In a recent blog post I mentioned the Great Contradiction in North Korean Studies: the practice of playing up the DPRK’s bold and uncompromising nationalism while at the same time denying its commitment to unifying the nation. The front and back do not match, as Koreans say.
The Great Contradiction in South Korean Studies is the equally widespread practice of stressing the great inferiority of the ROK’s nationalist credentials to North Korea’s, while denying that any South Korean opposition force of note has ever regarded the North as the more legitimate state. (Claims to the contrary are dismissed as McCarthyist fabrications.)
Again, front and back do not match. If the South was such a horrible place for so long, and the North to all outward appearances so much better, why should many South Koreans not have looked up to Kim Il Sung? It’s odd how some of the most North-apologetic Westerners are scandalized by any historical imputation of pro-North tendencies to the South Korean left.
Outright loyalty to Pyongyang is not the force it was here during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Juche Thought Movement reached the peak of its influence on campuses and in intellectual circles. But the fact that so many prominent and apparently unrepentant veterans of that movement now sit in the Moon Jae-in administration reminds us that the ideological difference between the two Koreas is not as clear-cut as Westerners assume.
The last frontier of the Cold War? Nonsense. The DMZ does not divide the last bastion of communism from a liberal democracy; it divides a radical nationalist state from a moderate nationalist one. The ideological gap between northern radicals and southern moderates remains a sizeable one, but has never been narrower. Nor should we forget the rule of ideological communities — the whole peninsula being positable as such a community — that moderates always feel more sympathy for radicals than vice-versa. Enough to welcome a radical takeover? No. Enough to weaken their resistance to such a takeover? Yes.
That point is vital to understanding why North Korea regards the US military presence as the main thing standing between it and a more or less bloodless unification of the peninsula. That point in turn is vital to understanding that the goal of the regime’s nuclear program — and of its development of long-range missiles in particular — is to force the withdrawal of American troops.
No one has harped on this point quite like I have in recent years (in a Newsweek cover story in 2013, in North Korea’s Juche Myth in 2015, in NK News last year, and so on), but Nicholas Eberstadt and Japan’s Hideshi Takesada, among others, were putting things much the same way years earlier. It took the events of 2010 to make me realize how softline even the South Korean right was, which in turn made me understand that the subjugation of a post-alliance ROK was a goal realistic enough for Pyongyang to be arming for.
The regime has itself long defined unification as the end goal of its military-first policy. Now it does so not only in inner-track, but even in export propaganda, as (according to an NK News report) it did in an Uriminzokkiri piece a few weeks ago:
The current South Korean government has no need to fear or feel unnecessary repulsion about our nuclear weapon. It is a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race (minjok).
South Korean Pyongyang watchers of a conservative bent, who join me in taking the North’s ideology seriously — as opposed to calling it a “reactive” or “survivalist” state, i.e., one without a long-term ideological vision — have been saying for decades that it’s out to unify the nation.
Unfortunately the Western press rarely calls on these experts, despite their being by far the best informed on nuclear and security issues in the narrow (more technical) sense. This has partly to do with the former’s own pro-Sunshine leanings and partly with the latter’s inability to speak English as well as the wealthier, US-educated academics of the Gangnam left. This neglect of their expertise is especially lamentable in view of the fact that they include many defectors from the North.
For a long time there, I seemed to be the only Anglophone Koreanist who kept bringing up unification when discussing the North’s motives. It did no good that I could see. The Western press kept on referring to the North’s arms program as a mere effort to maximize its defenses, or to secure an aid package, or to bring about the normalization of Pyongyang-Washington relations, or simply to survive, to “muddle through.”
Things are finally starting to change. With every new missile launch or nuclear test, a few more people seem to realize that the North is arming too urgently, and at too great a risk to its own security, for such benign explanations to keep making sense. As a result more journalists than usual have been asking me to elaborate on my published views. In February 2017, Slate printed an interview with me. In April Reuters War College interviewed me for a podcast, the almaengi of which was as follows:
Those who treat [George W. Bush’s] “axis of evil” remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on [its] developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed.
The US was never stronger, North Korea never weaker than in 1994, yet even then the fear of an artillery attack on Seoul prevented an air-strike on Yongbyeon. You can put it another way and say that the very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea’s security in the first place.
So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties?
The only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence: the unification of the peninsula. More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.
On 1 May 2017 the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Kaiman put out an article, “Here’s What’s Driving North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” in which he discussed my interpretation of the North’s motives, and related relevant things he had just seen and heard on a visit to Pyongyang.
One mosaic on Pyongyang’s metro depicts Kim Il Sung as the sun, watching over a gleeful scene of reunification under the North Korean flag; another shows the North Korean proletariat, led by Kim, advancing against a backdrop of tanks, planes, and most prominently, flying missiles.
“We want Trump to withdraw the troops of U.S. Army from South Korea,” said Rim Daesong, 28, a North Korean official, as he stepped onto a train. “The U.S. government has to change its policies, in order that our country can reunify independently.”
In February, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called a successful ballistic missile test “a pride of Kim Il Sung’s nation [that] has instilled vitality into the glorious Kim Jong Un’s era,” adding that “getting firmer is the fellow countrymen’s conviction in the final victory of the cause of national reunification.”
On 2 May 2017, the very day after the LA Times piece, the Associated Press issued a story under the headline “US: NK’s nukes may be a strategy for taking over South Korea.”
Matt Pottinger, the Asia director on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, said there may be some truth to claims that the North wants a nuclear deterrent to protect its communist dictatorship. But Pottinger said the country’s robust conventional military has worked as a deterrent for decades.
Pottinger suggested other “disturbing” explanations for the North’s development of “an arsenal of the worst weapons in the world.”
“They have made no secret in conversations they have had with former American officials, for example, and others that they want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day,” Pottinger told a conference in Washington.
The North, he added, also wants to coerce the United States “to leave the peninsula and abandon our alliances.”
And on 20 June 2017 the former nuclear negotiator Christopher R. Hill put out an article entitled “North Korea’s Real Strategy”:
In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.
I feel safe in saying that this interpretation of North Korea’s motives has finally “arrived.” I predict more people will begin discussing the nuclear crisis in an inter-Korean context in the months ahead.
My fear is that the consensus will stop halfway to the truth, and the usual op-ed writing suspects will begin arguing a) that the North wants our troops out only because it fears a US attack, and b) that such a move need not diminish the South’s security, because we can bolster its defenses as we reduce our troops in stages, demanding a quid pro quo from Pyongyang each time, etc.
Let me forestall such talk by reminding everyone that North Korean propaganda has always hammered home the assertion that if American troops pull out, unification under the star flag will and must follow. This prediction has informed the entire military-first policy, and motivated the great sacrifices that have gone with it. A takeover would be all the more necessary in view of the fact that a South Korea sans foreign military presence would be the North’s equal even on nationalist terms, leaving the latter state with no more grounds on which to claim superior legitimacy. A withdrawal of American troops would therefore compel the North to attempt completion of the great racial mission, with or without a confederation as a brief intervening stage.
UPDATE (21 July 2017): 아니나 달라
Sure enough, the idea of ending the nuclear crisis by pulling out US troops is already being bandied about. In an article for Politico, Todd Rosenblum, a former delegate to the Four-Party Peace Talks of the 1990s, writes as follows:
Here’s how a deal could work: The U.S. would remove all 30,000 troops from South Korea and close its military bases. We could even consider ending our treaty with South Korea. In return, China would not only cease its support for North Korea but help end the Kim dynasty altogether, leaving behind a unified, democratic Korea that swears off nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China would jointly engage South Korea on its absorption of the North, since South Korea knows the cost of German reunification and is appropriately leery of reintegrating 25 million starved, information-deprived people into a modern state.
Don’t think for a moment that this proposal is too obviously naive and unserious to catch on. The wishful assumption that China would rather see the peninsula united under the South’s flag than the North’s is already standard.
Nor is Rosenblum the only self-styled expert who thinks that even with the Yankee enemy gone, North Korea would just sit there while the South absorbs it — nice and slowly, with appropriate leeriness.
Rosenblum or Politico subtitles the article as an effort to “think the unthinkable.” Let me throw my own “unthinkable” into the mix: What if we stopped taking the North Koreans for fools?