[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.