The following commentary is submitted by OFK contributor Rand Millar.
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For most of the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century Germany was perceived by most European nations as the primary security hazard in Europe on account of its expansionist ambitions. In the aftermath of its defeat in the First World War, Germany was forbidden by the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty from fortifying the left bank of its Rhineland territory or the right bank to a line 50 kilometers east of the Rhine river. This left Germany vulnerable to intervention from the west should its ambitions in eastern Europe stir again. Germany’s eastern ambitions were suppressed not ended by the Versailles treaty, and by the advent of Adolf Hitler in 1933, her ambitions in that direction were stirring again. In the early years of his Third Reich, Hitler had to tread carefully with the western powers, given Germany’s military weakness by design of the Versailles treaty. By 1936 Hitler imagined he had just enough revived military means to reoccupy the Rhineland, provided his move was not opposed by the western powers. In western Europe then as in Europe generally today, the attitude was one of “peace at any price”. On March 7, 1936, Hitler sent in modest German forces to reoccupy the Rhineland, as he correctly gauged the defeatist, supine character of the western powers and could be confident that they would not use the superior force then available to them in the French army to evict his battalions. To make certain the western powers stayed quiescent in reaction to his move into the Rhineland, Hitler used the tactic of offering to return his country to membership in the League of Nations, to agree to a treaty to outlaw aerial bombing as a tool of warfare, and to sign a new non- aggression pact with France. Many in the west were eager to accept his assurances, and told themselves that Hitler was only entering his own backyard anyway. Once it was clear that the German army move into the Rhineland would not be countered, Hitler dropped his smiling campaign of security assurances. Certainly the uncontested character of his move increased his popularity with many Germans and dampened the doubt of those Germans, many in high places, opposed to his adventurist foreign policy. Once he had made his move, Hitler began a program of fortification of the Rhineland. In so doing, he dramatically raised the cost of any conceivable western intervention in the event of a German military move eastward. In effect the French thus surrendered their ability to prevent Germany from achieving hegemony over France’s allies in eastern Europe.
An analogous phenomenon seems to be playing out on the Korean peninsula today. From the time of its first chief Kim Il Sung the Pyongyang totalitarian regime has sought to unify all of Korea under its rule. The first major attempt was frustrated during the Korean War. When the war ended, neither Kim nor his opponent in the south, Rhee Syng Man, were in a position to impose unification. It should be remembered though that Rhee was just as opposed as Kim to the continued bifurcation of Korea, even if Rhee’s vision of a united Korea was vastly different from that of Kim. Dwight Eisenhower’s difficulties in imposing the USA’s understandably limited vision for Korea on Korean nationalist Rhee in 1953 probably reminded him of his thorny relations with French nationalist Charles de Gaulle during the Second World War.
Rhee Syng Man’s vision for a united Korea progressively atrophied under the military-dominated regimes of Park Chung Hee, Chun Do Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo, with the success of their guided market economic policies in creating the powerful industrial and post-industrial economy in southern Korea. Authoritarian rather than totalitarian, these men were not nearly as successful as the communists were in the north in stamping out anti-regime tendencies among those in south Korea who felt disadvantaged relative to regime favorites during the upward trajectory of the economy in the south. Such anti-regime tendencies were most evident in universities in the south, where, as in north America and western Europe, the liberal arts and social sciences departments came under de facto far-left control, and became incubators for a generation of anti-government, pro Pyongyang regime activists who in their maturity would as graduates of top universities become employed in critical positions in government and the mass media in the south. They have networked with each other, liaised with northern agents in the south, and worked tirelessly in politics, the media, and the arts to promote southern subservience to the wishes of the Pyongyang regime and to defame the tens of thousands of defectors from the north who know all too well about life in the north and are living, walking rebukes to these sympathizers of the Pyongyang regime in the south.
If the southern military and post-military governments had progressively allowed the non- communist vision of a united Korea to atrophy, from 1972 onward they did sign on to inter-Korean declarations guided by Pyongyang which while seemingly platitudinous in fact envisioned Korean confederation in a system where north and south would have an equal say though the north’s population was half of the south’s and its economy ever-smaller in comparison to the south’s. Of course northern voting would be lock-step as dictated by the Kim family and its minions, while the democratized south would vote much more according to individual preference and thus have the smaller voice. So of course the Pyongyang regime would come to prevail in the proposed Korean confederacy.
If in the last two generations the south has built an economy that is a world-class marvel, the north has built and maintained a military vastly larger than its population or economic resources could sustain in a peacetime environment. So, the Pyongyang regime has always maintained its people in a psychological war footing, with chronic mobilizations and propaganda campaigns in an effort to prevent the growth of peaceable attitudes in the population. These efforts have become progressively less effective with the passage of time and the insidious growth of awareness in the northern population about the world beyond the control of the Pyongyang regime. In time disaffection could and likely has reached a point where a misstep by regime minions could set off serious and perhaps uncontrollable internal disturbances. What might happen if the south had a government as committed to unity under its democratic institutions as the Pyongyang regime is committed to its totalitarian vision?
Pyongyang knows that it faces no danger from an American-led invasion, and there is virtually no constituency in the south for any such invasion. Therefore there are no assurances the USA can offer that can assuage Pyongyang’s security concerns. The Pyongyang regime in fact believes that its security can only come from achieving hegemony over all Korea, and making the southern economy subject to its dictates, southern politics free from conservative opponents of the Pyongyang regime, and southern life and culture purged of any shred of disrespect of Kim Jong Un and his regime. Much or most of the left in southern Korea, and the prosperous 30-somethings and 40-somethings who make up their greatest support, either have no problem with this outcome or profess to disbelieve it. Their conservative opponents are without vision or stature, and mostly lost in petty political infighting. Neither the Buddhist nor the Roman church establishments in the south offer any evident resistance to the trend. The only appreciable resistance to the apparent trend toward submission comes from the Bible-based Christian churches in the south, and the network of north Korean defectors resident in the south. These last two are at least partially allied.
Kim Jong Un inherited from his father the vast artillery assemblage aimed at the Seoul metropolitan area proclaimed by senior northern military figures as able to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”. If the peace-at-any-price people of the south are not unreasonably concerned about this, then the northern dictator essentially has the south as hostage, and has already won the battle for the hegemony and eventual totalitarian rule over the entire Korean peninsula he must have if his regime is to survive at all, except for the problem presented by the Americans.
The Americans save for their forces based in the Seoul area, have not been hostages to the Pyongyang regime, and are an incalculable threat to any end game the Pyongyang regime has for asserting itself at gunpoint to Seoul and compelling thus southern submission to its will. The sole purpose behind a generation of dogged development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and their intercontinental delivery systems, is to have the means to compel the USA to disengage itself from the security equation on the Korean peninsula by threatening American cities with the effective equivalent of what Seoul is already under threat of. Once that has been credibly achieved, then negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, in the view of Kim Jong Un and his minions, are possible. The sole subject: American disengagement from Korea. Other scenarios, however recurrent and attractive to would-be Nobel prize winners, are without foundation.
At present Kim Jong Un’s regime has demonstrated likely possession of a few missiles of the ICBM class, and probable miniaturization of nuclear weapons thus capable of being lofted by such ICBMs. It may have one or more submarines capable of firing shorter-range ballistic missiles as well; these are probably intended to place Japanese cities at risk. As Hitler strove in March 1936 to offer various assurances to distract western powers from his occupation of the Rhineland and the resulting change in the strategic equation in Europe, so Kim Jong Un in January 2018 plays up the upcoming Winter Olympics and agrees to “peace talks” all to buy immediate acquiescence by outside powers to his claimed nuclear power status, and the fundamental change in Korean and east Asian security that such must cause.
As Hitler before him, Kim Jong Un knows what he wants, and he believes that he has the measure of his external opponents. Given the innate brittleness of his regime, he has no choice.