxury cars and monuments.
This raises the question: Why do Koreans on both sides of the DMZ find it easier to imagine the collapse of South Korea than Westerners do? Answer: Because they know so much that rarely if ever makes its way into the English language. The average Korea watcher thinks the protest movement here in the 1980s was liberal democratic in orientation. In this very room not long ago a lecturer said that in 1987 the students won their struggle to bring about presidential elections.
That was certainly the goal of the white-collar workers and housewives who joined the protests at their peak. The core of the movement had a very different vision. This is from Hwang Sok-yong’s novel The Old Garden (2000; translated 2009), which is a good source of insight into the protesters’ mindset.
When the dictatorship declared [in 1987] that elections would be held, the resistance quieted. That was the beginning of our failure.
Such is the consensus on the left here, which can hardly be expected to look back fondly on an election that brought one of Chun Doo Hwan’s cronies to power. And this is why the Moon camp now acts as if last year’s low-energy candlelight demonstrations marked an actual revolution, the beginning of true democracy. These people always wanted a revolution of their own, and 1987 was not that revolution.
Foreigners also lack a proper sense of how terrible it was for this ancient nation to be cut in two, terrible especially for the demographically smaller of the two parts. When an American journalist larks around at Panmunjom, and even her editor thinks the photograph is appropriate; when 6 or 7 news organizations derive the North’s hostility to the US from its wartime bombing campaign; when the New York Times prints an op-ed (“An Open Love Letter to Kim Jong Un”) about how we just have to start loving each other, it shows Americans don’t realize that the main reason for the North Koreans’ hostility is the role our country is perceived as having played, since 1945, in keeping the race divided.
We never really got the Korean War. Our “revisionist” academics saw it as the spontaneous boiling over of a North Korean revolution, while our right characterized the KPA’s invasion as a communizing drive of Stalin’s conceiving. Here in South Korea, people used to get in trouble for saying that Kim Il Sung wanted to unify the minjok, because that was considered a pro-Kim thing to say. But it’s the truth: he was a nationalist through and through.
Failing to grasp that, the West always underestimated his commitment to unification. The consensus has been that in 1955 he threw himself into making the North self-reliant, as a kind of consolation project. Then his economy failed, and ever since then, the regime has been “reactive” or “survivalist,” hoping only to muddle on. So forget the parades and the propaganda, forget the personality cult for that matter, because the real North Korea is the North Korea of markets and corruption and the clandestine enjoyment of South Korean pop culture.
If you look at things that way, as most people still do – I’m the only Koreanist or Pyongyang watcher referred to as controversial — you’ll laugh at the idea that the North could ever hope to absorb the South. This is typical:
By the end of the Cold War, forced-unification dreams had largely evaporated…. Even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic …. [The North Koreans] know that “taking” the South and controlling its institutions is impossible. They’re not interested. — Andray Abrahamian, USA Today, 7 December 2017
How does he know they aren’t? Because Kim Il Sung told the Americans he wouldn’t mind if they stayed. The writer is hardly the first person to take such remarks at face value. Some US government officials still go on about the time Kim Jong Il told Madeleine Albright he considered US troops on the peninsula a stabilizing factor.
The irrational notion that the North is more likely to be honest with its main enemy than with its own people and allies has done much to bring us to this pass. We Americans have such boundless faith in our likeability as a people, in the power of our cheerful presence to break down barriers, that we expect to get honest answers even from foreigners who have every reason to hate us — and to deceive us. Trump makes this error, but so do his critics. Many op-ed pieces say in effect, “The only way to find out what the North wants is for US diplomats to ask them.”
In fact the better way is to read what the regime has said to its own people for 70 straight years. Its domestically declared goal of final victory has always lined up with its behavior, except for tactical feints and what I call rope-slackenings. The notion of such a long commitment to anything surpasses Western imagination, accustomed as we are to leaders who either get things done in their first year or two in office or give up on them forever. A hereditary dictatorship, which needs only to keep making visible progress toward its goal, has a different sense of time.
Pyongyang was always in the driver’s seat of inter-Korean relations, even if it couldn’t drive as fast as it wanted. The actual “reactive” states were South Korea and the US; the North was applying pressure almost from day one. Together with Russian advisors, as we now know from Soviet sources, Kim Il Sung and Pak Hŏn-yŏng organized unrest in the South, told strikers what to demand, provided funds and so on. This support continued after the two states were founded in 1948.
I don’t blame the South Korean left for taking it. What, should people here have said, “Sorry, Kim Il Sung, you’re above the line the Americans drew across the peninsula, therefore it would be treason if we worked with you”? Why shouldn’t leftists have wanted to follow the Soviet Union’s man instead of America’s? They weren’t out to socialize South Korea but to topple it. “Kim Il Sung manse” was a common slogan, and the star flag was waved at rebellions. Even in Seoul it was common for people to sneak onto government property overnight and switch out the flags. Kim Sŏng-ch’il writes in his diary about fistfights at the base of flagpoles.
The war didn’t go the way the North wanted, but the people there look back on it with great pride. I was the only white face in the war museum in Pyongyang when I peeked in on the diorama of the Battle of Daejeon. The other visitors must have assumed I was American, because when I walked out some of them grinned triumphantly at me as if to say, “Yeah, we kicked your asses.” As they see it, their tiny mountain republic, in the first five years of its existence, fought a nuclearized superpower to a draw: no mean feat.
So if you want to complain about the US bombing campaign, as I have done in print several times, then do so; but don’t misrepresent these proud people as a bunch of traumatized rabbits, passing their fear down from generation to generation. They came out of that war all the more determined to finish the job. But they knew the strategy had to be changed to one of weakening the South from within.
In urgent need of retiring is the conventional notion that after a brief period of economic growth that fizzled out in the 1960s, the North’s fortunes and hopes went into a long and inexorable decline, until rock bottom was hit circa 1996. If we take off our economy-first glasses, and look at its history through nation-first ones, we can see that while the South was chugging up the slope to prosperity, the North was chugging up a different slope to what it saw as a far more important goal. And while the North’s living standards were declining, South Koreans’ support for their own state was declining, as was their hostility to the other one.
For the nationalist Great Leader, the good news outweighed the bad news, which did not concern him as much as it would have concerned a Marxist-Leninist. From East Bloc archives we know he thought poverty toughens people up, and that comfort and affluence corrupt them. Needless to say, this is a right-wing mindset and not a materialist one.
Regardless of whether you acknowledge any outsiders’ role in the chronic unrest that dogged the South during its economic miracle, you must concede that it must have strengthened the North’s hopes. We know that Kim worried when the South’s economy took off in the 1960s, but then Park Chung Hee’s popularity declined anyway, and Chun Doo Hwan failed ever to generate much support.
For Kim, the best was yet to come. Far from marking the “evaporation” of his hopes, the late 1980s saw the North confirm its superior ethnic legitimacy and appeal, and lay the foundation for final victory. It was then that the brightest, best-connected young men and women in Seoul came to regard the North as the more legitimate Korea, and the US as the main enemy of the race. Along with the writings of Mao and Lenin they studied the work of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Young-hwan, also known as “Steel,” a pro-North student radical who became quite literally an agent for Pyongyang.
To call this National Liberation movement a shot in the arm for the North would be an understatement. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal, just consider the fuss we made last month when one KPA soldier ran over the DMZ. For the right-wing here and in Washington it showed the irresistible appeal of freedom, while advocates of engagement used the incident to argue that the North couldn’t possibly be dreaming of taking over the thriving, vibrant South.
Such are the straws that our side clings to. Washingtonians whose eyes glaze over at the mention of ideology will listen for hours to trivia about the North’s shadow economy – the housing market in Wonsan, how to rent a truck in Hamhung – because they still dream capitalism will somehow work its magic on this crisis. Pyongyang watchers were all smiles in 2011 for no other reason than that Kim Jong Un had spent a sequestered childhood in Switzerland. No sooner had the rosy predictions for his rule been proven false than the very same people predicted his new premier would steer the North in a whole new direction. Why were they so sure about Pak Pong-ju? Because he’d been to South Korea once and China a few times. That’s how little it takes to make our side optimistic.
Compare that to Kim Il Sung’s success with the so-called 386 generation, a success beyond anything we could hope to achieve. Compare the North Koreans the South converts with the South Koreans their side converted from about 1985 to 1997. And don’t say, “Ah, but nobody defected to the North!” It doesn’t want its friends defecting.
Had the South Korean ruling class wanted to purge everybody with a record of pro-North activity, it would have had to purge its own sons and daughters, which was out of the question. And because it was so universal, no great stigma attached to it. Upon graduation these people went through their old-boy networks into the best jobs: in media, entertainment, academia, the unions, churches, even the National Assembly.
Time now for a thought experiment. Imagine if everyone at Kim Il Sung University started calling for liberal democracy, and assaulting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Imagine if they went on to careers in the Workers’ Party, in the Supreme People’s Assembly, KCNA, Rodong Sinmun, high schools across the country. If we saw that going on up there, would we think nothing of it? Or would we be more certain than ever that unification under the South Korean flag was a matter of time?
Kim Jong Il must have known that by 2000, the 386 generation, even if its fervor cooled a bit, would start changing the ideological complexion of the South, as in fact happened. Meanwhile he had to get his people through the famine, so he had to abide by the Agreed Framework for a few years. But he declared his military-first policy on the home front on New Year’s Day 1995, years before the slogan made its way into the Rodong Sinmun.
Those of you who saw my last talk here in 2014 will remember my telling you that in North Korea, the big ideological developments are announced in domestic-only, “inner-track” propaganda before making their way into the more prominent, “outer-track” sources foreigners can easily access: the Rodong Sinmun, the nightly TV news, and so on. In the inner track, anti-American agitation increased in the 1990s as US aid began pouring in.
Soon enough the Dear Leader was able to resume arming in earnest. He did so not out of desperation or fear, but with the aim of preventing the Yankees from meddling a second time in the destiny of the race. In hindsight, we must admit we should have realized this even at the time; captured operatives had been telling South Korean intelligence for years that Kim Il Sung’s main reason for wanting a nuclear program was to force the US to withdraw its troops.
The North’s morale has also been nurtured by the long, inexorable softening of the South Korean right. We need to abandon the fallacy that in 1998, a hardline policy suddenly gave way to a softline one. Each South Korean leader was less anti-Pyongyang than the one before: Syngman Rhee called for a march to the north; Chang Myun didn’t; under Park Chung Hee, a North-South declaration was signed; Chun called for Nordpolitik; Roh Tae Woo initiated it with a measure of economic cooperation; Kim Young Sam sent 700 million dollars worth of aid. How could Kim Il Sung not have seen this tendency as a steady weakening of resolve? His state responded to it with sporadic assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, incursions and other efforts to destabilize the South.
It wasn’t until 2008 that a president pledged a tougher stance than his predecessor had taken, but Lee Myung Bak gave almost as much to Kim Jong Il as Kim Dae Jung had. Park Geun-hye came to power pledging to be softer on the North than Lee. She may be the daughter of a dictator, as the sŏngbun-minded correspondent for the New York Times was so eager to stigmatize her, but she is in the ideological line of Kim Young Sam, like everyone else in what is now the Liberty Korea Party. Yet last year members of her own party helped to vote her out of power in the middle of a security crisis. Since then they have been squabbling hopelessly among themselves. Compare that to how the local left here rallied around Roh Moo Hyun even after he had left office, although the charges against him, dropped only as a result of his suicide, were no less serious. The real ideological conviction here is on the nationalist left, and always has been.
South Korea now has the first president in its history whose thinking has been shaped by the canon of the protest movement: Ri Yŏng-hŭi’s work, Haebang chŏnhusa ŭi insik, Shin Yŏng-bok’s writing, and so on. This canon should be read if you want to understand where Moon Jae-in is coming from. Last spring the foreign press corps simply identified him as the liberal horse in the race and cheered him on accordingly, but hardly had he taken power than he cracked down on illegal immigration, and his views on gay marriage are well known. This is not to say that one must be liberal in the American sense to merit the label. In many ways the South Korean left is more deserving of it than its American counterpart. There is still freedom of speech and debate on college campuses here, and the South Korean left shows far more interest in animal rights and welfare — to mention the cause most important to me personally — than our Democratic Party has ever done. But the foreign press should not simply apply Western labels without going into the differences.
The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. The president has so far refrained from the bold statements Roh Moo Hyun went in for, and he has been even stingier with Pyongyang than Park Geun-hye was. Before he took over, his camp was evidently under the impression that he would get the same ethnic exemption from the UN sanctions regime that his predecessors had enjoyed; there was talk of massively expanding the Kaesong Industrial Zone in accordance with the 2007 summit declaration. That expectation turned out to be wrong.
His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]
Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.
There is no knowing what someone else really believes. For all I know, President Moon and his chief of staff both have portraits of Donald Trump on their walls. But that’s beside the point. My interest is in how this Blue House is bound to look to the North Koreans.
They are of course realistic. They know how different their worldview is from South Koreans’. Their nationalism, which requires daily sacrifices from every citizen, faces straight forward to unification. The South’s, in contrast, is a backward-looking preoccupation with extracting apologies from Japan.
Kim also knows that the Gangnam left has too much to lose to want a North Korean takeover. Its dream is to get the unification process started quickly, but then to drag it out over decades in a painlessly gradual manner. Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun both pledged, with no great urgency, to work toward a league or confederation as a transition to unification. Five years ago Moon said he would realize a “low-level confederation” if elected, and he renewed that commitment on the campaign trail earlier this year. The Unification Minister has also indicated that he sees some form of ethnic community (minjok kongdongche) as a solution to the nuclear crisis; I take this as a reference to confederation.
According to the plan, which is kept very vague, economic cooperation between the two Koreas would gradually raise the North’s standard of living to the South’s level, at which point, in the remote future, they would somehow coalesce as like-minded equals. The whole idea runs counter to the South Korean constitution, according to which the Taehan minguk extends to the Yalu, but nationalism trumps liberal democratic, constitutional values here.
The appeal of the plan is obvious. Confederation would amount to a symbolic unification in itself, which would assuage South Koreans’ guilt about not wanting the real thing. Needless to say, Kim Jong Un has different ideas. He knows he can’t preside over an avowedly transitional dictatorship for decades on end while a freer, more populous Korea thrives next door. The very signing of such an agreement would imply equality between him and a mere South Korean “president,” a word the KCNA always writes in contemptuous quotation marks. He’s unlikely even to discuss it unless it’s linked to the withdrawal of US troops. If it did come to pass, it would result very quickly in a takeover.
Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.
His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.
North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.
Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.
While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.
Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.
As the North’s intentions become ever clearer, some Pyongyang watchers may try to rescue their reputations by claiming it would never have thought of ending ethnic division had Trump not spoken of “fire and fury.” Others may claim it only wants unification in order to earn Washington’s respect, or some such nonsense. My money is on the Mileage Club arguing that even demands for US troop withdrawal do not necessarily mean the North has designs on the South.
But as this discussion turns more “inter-Korean,” and our media finally begin paying proper attention to the South Koreans’ view of things, many Western pundits are going to have to find a different part of the world to be wrong about. I dare say their awareness of this is behind some of the more desperate arguments against the notion of a unification drive.
I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?
Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves.
Just as there are many ways of taking over the South, there are many different forms a united Chosun could assume. But unified Vietnam didn’t look like North Vietnam for long. I don’t agree with Bruce Cumings on very much, but he’s right in saying that if Kim Il Sung had won the war, Korea today would not look like North Korea. I think it would still be a much less free and prosperous place than the South is now, but it would resemble China and Vietnam more than the North now does. Its system has been shaped by the need to distinguish itself, to seal itself off from the rival state, and to pursue nuclear armament. I find it more likely that the northern half of a unified Chosun would embark on economic liberalization than that the southern half would be collectivized or expropriated.
As I have to keep saying, the North is a far-right state. This isn’t how a communist propaganda apparatus talks:
“Obama’s ugly mug turns my stomach…. That blackish mug, the vacant, ash-colored eyes, the gaping nostrils…. the spitting image of a monkey in an African jungle…. a mongrel of indeterminate bloodline.” — KCNA, 5 May 2014
Neither is this:
Pak Geun-hye is a filthy, country-betraying whore … couldn’t even have a child … wearing light blue to pretend she’s not old… — Rodong Sinmun, 13 September 2014
I realize it’s a hard truth for many to accept, but the Kim Jong Un regime is to the racist, sexist and militarist right of Donald Trump; it’s not popular among Western neo-Nazis for nothing. Its ideological goal is the radicalization of the moderate nationalism that is already the dominant ideology here.
Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.
In contrast to most experts’ predictions, marketization has strengthened the North’s hand, in that people in the South no longer feel the unpleasant sense of difference or ijilgam they used to feel in regard to the North. The freshly arrived migrants on TV these days are saying things like, “You South Koreans prefer Nike, but in the North we were more into Adidas.” This is hardly a clash of civilizations – as Kim Jong Un knows only too well. The KCNA’s photographs of water parks and luxury department stores are not just for his own people’s benefit.
The North is no doubt planning to purge its enemies here on nationalist grounds as pro-Japanese elements or traitors to the race. It would certainly curtail basic freedoms, but I doubt that it foresees widespread resistance. Kim has probably learned from his own people’s docility that, as Dostoevsky said, man is the creature who can get used to everything.
In any case, the issue is not what will happen, but what North Korea expects will happen. Moon Jae-in could turn out to be tougher than any president before him. Young people here might well rally around the republic that most of them now disparage as “Hell Chosun.” But Kim has no reason to consider that very likely. If you think his advisors are telling him he’s too repulsive ever to win over the South Korean public, that he’s no match for candlelight and K-Pop, that he can’t tame the internet like Xi Jin Ping has done, you need to learn more about the sort of people our own leaders surround themselves with. George W. Bush thought it would be easy to subdue Iraq; mission accomplished, and all that. He had none of the grounds for optimism that Kim Jong Un now has.
Last month Thae Yong-ho set out the regime’s expectations to our congress in credible terms: The pull-out of US troops followed by capital flight, the exodus of the upper class, and economic collapse. I imagine that under those conditions the North and South might then agree to a confederation — the latter in the hope of projecting stability to investors, and the former with a view to a quick takeover. Such a development would no doubt be cheered on by journalists and op-ed writers around the world. I can just hear CNN describing the signing ceremony as a Nobel-worthy moment. Any subsequent struggle for primacy would be widely seen as an internal affair, as domestic violence if you will.
This raises the question of how the North plans to bring about US troop withdrawal. It could follow a peace treaty with Washington or Seoul, or it could result from a split in the alliance. Beijing has already driven the thin end of the wedge between South Korea and the US. Although Trump is unhappy with the Blue House, the Americans tend to tolerate a high level of disloyalty and duplicity from their allies. Most importantly, the public here doesn’t want to see US troops leave. That could change in the next few years, but the North can’t afford to wait for the mainstream to come around. The sanctions up there are biting, Trump is unpredictable, and if the South Korean economy takes a turn for the worse, the mood here could shift to the right as suddenly as it shifted left last year.
If Kim wants to see US troop withdrawal, therefore, he’s going to have to force it. He could cut a deal with Seoul that Washington would find unacceptable; this is what the local right is most worried about. He could also provoke Japan in order to force Washington and Seoul to clash over the appropriate response.
Whatever happens, Moon’s peaceful noises are not likely to pacify Pyongyang. On the contrary, the more docile the South appears, the more intent Kim becomes on getting the Yankees out. Considering Roh Moo Hyun’s unwise denigration of the maritime border at the 2007 summit, Kim could well expect that another attack in the Yellow Sea, or even an island grab of the kind his troops often rehearse for, would be met only with South Korean pleas for negotiation.
If the North did make such a move, Moon would face a difficult choice. He would either have to keep his pacifist pledge, thus encouraging more adventurism, or to break it, which would result in immediate hostilities. Either way, the danger of America’s being drawn into a war by Moon’s rhetoric is at least as great as the danger of South Korea’s being drawn into a war by Trump’s. We must never forget that the last war began because the North believed the South would be a pushover.
Let me sum up:
Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.
Last month an article by Zachary Keck appeared in The National Interest’s “The Buzz” under the title, “Why North Korea Can’t Use Nuclear Weapons to Conquer South Korea.” Although the writer makes kind reference to me and other like-minded people as “some of the best observers” of the North, his view of things is very different.
I tend to doubt that Kim Jong-un really believes he will be able to use his nuclear weapons to reunify the peninsula. That being said, I certainly don’t claim to know exactly what Kim Jong-un thinks. What is important is that regardless of what Kim Jong-un believes, North Korea will not be able to use its nuclear weapons to achieve reunification…when you look at the case on its merits the notion that North Korea can conquer South Korea becomes completely absurd.
Having first set his critical sights on our assertion that North Korea intends to use nukes to unify the peninsula, Keck admits to not knowing the regime’s intentions, which he then dismisses as unimportant anyway. The important thing is what it can do, and this it can’t.
I encounter such reasoning from Westerners quite often. First I say what I believe North Korea wants. In doing so, I draw on decades of the regime’s own statements, including several made in the past few weeks. I then find my argument shrugged off on the grounds that unification would be objectively unfeasible and difficult to carry through, therefore “hard to imagine.”
But the establishment of a belligerent force’s intentions is always an urgently important matter in itself, regardless of how likely its ultimate victory may be, as America should have learned on December 7, 1941. As for the boundaries of our imagination being the boundaries of the possible, here’s another date: 9/11.
Keck goes on:
First, nuclear blackmail has never proven to be that effective. Moreover, the Soviet Union and China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did not lead America to retreat from Europe or Asia respectively.
My readers must be as sick of my warnings against extrapolation from the Cold War as I am of writing them. In the above as in so many cases, it’s shaky even as extrapolation; nuclear blackmail worked very nicely for us in the Cuban crisis.
One more time: the DMZ separates a radical nationalist Korea from… well, you know the rest. Several aspects of our Cold War experience (I will mention Vietnam below) are indeed relevant to today’s peninsula, but just because something didn’t happen then is no reason why it can’t now.
… let’s consider a scenario where the United States did withdraw its military from the peninsula. Then what? North Korea still has to defeat South Korea’s military and pacify its population. That’s a tall order. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world. South Korea is a budding democracy and the most wired society in the world. Its population would have every incentive to resist being absorbed by a Stalinist regime.
Ah, the futility of research. I once wrote a book to debunk the notion that North Korea is a Stalinist state. Well-reviewed and oft-translated it was too. The fallacy lives on regardless, exerting a dangerously reassuring influence on discussion of the nuclear crisis. (Though beneficial to the North it is also unfair to it, the USSR of the 1930s having been a much more repressive and murderous state.)
Since writing a New York Times op-ed on the Cheonan sinking in May 2010 I have tried to draw attention to South Korea’s dangerous state-loyalty deficit, by which I mean citizens’ lack of a sense of identification with their republic. In doing so I have noted the obvious parallels with South Vietnam, another state fatally weakened by nationalism. On this point too, I seem to be talking to the wall. Even Americans interested in the nuclear crisis feel no need to learn about party politics in South Korea. It’s a thriving, prosperous democracy, and that’s all that matters.
Meanwhile President Moon has declared a commitment to avoiding war no matter what, and last week Moon Chung-in, his special envoy for unification issues, approvingly stated that many South Koreans are ready to decouple the alliance in order to keep the peace. The Yonsei professor also renewed his opposition to the stationing of THAAD and called for recognition of the North as a nuclear power. While claiming not to speak for the president, despite his special status, he made sure to add that many people in the Blue House agree with him.
Let there be no doubt that Professor Moon is saying what President Moon would say if Kim Jong Un could just bring himself to sit quietly for a month or two. The envoy’s apparent function (his famous bluntness precluding any traditionally diplomatic one) is to habituate a domestic audience to messages the Blue House will issue in due course.
Also worth mentioning in this context are conservative reports of an academic proposal now circulating among higher-ups that proposes, as a transition to unification, a Kaesong Confederated State. This would be a swathe of jointly administered territory along the southernmost reaches of the North, from the port of Haeju in the west to the Geumgang mountains in the east, that would play host to five universities. That last word, I suspect, is meant about as seriously as the Associated Press’ use of the word bureau for its Pyongyang office.
The grant-milking unification-themed cottage industry inside South Korean academia has been putting out silly ideas for ages now. I heard comparable ones in the Lee Myung Bak era. Whether or not this particular proposal has a chance of finding favor — and I can’t see why Kim Jong Un would agree to it — it’s worth pondering as an example of a common readiness to compromise liberal democratic values.
A lot is now being said here, in other words, which indicates the North has reason to fancy its prospects of decoupling the alliance and subjugating the rival state. But I can hardly fault Keck or any other American observer for not knowing things the foreign press corps in Seoul prefers not to write about.
Which brings me in closing to Keck’s assertion that South Koreans’ wiredness will strengthen their resistance to a takeover. I cut him some slack here too. One has to have lived in this country, and looked over the shoulders of smartphone users on the subway, to realize how much more likely anyone is to be scrolling through photographs of shoes than to be reading anything at all political, let alone critical of the North.
Should push come to shove, texts and tweets would be more likely to drive Seoulites to peace or pro-confederation demonstrations than to the flag-waving rallies of the security-minded. Hasn’t President Moon himself called on candlelighters to help prevent a war on the peninsula? Not to prevent or deter a North Korean attack, mind you, but to prevent a war, an exchange of fire.
It’s interesting how the government now characterizes last autumn’s protests as a movement for the entire progressivist package, including accommodation of North Korea. This is in sharp contrast to the local and foreign coverage we all got at the time, when they were presented as a wonderfully bipartisan push to impeach a corrupt president. I don’t remember seeing or hearing much talk about North Korea then. Still, future historians will probably conclude that the driving force behind the protests did indeed oppose Park more for her beliefs than for anything else.
Postscript: Edward Oh, a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC, has penned an excellent article entitled “What the West misreads about North Korea’s intentions” in Asia Times (1 October 2017).
Note: I will be speaking on “North Korea’s Unification Drive” at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul on Tuesday evening, December 19th.
Martin Luther said you could show some people the line “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and they’d take it to mean, “in the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge-sparrow.” I know the type. Many of our Pyongyang watchers would have us believe that when North Korea says no to talks it means yes to talks, that war means peace, and final victory over the Yankee colony means lastingco-existence – but never vice versa. Only unpleasant rhetoric, it seems, is to have its meaning inverted. Friendly noises are to be taken at face value, and fondly remembered no matter how many missile launches ensue.
What looks like bellicose behavior to the shallow-minded is but additional code for the select few to decipher. The North’s deadly bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 was thus a plea to be taken more seriously in peace talks (as Jimmy Carter said at the time). And the signing of the Agreed Framework of 1994, in which North Korea and the US promised to work toward normalizing relations, something that would have deprived the North of all reason to exist as a separate state? No code there, just politically suicidal good faith – on Kim Jong Il’s part at least.
These acrobatics are very much an American thing. No one does wishful thinking like we do. I don’t see South Korean progressivists pretending that the regime’s every word and deed can be boiled down to the same reassuring message. In fact, part of the reason many of them feel a sneaking admiration for the North is because it follows through on its Yankee-defying rhetoric. But that’s another topic.
Here’s an example of the spin I’m talking about. First the North Korean text:
[Kim Jong Un] stressed that the DPRK would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated (KCNA, quoted in the Associated Press, 5 July 2017).
In regard to which Professor John Delury issued the following tweet, which Joshua Stanton remarked on two months ago.
It is not atypical for North Korea to float a negotiating overture in a double negative. This could be a particularly important one (5 July 2017).
There are dozens of Pyongyang watchers spitballing away on Twitter in much the same animyŏn malgo spirit. On my infrequent visits I marvel at how many tweets some of them churn out every day. I can never look at their academic work the same way again. It’s on much the same principle that when I have a hyper-talkative student who keeps raising his hand, perhaps snapping his fingers in the hope of being called upon, I become increasingly interested in the silent kid at the back.
Journalists are different; they will seek out the most compulsive tweeters, the most eager soundbite providers, as if extreme publicity-mindedness were just the thing to look for in an analyst. Sure, such people make their work easier. But the nuclear crisis has become too dangerous for the press not to start paying a lot more attention to who is asked what. With millions of lives at stake on the peninsula, there is no excuse for larding Korea coverage — even an article on the local reaction to Trump’s remarks — with quotes from the same few expatriate males. A correspondent in Seoul can talk to thousands of highly intelligent and informed locals across the political spectrum. Their voices need to be heard, at more than just soundbite-length, by the American officials who might soon decide this country’s fate.
Those of us who talk to the press, for our part, should simply refuse to answer questions we know others are more competent to answer. This reminds me that in my occasional Q & A’s — I don’t do soundbites — I need to go back to rejecting the obligatory “What about China/Russia?” questions.
It’s the Western nuclear specialists, as I see it, who exceed their brief the most. Although few if any are Korean speakers, they have no reservation about claiming to know what motivates the regime in Pyongyang, or asserting (just as arrogantly) that its motives are beyond our ken.
The implicit attitude is that the study of North Korea’s history and political culture is a waste of time. We need only lean back and imagine what we would do in Kim Jong Un’s position, and if we can’t come up with anything, we must turn our minds to something else. My colleagues in Korean Studies take this sort of thing in better humor than I do. Then they wonder why the funds and scholarships go elsewhere. If any good can come of the nuclear crisis, let it be a heightened awareness of the importance of foreign language study and empirical research.
A few days ago a long soundbite string appeared in the New York Times. “Motives of North Korea’s Leader Baffle Americans and Allies” is a misleading headline, inasmuch as most people quoted clearly do not consider themselves baffled at all. It’s the public that doesn’t know what to think, due in large part to articles like this. About a dozen opinions are zipped through in a few passing sentences each.
These include the idea that North Korea is intent on unifying the peninsula, though no hint is given that it might plan to do so without a war. Discussion of such a possibility would require a good hard look at South Korean progressivism, a topic foreign correspondents prefer to tiptoe around. Like that recent Washington Post article, in which Trump is presented as a wanton sower of disunity in the alliance, the Times piece makes no mention of Moon Jae-in’s reluctance to install THAAD, his commitment to a North-South confederation, his many appointments of veterans of the Juche Thought movement, or the hopes all this might have inspired in Pyongyang.
Speaking of nuclear specialists, Jon Wolfsthal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gave the New York Times this comment:
“We don’t know what Kim Jong Un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his end game is?”
Now there’s an epistemological puzzler for the Instagram age. How can we understand someone, when he won’t share photos of his food like a civilized human being? But I know how easily an inane remark can slip out when you’re doing “phoners” all evening. I cite this one only to show how little attention journalists and editors pay to the quotes they tack together, even when the subject is of enormous importance.
“Anyone who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing.”
Wolfsthal again. I’ve read enough variations on this “black hole” theme to have grown heartily sick of it. While I too may be wrong about North Korea’s intentions, I’m neither lying nor guessing. Granted, it’s not easy figuring out what any country wants. America? Damned if I know anymore. The beginning of political wisdom is the recognition that no government’s discourse can be trusted. That goes also for the regime our softliners consider uniquely guileless. And the beginning of I.R. wisdom is the realization that foreign-service officials lie especially often. I had to laugh when I first heard of a news magazine called The Diplomat; it’s like calling a porn magazine The Prude.
The next stage of inquiry is learning to discern the real from the sham, the heartfelt from the feigned. This is not an exact science, I admit, but neither is it mere guesswork. When a regime’s fundamental, unchanging interests line up with a seventy-year pattern of behavior, and an equally old ideological tradition, and now with its “outer-track” propaganda, we can be as sure of its intentions as we can be about anything in world affairs.
So I’m going to say this once again: North Korea’s immediate goal is the withdrawal of US troops. Its ultimate goal is the unification of the peninsula under the star flag. And yes, it has good reason to believe this can be done without a war.
Postscript: 8 September 2017
Hardly do I post a long lament about Western coverage of the Korea crisis than the Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee puts out a superb article on Moon Jae-in’s current quandary.
Fans of non-Korean-speaking Korea experts will have to look elsewhere. Lee has clearly chosen her sources carefully, and allowed each one enough space to make a coherent, nuanced point. Someone please tell me this journalist isn’t just passing through Seoul.
One thing though. Lee quotes Kim Joon-hyung, who advised Moon during the presidential campaign, as saying that public support for THAAD is informed by “nationalistic sentiment.” The very odd implication is that a proud sense of belonging to the Korean race makes people here want to protect themselves against their ethnic brothers in the North. If this were the case, South Korea’s conservatives would not now be railing against nationalism. I suspect that Kim actually used a word closer in meaning to patriotic. If he didn’t, Lee should have asked him to explain what he meant.
We Anglophones tend to use the words nation and state more or less interchangeably, but when one nation is divided into two states, it’s important to stick to the Koreans’ own practice of distinguishing clearly between nationalism (minjokjuŭi) and patriotism / state spirit (aeguksim, kukka chŏngsin, kukkajuŭi, etc). Historians do this even in English when discussing the Weimar Republic, where nationalism undermined support for the state — and for liberal democracy — just as it does in South Korea today.