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:
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.