53 results found.
53 results found.
The students went up on stage and told participants they had distributed anti-war badges around the nation in protest against the Iraq war and said they felt unifying the two Koreas was a way to create “a world without wars. They also joined the former communist guerrillas in the shouting of their old slogans against “imperialist Yankee soldiers” and the “puppet regime of Syngman Rhee. Kim, who also instructed his students to operate an online group that opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq, now serves as an official with the KTEWU’s North Jeolla Province chapter.
May God save Korea from itself. [link]
You may recall how the KTU recently made itself famous in the Korea blogosphere: its “What a Wonderful World” video for the APEC Summit. This led, in part, to an acrimonious controversy over education reform and a silly GNP boycott of the National Assembly. On a somwhat more productive front, tt also led to the formation of an upstart rival:
The Korean Liberal Teachers Union, established last month by teachers opposed to the educational direction of the left-leaning workers union, attempted to have a meeting yesterday with its counterpart, but the workers union refused to take part.
The workers union had earlier alleged that the new union was being secretly controlled by the Grand National Party.
The new union yesterday filed a defamation charge against the workers union.
A few paragraphs down, we see what fine role models the KTU members are for the nation’s youth:
One report claims that at a high school in Gyeonggi province, students were encouraged by workers union members to damage vehicles belonging to teachers who opposed the union.
Cho Jing-hyeong, parent of a student, is expected to give examples of remarks by teachers of the union gathered over the years, which he thinks are inappropriate.
The remarks include speeches made by workers union teachers that Korea would have been unified if not for actions of the United States during the Korean War.
Other remarks reportedly made by teachers include saying that smart families read the Hankyoreh “• a left leaning daily newspaper.
It’s somewhat unclear where the KTU’s madness ends and the anti-KTU witch-hunting begins, but it does suggest a need for the government to impose some disciplined ideological neutrality here. Why the GNP boycotts the Assembly instead of simply campaigning on this issue is beyond me.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that our own debates over school curricula seem prissy by comparison. The evolution of modern Korean education might well put the entire intelligent design debate to rest.
The Trotskyites in the Korean Teachers’ Union have cut out a few f-words and gone ahead with their agenda of poisoning little minds to hate America:
The leftist union yesterday posted on its Web site a class plan and the video clip it will use in those classes. The video was a “cleaned-up” version of one shown in Busan last month and did not contain any foul language; the previous clip included curses directed at President Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun.
The new clip slightly alluded to the government’s positive stance on the APEC forum, although it still contained strongly negative statements on globalization.
In a press release, the union said it revised the contents in a wish for more people to have a peaceful and happy life by knowing the “truth” about APEC through “peaceful” classes.
It said the goal of the special classes was not to show that international organizations represented the interests of strong countries but to promote the fact they could contribute to global peace.
The government, however, said although the class plans were better than those presented in Busan last month, there were still some “vulgar expressions” in the video.
I wonder if they cut out the “What a Wonderful World” 9/11 sequence. I wonder why the South Korean Education Ministry allows this. I wonder why our military deployment in South Korea continues to effectively subsidize all of it.
The Chosun Ilbo reports today on an issue that I expect we’ll be hearing much more about–an upcoming strike by the Korean Teachers’ Union, a/k/a the Korean Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, which is affiliated with one of the two major labor groups in Korea, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. One glance at the KTU’s Web site shows that education is clearly the last thing on its mind. It’s reasonable to ask whether these people are really qualified to prepare Korea for success in a global, export-oriented economy economy which they clearly hold in contempt.
(Per the Marmot, the other major teachers’ union, the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations, has far more members and leans right; however, the KFTA, which supports a different proposal, is also protesting the new government plan. On the other hand, the Chosun Ilbo reports that the KTU’s budget dwarfs those of all other unions and labor umbrella groups in Korea, combined. Where did all this money come from? Might an audit be appropriate?).
In the wake of the KTU’s Pusan local preparing this little propaganda flick for classroom use, depicting President Bush and other foreign leaders as foreign imperialist exploiters, and using some language that was highly inappropriate for a classroom, the government had either the newfound will or fresh pressure to act. The KTU is flagrantly unrepentant:
KTU says it will use the satirical APEC teaching aids but delete segments containing abusive language from an accompanying video that lampoons President Roh Moo-hyun and U.S. President George W. Bush. “The government says APEC promotes globalization and boosts the Korean economy, it is also true that ordinary people around the world are strongly opposed to globalization and to George W. Bush,” the union said.
The KTU’s proto-Marxism and anti-Americanism already have too long a history in KTU-sponsored educational materials taught in South Korean schools, despite those materials’ tenous relevance to legitimate educational objectives. For example, the KTU recently indoctrinated South Korean kids to oppose the Iraq War.
According to Digital Chosun reporter Ahn Seok-bae, Chunkyojo has declared this to be a week of “anti-war” classes. The union is honoring the life of Kim Sun-il, one of the latest “news killings” to come out of Iraq.
But the teachers have been put on notice for their anti-war curriculum. By June 28, the first day of proposed “anti-war” classes, the MOE had already reviewed the teaching materials posted at the Chunkyojo website and pledged to send out directives that would, in the words of journalist Ahn Seok-bae, “make sure that the class is not used to instill distorted points of view in students.
Those materials were so virulently anti-American that they even managed to shock Roh Moo-Hyun.
Clearly, some better system of evaluation and accountability is needed when–and I’m not going out on a limb here–the North Koreans are trying to infiltrate, indoctrinate, and gain influence over South Korean unions.
Take a gander, for example, at this paper on the KTU’s “Peace Model of Reuinification Education, and take stock of the KTU’s associations* with obvious North Korean stooge and provocateur So Kyong Won, who in 2003 teamed up with some student radicals to provoke a fight with three American soldiers on the Seoul Subway, kidnap one of them, Private John Murphy, transport him to an anti-American rally on a South Korean campus, and force him to make a videotaped “confession.” So and the former chairman of the KTU traveled to Pyongyang together for a “solidarity” trip in 2003.
At the time, Roh’s government did next to nothing about this or other contemporanous acts of violence against American service members, which may explain why violence has continued to gain acceptance as a means of political expression in South Korea (but I digress).
False Claims of Free-Speech Martyrdom
I’m all for societies encouraging free, open, and vibrant debate, but there are two real problems with the KTU trying to make a free speech issue out of this: first, it’s not the job of public school teachers to teach fringe views (the KTU marches to the drum of the far-far-left Democratic Labor Party, which is now down to just 9 seats in a 299-seat National Assembly); and second, kids aren’t equipped to question and debate what their teachers teach them–indeed, questioning a teacher would be anathema in Korea’s deeply Confucian society. And of course, with the KTU in charge of the curriculum, you will assuredly never see kids exposed to the other side of the debate, which is at least a reasonable expectation in adult society.
This plan, as watered-down as it is, is long overdue. This isn’t about silencing or jailing people–it’s about getting schools back into the business of teaching math, grammar, and yes, history, based on empirical science and objective fact.
This is one of those rare occasions when I think Roh deserves some praise. This could not have happened without his government’s approval, particularly that of his Education Minister. Furthermore, it will not come without some considerable cost to him politically, and although most of the more radical teachers were probably already DLP voters, this will aggravate intra-left tensions that have grown in the wake of the last bi-elections. In the wake of those elections, of course, Roh clearly understands that he needs to move toward the center. The true test will be whether he has the determination to stick with real reforms, or whether they will be watered down until they lose all meaning.
* The North Korean Korean Central News Agency spells the name of the former head of the KTU, “Yun Yong Gyu,” but he spells it “Yoon Young Kyu” in South Korea. North and South use different romanization systems.
Photos: Above: A KTU rally, from the KTU Web site; Center: U.S. Army Private John Murphy in the custody of violent anti-American protestors (thanks to usinkorea).
Two middle school teachers who allegedly posted pro-North Korean propaganda on Web sites have been arrested, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said yesterday, for violating the National Security Law. The teachers, whom police did not identify, allegedly posted North Korean photos and captions reading, for example, “Long Live the Great Victory of the Military-First Politics. They are both members of the left-leaning Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union [link to other OFK posts]. Both teachers have also served as the union’s director for the unification of the two Koreas. [link to story]
Let’s try to analyze several issues without mixing them.
Usinkorea just forwarded me links to the two APEC propaganda videos in question. These are produced by South Korea’s Korean Teachers Union, which has links to North Korea and some of its more obvious stooges in the South (home, then scroll down). You can see the one that’s caused all of the fracas here; more here.
And what are the kids learning in South Korea?
Must see to believe. Given the way U.S. troops are being treated in South Korea today, one is entitled to question what kind of future a U.S.-Korean alliance still has, and what values and interests these countries share. I admit that I had to see this thing to actually recognize the sheer depravity of it.
Go watch it, now. And while you are, ask yourself these questions:
South Korea must return to sanity or pursue this terror-yukking and coddling of dictators without the help of U.S. taxpayers.
For more on the KTU, click and scroll.
In the last several months, as Pyongyang has revealed its progress toward acquiring the capacity to destroy an American city, the North Korea commentariat has cleaved into two camps: those who believe we can live with a nuclear North Korea, and those who do not. Regular readers know that I’m in the latter camp. North Korea has proliferated nuclear, ballistic missile, and chemical weapons technology. It uses weapons of mass destruction to murder people in foreign airports and terrorize its critics. It threatens terrorist attacks against our movie theaters. It robs banks, sells dope, and counterfeits currency. Its leaders have no discernible regard for human life. They send kids to die in gulags, drown infants for being racially impure, and condemn millions to mass starvation. They need conflict to justify the immiseration of their subjects, and may even be biochemically addicted to conflict. Admittedly, this isn’t a comforting view.
North Korea is an inherently unhealthy obsession, which may explain why a certain type of North Korea-watcher could see Kim Jong-un shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still interpret it as cry for talks. But if Kim Jong-un had the slightest interest in opening, reform, or improving the welfare of the people, he would have seized multiple opportunities to do so, rather than making it a national priority to isolate and impoverish them. He knows he can’t survive forever as dictator of the poorer, browner, uglier Korea. No matter how ardently some may wish to coexist with the horror he inflicts on North Korea’s people out of our sight, all of the evidence says that Kim will not coexist with us. To believe we can live happily ever after with a nuclear North Korea is a self-delusion that risks condemning millions of Koreans to slavery, and the rest of us to insecurity and terror. I have no affection for Donald Trump, but H.R. McMaster has decades of evidence on his side when he says that North Korea is not a status quo power.
One aspect of this argument that has drawn more interest lately is the surprisingly controversial notion that Pyongyang’s nukes might be part of a rational, coherent, and plausible plan to achieve the thing it has said for decades that it intends to achieve — unification. As one who has advanced that argument, I’ve noticed a curious thing recently: people have come at me to poke holes in arguments I’ve never made. Some have tried to talk me out of the preposterous idea of North Korea sending an army of scrawny conscripts to occupy downtown Seoul. (They need not have wasted their time; I’ve made the same argument myself.) Or that Pyongyang wouldn’t “win” a war that destroys its prize and cash cow (ditto). Or that South Koreans would never let their government “surrender” to the North, which is as irrelevant as arguing about whether Americans “surrendered” to Putin in last year’s election. The Russians have developed more sophisticated ideas about achieving their interests than a “Red Dawn” sequel, and I also credit the North Koreans with having an equal or greater capacity for strategic thought. The laziest, most offensive, and most defamatory argument of all is that this must all be part of some scheme to peddle a war that I’ve consistently and vocally opposed, but this smear is de rigeur within certain quarters of the political left. One learns to tune it out, along with those who make such spurious claims.
~ ~ ~
Andray Abrahamian now argues against what he calls the “dangerous” ideas that “North Korea wants to use nuclear weapons to reunify the Korean peninsula by force or coercion,” or that Pyongyang can’t be deterred “because it is fundamentally irrational.” These aren’t really my hypotheses, either, although elements of them strike close enough to things I’ve written to be recognizable as corruptions of them. So, before I commence with the fisking, let’s clarify just what my hypothesis is: the North’s rational strategy is to use its nuclear arsenal to achieve hegemony over South Korea and reunify Korea under its rule — just like it has said since 1948. But as circumstances change, so do strategies. Under my hypothesis, Pyongyang intends to avoid both a major war and any perception of drastic political change in South Korea that might arouse its enemies to obstruct its strategy while they still can. I’m not arguing that this strategy will necessarily work, but plenty of precedent suggests that Pyongyang has reason to think it can.
1. Its short-term goals are no different than Putin’s goals for the United States or any number of other countries — to exercise enough control over how South Koreans think to obscure embarrassing truths, embarrass or silence its critics, influence elections and policies, and give an appeasement-minded leader in Seoul the political space to accede to its demands. As I’ll explain, it has already done or tried to do all of these things.
2. Its medium-term goal is to wage a war of skirmishes to coerce concessions that lower South Korea’s defenses and leave it vulnerable to extortion. Pyongyang will use coercive diplomacy to suppress the readiness of Seoul’s forces, the capability of its defenses, the resiliency of its economy to limited attacks, and the strategic posture of its defenses. It will demand the cancellation of defensive exercises or an end to the deployment of missile defenses. Eventually, it will demand “peace” talks for the removal of U.S. forces. I’ll explain how it has already done or tried to do all of that, too.
3. Its long-term goal is to establish and control an inter-Korean coalition government. As I’ve already explained, South Korea has already agreed to this in principle, in the 2000 and 2007 Joint Statements signed by former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Yes, the two Koreas differ sharply on their interpretations of those statements, for now. Once Pyongyang achieves military, strategic, and information hegemony over Seoul, it will be in a position to dominate that coalition, regardless of the two states’ relative economies and populations.
Thus, Korean War II will not be a mechanized, cross-border invasion or a surrender ceremony on the deck of the U.S.S. Pueblo. To the extent that a new Joint Statement or peace treaty amounts to the same thing, I’m confident that few South Korean voters will recognize it as such — and I’m just as confident that the reaction of most journalists and academics will be glowing coverage and op-eds. We will not see footage of North Korean tanks crashing through the gates of the Blue House anytime in the foreseeable future. Korean War II is being waged at a lower intensity, for more limited objectives, and at a far higher level of political sophistication than most of us give it credit for. This new way of war simmered and boiled for years before most experts or policymakers in Washington or Seoul even noticed that it had begun. I know how paranoid this may seem, but remember that this is an argument about Pyongyang’s intentions. It must be probative of something that if you put “North Korea paranoid” into a Google search window, you get more than half a million results. Paranoid people tend to do things that justify paranoia in others.
Phase 1: Influence What They Read & How They Think
So, let the fisking commence.
Pyongyang’s leaders today are not stupid and know even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic.
I’m glad we agree that Pyongyang’s leaders aren’t stupid, even if we disagree about their objectives (but much more on that later). So if, as Mr. Abrahamian now argues, its objective is self-preservation — or if it’s opening and reform, as he previously argued — why have such smart men been stupid enough to throw away multiple offers of aid, engagement, investment, and security guarantees? Why do these intelligent men continue to attack South Korea and get caught committing embarrassing crimes that are far less profitable than, say, exporting electronics, or reaching an agreement that would allow Rason and Kaesong to reach their potential? Pyongyang’s choices make no sense under any benign interpretation of its intentions, or under any interpretation that leaves the status quo intact, with Korea divided indefinitely.
They know that South Korea’s GDP is at least 30 times larger than theirs.
GDP can be one useful predictor of outcomes in conventional wars; it’s almost useless as a predictor of who wins asymmetric or hybrid wars, which are won by the side whose political endurance is greatest. See, e.g., North Vietnam versus South Vietnam, Rhodesia versus ZANLA, the Soviet Union versus the Afghan mujahedeen, and dozens of wars of “liberation” of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the more prosperous societies are, the more they and their business interests have to lose, and the more willing they become to trade political freedom for temporary security. Here’s something else to ponder: who believes it’s sheer coincidence that as South Korea became the world’s most wired society, North Korea built one of the world’s most advanced cyber warfare capabilities?
They know Seoul’s military budget is bigger than the North’s entire GDP.
Hence the term “asymmetric” warfare. Russia’s economy and population are also smaller than ours, and to the best of my knowledge, Chris Hemsworth isn’t ambushing T-72s along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rest assured that nothing in my posts hypothesizes that skeletal, vinalon-clad conscripts from Ryanggang-do will soon be guarding shuttered “booking” clubs in Kangnam. My worst-case scenario terrifies me precisely because a street-level view of it would, in its first years, seem banal to anyone who has lived in Korea. There are enough riot police in South Korea to contain almost any protest; it’s just a question of who is giving them what orders. Otherwise, I envision an escalation of what we’ve seen since 2010 — a war of provocations and skirmishes, punctuated by negotiations in which the South makes strategic and political concessions in exchange for Pyongyang’s promises to stop scaring people. Again, two South Korean presidents have already agreed in principle to a coalition government, toward which South Korea’s current President still sees the 2018 Olympics as a first cautious step. I doubt we’ll have to play this argument out for long. If my hypothesis is right, watch for Pyongyang to make more aggressive demands to speed up the implementation of those Joint Statements by this time next year, maybe after the 2018 mid-term elections.
They know that “taking” the South and controlling its diverse political and civil society institutions is impossible. They’re not interested.
Not interested? I don’t know how anyone could seriously argue that North Korea isn’t “interested” in controlling South Korea’s society and institutions. Would Mr. Abrahamian have us believe that in all of his visits to North Korea, he wasn’t harangued about unification and the necessity of all Koreans submitting to the leadership of the all-wise suryong? Has he never read any of the bitter denunciations by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland of disobedient “south Koreans,” or heard of Pyongyang’s many violent threats against its critics in the South? It’s no secret that Pyongyang has been running influence operations in the South for decades. I’ve also tried to catalog the many cases in which its Fifth Columnists in the South — not liberals, but people who support Pyongyang’s ideology — have been exposed in the media.
Having practiced law with the Army in Korea, I don’t agree that all of Korea’s institutions are strong or perceived as such. My interactions with Korean witnesses taught me that they had low confidence in the courts. The broad powers of police and prosecutors, and loose rules of evidence, can lead to dubious judgments. Koreans, especially on the left, justifiably distrust a politicized National Intelligence Service that ought to be distinguishing free speech from nefarious foreign influence.
But didn’t Park Geun-hye’s impeachment prove how strong South Korea’s democratic institutions are? No, it proved that a lot of people who really didn’t like Park Geun-hye could come out onto the streets until the courts gave them what they wanted. The conclusion was already foregone by the time the courts threw out the tablet that started it all: “The tablet PC allegedly contains crucial evidence tying Choi and Park to rampant corruption, but the court accepted argument from Park’s lawyers that its provenance is dubious” — that is, it was “found by a reporter under circumstances that remain unclear.” Choi Soon-sil later said she hadn’t used it since 2012. Of course, she had obvious motives to lie, but I’m glad I live in a society where any accused, no matter how hated she is on the streets, can demand a forensic examination of the evidence against her. Because on the off-hand chance Choi was telling the truth — and not for nothing, our burdens of proof favor the accused — you have to wonder how that evidence found its way onto the tablet and the headlines. You don’t have to like Park to see that the evidence against her would have been laughed out of an American courtroom. You can believe she was probably guilty of something (corruption, mishandling classified information, poor judgment, just plain weirdness) and still see her downfall as exposing vulnerabilities in the NIS, the presidency, the media, the courts, and laws that allow the impeachment of presidents before a full investigation is even done.
They know the South’s population is double theirs and that South Koreans are politically engaged and extremely attached to their hard-earned democracy.
Whoever doubts that any South Korean leader would compromise South Koreans’ political engagement and hard-earned democracy must not recall that in 2014, Park Geun-hye agreed to do exactly that to secure a new round of so-called family “reunions.” Specifically, Park agreed to end the “slander” of North Korea, although as a South Korean researcher pointed out, “the no-slander clause could prove problematic, as the North believes the South Korean media should be bound by it, which of course it isn’t.” But a vigorous free press would never let that pass! Well, just read how gleefully Choe Sang-hun covered it. And sure enough, within weeks, Pyongyang said Park’s criticism of its nuclear program and human rights abuses — and also, the testimony of “human scum” defectors before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry — violated the no-slander deal. As the AFP reported, “The “no-slander” clause was always going to prove problematic, with North Korea insisting it should extend to the South Korean media as well as private groups and individuals.” To me, it was far more problematic that Pyongyang demanded — and at least in its view, briefly got — a veto over what South Korean media and civic groups could say about it. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s such a dangerous precedent. Yet not only was there no public outrage or media backlash, the few journalists who weren’t fast asleep did a golf clap.
As for South Koreans’ attachment to democracy, most people would probably agree with this statement in the abstract, but Koreans and Americans have very different ideas of what “democracy” means. Depending on how you ask the question, South Koreans’ support for freedom of speech is between ten and twenty percentage points lower than it is in the United States, and this is a society that already tolerates ham-handed government internet censorship, the fear of libel suits (even against journalists or sitting lawmakers) where truth is no defense, politically motivated censorship by both the political left and right, and standards of journalism I’ll charitably call “uneven.” Americans used to believe their own democratic institutions were unassailable until the 2016 election showed their vulnerability to skillful hybrid warfare.
Speaking of hybrid warfare, who else is old enough to remember the North Korean spy ring known as Ilshimhoe, which was run by a former USFK soldier and current “peace” activist named Michael Jang? Reconnaissance General Bureau agents ran the ring — it called itself a “Valentine Club” — from a safe house on the outskirts of Beijing. According to (admittedly, mostly right-leaning) Korean press reports, Ilshimhoe tried to influence the Seoul mayoral election in 2006, fed Pyongyang information about the six-party talks, and might have planted spies in the Blue House and various government offices. I know, you say — just gossip. Except that Jang and several others were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms. Well, then — it must be another case of McCarthyist persecution! Except that the convictions occurred on Roh Moo-hyun’s watch, after the head of the NIS hinted that he’d come under political pressure to stop digging and resigned. Shortly thereafter, the investigation did stop, the cases were quickly brought to trial, and I doubt that more than two or three of you knew that this had even happened.
Phase 2: A War of Skirmishes Against Seoul’s Defenses
Throughout the war of skirmishes Pyongyang has waged since at least 2010, it has made (and sometimes won) significant political, strategic, and financial demands from Seoul. Most notable was the alleged and abortive surrender of South Korea’s de facto maritime boundary, the Northern Limit Line or NLL. Seoul unilaterally imposed the NLL after the Korean War Armistice, because the warring parties couldn’t agree on a maritime extension of the DMZ.
In 2007, in a last grasp at expanding on the 2000 Joint Statement, Roh Moo-hyun allegedly ceded the NLL, which protects some of South Korea’s most vital air and sea lanes (and some rich fishing waters) to a jointly controlled “peace zone.” I say “alleged” because Cho Myoung-gun, the Roh aide who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister, destroyed the text before Roh’s political opponents could take office and read it. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service leaked a transcript in 2013, and yes, the timing of that is curious. Disputes over the authenticity of the transcript are harder to credit. Just as in our legal system, when someone destroys evidence, it’s reasonable to assume he did it to hide something. In the end, polls said Koreans didn’t know what to believe, meaning South Korea entered the post-truth world at least four years before we did. (On that point, it’s worth listening to this discussion between Sam Harris and Anne Applebaum to understand that some disinformation strategies are designed to do nothing more than confuse people so much that they disengage. And if so, mission accomplished.)
Had Pyongyang secured this “peace zone,” the threat of its closure over, say, disputes about the apportionment of fishing rights or rights of innocent passage might have been enough to throw South Korea into a recession, crash its stock market, or spur capital flight — all without instigating a major war. The residents of the Yellow Sea Islands, like Baekryeong-do and Yeonpyeong-do, would have been hopelessly isolated and easy prey for abduction at sea. The result of the 2007 election prevented Seoul from carrying out the terms of this agreement (whatever it was) but in 2009, Pyongyang secretly approached South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and demanded a summit — the price for which would be $500 million in rice and fertilizer, and possibly some cash. In January 2010, after Lee refused to pay up, Pyongyang threatened to launch a “holy retaliatory war.” Two months later, North Korea sank the Cheonan. Eight months after that, it attacked Yeonpyeong-do, in the middle of the putative “peace zone.”
Similarly, in early 2015, Pyongyang proposed that Park Geun-hye and Kim Jong-un “meet each other and discuss ways toward peaceful reunification,” following Kim Jong-un’s speech calling for “fresh headway in the national reunification movement for this year.” We probably don’t know Pyongyang’s complete list of demands, but one was “freeze-for-freeze,” an idea calculated to degrade the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces. No summit occurred. Then, in August, North Korean soldiers planted mines that blew the legs off two South Korean noncommissioned officers. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the incident sprang up all over the internet, probably as part of a disinformation strategy I like to call “implausible deniability.” For a few weeks, the world was wracked by war fears until Park Geun-hye “de-escalated” them through talks that yielded an agreement that gained the North valuable concessions on paper (though we can be thankful that these amounted to almost nothing in practice). You should expect to see more like this in the coming years, unless sanctions work quickly enough to force Pyongyang into another charm offensive.
If influencing what South Koreans think is a political prerequisite to Pyongyang’s strategic gains, then getting the U.S. out of Korea is the strategic gain most necessary for hegemony over the South. Eventually, Abrahamian gets around to admitting that might be on Pyongyang’s agenda.
What North Korea might want at this point is to decouple the alliance between South Korea and the United States, hoping that Washington over-reacts to Pyongyang’s new capabilities. This over-reaction might take the form of acting too aggressive and causing Seoul to question – perhaps even take steps to terminate – the alliance. It might be by provoking some kind of military action that turns Northeast Asian public opinion against Washington and leaves America isolated in the region.
It might be getting a favorable peace deal that removes U.S. forces from Korea.
I’m not here to defend Donald Trump’s bombast, and I’m glad we’ve heard less of it lately. I’ve criticized it for scaring our friends more than it scares our enemies, and I’ve argued that it will alienate people inside North Korea we should be appealing to. Trump’s speech in Seoul may have done him some good, but most Koreans probably still don’t like him. For the time being, and in spite of their personal feelings for Trump, they still like their country’s alliance with the U.S.
[N]uclear weapons are primarily about deterrence, not forcing one’s will on others…. Yet H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has led the charge to claim otherwise. Multiple times in the last several months he has made comments such as, “classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”
Just like we deterred the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyong-do, the Sony cyberattacks, the 2015 landmine incident, the Kim Jong-nam VX murder, nuclear and chemical proliferation to Syria, multiple threats against journalists, and half a dozen international assassination plots? What price did Kim Jong-un pay for any of those crimes?
Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, however. He may make imperfect decisions, but he wants to enjoy life and grow old.
Roll your mental odometer back to early 2010 and ask yourself two things. First, could you have imagined that North Korea would, with premeditation and malice aforethought, sink a South Korean warship and kill dozens of young sailors? Second, could you have imagined that North Korea would get away with that, with no form of retaliation, accountability, or even a serious U.S. effort to enforce sanctions? (You can ask yourself the same questions about the Yeonpyeong-do attack or the Sony cyberattack.) After the Cheonan attack, conspiracy theories circulated that sowed widespread doubt among South Koreans about Pyongyang’s responsibility. In the National Assembly election that followed weeks after the attack, the left-wing opposition actually won more seats, although it’s by no means clear that those conspiracy theories, North Korea policy, or the attack were major election issues (which is still disturbing). After the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do, the mayor of Incheon even suggested that by holding military exercises near the Northern Limit Line, the South sort-of had it coming. A rational actor analyzing those reactions would not only feel perfectly free to engage in further provocations at that level, but also to escalate them now that his nuclear arsenal deters us. Kim Jong-un has made some imperfect decisions (his eating habits, most obviously) but these attacks were, in retrospect, perfectly sound and rational calculations of his risks and rewards.
He wants his state to survive and to negotiate that survival with its southern competitor-state. And the United States has effectively deterred far more potent nuclear-armed enemies for decades.
The converse is also true: Pyongyang has deterred the U.S. for decades. One might even pause to ask why it needs a nuclear ICBM when its artillery was already enough to hold Seoul hostage. How does decoupling the alliance make any sense except as a prerequisite to a coerced negotiation for full implementation of the joint statements on Pyongyang’s terms? And how would that negotiation go with Moon Jae-in? If past history is any guide, a lot like the 2007 Joint Statement or Moon’s negotiation with China over THAAD — with no one really knowing exactly what Seoul gave away, but being fairly certain that it gave away too much. Suspicions about Moon have run high in Washington since he cut a deal with Xi Jinping not to deploy any more THAAD batteries. This should have been an alliance decision. It’s a significant gain for China, which also wants to decouple the U.S.-Korea alliance. Given who Moon Jae-in’s closest advisors are, Pyongyang has every reason to believe that it could get other significant gains from Moon at America’s expense. I can’t seem to harangue any journalists into reporting Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok’s past leadership of a radical pro-North Korean student group that tried to firebomb the U.S. embassy in Seoul, so I suppose it’s just as pointless to say that Moon has just appointed another ex-member of this same group to his cabinet.
[T]he idea that North Korea wants to reunify the peninsula by force is based largely on their propaganda. Indeed, their newspapers and educational materials do pine for unification. North Korean slogans do claim that “final victory” is nigh and that they must achieve “unification for future generations”. But North Korea’s propagandists claim a lot of things.
Mr. Abrahamian has certainly believed plenty of things Pyongyang has said, and I’ve believed a few myself, but they aren’t the same things. The difference is that the things I believe are better corroborated by Pyongyang’s behavior than the things he believes. I’ve already explained why Pyongyang’s war of skirmishes only makes logical sense as part of a malign strategy, and no logical sense as part of a strategy to gain aid, engagement, improved relations, diplomatic recognition, and the mere preservation of the status quo. That’s why I need better evidence than the insistence of someone who believed in Pyongyang’s siren song of glasnost and perestroika for so long to disregard the best evidence of its intentions — its words, with the essential corroboration of its behavior, and the testimony of at least one high-level defector.
Phase 3: One Country, Two Systems
South Koreans who supported the 2000 Joint Statement so enthusiastically must have understood that coalition would eventually require some compromises on their part, too. Even South Koreans who dislike politics and prefer not to think about North Korea at all (most of them, based on my anecdotal observations) must know that nothing matters more to Pyongyang than the enforcement of its personality cult. Surely they, or former members of Kim Dae-jung’s cabinet like Moon Chung-in, must have understood that such a compromise would necessarily involve ceding some autonomy to a coalition that would expect them to accept a less democratic government and some restrictions on criticism of North Korea — for the sake of peace, naturally.
I know it may all seem nutty to you and me, but it doesn’t seem nutty to Hankyoreh readers. A typical example: “As soon as possible, we have to build an economic community, ‘North-South confederation,’ in which the South and North’s economy, culture, and art are united.”
Six months into his presidency, Moon Jae-in’s awareness of his political constraints has limited his outreach to Pyongyang. This has clearly frustrated an impatient Kim Jong-un. Of course, some caution would be necessary on the part of any South Korean leader trying to implement or build on the joint statements. Of course, most South Koreans are warier of Pyongyang than they were ten years ago. Of course, Moon remembers how the revelations about the “peace zone” came back to embarrass those who had served in Roh’s cabinet. Of course, he remembers how his proposal as Roh’s Chief of Staff to solicit Pyongyang’s view before abstaining from a resolution condemning the North at the U.N. for crimes against humanity was a speed bump on his path to victory over a hapless, divided gaggle of opponents. Like any good politician, he wants to protect his public support and build a legislative majority. Without those things, he can’t do much of anything.
One sign to watch for would be if Pyongyang will again demand that a select-but-growing number of South Koreans — initially members of left-leaning unions, and maybe eventually, schoolchildren — visit the North to pay tribute to Kim Il-sung. It has already demanded that Seoul stop accepting North Korean refugees. If you’ve been paying attention, Pyongyang and the hard left have emphasized this as if Kim Jong-un’s survival depends on it. Of course, Moon Jae-in can’t go along with that openly, but if Roh Moo-hyun could find ways to do it quietly, so can Moon. Under Roh, South Korean consulates hung up on defectors who called. There have been periodic leaks of defectors’ personal information, which could make them easy prey for North Korean agents to coerce them into “re-defecting.” Is it any wonder why so many North Koreans have moved on to more welcoming countries?
As for Pyongyang’s final goal, you don’t have to take my word for that. Read it for yourself as a North Korean official explained it here, or at the end of this post, or as summarized here. Or, read this April harangue on the “three principles of unification,” with its particular emphasis on the importance of achieving national unity by silencing Pyongyang’s critics. As you read it, ask yourself if these are the words of people who don’t really mean what they say. Simply stated, Pyongyang wants to impose censorship to “eradicat[e] the distrust and antagonism between” North and South, remove U.S. forces, and get on with forming a confederation under its domination. The fact that I’m having this argument with well-informed people even now only raises my estimate of the plan’s chances of success, by reaffirming how continuity bias and wishful thinking can still blind intelligent people to what’s right in front of them.
This hypothesis explains a lot of Pyongyang’s conduct that other, more accepted theories don’t. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the plan is rational and plausible. If Pyongyang has identified the same cultural, political, institutional, and personal vulnerabilities I see in South Korea — particularly if viewed through the messianic groupthink that’s expected of the people who advise Kim Jong-un — it may have a plausible hope of success. Again, the provocations since 2010 don’t make sense if Pyongyang’s goal is what most academics have long misjudged it to be — opening, reform, and improved relations with the outside world. All of that conduct must seem mysterious and inexplicable to believers in a Pyongyang Spring that never came; it makes perfect sense to those who believe Pyongyang’s strategy is to use threats of tension and war, and the lure of improved “inter-Korean relations,” to silence its critics, manipulate opinions and elections, extract strategic concessions that would make South Korea economically and militarily vulnerable, and draw South Korea into a one-country/two-systems coalition that gives it all the benefits it wants (money, hegemony, prestige, the removal of a political rival) and none of the risks and costs it doesn’t (a major war, occupation, cultural pollution).
The Power of Wishful Thinking
Finally, let’s touch on the question of predictive judgment. In the footer bio of his article, Abrahamian describes himself as “a visiting fellow at the Jeju Peace Research Institute [who] used to help run a nonprofit that frequently took him to North Korea.” Presumably, this refers to Choson Exchange, whose website still lists him as an “Associate Director of Research,” and which for years ferried batches of North Koreans to Singapore to teach them economics, business, and law to stimulate their inevitable progression toward true capitalism, reform, and openness. Plainly, things haven’t worked out that way.
In 2011, a year after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, Abrahamian co-wrote of the special economic zone at Rason, “While it may be too early to say whether the region will succeed in drawing investment and reform, our recent trips to Rason lead us to believe that developments on the ground may eventually warrant a shift in foreign policy by governments around the globe.” Got that, governments around the globe? In 2013, a still-hopeful Abrahamian told a reporter for The Guardian that while the North Koreans were “avoiding saying reform or opening [up], … that’s what it amounts to – a crack at any rate.” In February of 2015, he still spoke of “palpable energy and excitement” among North Korean officials about special economic zones. This is more modest than “I have seen the future and it works,” but it’s still at great variance with the evidence of the regime’s resistance to openness, which was already clear enough to see from outer space.
In December of that year, Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who is by turns the most wonderful and the most exasperating reporter writing about North Korea today, wrote a sympathetic story on Choson Exchange — not one critical view was included — headlined, “North Korea wants to open up its economy, and a small program in free-market Singapore shows how.” The evidence for the falsity of the first clause of this headline is far too voluminous for one link, but if you know what a darling Choson Exchange has long been to journalists and professional scholars, you might not even bother sweeping against this tide.
I can’t have been the only one who wondered how the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the Ministry of State Security, or Bureau 39 would let any North Korean not on their own payrolls go abroad to interact with foreigners. Could there be any exceptions? Yes, there was one “Mr. Kim, head of the technology and trade research department at the State Academy of Sciences,” which page 260 of this Library of Congress study (unlike the Post) informs us was the organization responsible for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Eventually, it’s admitted that “the presentations all revolved around state-related businesses,” presumably including the man peddling “a big, flashy ring that … channels sunshine and purifies the blood, stripping out the lipids that cause high cholesterol.” On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a sympathetic a story at all.
Another question I may be the only one asking — if this is North Korean capitalism, what is this improving on again? But then, I’ve never bought into the theory that capitalism inevitably leads to political reform or peace. The members of the Board of Directors of I.G. Farben received war crimes convictions, not Nobel Prizes. The Marxists have even granted North Korea a special exemption from Old Major’s dogma that capitalism inevitably drives nations to war. I’ve never accepted that North Korea is strictly socialist at all, rather than just economically totalitarian (just as it’s totalitarian in every other sense). To Fifield and Abrahamian’s credit, one eventually reads some mumbled concessions that Pyongyang still had “little to show for” its much-vaunted special economic zones, and that it faced “serious financial and reputational challenges” in attracting investors.
My point here is that the character and history of the regime ought to have made the failure of the engagement hypothesis predictable, and to some of us, it did. Being right then doesn’t necessarily make me right now, but it means I have a model of North Korea’s incentives and behavior with a stronger (and sometimes, eerily strong) predictive record going for it. I certainly wouldn’t take Mr. Abrahamian’s word over what the law would call admissions by a party to the case. The second point of which is that some journalists have an inexhaustible appetite for irrational optimism about North Korea. The opposite seems to be true of getting them to face up to the most rational pessimism.
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Again, I’m not arguing that Pyongyang’s plan will necessarily work. Maybe the current hesitation of the South Korean public and the toughness of the Trump administration will hold (strong sanctions enforcement has solid bipartisan support, for now). Maybe the real Moon Jae-in isn’t as extreme as everyone he’s surrounded himself with for the whole duration of his political life, or as naive as he often seems to be. A bad election result could cost him or Trump the political support they’d need to advance their policies. The greatest wild card may be that, whatever South Korea’s problems of political cohesion, the North is showing signs of a much worse one among the rural poor, and within some unknown segments of the elites. This might open the way for a genuinely productive implementation of the joint statements, unification, and a lasting peace; or, it might incentivize Kim Jong-un to act even more rashly to implement them his way while he still can. His strategy will take time that he might not have if his money runs out first, or if his Crocodiles or the people suddenly turn on him.
The answer to all of this isn’t war; it’s helping Koreans to see the truth and distinguish it from lies. As I’ve argued before, we are where the last three presidents left us; all we can do now is pursue the strategy that carries the lowest risk of catastrophe. That strategy begins with a clear-eyed understanding of Pyongyang’s strategy, taking it seriously, and devising a strategy to disrupt it. It means preparing the Korean and American people for what may come — mentally, economically, and materially. And as Abrahamian says, yes, we’ll need to solidify the alliance. Trump needs to stop tweeting and making threats, and Moon needs to stop going behind our backs and act like an ally. I’m pessimistic about our capacity to deter more attacks even if we identify new means of deterrence, including the expansion of economic warfare and subversive information operations that scare Kim Jong-un without risking a catastrophic miscalculation that a “limited” counterstrike might. In the medium term, we may develop and deploy better defenses against missiles and artillery, which means we need to buy time, too.
It also means South Korea needs to strengthen its institutions. It needs multi-party reforms to de-politicize the NIS into two professional organizations that can earn the public’s trust — one for foreign intelligence and one for domestic counterintelligence (it bears emphasis that a reform process must not be used to halt embarrassing investigations or to pack the NIS with any party’s loyalists). It means reforming Korea’s libel laws by making truth a defense. It means protecting journalists who criticize politicians, investigate government malfeasance, and help the public separate truth from smears and conspiracy theories. It means enforcing government records laws with strong legal penalties for destroying evidence or obstructing justice. It means reforming the National Security Law to stop prosecuting those who engage in nonviolent speech and instead focus on the aggressive-but-fair pursuit of incitements to violence and foreign influence, particularly among government officials and teachers. It means strengthening rules of evidence and empowering defense lawyers to challenge the evidence against their clients zealously. And like governments everywhere, Korea must be prepared to relax its obsessive secrecy when the public needs to know the truth to make sound decisions about matters of public interest. Like many societies, including ours, Korea needs to mature in how it adjudicates information and passes judgment. If it can’t, the next few years may end the greatest economic and cultural bloom in its long history.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
On June 15, 2000, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il signed a joint statement agreeing to seek “independent” reunification and an inter-Korean coalition government. It was not the first joint statement between North and South. This relatively modest one from 1972 calls for “both parties [to] promote national unity as a united people over any differences of our ideological and political systems.” In retrospect, this was a rhetorical victory for Pyongyang. So was the statement that “reunification must be achieved with no reliance on external forces or interference,” although this seemed, at the time, to have been palliated by a subsequent statement that “reunification must be achieved peacefully without the use of military forces.”
The 2000 Joint Statement went much further. That agreement, celebrated by the Nobel Committee, widely hailed by the far left in both South Korea and the United States, purchased with an illegal payment of $500 million, and almost constantly flogged in North Korean propaganda to this day, consists of five points. They’re worth reviewing in full for what they suggest about Pyongyang’s intentions, its objectives, and its strategy for achieving them. Don’t waste your time reading these as a member of the Nobel Committee might have. Instead, read them as a North Korean negotiator would have drafted or edited them in 2000, or through the jaundiced eyes of someone in the United Front Department today. Paranoid people have enemies, too, after all.
1. The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.
If you’ve read B.R. Myers’s book, “North Korea’s Juche Myth,” you’ve no doubt latched onto the phrase, “the Korean people … are masters of the country.” This is a far better definition of juche than the “self-reliance” one tends to see from Voxplainers and Buzzfeeders who recall the existence of North Korea once every nuclear test. The phrase “independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people” isn’t far off from “among our race only,” which in Korean translates to uri minjokkiri. Regular Korea watchers will recognize this as the name of one of North Korea’s main propaganda websites (if you will forgive the redundancy) for ethnic Koreans in the South and elsewhere. It’s not unlike some of the rhetoric we’ve also heard Moon Jae-in utter in some of his less guarded moments. Nationalism runs deep in both Koreas.
2. For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.
Note the sly reference to “the South’s concept,” as if this idea really originated in Seoul rather than Pyongyang. This is the single most important concession the North won in 2000 and, to me, the Rosetta Stone of Pyongyang’s strategy. Whoever dominates this confederation will dominate Korea. In 2000, this might not have seemed like such a terrible prospect to Kim Dae-jung, who had so recently survived several attempts by right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee to kill him, and who had benefited from the support of pro-Pyongyang Koreans in Japan. Clearly, Kim’s view of North Korea was not an entirely hostile one. But if Roh Moo-hyun’s view was arguably even friendlier to Pyongyang, Roh could still only take things as far as the politics of the day allowed. Pyongyang had to set the pursuit of confederation aside during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Meanwhile, it took full advantage of Barack Obama’s almost complete lack of a North Korea policy to develop a nuclear arsenal at mallima speed.
3. The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.
Note the omission of South Korean prisoners of war still held in the North in clear violation of the Armistice agreement. Note the complete betrayal of the (then, perhaps) hundreds of thousands of North Korean political prisoners — including children — suffering and dying in places like Camp 22. The sole focus was on setting free the North’s fifth columnists in the South. This implicitly restrained the South’s will to arrest others who were exposed, some of whom tried to manipulate the Seoul mayoral election and may have penetrated the Blue House itself. To Pyongyang, allowing a few brief, carefully monitored meetings between South Korean abductees and their family members was a small price to pay for this gain.
4. The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.
“Balanced development” sounds like a formula for using South-to-North subsidies to level out the widening economic gap that had become a threat to Kim Jong-il’s domestic legitimacy. It explains how Pyongyang viewed nukes as a means to achieve economic prosperity as well as national hegemony (which is just what its propagandists told the North Korean people after the Great Famine).
As for cooperation in “the history, language, education, technology, culture, sports, and social sectors,” this would mean a politicized rewriting of history, introducing North Korean agitprop into classrooms and school textbooks (as the hard left Korean Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union has been repeatedly caught doing), and using sporting events to whip up nationalist and pro-confederation sentiments among South Koreans. If you say it can’t be done, you weren’t living in South Korea after the 2000 summit, watching this sentiment catch fire. That same sentiment still survives.
5. The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.
Roh Moon-hyun’s 2007 sequel to the 2000 Joint Declaration reaffirmed the 2000 Joint Declaration and built on Pyongyang’s gains in new ways. Unfortunately, Roh Moo-hyun’s aides destroyed the transcript, so we can only approximate the actual terms, some of which are still a matter of controversy in South Korea today. We’ll turn to that controversy later in this post. In the interests of brevity, I’ll mention the more significant ones.
2. South and North Korea are to work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology, system.
Pyongyang would surely interpret this as a call to avoid criticizing the North’s crimes against humanity. In retrospect, it clearly led up to Park Geun-hye’s 2014 agreement to refrain from “slander” of the North’s system. Park was no friend of free speech herself, and freedom of speech is not an ideal with a broad or deep constituency in South Korea, where governments on both the left and the right routinely censor their critics. Indeed, I often doubt the depth of that constituency here, such as among the academics and policy-makers who hardly raised a peep about the cyberterror threats that shut down “The Interview.” For all his prescient warnings about the dangers of tolerating censorship from abroad, Barack Obama did nothing about it. Again, Pyongyang’s own words are the best evidence of its intent.
— Joshua Stanton (@freekorea_us) November 30, 2017
Pyongyang holds the very idea of free speech in contempt. Not only has it used threats of violence to censor it in South Korea, but it has done so in Europe, in Southeast Asia, and here, in the United States.
3. South and North Korea are to ease military tensions, hold defense ministerial talks in November in Pyongyang to discuss ways of supporting inter-Korean economic cooperation and easing tension.
The agreement to “ease military tensions” might have won Pyongyang an end to military exercises that keep the South reader to deter a North Korean attack, but the elections of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye forced Pyongyang to defer that demand. Now, with the election of Moon Jae-in, the Chinese, left-of-center academics, and presidential advisor Moon Chung-in are trying to give this one to Pyongyang as a “freeze-for-freeze.” Pyongyang has balked at freezing its WMD programs, so Moon’s government is now seizing on the Olympics as an excuse to give Pyongyang a unilateral freeze next year.
The reference to “inter-Korean economic cooperation” probably refers to South-to-North subsidies like Kaesong and Kumgang. Remember the context: this agreement came as not long after U.S. actions against Banco Delta Asia had forced Kim Jong-il to sign the February 2007 Agreed Framework II, and almost exactly a year after the U.N.’s first Chapter VII sanctions resolution against North Korea, UNSCR 1718. Clearly, Pyongyang was thinking in terms of using South Korea to undermine sanctions intended to disarm it.
4. The two sides agree on the need to end the current armistice and establish permanent peace.
If Pyongyang sees confederation as its mechanism for ruling the South, it sees “peace” talks — the long-standing objective of its simpaticos here in the United States — as its vehicle for bullying the South into unilateral disarmament and confederation. To get to “peace,” it will first demand an end to the “hostile policy,” which means an end to sanctions, the withdrawal of U.S. forces starting with missile defenses, and an end to criticism of the North, particularly over its crimes against humanity. You can read it all right here, in Pyongyang’s own words. Scroll down.
5. The two sides are to create a special peace zone around Haeju in North Korea and nearby areas.
This brings us to why we have no transcript of the 2007 summit. Roh’s concession of South Korea’s maritime boundary — really, the maritime extension of the DMZ — at the end of his presidency and shortly before a presidential election would prove more controversial than Roh had guessed. Roh’s aides made sure to destroy the transcript before his more conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, took office and started up the government computers where it had been saved.
Oh, and here’s some trivia for you. One of the aides who prepared and destroyed that transcript was Cho Myoung-gyun, who is now Moon Jae-in’s Unification Minister. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Cheng, Cho seemed to credit a hypothesis for Pyongyang’s intentions similar to the one I’ve advanced; he also said this will “never happen.” Cho was indicted for destroying the transcript in 2013, but a court acquitted him on the ground that what he deleted was only a draft and therefore not really a presidential document at all (good luck telling a federal judge that in a Freedom of Information Act case here). Another difference between the U.S. and South Korean systems? Double jeopardy! There, prosecutors can appeal acquittals. Cho’s case is still pending in South Korea’s highest court.
One need only look at the map to see why this would have been such a dangerous concession. Depending on its breadth, this “peace zone” could have ceded South Korea’s control over the airspace through which many of the flights to Incheon Airport must pass, and over the sea lane that serves the port of Incheon and protects the Yellow Sea islands. This is Seoul’s economic jugular. By cutting it, Pyongyang could blackmail Seoul with the threat of a partial blockade, leading to panic, capital flight, and recession. That happens to fit perfectly with what Thae Yong-ho posited in his congressional testimony last month.
7. South and North Korea are to actively push for humanitarian cooperation and expansion of the reunions of separated families.
Naturally, this aid would be “humanitarian” in the same sense that North Korean workers at Kaesong were paid “wages.” It would mean a resumption and expansion of South Korean subsidies to the North to enrich the Pyongyang elites at the expense of South Korean taxpayers. Above all, it would turn any U.S. requests that other cut trade relations with Pyongyang into a punchline, thereby undermining our last chance to disarm Pyongyang peacefully — and thus, making war almost inevitable.
In the abstract, the idea of inter-Korean peace and cooperation sounds great to us and even greater to South Koreans. But a close reading the terms of the statements, and a retrospective understanding of how left-leaning governments have tried to implement them, lends itself to more paranoid interpretations. The agreements weren’t fully implemented, but that’s not because Roh, in particular, didn’t try. With Pyongyang near nuclear breakout, I expect that we’ll soon see Pyongyang press its demands for Moon Jae-in (who gives the impression of being an easy mark) to implement past joint statements, and perhaps to sign an even more ambitious one.
The man who terminated the 37-year misrule of Robert Mugabe last week and then took his job is a general named Emmerson Mnangagwa with a history as ominous as his nickname: “the Crocodile.” Long one of Mugabe’s most ruthless cronies, Mnangagwa’s resume includes leading Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organization and dispatching the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland in the early 1980s to wage a pogrom that killed up to 20,000 members of the minority Ndebele tribe. He draws support from the “war veterans,” a ruling-party goon squad that has beaten members of the opposition, violently seized the farms of white Zimbabweans, and redistributed their land to party loyalists. His cause is not the restoration of democracy or the relaxation of repression, but a succession contest between nepotism and cronyism, against Mugabe’s unpopular wife.
Even as the streets of Harare filled with Chinese Type 85 armored personnel carriers, the army swore that it was not carrying out a coup. Whatever you call it, some reports say that Mugabe’s long-time backers in Beijing green-lighted it. But if Mnangagwa wants to replace Mugabe’s dictatorship with his own, the crowds on the streets may have other expectations. They will demand jobs, food, and free elections. The generals could try to suppress them. The Ndebele still despise Mnangagwa for his crimes; his ascendancy could provoke a tribal schism or even civil war. This could all end very badly. So far, however, the coup and the street demonstrations that followed it have been bloodless.
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As the coup unfolded, I became absorbed in old documentaries about the creation of Zimbabwe and the decline and fall of its predecessor state, Rhodesia. Contemporary prognostications about events we later call “history” fascinate me. They reveal how often the consensus gets it wrong, how badly, and sometimes why. My interest in Zimbabwe is partially a function of its uses and limitations as an analogy to North Korea, but also because it’s is a beautiful country whose people deserved better.
I visited Zimbabwe for a few days in 1990, at the chronological midpoint between 1965, the year of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and Mugabe’s recent fall. The UDI was a white minority’s desperate gambit to protect its supremacy from a rising tide of anarchic decolonization. Three years before the UDI, a young Robert Mugabe gave an interview to Morley Safer in Salisbury, now Harare. Two of the three things that struck me about Mugabe were his extraordinary eloquence and the moderation of his rhetoric.
The third striking thing about Mugabe was the unmistakeable effeminacy of his mannerisms, but only because he would later call gay men “worse than dogs and pigs.” In his younger years, however, Mugabe was obviously charismatic. I can see how he fooled so many people into believing that he was really an inclusive moderate. By 1962, however, he was already the mouthpiece of Joshua Nkomo’s Soviet-aligned Zimbabwe African People’s Union. The following year, he joined a breakaway Maoist faction that called itself the Zimbabwe African National Union. The schism between ZANU and ZAPU was also tribal. Mugabe and ZANU’s other leaders were of the majority Shona tribe; Nkomo and most of his ZAPU supporters were of the minority Ndebele tribe, a northern branch of the Zulu people. (I once spoke a corruption of Zulu well enough to impress Africans, and non-Africans who’ve never heard click sounds; sadly, I forgot most of it long ago.)
After Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government refused to negotiate a return to majority rule, Mugabe and Nkomo formed an uneasy alliance and launched a guerrilla war. China armed and trained ZANU, and both ZANU and ZAPU adopted a Maoist strategy of infiltrating into rural areas to sow insurgency. ZANU did not “look east” or turn to China in response to western sanctions after it took power; it has been in China’s orbit since the early 1960s. One could argue that war was justified; people who are denied any peaceful means to claim their fundamental rights have a right to take up arms to reclaim those rights. But ZANU and ZAPU often fought their just war by unjust means. In the brutal Bush War that followed, they attacked farmers, villagers, and even civilian airliners.
The Rhodesians had the upper hand until 1975, when Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique, and Rhodesia found itself nearly surrounded by guerrilla safe havens. By then, Rhodesia was isolated diplomatically and under crippling oil sanctions. An arms embargo prevented it from rearming itself. Guerrilla attacks taxed the morale and resources of a beleaguered white minority. Rising insecurity in the countryside cost the government revenue it needed to pay for the war effort. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher convinced Smith that he couldn’t hold out. Reluctantly, he agreed to one-man-one-vote elections. A black majority radicalized by civil war and polarized by tribe voted Mugabe and the ZANU into power.
Before she was famous, Samantha Power wrote at length about how Mugabe, for all his early promises of inclusion, moderation, and continuity, quickly consolidated power and gradually wrecked the economy. Not long after his inauguration in 1980, “Good Old Bob” (as the vanquished whites optimistically called him) visited Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang and met his totalitarian exemplar. He returned “a different man,” awed by Kim’s “absolute power and the apparent adoration of the North Korean people.” No one has chronicled the dark history of this “engagement” better than Benjamin Young did for NK News. Mugabe never achieved the same degree of totalitarian control as Kim Il-sung, but he certainly gave it a go: on the very eve of his overthrow, the editorials in his government newspapers could have been ghostwritten by KCNA.
Pyongyang also helped Mugabe subdue his potential rivals, the ZAPU. In the early 1980s, he sent the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade into ZAPU’s Matabeleland stronghold in a brutal campaign called the Gukurahundi. The campaign killed up to 20,000 people, drove Nkomo into exile, and forced ZAPU to accept absorption into the ZANU. To this day, many Zimbabweans loathe North Korea for this, but it may be just what Pyongyang had in mind this week when it boasted of its “unsparing material and spiritual assistance to African nations.”
~ ~ ~
In 1990, when Robert Mugabe had been in power for ten years, I took a temporary job in South Africa. To a kid living on a vast, landlocked prairie, this was an irresistible chance to see the world and witness history. I arrived in Johannesburg three months after Nelson Mandela was released, as the repeal of Apartheid laws and the removal of “white only” signs were daily occurrences. (Apologies for the poor quality of my photography.)
[Johannesburg, May 1990. People dancing in the streets.
They were singing, “He’s free.”]
[Randontein, Transvaal, July 1990. A week before, the empty white spaces on
this sign said, “Whites Only” in English and Afrikaans. I came back
this day and saw that it had just been painted over.]
[Durban, Natal, June 1990. A calm, peaceful, low-key anti-Apartheid protest.
By then, the protesters were pushing against an open door. Moments after
I took this picture, a friendly policeman offered to take a photo of me
in front of the demonstration. I wish I could find that photo.]
In July, some friends and I decided to drive north across Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, and then back through Botswana. By then, South Africa was already thick with ex-Rhodesian emigres called “whenwes.” If a whenwe heard you were visiting Zimbabwe, he’d give you plenty of travel tips and some dire warnings, and he might ask you to bring him back a bottle of Mazoe Orange.
The Zimbabwe I saw was a place where the roads were still being fixed, the buses still ran, the children still went to school, and food was still available. It was functional but moribund. There was no new construction, and little seemed to have been built since the end of the war. Conditions were far better than in Zambia or Mozambique, but not as good as in Namibia or Botswana (a small, stable, well-governed country thanks to an unsung hero named Seretse Khama who proved that black majority rule works perfectly well under principled and honest leaders who reject statist ideologies and embrace free markets).
Zimbabwe also showed me how dictatorships crush their people between the hammer of tyrannical efficiency and the anvil of economic inefficiency. Hyperinflation was still a few years away, but the government was propping up the currency with confiscatory exchange rates. Many merchants preferred South African Rand, and the black market knew what the money was really worth.
[The Zimbabwe Dollar in better days. These notes were printed
three years after Mugabe came to power. They were almost worthless in 1990.]
I won’t say whether I smuggled a few South African Rand into Zimbabwe to evade the official exchange rate and the functional confiscation of the money I’d need to make it to Victoria Falls, but I will say that in such a severe police state, this would have been an exceedingly stupid thing to do. Perhaps a person foolish enough to this in his youth shouldn’t have judged poor Otto Warmbier so harshly.
Zimbabwe was also the first place I felt physically afraid of a government. Most people were either cheerfully resigned or suspiciously dour. A few seemed ambitiously despotic. Our route took us through Matabeleland, where the Fifth Brigade had so recently done its gruesome work. The whenwes had warned us that the roads were not safe at night, but we drove them anyway. We’d already wasted too many hours at the Beitbridge border post being searched by suspicious border guards for smuggled Rand until, in their exasperation, they waved us through.
The reward of Victoria Falls more than compensated for this. No photograph or video can do it justice; nor can words describe the experience of seeing it, of hearing it from miles away, of feeling its quaking bass through the soles of one’s feet. It is still the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. If you’re at work, put in some earbuds or close your door. Then, mute the video and start the audio file I’ve embedded below it. Finally, play the video on a full screen. You’ll thank me later.
We headed west for the Kazangula border post and crossed into Botswana. By then, I expected that things would only get worse in Zimbabwe, and they did. A few years later, amid rising inflation and unemployment, a pro-democracy opposition movement arose. Mugabe blamed the few remaining white farmers for supporting the opposition, appealed to racial hatred, and sent his war veterans out on a campaign of intimidation, confiscation, and murder that drove almost all them into exile. Without one of its main sources of foreign exchange — tobacco exports — Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. A country that had been a major food exporter slipped into famine. As in North Korea, the regime used the famine to consolidate its hold on power.
The government’s most pervasive form of intimidation is also its most effective: the denial of food. While international aid groups try to feed Zimbabweans in rural areas, city folk must buy their maize and wheat from the sole distributor—the Grain Marketing Board. In order to get food they are often forced to produce a ruling-party membership card or to chant such slogans as “Long live Robert Mugabe!,” “Down with whites!,” and “Down with Morgan Tsvangirai!” Last year the former speaker of the parliament, Didymus Mutasa, stated, “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want these extra people.” [Samantha Power, The Atlantic]
Mugabe finally ran out of other peoples’ money to
steal nationalize, with predictable results.
I don’t know what Zibabweans have to complain about, they’re all trillionaires pic.twitter.com/LSjUiKpNVm
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) November 15, 2017
Later, Zimbabwe gave up on its national currency and adopted the U.S. dollar (by which time, Mugabe and his top cronies, including his wife and The Crocodile, were blocked out of the dollar system for political repression and stealing elections). Apparently, no one in Mugabe’s government knew about Gresham’s Law. As soon as the banks had U.S. dollars, Zimbabweans rushed to withdraw and hoard them. When the government rationed withdrawals, people slept in the streets near banks just get to the teller’s window before the cash ran out each morning. Last year, the government printed low-denomination “bond notes” pegged to the dollar. Two months ago, a dollar bond note was worth just 80 U.S. cents, and the government threatened to arrest merchants who charged higher bond note prices.
Zimbabwe lost plenty to Robert Mugabe — three million people, at least half of its economy, and 95 percent of its jobs — but at least it still has North Korea. In recent years, Mugabe sold the Pyongyang Zoo two baby elephants (at $10,000 each) and other animals. He sent his congratulations for North Korea’s missile tests. Other commercial ties to Pyongyang may or may not have been strictly legal (see pages 16 and 24). Mugabe even chose the now-U.N. designated Mansudae Overseas Projects Group to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo for $5 million. Zimbabweans who remembered North Korea’s role in the massacre of Nkomo’s alleged supporters were outraged. In September, the U.N. Panel of Experts asked Harare to come clean on its dealings with Mansudae and threatened to designate the local companies that dealt with it. Shortly before Mugabe’s overthrow, the government promised to “investigate.”
You don’t have to embrace the Crocodile to see his coup as a potential opportunity to influence events for the better. The new regime has an interest in delivering a better standard of living. To deliver that, it needs foreign investors to return, and to induce investors to return, it must first reassure them that it won’t confiscate their investments, and that Zimbabwe will be safe and stable. Investors will want Harare to get sanctions lifted and avoid doing anything to invite more of them. That gives the U.S., Japan, Britain, and Europe leverage. We can send humanitarian aid, offer technical help to get industry back on its feet, and dangle the prospect of improved trade relations. In exchange, we should demand economic, political, and legal reforms. We should also demand the expulsion of the North Koreans and (as UNSCR 1718 requires) the seizure of any property of designated entities like Mansudae.
~ ~ ~
The limits to Zimbabwe’s utility as an analogy to North Korea should be obvious. Mugabe could never build a personality cult like Kim Il-sung did. Zimbabwe’s British parliamentary system and judiciary retain enough self-respect to maintain their procedural roles. The elites can travel abroad or emigrate. Last year, there were large anti-Mugabe protests. The state press gives North Korea’s a run for its money, but state censorship of opposition media has relaxed in recent years, and Zimbabwean newspapers and websites reflect a variety of viewpoints.
Still, most Zimbabweans may be more isolated than this evidence suggests. Although Zimbabwe claims a high literacy rate, many of its poor still have only a primary school education. The economic crisis drove many teachers out of the country. Outside the cities, few people speak English. High unemployment means that few of people have meaningful access to uncensored media or the time to consume it. Mugabe might have concluded that so few people would read the opposition press that relaxing censorship posed little real risk to his rule. And in any event, no vote could ever restrain him.
So, despite the limitations of Zimbabwe as an analogy, does Mugabe’s fall offer any lessons for North Korea watchers? I think it does, despite those limitations.
1. Engagement with Pyongyang only ends well for Pyongyang. It does not end well for foreign investors, for gullible reporters, for South Koreans, or for Africans. It never changes Pyongyang for the better, and sooner or later, it infects the engager with Pyongyang’s repressive and corrupt ways. Africans should remember Zimbabwe’s experience, where Pyongyang’s influence cost thousands of innocent Africans their lives.
2. A change of government will end as well or as badly as the political culture it arises from. The unaccountable, statist, and Maoist ideology of the ZANU-PF made its descent into Big Man totalitarianism, corruption, and famine inevitable, just as Seretse Khama’s commitment to openness, democracy, and free markets helped the desert country of Botswana, Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west, achieve the highest Human Development Index in sub-Saharan Africa, including highly industrialized South Africa.
Like Botswana, Zimbabwe has large deposits of diamonds and platinum. Unlike Botswana, Zimbabwe’s deposits sit underutilized because of political risk, poor infrastructure, uneven energy supplies, and government meddling. In January, the government foreclosed on a swath of platinum leases. In May, it took control of the diamond mines (Mugabe and his cronies were already stealing the profits). Why does the “resource curse” afflict Zimbabwe and not Botswana? For the same reason it afflicts Angola, which has diamonds and oil, a much lower HDI, and a Marxist government. This does not bode well for Zimbabwe. Its statist kleptocracy won’t change as long as its government and people see confiscation and redistribution as the answer to whatever ails them. It needs a popular constituency for government accountability, individual rights, property rights, and the rule of law. That constituency won’t be built overnight.
For the same reason, a Choe Ryong-hae regime would probably behave like a muted form of the current one until a constituency arises to demand a less confiscatory and more accountable government. The question is whether the downfall of Kim Jong-un would unleash changes that would allow such a constituency to form. My sense is that North Koreans have a far better-developed sense of what they’re against than of what they’re for. Of course, there are things we could do to help change that. It’s all a question of resources, time, will, and vision.
3. To have an enduring influence on events, one must have an enduring influence on a people.
4. Once a tyrant falls, the flow of history seldom confines itself to the channels laid out by those who engineer it. Revolutions become what they unleash. They tend to unleash grievances of sect, race, class, and tribe because tyrannies incubate those grievances. Spain’s coup in 1936 unleashed class grievances; the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed sectarian grievances; and the 2011 popular uprising in Syria unleashed grievances of sect, tribe, and ideology. In each case, civil war followed. The ZANU and ZAPU radicalized rural Zimbabweans during a brutal civil war. Mugabe maintained his power (and destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy) by exploiting racial, tribal, and class grievances that Mnangagwa will not easily contain. The people have taken to the streets, and he has much to lose if he turns his guns on them.
5. It takes force to oust a tyrant. Mugabe maintained the appearance of democracy, but this was a sham. By the time his popularity waned, his control over the army was secure and the opposition wasn’t a real threat to him. When the people voted against him, he falsified the results. When they didn’t support his new constitution, he ignored the result. His place was secure as long as the generals’ interests aligned with his own. He would have died in office if he hadn’t tried to pass them over and install his wife as his successor.
6. Tyrants alienate their generals at their own peril. A North Korea watcher might cast an cast an envious glance at how a succession struggle between Grace Mugabe and the Crocodile — and a suspicious case of food poisoning — escalated into a rift and rumors of a purge, and may have forced the hands of the army and the war veterans. I give Kremlinology sourced to Korea’s National Intelligence Service only an even chance of being true, but NIS-sourced reports over the last two weeks claim that Kim Jong-un has either reprimanded, demoted, or purged two of his top minions, Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Won-hong, possibly at the instigation of Choe Ryong-hae. (Two years ago, Choe was also reported to have been purged, only to return stronger than ever, so take the new reports with a grain of salt.) There may also be a wider “inspection” of the military underway. True or not, Hwang and Kim (and Choe) saw what happened to Jang Song-thaek. They face far higher stakes than The Crocodile, whether they take the risk of moving against Kim Jong-un or wait patiently for their turn to face the guns.
7. No single factor brings a tyrant down by itself. Rhodesia might have survived sanctions, but it could not survive the combination of diplomatic isolation, oil sanctions, an arms embargo, declining tourist revenue, Chinese and Soviet support for ZANU and ZAPU, and the collapse of colonial governments all around it. Mugabe’s demise resulted from a combination of self-inflicted economic wounds, capital flight, foreign sanctions, diplomatic isolation, an exodus of the educated, and a failure to plan an orderly succession despite his advanced age. In each case, a small ruling elite acted in its own interests after concluding that the status quo was unsustainable. In each case, the elites sought to engineer a controlled descent to protect their own interests. Historically, more of these plotters crash more than land.
8. A resistance movement that cannot defeat a state militarily can still defeat it diplomatically, economically, and thus politically, by denying it essential external support, and by breaking or dividing the resolve of its oligarchy. Such was the case with the ZANU and ZAPU guerrilla war, and with the Nicaraguan insurgency, which forced a free election that brought a democratic opposition to power.
The best plausible outcome for North Korea may well be a coup d’etat. It is both a paradox and historically natural that liberating change can begin when a cabal of ruthless and undemocratic men seizes power. This happens when they conclude that the tyrant whose bidding they’ve done is leading them to ruin or represents a threat to their survival. As with the Soviet Union in 1991, they may think he’s changing too much, too fast. As some historians now suspect of Stalin’s demise, the plotters may feel that they’re next to be purged. As with Rhodesia, they may see that sanctions are depriving them of the means to feed the soldiers, police, and civil servants; and to maintain control of the countryside. As with South Africa in 1990, they may feel the world is closing in — that the loss of exterior financial and diplomatic support, combined with the spread of subversive information, is costing it the support of both the elites and the downtrodden. And if we can see evidence of a constituency for change outside Pyongyang, surely the crocodiles can see it, too.
In taking the risk of removing Kim Jong-un, the crocodiles could unleash forces that would overflow the confines of their own ambitions. We should hope so. They aren’t any less tyrannical or ruthless than Kim Jong-un, but they might be less impulsive and more pragmatic, and won’t have the awe of dynastic rule behind them. The greater the external pressures and internal demands for change, the more pragmatic they’re likely to be. We should also be ready to be pragmatic, including by offering assurances that in a reunified Korea, they would be given some degree of clemency for their crimes and their children would have promising futures. Elements of this may be difficult to accept, but it may be the only way.
The right policies and the right information strategies can do much to catalyze these sentiments. To argue that any one element of that policy (information operations, sanctions, or diplomatic isolation) will not do it alone is as true — and as irrelevant — as arguing that a case of food poisoning did not bring down Robert Mugabe. Pyongyang’s military strength can no longer mask its political and financial weaknesses. Those are the weaknesses we should seek to exploit.
Next week, South Korean President Moon Jae-In will arrive in Washington for his first meeting with President Trump. North Korea policy is certain to be at the top of their agenda. Months ago, I predicted that the combination of Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump would be a uniquely volatile one, and all the indications so far are bearing this prediction out. Volumes of august and cerebral analysis may soon be nullified by 140 characters.
This is partially (but only partially) due to differences of policy and ideology. As I’ve noted more than once, Moon has spent his entire political career in the brain trust of South Korea’s hard left, among those who’ve shown more solidarity with North Korea than with America. Moon started with the left-wing lawyers’ guild Minbyun (which once resisted right-wing dictators in the courts, and which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for waging lawfare against North Korean refugees). He was legal advisor to the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, whose members were often exposed for propagating pro-North Korean views to their pupils. He managed Roh Moon-Hyun’s presidential campaign, which rode to power on a wave of sometimes-violent anti-Americanism, and served at the highest levels in the Roh administration, where Moon made the decision to solicit Pyongyang’s views before Seoul abstained from a U.N. vote to condemn the North’s crimes against humanity (and later lied about it).
Thus, President Moon entered office with a collection of ideas and advisors whose moment came in 2002 and went in 2008, when South Korea’s electorate regressed back to the mean. As Moon entered office, he knew very well that he had no mandate for a return to a policy of appeasing North Korea called Sunshine, a policy that was a demonstrable failure, that had undermined international sanctions, and that probably helped Pyongyang pay for its nuclear arsenal.
That Trump and Moon are also temperamental opposites may be just as great a problem. Whatever one thinks of Moon Jae-In’s ideology, he is an extraordinarily smooth, personally likeable politician. Throughout his career, Moon had climbed the shoulders of men who expressed extreme views that he was careful not to express himself. Trump, by contrast, is an impulsive man without ideological convictions or caution, who expresses every extreme idea that enters his head, whether it be direct talks with Kim Jong-Un or urging China to assassinate him.
Since I was a soldier in Korea years ago, I’ve felt that the interests of the allies were diverging. For years, rather than confront and try to check this divergence, the leaders of both countries concealed it with quiet diplomacy that left South Korean politicians free to engage in nationalist demagoguery, even at the sacrifice of the alliance’s popular support. But in this regard, the United States has just unexpectedly overmatched South Korea. That is why, unlike most Korea-watchers, I suspect that the U.S.-Korea alliance is one tweet away from a crisis that will harm the interests of both countries. Recent events bear out my pessimism:
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed fury over South Korea’s decision to delay the full deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system pending an environmental assessment, a senior official said Sunday. Trump showed the reaction when he discussed the matter with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the White House on June 8, the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
The revelations, if true, raise concern that the issue could affect the first summit meetings between President Moon Jae-in and Trump set for June 29-30 at the White House, though it is not clear if it would be on the agenda.
Earlier this month, South Korea suspended the deployment of an additional four THAAD launchers pending an environmental assessment, spurring doubts in the U.S. that the halt might be a precursor to the South ultimately rejecting the THAAD deployment altogether. But Seoul has promised the environmental study won’t lead to a reversal on the deployment itself. [Yonhap]
Moon’s position on THAAD shifted so much during his presidential campaign that it became all but impossible to pin it down in a debate. That’s certainly a function of public sentiment that still favors the deployment of THAAD, even (incredibly enough) after Trump’s ill-advised, pre-election demand that Seoul pay for it. And while I have little sympathy for Moon’s ideology, I have plenty of sympathy for his position. He now finds himself bullied by both China’s unilateral sanctions and Donald Trump’s extortionate demands that Seoul pay for THAAD, notwithstanding a prior agreement that the U.S. would pay, at least up front. That Moon finds himself in that position, however, owes much to his flawed reflex for trying to please everyone (which seldom pleases anyone). In doing so, Moon has created the perception in Beijing that he’s weak, soft, and an easy mark, and the perception in Washington that he’s a faithless ally. I can see the reason for both perceptions. (To make matters worse for Moon, even the North Koreans are unhappy with him, have refused Seoul’s offers of humanitarian aid, and want to sideline him in any talks with the U.S.)
By the time Moon took office, two THAAD launchers were in place and four others were set to be deployed. All of this had been agreed between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, yet in what looked like an effort to manufacture a controversy to manipulate public opinion — a preparation for a capitulation to Beijing — Moon denied knowing this. Any such miscommunication looks to have been wholly intra-Korean, between the Blue House and the Defense Ministry. This gambit having backfired, the Moon administration began an “environmental review” of the deployment that looked suspiciously pretextual. His administration later added that the review might take as long as a year. All of these missteps cost Moon friends in the White House.
“One official at the National Security Council told me that there is a general distrust toward the Korean government in the United States, that the new administration may be lying,” said a diplomatic insider in Washington D.C. under condition of anonymity, especially after Moon complained that Washington had deployed four missile launchers for the Thaad battery without informing his government. “The U.S. government has confirmed that the South Korean government was aware of the arrival of the four additional Thaad launchers all this time.”
Moon had ordered last month an investigation into how four extra Thaad launchers had been brought into the country without his knowledge. The Blue House said earlier this month that the Ministry of National Defense intentionally omitted the delivery of the launchers in its report to the National Security Office. [Joongang Ilbo]
Now, instead of being able to blame any fissures in the alliance on a mercurial American president, Moon has irritated Ed Royce (possibly the best friend South Korea ever had in Congress), provoked a public spat with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, and alienated key senators and representatives from both parties:
Meetings between President Moon and members of the U.S. Congress also fell through recently. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, had requested a meeting with Moon sometime between May 27 and 28, but the meeting was not scheduled after days of attempts.
“The date that McCain asked for did not work with Moon’s schedule initially, so we got back to him in a few days about holding a meeting on May 28, as he requested, but McCain in the end decided not to stop by Korea in his trip to Asia for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.” “The correct protocol would have been confirming first that Moon will meet with McCain before scheduling a date,” said a Foreign Ministry insider.
Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Cory Gardner from Colorado, chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, also requested meetings with Moon in late May but they did not take place. [Joongang Ilbo]
“But don’t worry,” President Moon must have said to his cabinet at one point. “Moon Chung-In can explain everything.” It’s too bad we don’t have surveillance video of the cabinet meetings that must have followed in Seoul since then. It would make for an epic “Downfall” parody.
~ ~ ~
I can’t say who picked Moon Chung-In, a left-wing South Korean academic and President Moon’s Special Advisor for Diplomacy and Security Affairs, to be the one to explain President Moon’s putative North Korea policy to American audiences at such a determinative moment. If President Moon’s objective for Professor Moon’s visit was to gain some room to maneuver by reassuring Washington that he is not as extreme as some of us think he is, that he will be a reliable ally, and that he won’t act like a spoiler of “maximum pressure,” then his badly received speech at the Wilson Center in Washington last week was an unmitigated fiasco. The sample of opinions that follows will give you a sense of just how universally Professor Moon’s visit has been panned from left, right, and center. Let’s start with the center-left Korea Herald:
Such worries intensified after Moon’s special adviser Moon Chung-in said on his trip to Washington on Saturday that South Korea would consult with the US on whether to scale back the scope of annual joint military drills and US deployment of strategic assets in exchange for “suspension” of the North’s nuclear and missile activities. The Trump administration has maintained that the North’s “complete removal” of its nuclear arsenal is a prerequisite to any dialogue.
The envoy’s remarks sparked criticism that it would undermine the allies’ efforts to present a united front against the North, which has been facing international condemnation over its relentless ballistic missile tests and brutal treatment of a US prisoner.
“With the summit around the corner, the Moon Jae-in administration is pouring out a series of diplomatic remarks that could endanger the Korea-US alliance. If we begin talks unilaterally, what would happen to the international coalition (against the North?),” said Rep. Kim Young-woo of the opposition Bareun Party, who serves as chairman of the parliamentary defense committee.
“Talking about reduced combined exercise and the US deployment of strategic assets is nothing but succumbing to the North Korean pressure when the North has continued its provocations with nuclear and missile development.”
Washington also expressed skepticism about the envoy’s proposal. US State Department spokeswoman Alicia Edwards said that they view Moon Chung-in’s proposal as a personal view, not the official stance of the South Korean government, according to a report from VOA on Saturday. [Korea Herald]
The subhed to the center-right Joongang Ilbo’s coverage conceded that Professor Moon’s proposal went down “badly” in Washington. Even the far-left Hankroyeh, which frequently publishes Professor Moon’s views and expressed support for Professor Moon’s proposals, allowed that his speech “does not seem very cautious for such sensitive information to be coming from a special advisor just ten days before a South Korea-US summit.” There are already calls from the opposition for Professor Moon to resign. The speech was also widely panned by Americans, starting with the centrist Korea-watcher Gordon Flake:
Alarmed to see this happening again….Chungin’s bombast honed in academia is ill suited to diplomacy. https://t.co/vgLzPNCNuQ
— L. Gordon Flake (@lgflake) June 17, 2017
On the right, where sentiment matters most right now in the U.S., Bruce Klingner told Yonhap that Moon’s comments would “exacerbate U.S. concerns about President Moon Jae-in’s potential policies on North Korea and the U.S. alliance,” and about a return to Roh Moo-Hyun-era appeasement policies. Klingner, one of the few academics the Trump administration listens to, called the speech “counterproductive” to President Moon’s objective of reassuring Washington on the eve of his summit with President Trump. Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council observed, “Some of the ideas floated by President Moon and his top advisers seem to be dusting off old ‘sunshine’ ideas that failed.”
The Blue House itself backpedaled furiously, distanced itself from Professor Moon, and seemed to fling him under every passing bus on the Jongro:
An official from South Korea’s presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul insisted the professor was voicing his own personal views, saying they had not been coordinated with the presidential office, let alone the president. The Cheong Wa Dae official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted the special adviser had met with a ranking official from the presidential National Security Office prior to his U.S. trip, but said the two had merely exchanged greetings.
Another Cheong Wa Dae official said the presidential office has since contacted the special adviser and sternly warned him of the danger of making such comments even if they were his personal views. “We sternly spoke of the fact that this may not be helpful to Korea-U.S. relations in the future,” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. [Yonhap]
Moon Chung-In now finds himself blamed for the disastrous visit by his friends and foes alike, but that isn’t quite fair. The idea that Professor Moon was speaking only for himself strains credibility. Are we to believe that the Blue House did not vet his remarks? Or that it failed to consult the South Korean Embassy in Washington to solicit its views on how badly this proposal would go down here? Or that it had no role at all in selecting Professor Moon as spokesman for the views of his president at such a critical moment? If any of these things is true, this was extraordinarily incompetent.
Perhaps as an academic, Professor Moon is miscast as a diplomat. But who would have been a better choice? President Moon’s Chief of Staff, who served three years in prison for organizing Lim Soo-Kyung’s propaganda tour of Pyongyang, and who formerly led a radical, pro-North Korean student group that (shortly after his departure) tried to firebomb the U.S. Embassy in Seoul? Or his just-confirmed Foreign Minister, a self-professed human rights specialist who served in South Korea’s U.N. Mission and at the U.N. as Seoul abstained, year after year, on resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity? What about the man who recently withdrew as nominee to be Justice Minister under an ethical cloud, and who led the National Human Rights Commission during the Roh Moo-Hyun era as it resisted (with only partial success) withering criticism for its refusal to criticize Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people? Or President Moon’s new Unification Minister, who was indicted for destroying a transcript of a meeting in which Roh allegedly promised to cede South Korea’s maritime border with the North? It’s not apparent who could have represented the new president’s views better without becoming a lightning rod.
And of course, both the Blue House and American Korea-watchers were certainly aware of Professor Moon’s long history of anti-anti-North Korean sentiment and thinly veiled anti-American nationalism. See, for example, this recent op-ed Professor Moon recently published in the Joongang Ilbo, in which he called for immediate and unconditional negotiations with Pyongyang and hinted at reopening Kaesong. The op-ed proposed “the adjustment or temporary halt of the Korea-U.S. joint military exercises” as a precondition to a nuclear and missile test freeze, and “[p]arallel pursuit of denuclearization and establishment of a peace system … because again, it is important to show a flexible attitude.” Endlessly flexible. These, of course, are the same views that went over so badly in Washington last week. Let no one say that Professor Moon’s views were spontaneous or thoughtless utterances. This was the trial balloon for the trial balloon.
Maybe the Blue House should have toned Professor Moon’s remarks, except that my guess is that these were the toned-down remarks. Keep reading Professor Moon’s Joongang Ilbo op-ed and decide for yourself whether he was at least arguably calling the alliance with the U.S. a “colonial occupation,” making a thinly veiled appeal to nationalism, and threatening to call for anti-American protests (which have historically turned violent).
The 25 years of the North Korean nuclear threat has taught us the painful lesson of how important imagination and determination are. Until now, Korea has been easily decided by foreign powers. Last century’s colonial occupation, war and division were tragic products of foreign powers’ political contests. Considering the weight of the Korea-U.S. alliance and the geopolitical structure of Northeast Asia, it may be reckless to block the influence of our neighbors. However, it won’t be easy to give priority to inter-Korean relations over Korea-U.S. or Korea-China relations, either.
The time has come for us to turn the power of the people and the miracle of the candlelight demonstrations into a driving force for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear issue is a complicated challenge, but we can overcome it when we become one. Korea needs to stand at the center of the Korean Peninsula and East Asian diplomacy. In order not to be limited as a dependent variable of foreign powers, and to not repeat the fate of the Balkans, Korea needs to take initiative in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. This is how Moon will succeed — or fail. [Joongang Ilbo]
As an American and a former USFK soldier myself, whenever I hear my country called a colonial occupier, my first reaction is to test that assertion by offering to withdraw our forces. Indeed, if South Koreans want us to leave, it would be our obligation to respect their will. For now, that isn’t the will of South Koreans, even if they see U.S. forces as a necessary evil. Yet Moon Chung-In carried this offensive and extreme viewpoint to Washington just as the mood toward North Korea was as furious as it has been at any time since North Korea’s last nuclear test, as Otto Warmbier returned from Pyongyang in a coma (and subsequently passed away). How much of this is really Moon Chung-In’s fault? The real blame for the catastrophe that followed lies with Moon Jae-In’s own failure to perceive that Moon Chung-In’s tone, and the substance of his proposals, were sure to alarm most members of Congress, the administration, and academia.
Of course, not all Americans were alarmed. There is a fringe of left-of-center American opinion that Moon Chung-In is close to, and it’s more than a fringe in academic circles. What Moon said in his Wilson Center speech isn’t far removed from what you can read in an unceasing stream of op-eds by American academics calling for freeze deals that neither the U.S. Congress nor North Korea seems particularly interested in. I don’t know how much exposure Professor Moon has to centrist or right-of-center views in America, but if he believed that his proposals were within our mainstream, it may be because he cocooned himself with too many simpaticos. Perhaps the approval of this group gave Professor Moon a false sense of affirmation. Either way, Moon Jae-In can’t blame anyone but himself for this disastrous tone-deafness.
Maybe next week, the two presidents will cobble together a show of unity, like two divorcing parents at their daughter’s wedding. Maybe Trump will end the summit by tweeting that Manchuria was historically part of Korea. Maybe Trump will behave so boorishly that Moon will be able to pin the consequences of his own extreme world view and ineptitude on Trump, and play the nationalist card that the deck hasn’t dealt him yet. Or, maybe both leaders will conclude the summit with a spat that will harm both of their own political reputations, and the long-term interests of both nations.
Like Roh Moo-hyun, the President he served, Moon Jae-in’s ideological origins are found within the leftist lawyers’ group Minbyun (which has since become Pyongyang’s instrument for intimidating North Korean refugees in the South). As lawyers defending left-wing radicals and pro-democracy activists alike against the right-wing dictatorship, Moon and Roh became close friends and law partners in Pusan. Moon went on to become the legal advisor to the Pusan branch of the Korea Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, a radicalized union that would draw controversy for the politicized, anti-American, and often pro-North Korean bias of its members’ instruction. In one case, it was caught using textbooks that borrowed heavily from North Korean texts.
[As political photo ops go, this combines all the appeal of Dukakis-in-a-tank and a Village People USO show.]
But the story of the rise of Moon Jae-in, the man who might be South Korea’s next President, really began with the election of 2002, when Moon managed Roh’s campaign. In many ways, the rise was a remarkable one. Neither man had any national political experience, and what experience they had was hardly predictive of success. (Roh’s only previous run for elected office had ended in defeat.) Roh initially ran on a platform of improving relations with North Korea and cleaning up corruption — an ironic position for a man who would later leap to his death as a bribery scandal closed in on him.
But it was not Roh’s promises of clean government that energized his base; instead, Roh and Moon found victory in tragedy. In June of 2002, the U.S. Army held an exercise near the town of Yangju. It should never have been held in such a heavily populated area. The drivers of the armored vehicles that participated contended with narrow roads, poor visibility, and faulty communications equipment. A series of poor-in-retrospect judgments by young soldiers, none of them criminal, ended horribly, with two 14-year-old girls, Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon, crushed under the tracks of a bridge-laying vehicle.
As anyone living in South Korea could see by then — I was nearing the end of my twice-extended, four-year tour with the Army there — anti-Americanism was already rising, and the presence of so many phalanxes of riot police in downtown Seoul made me wonder if this was what Berlin felt like in the late ‘20s. In that politically charged context, false rumors quickly outran the truth. Some newspapers reported that the soldiers had run over the girls intentionally. Former U.S. diplomat and fluent Korean speaker David Straub recalled some Korean media reported that the soldiers stood and laughed over the girls’ crushed bodies. In reality, the soldiers were devastated and traumatized. (I’ve met and spoken with several of the soldiers who were at the scene. One is a close friend and reader.)
It’s difficult to know how many Koreans really believed such spurious rumors, but there was no serious question that this tragedy was an accident. Most Americans viewed that as mitigating, but I’ve since come to realize that this exacerbated the controversy because of the very different ways in which Americans and Koreans respond to accidents — Americans’ first impulses are to regulate and sue; Koreans, whose legal system does not distinguish between torts and crimes, seek to blame and punish. That goes far to explain why everything the Americans said and did only seemed to make matters worse.
“Almost every Korean I speak to says that the verdict should reflect the feelings of the people. We go to great lengths to separate feelings from the law. It is a different concept,” the official said. He also complained that many apologies had been offered, from senior military brass to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke to South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. “In this case, the Koreans just haven’t been listening,” the official said. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Amid the rising outrage, Korean prosecutors asked the Army to waive the provision of the Status of Forces agreement that gave it jurisdiction over on-duty incidents and the Army. The Army, no doubt fearing that the proceeding would be unfair, declined. That part of the decision was the correct one. As a South Korean law professor told a reporter, the two soldiers “almost certainly would have been convicted in a South Korean court.”
Instead, because it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the Army charged the soldiers with negligent homicide at a court-martial. In effect, the Army had heard Koreans’ calls for punishment and mistranslated them as calls for justice. Had I stayed in Korea for another year, it might have fallen to me to defend one of the soldiers in court. Instead, that job fell to others. Of course, any competent Judge Advocate could have predicted that no panel would convict, and any competent diplomat should have predicted how certain elements of Korean society would react to the inevitable acquittal. To compound the error, the case went to trial a month before Korea’s presidential election.
~ ~ ~
For Roh and Moon Jae-in, these events were a political godsend. Even the accounts of journalists sympathetic to Roh’s North Korea policy leave little doubt that Roh’s campaign “orchestrated [and] politically cashed in on an anti-establishment movement” that included “bold anti-American rhetoric.” Mike Chinoy wrote that “Roh’s final campaign rallies were marked by renewed pledges to maintain the Sunshine Policy and increasingly sharp anti-American rhetoric, including warnings that a Roh administration would not necessarily side with the United States in the event the crisis led to armed conflict.” Demonstrators chanted Roh’s name and sang that America was “a vulgar country.”
Roh seemed to be their man. He had been criticizing Bush’s tough approach to the North Korean nuclear threat, preaching reconciliation and dialogue. He promised a policy more independent of American influence, and changes in the treaty governing the legal status of U.S. troops stationed here. While insisting he wasn’t anti-American, he said he wouldn’t “kowtow” to America. [….]
During the campaign, Roh seemed less accommodating toward Washington, speaking of the need for the Korean president to play a “leading role” in the nuclear crisis rather than “unilaterally obeying U.S. policy without criticism.”
“Exerting pressure on North Korea could be very dangerous,” he said then. “Now it’s time for South Korea to take the lead. We should no longer be a passive player manipulated by others. We and the United States have different interests on this issue. The United States’ goal is to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but for us, it can be a matter of life or death.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]
The Korea-based reporter Bobby McGill recounted how anti-Americanism even became a cultural fad.
The anger was palpable. While reporting on events for the the San Francisco Chronicle, I cited a Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Koreans in their 20s said they disliked Americans. Sixty-seven percent in their 30s, along with half of those in their 40s, told Gallup they either “did not like” or “hated” the United States.
Few living on the peninsula at that time were immune to the movement. Businesses around the country banned Americans (and by association, Westerners) from entering, US flags were laid on the ground at university campuses allowing students to walk on them en route to class, and graphic banners of Shim Mi-son and Shin Hyo-sun were erected at rallies, as the American military came under increasingly heated scrutiny for what was ubiquitously viewed as an unfair and unjustified handling of their deaths. [Busan Haps]
The occasion for McGill’s recollection was Americans’ discovery that ten years before his ten minutes of fame, Psy had rapped, “Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives — Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture, Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers — Kill them all slowly and painfully.” A popular girl band’s video featured “cowboy-booted Americans being beaten up, fed to dogs, and tossed off buildings.” One protest anthem was called “F**king USA.”
The extent of the anti-American sentiments stirred by the case was evident over the weekend at the entrance to a restaurant in downtown Seoul, which posted signs saying, “Not Welcome. The Americans.” Other establishments near university campuses were reported to be similarly barring Americans.
“I thought about putting up a sign reading, ‘Yankee, Go Home,’ but that seemed too harsh,” said Lee Chang Yong, 41, who had put up the “Not Welcome” sign. Lee said he appreciates the presence of U.S. troops in defending South Korea but believes that they behave arrogantly without respect for Korean culture. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Even before the accident, there had been acts of anti-American violence. In July 2000, a Korean man had stabbed and killed Major David Berry, a doctor and father of five, on a street I’d walked countless times. In February 2002, protesters ransacked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Seoul, stole $10,000, and posted video of the incident on the website of a radical group calling itself “Voice of the People.” A poll later showed that nearly half of South Koreans approved.
Soldiers were warned against wearing our uniforms off-post or traveling alone (as a defense attorney representing clients in remote posts, this was an order I could only disregard). By the time my tour in South Korea ended in July of 2002, and just a month after the fatal accident, I had watched anti-American sentiment build for four years (though my affection for Korea, and for one Korean in particular, was still enough that I extended my tour twice anyway). But it is also true that the rhetoric became more violent in the months after the accident and before the election, held on December 19, 2002, and that actual violence was the inevitable result of this rhetoric.
~ ~ ~
On September 16th came the kidnapping of Private John Murphy in an incident that was clearly premeditated and instigated by So Kyung-won, “a former legislator who was jailed” for ten years “after going to North Korea without permission.” After his release, So became co-chairman of “a committee focusing on the accident involving the girls.” Murphy and two other soldiers were riding on the Seoul subway when a group of protesters accosted them. So tried to hand Murphy a leaflet, which Murphy refused to accept. The soldiers got off at the next stop, but as they tried to leave, they were ”pulled, punched, kicked and spat upon by demonstrators.” So and his comrades held Murphy until he made a videotaped apology and confession. (Like Moon Jae-in, So had been a leader in the KTEU. He would earn repeated praise in Pyongyang for his role in the kidnapping and other anti-American agitprop.)
On September 27th, ten Koreans threw Molotov cocktails into Camp Red Cloud, near Uijongbu. More firebombings would follow after Sergeants Nino and Walker were acquitted on November 20 and 22. Three days later, 20 people calling themselves “Korean Students Seeking Punishment for the Murderous American Soldiers” gathered outside Camp Gray in Seoul and threw ten Molotov cocktails into the post. The next day, 50 protesters broke into Camp Casey, near Dongducheon, north of Seoul. Two days after that, more Molotov cocktails were thrown into Camp Page, near Chuncheon. That same month, a U.S. Army colonel and his wife went to Kyunghee University to talk to a group of students when a group of radicals surrounded and damaged their car, forcing them to flee. Thankfully, no one was injured in these incidents.
Protests, some of them violent, surged on through December. Four protesters cut the wire fence around a post near Incheon. Outside, 500 activists protested and fought with riot police. On the evening of December 15th, three men attacked, tried to stab, and injured Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, the spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea who had been the Army’s voice throughout that difficult year. There can be little question that the attack was premeditated. On the morning of December 20th, a day after the election, a passing motorist shot an American soldier with a pellet gun outside a U.S. Army post in Seoul. Later that morning, two U.S. soldiers at Seoul Station were assaulted, grabbed by their throats, and spat on while four South Korean soldiers stood by.
~ ~ ~
Certainly, nothing Roh or Moon said directly encouraged violence against Americans, but they didn’t discourage it, either. (The historical record from that election season is curiously devoid of any comments by Moon Jae-in, or even any coverage of him or his views.) Still, it seems unlikely that Roh could have won without this energy behind him; even with it, he only eked out a narrow win by just two percentage points.
North Korea “welcome[d] Roh’s victory as a defeat for Washington’s harder line” and said that the result “showed that ‘forces instilling anti-North confrontation … cannot escape a crushing defeat.’” It is fair to say that Roh and Moon were no more responsible for all of this than Donald Trump and Steven Bannon are responsible for the rhetoric of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, or for the reaction of their most extreme supporters, but in both cases, the candidates never appealed for an end to the violence or the rhetoric that made it inevitable. Instead, Roh asked, “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”
With the election safely behind him, Roh conceded that it had all gone too far.
“I made various remarks on the campaign trail, but I was just roughly touching upon issues without giving full consideration to the diplomatic and security situations,” he said. “I will consult with people in the government and will make more responsible remarks in the future.” [Choe Sang-Hun, AP]
But this still wasn’t a call for an end to the violence, and the violence was not over. More would follow in the coming years, including violent protests at Camp Humphreys in 2006 that injured 117 policemen and 93 protesters. The violence slowly tapered off as the Sunshine Policy failed to keep its unrealistic promises, as Roh turned out to be another compromised politician, and as North Korea repaid the South’s generosity by sinking one of its warships and shelling a fishing village, killing 50 of its citizens.
Opinions shifted away from the pro-North Korean and anti-American sentiment that dominated in 2002. Today, there is no groundswell to cozy up to Kim Jong-un or kick the Yankees out. Instead, there is the weariness with the industry of politics (see, e.g., America circa 2015) and a combination of anxiety, frustration, and indecision about North Korea (see, e.g., Washington, D.C., circa 2009 to 2015). The spirit of 2002 returned again in 2015, when a pro-North Korean extremist slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert. With delectable irony, Moon warned that “if this incident is politically used … such a move will rather hurt the Seoul-Washington ties.”
~ ~ ~
That is how, in a few short years, Moon Jae-in rose from radical obscurity as a lawyer and ideologue to becoming the closest confidant of a president whom former Defense Secretary Robert Gates later described as “anti-American” and “probably a little crazy.” (In his memoirs, Gates wrote that Roh had called the U.S. and Japan the two greatest threats to security in Asia.) After Moon defended Roh in the latter’s 2004 impeachment, Roh made Moon a job as Senior Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs, putting him in charge of communications with the National Assembly and South Korea’s political parties. He later became Roh’s Chief of Staff, the position he held when he asked Pyongyang for its instructions as to how Seoul’s man in New York should vote on a U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses (and subsequently lied about it).
If Moon Jae-in’s history and recent statements are predictive of his world view, the U.S.-Korea alliance is headed for what we might call “a critical stage.” For example, Moon was widely quoted as promising that if elected, he would visit Pyongyang before he visits Washington, though he now claims that statement was taken out of context. Moon still says he plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a move that would violate U.N. sanctions and directly undermine the Trump administration’s emerging policy of economic pressure on Pyongyang. Moon has opposed, and repeatedly waffled on, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system that protects not only South Korean cities, but U.S. forces and their families. Whereas Moon calls Kim Jong-un a ”partner for dialogue,” he sells himself as the leader of a Korea that can “say no the U.S.” You can get the full flavor of Moon’s putative North Korea policy here.
I’m already on record as predicting that these policies bear a high risk of going down very badly with the current U.S. President, who campaigned on demanding that Korea pay more for the cost of U.S. forces in Korea (a demand I would readily support) and whose recent policy review will emphasize economic pressure on Kim Jong-un. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner, and I recently argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs, one cannot make a coherent policy of subsidizing and sanctioning the same target at the same time. If you wire $7 billion to the man pointing the nukes at you, you forfeit the argument that sanctions haven’t worked. And potentially, you forfeit much more than that.
Moon now says that if elected, he would “pursue [the] realization of the dream that President Roh Moo-hyun was unable to see completed.” Mr. Moon may well realize the dream of another Korean leader, whether he knows it or not.
~ 1 ~
One day, either this President or the next one will awaken to the realization that the regime in Pyongyang is collapsing, and that he has just inherited the costliest, messiest, and riskiest nation-building project since the Marshall Plan. The collapse of North Korea will present South Korea — and by extension, its principal treaty ally, the United States — with a nation-building challenge unlike any in recent history. After all, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria all had some independent institutions — tribes, sects, mosques, and churches — that predated and outlived the old order. None of these things exist in North Korea. A collapse of the regime will reduce the entire society from the closest thing on Earth to Panopticon totalitarianism to complete anarchy.
North Korea’s extraordinary secrecy means this will be harder to predict than the collapses of ostensibly “stable” regimes in Libya and Syria, but Kim Jong Un’s rule so far suggests an ineptitude at two survival skills — the proper cultivation of a personality cult, and the maintenance of good relations with the military. Pyongyang’s ongoing purges may or may not be signs of instability, but they suggest the existence of fear and distrust between Kim Jong Un and the military. Another destabilizing trend is North Korea’s obscene and widening gap between rich and poor.
These things might not have mattered in the 1990s, but today, technology is allowing more of North Korea’s have-nots to see how the elites live. Of course, inequality isn’t new to North Korea, but the new inequality is a more destabilizing kind. Contrary to the misjudgment of generations of American policymakers, North Korea’s hunger is not destabilizing, but an effective tool for weakening, exhausting, and controlling the oppressed. Today, North Korea’s poor are still very poor, but there is no wide-scale famine. Meanwhile, the elites have grown obscenely rich. It is inequality, not poverty, that topples tyrants. And ever since the coronation of Kim Jong Un, a porcine portrait of inequality has glared down on every North Korean citizen in every home, office, and classroom.
In his inaugural address in 2009, President Obama offered an open hand to Kim Jong Il, if he would unclench his fist. Within five months, Kim Jong Il answered with a nuclear test, and Kim Jong Un has repeatedly reaffirmed his insistence on pursuing a nuclear arsenal.
Recently, the Obama Administration has been hinting at both talks with and sanctions against Pyongyang, but the reality is that the North Korea policy debate has already entered the post-Obama era. It’s a very different debate from the one we had seven years ago. In 2008, most Korea watchers still believed that “engagement” with Pyongyang would catalyze political reforms, but Kim Jong Un’s bloody purges, and his harsh crackdowns on refugees and information, have discredited this theory. Korea watchers still hope for a peaceful opening of North Korea, but if you ask them directly, very few of them really believe in one in the foreseeable future. In 2008, most Korea watchers still hoped that diplomacy might end North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To the extent this hope survived the collapse of President Bush’s Agreed Framework of 2007, it faded away with the collapse of President Obama’s Leap Day Agreement of 2012, a less ambitious freeze agreement. A few Korea watchers still cling to the idea of a freeze agreement, but I can’t name a single Korea-watcher of consequence who still believes in a negotiated disarmament of North Korea today.
Today, many Korea-watchers are resigned to an unreformed, nuclear North Korea. Most are weary, disillusioned, uncertain, and at a loss. More of them know what we shouldn’t do than what we should do. There are important exceptions. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, writing in Foreign Affairs, advocates the overthrow of the regime by seeking a diplomatic consensus with China and other neighbors to cut off Pyongyang’s financial support. In a war-weary, post-Iraq Washington, this might have been a fringe view, but in the age of ISIS, Terry is joined in it, somewhat conditionally, by Richard Haass and Winston Lord, influential moderates who are usually associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy that places a high premium on stability. Leaving aside whether China would agree to this for the present, there are good counter-arguments to seeking regime collapse. One need only read Bruce Bennett’s description of the cost, chaos, and conflict a sudden collapse of North Korea’s sole social and political institution could bring to understand them. (Terry also acknowledges them.) But as much as Americans hate the cost of nation-building, they must understand that the alternative can be much costlier. Try to calculate the cost of anarchy Afghanistan in 1989, or Syria and Libya in 2011.
In the long term, Terry (and Park Geun Hye) are almost certainly correct that North Korea’s untapped human and material potential would make a unified Korea a wealthy, powerful, and prosperous nation. In the short term, however, a post-collapse North Korea will be a money pit. It will be a source of social unrest, illicit drugs, crime, corruption, disease, and potentially, conflict. Its infrastructure, civil society, and public health would take years, if not decades, to rebuild to first-world standards, and all of them will continue to decay as long as the regime can suppress the coalescence of alternative political, social, and economic institutions. With each year that this decay progresses, the cost of repairing it will continue to rise. Even with the best planning and preparation, it will be one of the greatest security crises of our age. And it will happen regardless of whether we want it to or not.
Even so, this is still a far better outcome than one in which North Korea, Iran, Syria, and other end-users of North Korea’s WMD technology acquire the means to destroy U.S., South Korea, Japanese, and other allied cities. As Korea watchers will tell you, all of the good options vanished long ago.
~ 2 ~
In moments of exasperation, proponents of regime-focused engagement sometimes ask their critics how they would beneficially transform North Korean society. It’s a fair question. The critics are fond of pointing out that South Korea spent nearly a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, yet the results speak for themselves. As one of these critics, I’ve long challenged proponents of Sunshine-like policies to point to any significant positive changes their policies have achieved, but no one has ever taken me up on this.
The question isn’t really whether Sunshine failed, but why. The simple answer is that it’s in the regime’s interest to protect the status quo, accepting only so much trade and commerce as are necessary to sustain its military, security, and material priorities. Any positive change for which a foreign or alternative institution can take credit is a threat to the regime’s legitimacy. This goes far to explain the failure of U.N. food aid programs, which Pyongyang has hobbled with obstructionism, corruption, and outright diversion, and (as we’ve recently learned) infiltration by its spies.
Even so, and no matter how demonstrably regime engagement has failed to transform North Korea, its defenders raise a fair point when they say that isolation alone won’t change North Korea for the better.
What policymakers urgently require, then, is some way to weaken the North Korean government while rebuilding North Korean society — a way to begin nation-building now by connecting the wider world with those North Koreans with an interest in transforming their society into a peaceful, prosperous, and humane one. What policymakers require is a strategy for guerrilla engagement, to empower the rise of independent, sometimes clandestine, institutions at the farm, village, factory, and town level, to fill the voids in North Korea’s governance, with the ultimate objective of regime replacement rather than mere regime collapse.
The European Alliance for North Korean Human Rights has parallel thoughts. It collaborates with North Korean defector, poet, author, and intellectual Jang Jin Sung to propose what it calls “separative engagement,” a model of engagement focused on reaching the North Korean people directly.
“Guerrilla engagement” begins with these same principles, but extends them in more subversive directions, and combines them with other non-military instruments of national power, as part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve change. The sine qua non of guerrilla engagement is the deployment of technology to allow direct communication and engagement with the North Korean people — not minders or bureaucrats in Pyongyang, or officials working for state trading companies in Dandong — but farmers, teachers, journalists, smugglers, merchants, midwives, doctors, and mechanics in Hoeryong, Sinuiju, Chongjin, and Hamhung, and in a thousand villages and factory towns scattered between them. For their own protection, most of these people will not know the identities of other members of the underground. Initially, few of them even realize that their work has political implications at all. They will simply be skirting the state’s rules to provide valuable goods and services to their fellow citizens, just like many North Koreans are already doing today.
The challenges to this are obvious. Since Kim Jong Un’s dynastic succession in 2011, he has prioritized sealing the cracks in North Korea’s information blockade. That crackdown has cut the flow of refugees in half, and has throttled the flow of contraband information and consumer goods across North Korea’s borders. Once-hopeful trends in information penetration — trends that had given many of us long-term hope for North Korea — are slowing, and may yet come to a full stop. Writing at NK News, Chad O’Carroll has proposed one possible way to break the blockade again. I can think of others, but people in Pyongyang read this site, so I’ll keep them to myself.
For now, consider the possibilities once the U.S. and its allies give the North Korean people the gift of free speech. Shatter this blockade and the possibilities are limitless.
~ 3 ~
Once the North Korean people have access to communications, guerrilla engagement can take its first important step: shifting the balance of economic power away from the regime and toward the people. This will require two parallel initiatives: first, using financial sanctions to de-fund the palace economy; and second, establishing an independent financial system to unleash the peoples’ economy, and with it, the production and transportation of food, consumer goods, and information.
To do this, South Korea (or Japan, which is seeking ways to influence events inside North Korea) should leverage electronic communications to build a virtual electronic banking network for North Korea’s underprivileged classes. This network would allow North Korean merchants to make electronic payments and transactions using dollar accounts in banks based in New York, Tokyo, or Seoul. The use of dollar accounts would not only protect this underground economy from reactions by the North Korean and Chinese central banks, it would also allow the U.S. Treasury Department a greater measure of control over regime-connected figures who would invariably tap into it. It would also give the U.S. and South Korean governments (and the local networks they empower) a credible threat to wield against officials that cracked down on the people. For the regime, it would be tantamount to financial receivership.
The establishment of a virtual dollar economy would open North Korea’s borders, not only to remittances by refugees to their relatives, but to charitable donations by church groups to local agents operating humanitarian organizations inside North Korea itself. These groups would feed North Korea’s dispossessed — the starving orphans that haunt North Korea’s markets, those languishing in state institutions, those at the bottom of the songbun scale, and perhaps even prisoners, if guards could be bribed into permitting it.
With money and information flowing through the people’s economy and frozen in the palace economy, many officials, soldiers, and border guards would have nowhere to turn for their paychecks but the merchants, traders, and NGOs that harnessed this new financial system. Corruption would take its toll, smuggling would rebound, and more fertilizer, high-yield seed, medicine, and dollars could enter the country. Humanitarian NGOs could then purchase food smuggled in from China, pilfered from state stocks, and grown on private-plot farms called sotoji, one of the least talked-about and most important new sources of food for many North Koreans. NGOs could focus on promoting sotoji farms as a humanitarian strategy, supplying them with better seed, fertilizer, agricultural advice, and bribe money to secure the tolerance of officials. At the same time, those who continue to rely on meager state rations or salaries paid in North Korean won would be priced out of the market. In time, they, too, would come to depend on the virtual dollar economy, and might seek to join clandestine unions that would supplement their wages and rations. In the dollar markets, prices for food and consumer goods would fall, as more and higher-quality food were drawn into the markets from sotoji farms, and from across the borders.
In time, independent small-scale manufacturing would also become possible. Smuggled materials could supply underground or gray-market workshops and factories, using local labor earning steady wages, to make goods that the people want.
A virtual dollar economy would have to contend with official resistance, of course, but today, corruption is so endemic that North Koreans with money consider greasing the palms of regime officials to be just another cost of doing business. Here, sanctions would play an important complementary role. Those officials would have to look the other way if the Treasury Department unleashed a parallel crackdown on the regime’s funds and accounts based in China and elsewhere. If merchants suddenly had a greater capacity to pay regime officials than the regime itself did, Pyongyang’s control would begin to break down. Gradually, the balance of power would shift. Regime officials would be coopted, unwittingly, by an alliance of external and internal forces. In time, the influence of clandestine NGOs would spread to military units, whose soldiers are often sick or underfed. And in a society where force is law, it can be a useful thing to have friends within the security forces. Soldiers might even be paid and fed to provide security to markets, freight, goods, and people during their off-hours, including North Korea’s vulnerable women. This could be a first step in fracturing the cohesion of the security forces.
A free communications network could have other transformative effects. It could augment and replace North Korea’s broken public health system with tele-medicine, staffed by volunteer foreign doctors and local nurses, to treat the sick with smuggled medicines. Volunteer teachers in South Korea could teach virtual classes to orphans, to low-songbun students seeking valuable life skills like auto mechanics, engineering, or medicine. As the people’s economy developed, communities could gain independence in other important ways. Imported solar panels, which are increasingly available inside North Korea, would give the people independent sources of electricity. With independent sources of food, electricity, and other items the market could supply, rural areas, and eventually, entire regions, could gain economic and ideological independence from Pyongyang. But even this is only a beginning.
In time, as the security forces became overwhelmed by the volume of unregulated expression and commerce, guerrilla engagement would allow for more subversive activities to take place. The South Korean Unification Ministry could create a national clearinghouse for virtual family reunions. South Korean churches could live-cast services across North Korea, and no North Korean parishioner would know the name of any other parishioner. International activists could teach North Korean factory workers to organize clandestinely to demand better working conditions and better pay, and how to conduct work stoppages and slowdowns.
A network of guerrilla journalists could tell the world about these acts of resistance from inside North Korea, and publish news reports from around the world for North Koreans to read on their devices. In time, clandestine NGOs and churches (led by ministers based in South Korea) could begin feeding starving low-ranking soldiers, treating their medical conditions, and quietly introducing them to subversive ideas about spirituality and governance. In theory, it might even be possible for North Koreans to register remotely as voters, vote in referenda on policies that affect them, and elect a government in exile. If labor organizations become established, they could eventually coordinate a nationwide general strike, with the knowledge that any overreaction would be reported, photographed, filmed, and covered worldwide.
Even this regime knows that it can’t kill and imprison everyone.
~ 4 ~
Sir Robert Thompson, the great theorist of insurgency and counter-insurgency, is generally credited with the strategy that defeated the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s. What impressed me so deeply about Thompson’s memoir of the Malayan insurgency was how little it said about military tactics, and how much it said about law, journalism, governance, policing, and intelligence. In a society ruled by violence and terror, like today’s North Korea, these things all support the reestablishment of a functioning civil society, or an objective that could be restated in a single word: legitimacy. The allegiance of a people will inevitably migrate toward the side that establishes legitimate governance, and the side that establishes legitimate governance is the one that provides for the needs of the people. The side that provides for the needs of the people — and in North Korea, there is no question that the people have many unmet needs — is the side that is responsive and accountable to them.
At the same time, a diplomatic campaign could gradually deny Pyongyang its international legitimacy until it ends the crimes against humanity it commits against its people.
If providing for the people is the prerequisite of a government’s legitimacy, then there is no better way for the South Korean government to be a legitimate government for its citizens in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung than by providing for their needs, too, if indirectly and clandestinely at first. For now, from the standpoint of domestic South Korean politics, this is unlikely. But once guerrilla engagement established local shadow governments, amenable to influence from Seoul, the South Korean government could play an important role in funding and organizing them as instruments of information operations, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and the extension of Seoul’s legitimacy to North Korea itself. The work of underground schools, journalists, and unions could become more subversive, eventually challenging the state through strikes, demonstrations, barricades, and acts of non-violent sabotage to disrupt the oppressive work of the state’s security forces.
Guerrilla journalists could also broadcast an increasingly subversive message to the North Korean people, vividly portraying the state’s corruption, class divisions, culpable waste of national resources, and failure to provide for the needs of the people. Reporting on Chinese influence over Kim Jong Un’s regime would undercut the regime’s message of nationalist independence. Reporting on Chinese abuses of North Korean refugees, particularly women, would mobilize anti-Chinese sentiment, and deter any temptation by China to intervene militarily. Guerrilla journalism could also criticize Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle, legitimacy, and competence to rule.
Eventually, trade networks and labor organizations could organize clandestine security guards and police to protect the population from violence by soldiers and members of the security forces. Initially, paid, masked security guards and guerrilla policing organizations could patrol high-crime areas, where marauding bands of soldiers rape vulnerable women, bully traders, and rob farmers. Some of the police might be recruited from deserting soldiers, who might otherwise die from lack of food and medical care.
Because the North Korean military tightly restricts the distribution of ammunition, soldiers who commit crimes against the civilian population often wander unarmed; thus, in many cases, the shadow government’s police could be effective without the use of lethal force. To prevent wanton violence and revenge killings, and to protect the people against arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial execution by the security forces, communities could organize local courts, perhaps with remote electronic training, support, and appellate review from outside North Korea.
Guerrilla courts would have the exclusive authority to permit or order the use of deadly force against military officers or members of the security forces responsible for the most severe human rights abuses. Any violent act not sanctioned by the courts, regardless of the affiliation of the person responsible, should be treated like a crime. Like all legal systems, a court empowered to punish violent crime would help to deter future violent crime, including by a regime that does not necessarily explicitly authorize crimes committed by corrupt officers or undisciplined soldiers. To the extent deadly force was necessary to protect journalists, trade unionists, and NGO workers, guerrilla police forces could obtain arms and ammunition from soldiers motivated by hunger, disease, drug addiction, or grievances against their officers. Guerrilla organizations that engaged in extrajudicial violence should be denied financial support, and when appropriate, punished criminally.
Of course, the regime would react violently to this, to the extent it could identify those responsible, to the extent this dispersed network of dissent did not overwhelm the state’s capacity to suppress it, and to the extent its local officials had not been coopted by the resistance. But the longer these groups could delay a broader, violent confrontation with the regime, the more widely this clandestine organization could penetrate North Korea’s society, government, and security forces, and the more likely it would be to survive and prevail once that confrontation comes. In that confrontation, citizen journalists with hidden cameras would be critical to deterring a violent reaction by the state, and to publicizing any such reaction both inside North Korea and globally. This, in turn, would spur diplomatic and political action to deprive North Korea of foreign investment, finance, diplomatic support, and international legitimacy. It might eventually spur South Korea toward accepting its responsibilities for the welfare of the North Korean people, as their legitimate government.
~ 5 ~
In February of 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a report finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” This status quo is not peace. It is not quite the absence of war. It is a lurid kaleidoscope of violent crime, waged by a few armed men against a defenseless majority. With its political competence in decline, it can’t last.
Over the weekend, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. The North Korean army is now said to be laying mines along the DMZ to prevent more defections. Last week, a North Korean, who may or may not have been the latest in a series of armed soldiers to desert his post, was shot and killed by Chinese police. (Update: he was a civilian.)
But this essay is not about predicting the direction of history; it is about finding ways to influence it. In such desperate, violent circumstances, completely non-violent change may be an unrealistic ideal. But it is always realistic, and compelled by both morality and our national interests, to seek a strategy to deter and prevent as much suffering and loss of life as is still possible. With Kim Jong Un rejecting political reforms and pursuing policies of war and violence, a controlled demolition of the regime may be the only way to save the Korean people from an anarchic collapse (on one hand) and the horrific status quo (on the other).
When totalitarian states collapse, they tend to collapse suddenly, violently, and chaotically, in the way that Romania, Syria, and Libya all did. There have been exceptions, like the fall of Enver Hoxha’s rule in Albania, but if the violence of any Götterdämmerung is proportional to a system’s totalitarianism, then North Korea’s collapse is likely to be more violent than any of these examples. If Götterdämmerung isn’t already imminent, the North Korean people will need whatever time they have to begin weaving the fabric of a civil society, while unraveling the discipline and unity of command the state will need to wage a civil war against them.
First, guerrilla engagement would overwhelm the state’s machinery of censorship with millions of isolated words and acts of micro-subversion, as described in Part 3. It would equip North Koreans to secede from and resist the state with money and information. In this phase, underground organizations would avoid, or delay for as long as possible, a direct confrontation that would provoke a violent reaction by the regime, to allow peaceful infiltration and evolution to advance as far as possible. The principal objective of this phase would be to establish the roots of a legitimate shadow government — a broad coalition of commercial and humanitarian networks to provide the population with food, medical care, education, electricity, consumer goods, information, and in some areas, a small measure of security from lawlessness and crimes against humanity.
Second, guerrilla engagement would coalesce a critical mass of these isolated shadow networks into a broad-based, loosely-connected political organization with a common vision of reunification under a liberal, humane, free-market, and representative system of government. No resistance movement has ever challenged a determined government successfully without such a galvanizing vision, and without a broad-based political infrastructure to supply it with intelligence, food, shelter, money, recruits, and the incalculable psychological empowerment of knowing that others share their aspirations. Very few states have survived while opposed by such a political infrastructure. As Mao Tse-Tung said,“The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Guerrilla engagement would seek to build this political base, while delaying (and later, deterring) a violent reaction by the state. At this stage, the shadow government would begin to wage aggressive information operations against the regime and its foreign backers. Information operations should have a strongly nationalist orientation, to help deter a Chinese intervention.
Third, guerrilla engagement would attempt to demoralize, coopt, and recruit as many members of the military and the security forces as possible, to divide them and disrupt their readiness, discipline, and unity of command. Sanctions would be essential in this process, to disrupt the military’s pay, supply, and commissary systems, and to draw soldiers into economic dependence on the shadow government.
[Starving North Korean soldiers. Image from Rimjin-gang.]
On an individual and small unit level, resistance networks would recruit hungry and disgruntled soldiers, such as those who have increasingly turned to violence against their own commanders, the civilian population, or Chinese civilians. Once recruited, these soldiers could pilfer fuel and critical supplies, sabotage and steal weapons, spread subversive information, and encourage the disobedience of orders harmful to the population. A contemporary example is the practice of regime soldiers stealing fuel from trucks and ships, and replacing it with corrosive salt water. Eventually, corrupt officers could also be coopted into resisting orders to suppress dissent. The objective would be to dilute the security forces’ readiness, discipline, and unity of command, and render as many units as possible unwilling or unable to execute a violent crackdown, or to actively oppose one.
At the same time, local leaders of the shadow government could secretly connect South Korean military officers with key regional commanders in the North Korean military. The objective of these contacts would be to persuade key North Korean officers that the consequence of a violent crackdown against an organized (and potentially, armed) population would be civil war — a war that would be unwinnable in the face of crippling financial sanctions, widespread internal dissent, and diplomatic isolation. If vast areas of North Korea’s mountainous interior slipped out of the regime’s control, they would be difficult and costly for a mechanized, road-bound army with few helicopters to regain. The regime could not hope to seal two land borders and two long coastlines. On the other hand, officers who refuse orders that violate the laws of armed conflict should be offered immunity from prosecution. Those who oppose them should also be offered foreign backing, and a meaningful role in the reconstruction of a united Korea.
Fourth, and only after the decay of the security forces reaches a critical stage, the resistance could challenge the state openly through a coordinated, nationwide wave of work stoppages, acts of non-violent sabotage, strikes, and protests. This critical stage would arrive when the resistance coopts enough soldiers and units that, if ordered to carry out a violent crackdown, enough units would disobey or resist to render the order ineffective. Where the orders are carried out, guerrilla journalists must have a sufficient presence to ensure that any violent reaction is filmed, photographed, and reported both at home and abroad, catalyzing more internal resistance and foreign disinvestment and sanctions. In this way, guerrilla journalism could attach a prohibitive diplomatic and financial cost to a violent crackdown. By documenting any crimes against the population, guerrilla organizations could also credibly threaten regime commanders with accountability before local (or eventually, international) courts. Even by demonstrating a broad presence throughout North Korea, guerrilla journalism could help deter and restrain the regime’s excesses.
It is at this point, after the resistance demonstrates its capacity to disrupt the regime’s control, but before a violent reaction, that a diplomatic approach to Beijing may receive a more open-minded reception. Under these circumstances, Pyongyang may see agreement to reforms and disarmament as its best available option. If Pyongyang credibly agrees to halt its suppression of the resistance and implement reforms, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could compel the resistance to temporarily halt its campaign of defiance. Failing this, China may see an agreement to force a transition of power by cutting off support to the regime as a better option than an outbreak of chaos along its northeastern border. In exchange, the allies could offer the eventual removal of U.S. ground forces from the Korean Peninsula, to keep foreign forces south of the 38th Parallel in a reunified Korea, and to recognize the validity of Chinese investment contracts with the former regime. Deprived of external and internal support, the regime would have to choose between accepting reforms and fighting a war it could neither afford nor win.
If Kim Jong Un could not see this for himself, then surely his military commanders would.
With each passing year since 1994, a peaceful transition of North Korea has seemed less likely. None of our highest hopes for the evolution of North Korea into a humane and peaceful society has been plausible for a decade or more. There is a long history of North Koreans resisting the state spontaneously, although all of this resistance has been isolated and easily contained. If collapse does come unexpectedly, the South Korean government could partner with a clandestine political infrastructure to restore order and security, coordinate humanitarian relief, feed the hungry, heal the sick, address questions of transitional justice through the rule of law, and reestablish legitimacy. Today’s purges and indiscipline in the military may mean that North Korea is descending into chaos, and that we’ve run out of time for guerrilla engagement to restrain or mitigate the violence and anarchy it will entail. But it is urgent that the allies begin now, to restrain as much of this violence as we still can.
~ 1 ~
I SUSPECT THAT SOMEONE LIKE KURT CAMPBELL would have been a better man for the job, but I wish John Kerry the best of luck in his discussions with the Chinese:
“China shares the same strategic goal, and we discussed the importance of enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions that impose sanctions on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile program,” Kerry said.
However, Kerry said China needs to do more in reining in its unruly ally North Korea. Kerry said China must play its “unique role” in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Unfortunately, the very fact that John Kerry is delivering the message subtracts from its effectiveness. But the good news is that Kerry is (for now) showing no obvious signs of acceding to Chinese demands that we engage in pointless, non-disarmament talks for talks’ sake.
~ 2 ~
SOUTH KOREA HAS DENIED a rescue NGO permission to go to North Korea to assist with the apartment collapse in Pyongyang. Given how the North Koreans did the “rescue,” and the fact that the collapse was two months ago, there can’t be much more to rescue than dried-out chunks of what were once wives, children, and grandparents.
~ 3 ~
HYUNDAI ASAN, which was the sole provider of tours to Mt. Kumgang before a North Korean soldier shot and killed tourist and housewife Park Wang-Ja there, has since laid off a stunning 70% of its employees and lost $858 million. As absolutely no one in South Korea ever said during the Sunshine fad, “caveat investor.”
I did not realize the extent to which this large South Korean corporation had put all of its eggs in Kim Jong Il’s basket, or the extent to which the Sunshine Policy’s select cronies relied on South Korean government subsidies. But given suspicions that Kim Jong Il diverted the subsidized proceeds of Kumgang toward “regime maintenance,” I’m always pleased to make Sunshine’s punch bowl my chamber pot.
~ 4 ~
TO SAY THAT JULY IS EXTORTION SEASON in North Korea would be like saying that August is campaign season in Washington. According to the Daily NK, however, extortion is especially prevalent in North Korea in July:
The term “8.3 money” is related to a program of limited enterprise autonomy put in place by Kim Jong Il in 1984. As part of the plan, workers are encouraged to earn money outside their state-mandated workplaces and present de facto tax payments back to their employers. Such contributions are not necessarily defined in monetary terms: wild edible greens and valuable medical herbs (some of which fetch a high price in China) can also be contributions, for instance.
The source went on, “These measures have brought an ambivalent response from workers. In the past people might have prioritized this type of fund as an expression of fidelity to the Party, but you’d struggle to find that kind of loyalty now.” [Daily NK]
~ 5 ~
NEW FOCUS THINKS IT KNOWS what triggered Jang Song Thaek’s purge. Citing “sources in North Korea,” it claims that the regime intercepted a letter from Jang to China’s leaders that would have shifted Nort Korea’s power structure in his favor:
It has been revealed that in early 2013, Jang Song-thaek dispatched a letter to the Chinese leadership, explaining that he desired to instigate changes to the North Korean system such that its pivot of power would move away from the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and towards the DPRK government, as overseen by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
This letter and its contents is said to have served as the decisive evidence that led to the removal of Jang Song-thaek from his post in the enlarged Politburo meeting, called by the KWP Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) in early December of last year. [New Focus International]
~ 6 ~
MEANWHILE, KIM KYONG HUI, JANG’S WIDOW, is recuperating at Samjiyeon from a breakdown after fighting with Kim Jong Un about her husband’s execution — or so says the Daily NK. I remind you of my low confidence in any reports from inside the royal court.
~ 7 ~
REMEMBER ALL THE HYPE about that new bridge between Dandong and Sinuiju? Construction is behind schedule because of slow progress and pilferage on the North Korean side.
“China provided a lot of materials and machinery to the North, but there is a story that this machinery was sent for use on other projects rather than for the bridge construction. The Chinese traders who did harbor high hopes for [economic] opening brought on by the bridge are showing their disappointment more and more,” the source explained. [Daily NK]
~ 8 ~
SOUTH KOREAN HISTORICAL DRAMAS are still a hit in North Korea, despite Kim Jong Un’s border crackdown.
~ 9 ~
DAILY NK GUEST COLUMNIST LEE JONG CHEOL writes that South Korea has textbook revisionism problems of its own:
Generally speaking, middle and high school history textbooks hold that both the Soviet-supported Kim Il Sung and U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee were equally accountable for the war. They agree that North Korea prepared for the war with help from the Soviets, and that Kim Il Sung ordered the invasion of the South. However, they also describe the Cold War environment, the “Acheson Line” (the nominal American defense perimeter), and battles around the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), giving them similar weight in the narrative and effectively downplaying the responsibility of the Soviets and Kim Il Sung. Furthermore, textbooks portray the Korean War as a battle for unification, with military force the only option available to achieve it.
That’s not so surprising when you consider who’s in charge of South Korean teachers’ unions.
Every time North Korea tests a rocket, Hans Blix sheds a little tear and Ban Ki Moon’s fluffy white tail stops wagging, because North Korean rocket tests violate three U.N. Security Council Resolutions — 1695 (which bans “all activities related to its ballistic missile programme”), UNSCR 1718 (ditto, and requires N. Korea to “re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching”), and 1874 (which bans “any launch using ballistic missile technology”). North Korea’s official response is that it is launching peaceful satellites, not testing ICBMs. You may be wondering if anyone on the Outer Earth is still fool enough to believe this.
There’s little reason to doubt North Korea’s claim that it simply wants to put a satellite into space. [John Feffer, Foreign Policy in Focus]
Maybe John Feffer just needs more reason, so he can reason his way to what’s obvious to the rest of us.
North Korea exhibited the fuselage of what is presumed to be the long-range rocket it launched in December, and explicitly called it a ballistic missile, despite its claims to the outside world that the Unha-3 was part of its peaceful space development program, a report said Monday.
The report by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun quoted North Korean sources as saying that the fuselage was displayed under the name “Hwasong-13” among the exhibitions of the country’s missile lineup in an exhibition hall in Pyongyang. The Hwasong line also includes shorter-range scud missiles, which the country has produced since the 1980’s. [Yonhap]
Well, you say, if they’re missiles, then they must be for strictly defensive deterrence. No need to infer any malicious intent here, right? So we now have this, via North Korea’s quasi-official Uriminzokkiri:
If your memory is long enough, may recall that other norksimps in South Korea, the Korean Teachers’ Union, produced an equally sickening video for schoolchildren before the 2005 APEC Forum in Busan, featuring replays of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, set to “What a Wonderful World.” A theme seems to be emerging.
I’m sure that all across the more progressive quarters of this world, there are fevered minds with room enough for the conflicting lunacies that the Jews and neocons pulled off 9/11, and also that on 9/11, nineteen great martyrs fulfilled a divine mandate of vengeance against toddlers, flight attendants, and office workers. Similarly, there’s clearly some market in some quarters of Korea for fantasies of North Korea’s peaceful satellites destroying American cities. I hope that market is a whole lot smaller than it was a decade ago.
I’ve been looking forward to Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s new book on North Korea, refugees, and public opinion for a long time now. I don’t have a copy of my own yet (ahum! – not that I’d find the time to read it these days). But thankfully, Evan Ramstad interviews Noland at the WSJ’s indispensable Korea Real Time.
It’s a diplomatic breakthrough: The Onion reports. Love those jackets.
Uriminzokkiri, a North Korea propaganda site, early this week blamed “South Korea’s extreme right-wingers” for a cyber attack that disrupted its website last weekend. The China-based site claimed the hackers were trying to stop its “influence from spreading. “They should stop acting recklessly and think carefully about a grave consequence that could be caused by their mean acts,” it warned.
North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The thing is, DCinside really didn’t have a political agenda until North Korea pissed off the netizens. Me: I say, better this than the SOFA or Tokdo. Or using artillery.
I’m generally not a fan of state-sponsored domestic propaganda. That being said, I suppose the South Korean government’s decision to launch a series of webcasts “to inform the public about North Korea and to raise awareness of future unification” couldn’t be any more disturbing than the saccharine hippie bong resin the ROK government put out during the DJ-Roh years. Or the juche agitprop of the Teachers’ Union. Or giving state funds to the Hankyoreh, or the film industry, or the leftist union goons. Consequently, I doubt most South Koreans have any idea what or where Camp 22, a place that every South Korean schoolchild will read about ten years from now, even is. I suppose it’s not unlike the argument for
reverse discrimination affirmative action in Selma, Alabama in the early ’70’s. You could say that there are times when the greater good requires you to compromise principle.
Kim Jong Il Death Watch: OK, I suppose I don’t put much stock in the reliability of this, but we can hope, can’t we? If not, it is at least interesting that rumors like this spread so quickly. It has to mean that people dare to speak them, and want to hear them.
North Korea, which signed an Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War in 1953, has blamed its shelling of a South Korean fishing village on the lack of a peace treaty. You may say so, but would a peace treaty really have guaranteed the safety of North Korean artillery emplacements from South Korean fishwives? Also, how funny would it be if it turned out that it was really Christine Ahn and Selig Harrison who were writing the talking points for North Korea?
Take that hippies! I suppose I could be reading too much into this story. After all, conscription has always been mandatory in South Korea, and most of the country’s celebrities have found the spotlight to be disadvantageous to draft-dodging. But in another entry for our it-wouldn’t-have-happened-a-year-ago file, an actor’s decision to man up and join the Marines has drawn an outpouring of public support. Good for him. This isn’t just a good sign for South Korea’s return to a sensible view of North Korea. It may even augur for a recovery from the icky androgyny of its pop culture.
Your mandatory China-bashing link: “In both international and domestic politics, the Communist Party is finding that its increased power has led to a commensurate increase in resistance to that power.”
I know this probably stuns you as much as it stuns me:
Seoul police arrested two pro-Pyongyang activists on charges of starting a campaign to remove a statue of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur from a park in Incheon under orders from North Korea.
According to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, two leaders of the Korean Confederation Unification Promotion Council were arrested on charges of receiving directives from a North Korean agent from 2004 to 2005 to stage a series of violent, illegal rallies from May to September 2005, demanding the removal of the MacArthur statue. The North also told them to organize an alliance of progressive civic groups to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea.
Police said 12 additional members of the council are to be investigated in the case. [Joongang Ilbo]
Readers will recall that the demonstrators, many from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Korean Teachers’ and Educational Workers’ Union, marched to the statue 4,000-strong with bamboo poles and “fucking USA” signs in hand. Naturally, they proceeded to attack the police, resulting in some unknown number of injuries (photos here). Hate and violence notwithstanding, Chang Young-Dal, a member of the standing committee of the then-ruling Uri Party praised the fifth columnists who led the rally for their “deep ethnic purity,” which is true in the same sense it might have been for Ernst Rohm in the 1920’s.
Inspired, no doubt, by the class, tact, and sensitivity they displayed on September 11, 2005, other leftist South Korean groups with a history of bleating out North Korea propaganda have followed the on-the-spot guidance of the Star of Mount Paektu and the Lodestar of the Nation.
The Korean Confederation Unification Promotion Council, formed in 2004, promotes North Korea’s philosophy of unifying the two Koreas in a confederation. In 2005, it staged a 69-day protest inside the park to demand the statue’s removal, which turned violent on September 11, 2005, when 4,000 protesters clashed with police.
Yup. No real surprise there.
Police now say that the rallies began on orders from North Korea. (Since the first protest in 2005, North Korea has publicly lauded the rallies in statements through its state-run media.) [….]
Police said the two arrested activists traveled to China in 2004 to meet a North Korean agent, who gave them orders to organize the rallies against the statue and U.S. troops in the South. “North Korea normally gives a direction in a larger framework, and pro-Pyongyang activists in the South come up with specific implementation plans,” said a security official.
Police and prosecutors said nine pro-Pyongyang groups held a meeting in 2005 to discuss how to implement the orders and formed a special committee to demand the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea. A team was also formed under the committee to campaign for the removal of the statue.
Another security official said the MacArthur statue was targeted because of the North’s loathing of the American general, who stopped North Korea from taking over the entire peninsula.
A consultation with the OFK archives confirms that, this news isn’t entirely new. In November of 2006, the Chosun Ilbo reported that one Kang Soon-jeong, the former vice chairman of the South Korean chapter of the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification, was arrested for providing “national secrets” to North Korea. At the time of the 2006 arrest, Kang was on parole after serving a 4 1/2 year term for … yes, that’s right, spying for North Korea. Kang also played a role in organizing violent protests against the Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement and the expansion of Camp Humphreys. There is other evidence that the anti-MacArthur movement took its philosophical inspiration from Pyongyang as well.
“The campaign to remove the statue is the symbol of the anti-American movement,” said another security official. “There is no actual gain for the North even if the statute is removed, but it will send a strong message to its people and solidify the network of pro-Pyongyang activists in the South.
Lim Soon-hee, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, agreed. “The campaign will fuel ideological conflicts within the South and taint the image of South Korea for Americans.
Well, then, consider that operation a success. Were this wave of anti-Americanism (a) peaceful and (b) confined to the fringes of society, we’d have dismissed it. But in fact, it was neither of those things. Both the beef idiocy and the Cheonan conspiracy idiocy show us that it’s far from over.
I’ve taken a good long while to chew on the results of South Korea’s recent election, and while I’m ready to offer some unscientific speculation about what it didn’t mean, I really wish that I had some good, reliable polling numbers to give me a more concrete idea of what motivated people to vote, and what didn’t. With that said, my main interest in the results (below the fold for the winners) is the media consensus that it was rebuke for President Lee’s hard line toward North Korea after the Cheonan Incident, or, as the BBC put it, “a blow for Mr Lee’s tough stance on North Korea, accused of sinking the Cheonan.”
If that’s true, then this was the most consequential election in South Korea, because it was effectively a referendum for surrender to North Korean terror. America cannot defend a people who are able but not willing to defend themselves. Even more fundamentally, there was no hard line, merely the absence of that comfortable denial to which South Koreans have become so accustomed. This is what Roh Moo Hyun duly delivered when North Korea committed outrages during his presidency, but President Lee Myung Bak is made of sterner and smarter stuff than that. Lee asked for and got an international report of investigation, which confirmed my immediate suspicion that North Korea did it. Armed with this result, Lee lobbied for the oxymoron called the “international community” (or United Nations, take your pick) to restore deterrence and preserve peace. The response was a lot of Chinese obstructionism, denial, and callousness; the predictable bupkes from the U.N.; and not much more from the Obama Administration, at least so far. The only consequences North Korea has suffered, aside from the loss of some trade Kim Jong Il was clearly prepared to sacrifice, was that a few North Korean soldiers must now endure the agony of K-pop on loudspeakers and giant TV screens, though to be fair, I’m sure Amnesty International would denounce this as torture if we played it for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
The thing is, I’m not sure that the media have this right. I think they found a simple, easy headline that oversimplifies a slightly different point, which is that Korean voters chose not to fulfill President Lee’s expectation that the Cheonan Incident would propel him to victory at the polls. But there are important differences.
How badly the GNP really did, of course, depends on your expectations. The GNP had expected to win nine of the 16 big races last week. Pre-election polls showed them winning big where they barely won, or barely lost. The GNP obviously thinks it lost; hence the ritualized gesture of the the resignation of its party leader, whom I seem to recall was already a somewhat controversial figure. Of course, up until the Cheonan incident, the GNP was expected to suffer big losses. One analyst said, “Without the Cheonan incident, the opposition party would have won in Seoul as well.” After the incident and President Lee’s initially clumsy but commendably calm handling of it, however, the GNP expected that Korean voters would rally to Lee following a surge of patriotic unity.
It’s safe to say this much: those expectations were misplaced. Here, then, is how I explain this:
1. The people, including many conservatives, don’t like Lee’s megaprojects.
Some politics are local, and that’s especially so when the candidates, after all, are running for mayor and governor, not for President or the National Assembly. The GNP’s losses in central South Korea appear to have had more to do with local issues than international or security issues:
The ruling party was powerless even in North and South Chungcheong provinces and Daejeon, where voters rallied behind the GNP in previous local elections. The GNP’s defeats in those areas clearly reflected the dissatisfaction among Chungcheong residents with the government’s revision of the Sejong city blueprint, which overturned former President Roh Moo-hyun’s plan to create a new administrative capital, creating instead a regional business hub.
Not even conservatives like these grandiose plans. Lee’s intra-party opponent, Park Geun-Hye, opposed the Sejong City plan and sounds tepid on the four rivers project. I understand why. Frankly, both projects sound like money pits and unforced environmental disasters to me. I’m not certain whether this helps explain the loss of the GNP governorship in Incheon which must have hurt.
2. The mid-term effect.
First, here are the partisan voting patterns:
About 48 percent of voters supported candidates from the Democratic Party and two other opposition parties, while 40 percent voted for candidates from Lee’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP), according to the election commission. In midterm elections four years ago, GNP candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote. [WaPo, Blaine Harden]
Note that Democratic Party votes are lumped in here with all other opposition parties. For all we know, a good share of these votes were for the arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party, which actually won the mayoral election in Daejon. This doesn’t tell us all that much.
Mid-term elections tend to draw fewer moderate or “swing” voters. They turn out people who dislike the party that holds most of the power and favor the party in opposition. Swing voters also tend to hold the party in power responsible for whatever isn’t right with the country at the time. We saw this in 2006 and 2008, and we’ll see it again in 2010. In fact, it’s a well established historical trend. Whenever this happens, pundits are fond of calling it a mandate or a referendum, which is often true, but less true than pundits often assume, typically because they (a) favor one party over another, or (b) want the party they favor to behave differently. But an equally important reason why ruling parties lose mid-term elections is that voters loathe a monocracy. They like checks and balances. (Consider this my warning to you not to overestimate the meaning of 2010, other than the fact that voters think the Democrats have too much power and want to trim it back.)
“The public sentiment to check the GNP and keep the balance seemed to have reduced the gap between the ruling and opposition parties,” said Jeong Han-wool, executive director at the East Asia Institute, a Seoul-based research group. “The ship incident seems to have reinforced the existing conservative votes for the ruling party, but was not enough to change the minds of independent and left-leaning voters.” [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]
We saw this same disparity of turnout in the Korean election. “Complacent” supporters of the GNP didn’t turn out in high numbers. More voters — not all of them leftists, I’d guess — responded to opposition calls to keep the GNP’s “monopoly” in check. Said another,
“The opposition DP’s victory in the local elections was a surprise to the market as the last polls had suggested a GNP landslide victory,” said Kwon Young-sun, an analyst at the Japanese investment bank Nomura International. “We interpret this result as Korean voters’ choice for reining in the ruling camp.” [Yonhap]
Leftists, by contrast, twittered off to the polls like disciplined cadres:
Turn-out was at 54.5%, the highest for local polls in 15 years. Large numbers of young people were said to have voted. The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says that perhaps this group, thought to be more liberal in its outlook, chose to register its protest against a conservative president and his tough anti-North Korean stance. [BBC]
Again, some of this is to be expected, but adults on both side of the Pacific ought to be plenty worried about how extreme South Korea’s left really has become.
3. The results weren’t quite as advertised.
By picking up seven seats, the Democratic Party beat expectations, but it’s also important to remember that one of the seats stolen from the GNP was won by Lee Hoi-Chang’s arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party. Two others were won by independent politicians whose affiliations are not yet clear.
4. Anti-Americanism sells better than national security.
Regardless of what drove this election, the lackluster reaction of South Koreans to the murder of 46 of their sailors ought to make Americans much more realistic about how South Koreans see us, and the costly support we lend to their security. In fact, it ought to make them angry. Consider: to this day, the Hankyoreh is still exploiting the deaths of two young South Korean girls killed accidentally by a U.S. Army vehicle in 2002 to stir hate against America. For more than a year after the incident, Americans in Korea were confronted with massive demonstrations, violent attacks on U.S. facilities and military personnel, and ugly displays of anti-American bigotry. It worked; that hatred is what installed Roh Moo Hyun into a misbegotten presidency that even he came top regret, though Roh’s party renewed its lease on power by exploiting it again in 2006 (the Humphreys expansion) and 2008 (the urban myth that was Mad Cow). Whatever can be said of North Korea’s impact on Korean voters, it sure doesn’t sell at the ballot box, or on the streets, like anti-Americanism obviously does.
5. People are in denial.
The sentiment may be easier to understand when you live within range of thousands of artillery tubes and missiles, many of which carry chemical, biological, and thermobaric warheads. My guess is that plenty of South Koreans, for various reasons, are still in denial about the Cheonan Incident. For most of them, I suspect, it’s a passive denial, rooted in their terror of confronting its implications. Denial certainly holds some appeal to these people on an emotional level, though on a rational level, if confronted, they’d mostly concede that North Korea did it. This mostly motivates people to stay home on election day. These are, in a very real sense, the kind of people that terrorism is meant to reach and influence. They may accept the truth of what happened, but they’re scared enough to sell their freedom, one bought peace at a time. How else do you reconcile this election result with pre-election polls that show most Koreans believe North Korea deliberately attacked the Cheonan, or that most South Koreans support sanctions against the North? The most plausible answer is that the poll of potential voters and actual voters are two different things, and polls can’t always measure the complexity of opinion beneath a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
Another guess I’ll advance: These same people probably want Uncle Sam around to make sure it all proceeds gradually enough. Maybe a sense that Uncle Sam won’t always be there will awaken some of them from this denial, but if it doesn’t, there’s nothing Uncle Sam can really do about it. It’s the job of South Korea’s president to lead South Koreans.
6. Stupidity is a persistent thing.
By now, you’re wondering: Is he really saying that everyone who voted for a Democratic Party candidate this year is stupid? Yes, I am. Every last one of them. The DP’s response to the gravest national security crisis in Korean history since 1968 has been a mendacious and unpatriotic blend of conspiracy theories, expedient ankle-biting, and weak-minded counsel against the urgent priority of restoring deterrence. The DP deserved to be punished and marginalized as the lunatic fringe and North Korean puppet it has become, but it wasn’t.
Here, I generally lump the DP with the Korean Left because functionally, I see little difference in their views. The Left’s denial is a different sort from the denial of moderate voters; this is on-the-spot guidance fed to them by their puppetmasters in the Guidance Bureau, and if you think I’ve crossed the line to wacky John Birch Commie conspiracy territory, I’d only ask you to review the evidence of just how extensive North Korea’s network of influence in South Korea really is.
The hard left’s denial isn’t passive, it’s active and strident. This denial, of course, is faith-based, not fact-based. Having concluded either that Kim Jong Il is incapable of such evil or that only President Lee really could be, they defy all of the evidence and cling to an assortment of theories about reefs, the torpedo’s German origin, or (most convenient of all) a joint exercise with the Americans “gone wrong.”
You can’t dismiss this as a vocal lunatic fringe, either. It has the capacity to swing mid-term elections and get millions of people into the streets. And South Korea only just completed a ten-year period when this group held the levers of power in Seoul, propped up Kim Jong Il’s regime with billions in aid, and allowed North Korean spies to run amok in the Blue House, bedding officers for classified documents and cajoling major generals for war plans. But the problem is, ten years from now, the zany lunatic fringe voters will still be voting, and the geriatric conservatives won’t be. This suggests that unless President Lee can bridge this generation gap, demographics will be destiny, and the two Koreas will be in a race toward collapse.
(On a side note, consider: if you were Kim Jong Il and the Reconnaissance Bureau informed you one day that they’d managed to get one of their operatives elected as President of South Korea, what would you do next? Have the new president open the DMZ and let your tanks roll to Yosu? Not a chance. Your emaciated little kingdom has half of South Korea’s population, and surely some parts of the Army would break away and resist. The Americans might intervene. Worst of all, you wouldn’t want your soldiers to get a look at Seoul, would you? Instead, you’d steer your new subordinate toward gradually distancing himself from the Americans, stirring anti-Americanism among southerners, weakening South Korea’s defenses, suppressing criticism of your regime, and keeping you well supplied with cash — no questions asked. All of which sounds a lot like what did happen when Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were in office. I’m just saying.)
What should Lee do about this? One thing he certainly ought not to do is to prosecute people for espousing zany views, which is what some people are calling for now in the case of one such group, called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. I obviously can’t prove they’re working for the North Koreans, but it’s telling that their rhetoric is indistinguishable from North Korea’s. But PSPD is only one of these groups. There’s the Hanchongryon, and Korea’s largest labor organization and teachers’ union both show symptoms of having this virus. Certainly not all of these people are knowingly working for the North Koreans. Lee can’t prosecute all of them, nor should he. But he ought to order his police (investigation hasn’t been their strong suit, traditionally) to investigate and prosecute people for actively working for the North Koreans in South Korea. Rather than giving them long show trials and jail terms, the government ought to expose them and their organizations publicly, brand them with the stigma of criminal convictions, remove them positions of influence in schools and unions, and fine them. And one point where I strongly agree with the conservatives is that the South Korean government ought to investigate who is funding these groups. I emphasize: I speak here only of those who knowingly work under the direction of the North Korean government and its agents.
One good piece of news here is that so far, President Lee is at least trying to explain matters to his people:
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls for a strong response. “If we fail to sternly respond to North Korea’s wrongdoing in cooperation with the international community and build up solid military readiness, a second and third provocation like the Cheonan incident can occur anytime,” he said in a nationally televised speech. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]
He has far to go, and there are great obstacles in his way. I wish him luck. His country is worth saving.
Just the latest example of historical myopia from the kids in South Korea.
As the university was announcing the plans, the Chosun Ilbo reported a Gallup poll in Korea that showed 62.9 percent of teens and 58.2 percent in their 20s did not know when the Korean War broke out. Also, only 43.9 percent of those surveyed said North Korea is to blame for starting the Korean War, with the figure among teenagers 38 percent and 36 percent for 20-somethings. Some 18 percent of teens and 25 percent of those in their 20s said both North and South Korea are responsible.
Until just a few years ago, some teachers who are members of the hardline Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union have been teaching that the Korean War was a battle for liberation led by the North. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, a state-run broadcaster aired a documentary on Memorial Day praising China’s Mao Zedong, who backed the North in the Korean War. [Chosun Ilbo]
One of the points I’ve made for years about the USFK is that it’s an impediment to South Korea’s progress toward political maturity, which is in turn impeded by its lack of a confident sense of self-sufficient nationhood. That may be the only thing North Korea has today that South Korea doesn’t, and you can see emotional hunger for this sense among certain demographics in South Korea, though no to the same extent as the North Koreans’ physical hunger for South Korean rice and ChocoPies. Somehow, I don’t think Koreans would be so prosaic about the genesis of their form of government if they had to mobilize to Israeli proportions to defend it.