On Inter-Korean Talks — B.R. Myers

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.