David Straub’s “Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea” has resonated with me in several ways, but none of them more than Straub’s deep ambivalence about Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time when I also served there as a young Army officer. Straub admits that in writing his book, he struggled to reconcile, and to show his readers, an honest-yet-fair portrayal of a society that earned his affection, and also caused him much exasperation, even as he was forever bound to it by experience, study, love, and marriage. So it was with me. Indeed, Staub is kind enough to cite this blog in his acknowledgments in his book, and much of what he writes reminds me of my own congressional testimony, from very nearly a decade ago.
What also resonates in Straub’s book is how disturbed he was — as I also was — by the incapacity of so many South Koreans on the political left to perceive the danger North Korea represents to the peace, prosperity, and liberty their parents worked and fought so long and so hard to achieve. Korea is as polarized as we are becoming. Its left is very far left; its right is very far right. The left lives in a Hankyoreh reality; the right lives in a Chosun Ilbo reality.
The Korea I remember then, and the one I continued to read about after my DEROS in 2002, was a place that seemed to find no fault with North Korea and no virtue in America. As Kim Jong-il poured his nation’s resources into developing a nuclear arsenal, Seoul indirectly bought him that arsenal with billions of dollars in cash, no questions asked. (Meanwhile, in cost-sharing negotiations, Korea constantly demanded that U.S. taxpayers subsidize greater proportions of Korea’s defense.) The ever-receding promise that this subsidy to Kim Jong-il’s regime would buy reform and peace was quickly forgotten in a haze of nationalist emotion. Protests against North Korea were suppressed, sometimes forcefully, either by South Korean police, or by far-left activists who operated without official state sanction (but with government subsidies).
Pyongyang’s influence operations had not only opened Seoul’s wallet, but they had also enlisted its government to silence and censor criticism of Pyongyang. By 2005, Pyongyang had effectively silenced Seoul as a diplomatic critic on the North’s crimes against humanity. It had introduced reluctance into Seoul’s legal and moral obligations to accept refugees from the North. It had extracted public statements from Seoul that it was effectively a neutral party — a “balancer” — in any potential conflict between the U.S. and China or North Korea. There were endless demands to renegotiate the countries’ status-of-forces agreement, always to the procedural disadvantage of U.S. military personnel tried in Korean courts. The U.S. began to reduce its forces in South Korea. Although it strongly denied that this represented any diminution of its commitment, it was increasingly difficult to identify what interests and values the two states shared. The alliance was growing apart, and I have little doubt that had Chung Dong-young won the presidential election in 2008, it would have effectively dissolved by now.
No doubt, others who lived in Korea during those years — especially those who harbored more sympathy than me for the Sunshine Policy — may see my view as too apocalyptic. So be it.
The assumption behind most U.S. and South Korean planning and policy is that North Korea’s goal is a military conquest of South Korea. In fact, the situation that existed in South Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun years was far more favorable for Kim Jong-il than a military conquest. War is expensive and destructive, and by 2000, Kim Jong-il knew he could not win it. Rather, he knew that Seoul was worth more to him alive than dead; after all, you can’t milk a cow you’ve slaughtered, and he had already squeezed most of the blood out of North Korea. Surely he must have imagined the effect on his shriveled conscripts from Hamhung and Chongjin to see the cars, skyscrapers, and markets of Seoul, even as occupiers. No rational dictator could harbor the fantasy of occupying a state with twice the population, many times the economy, a vibrant culture, and a much higher standard of living. To dominate South Korea ideologically was the best situation Pyongyang could possibly hope for. During the Roh Moo-hyun years, between 2003 and 2008, that goal that was within sight.
That is to say, I believe Kim Jong-il came much closer to winning the Korean War than most Korea-watchers believe or acknowledge. Indeed, he had everything he wanted from Seoul without any of the costs of war. I still believe Kim Jong-un stands a chance of winning it.
Ironically, just as the North Korean elites and military seem to be losing their cohesion and confidence in Kim Jong-un, the U.S. and South Korean elections of 2016 and 2017 could put Kim Jong-un on a path to winning the Korean War within the next decade. To Kim Jong-un, victory does not look like overrunning the Pusan Perimeter. Instead, it looks like a one-country/two-systems hegemony over the South as the North gradually seizes political and economic control. I’ve said that predicting history is a fool’s errand. Having said this, I predict that within the next five years, one of the two Koreas will abandon its political will to preserve its system of government. It’s just a question of which one will lose its will first.
Part 2: They will call it peace.
How can an impoverished failed state overcome one of the world’s most prosperous and wealthy nations? Just as a character in “The Sun Also Rises” went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Rich states have succumbed to poorer, more determined ones countless times since Sparta defeated and absorbed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Only the strategies have varied.
North Korea has waged a war of skirmishes against the South almost since the end of World War Two, but escalated it again with the 2002 naval skirmishes in the Yellow Sea, the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island attacks, the 2015 land mine incident, and a series of nuclear and missile tests. Seoul’s response to each of these skirmishes was constrained by the long leash of a weary American ally, and by its own calculation of North Korea’s capacity to destroy its cities. As Pyongyang’s destructive power grows in the coming years, Seoul’s deterrence will be nullified. Pyongyang will grow bolder, and the scale of the attacks will escalate to an apex within the next five years, when Pyongyang will become a full-fledged nuclear power. Without the capacity to deter Pyongyang, public and political opinion will demand a diplomatic de-escalation. Pyongyang will be ready to offer one, but peace will come at a high price.
Every time Pyongyang has raised fears of a second Korean War, the easy and popular decision for the South Korean government was to make some small sacrifice of its freedom or security to de-escalate a potentially catastrophic conflict. Each compromise, viewed in isolation, seemed like the sensible thing to do at the time. Never mind that Pyongyang premeditated each of these war threats to begin with, apparently with a calculated political purpose. In each of these cases, South Korea’s political left (and more often than not, its political right, too) was willing to make these small, “pragmatic” sacrifices for peace.
Recent history tells us precisely how Pyongyang’s censors will extend their reach over the South to suppress its critics. In recent years, Pyongyang has repeatedly demanded that Seoul muzzle or censor political criticism of it as the price of peace. The second of the 2000 inter-Korean agreement’s eight points required the two sides to “work for mutual respect and trust in order to overcome differences in ideology and system.” Seoul obliged, and used the police forces of a nominally free and democratic society to enforce the point against the few troublemakers — and there were very few of them, most of them defectors — who protested against the North. For the next decade, many of the films that emerged from South Korea’s movie studios — which benefited from preferential government “screen quotas” — were anti-American enough to have been ghostwritten by the United Front Department in Pyongyang itself. Foreign films that offended Pyongyang were sometimes banned from South Korean theaters.
In 2014, Seoul agreed to Pyongyang’s proposal that each state should cease its “slander” of the other, as part of a deal allowing family “reunions” — in reality, short visits with relatives, often people abducted by the North, under the close supervision of North Korean minders. It was never clear exactly how the two sides would define “slander,” or whether Pyongyang would interpret this as an agreement by Seoul to censor criticism of Pyongyang by private South Korean citizens or activist groups. (Pyongyang prefers vague agreements. It can interpret them freely at moments of opportunity.)
As the world learned from the Sony cyberattack later and since then, Pyongyang recognizes no limits to its censorship and no distinction between the speech of governments and private persons. Pyongyang’s new skill in cyberwarfare is its newest and greatest weapon to censor its critics abroad. The greatest impact of the Sony attack may be the films that were never made because the studios submitted to their fears. Pyongyang will deny responsibility for these cyberattacks, of course, but studios, newspapers, and the government in Seoul have learned that it is wiser to avoid criticizing Pyongyang.
There will also be more direct methods of extortion. In the short-lived 2015 agreement after North Korean troops planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers, the South agreed to stop loudspeaker propaganda announcements along the DMZ, and to work toward “dialogue” and “cooperation.” These are not bad things in themselves, of course, except for the troubling circumstances. Pyongyang had walked away believing that it had won a financial payoff from talks that began with an armed and unprovoked attack. At other times, the North has sent assassins to murder its critics in the South, or threatened war to stop activists from launching leaflet balloons — and plenty of South Koreans wanted their government to comply. Television stations and newspapers that broadcast criticism of Pyongyang were hit with cyberattacks in 2013 and directly threatened with artillery strikes in 2012.
Some experts have estimated that North Korea could have road-mobile ICBMs by 2018, or perhaps 2020. At some point in the not-too-distant future, it may also have submarine-launched missiles that can hit America’s coasts with nuclear weapons. It may be able to put a nuke on a medium-range missile now. Its reliable and accurate short-range missiles are the greatest direct threat to the South, especially if combined with large volleys of artillery rockets. It’s difficult to see how a missile defense system can protect Seoul from a large number of accurate and reliable short-range missiles flying at lower trajectories. Even if they can’t carry nuclear warheads, those missiles can probably carry chemical and biological weapons.
Pyongyang’s goal, of course, isn’t to use these weapons, except in dramatic demonstrations or shocking-yet-limited skirmishes. Its goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission. As its nuclear capability rises, so will the stakes, and so will Seoul’s temptation to make small sacrifices, one at a time, in the name of peace — by stopping anti-North Korean broadcasts and leaflet launches, by encouraging studios and financial backers to abandon their support for plays or films critical of North Korea, or by launching tax audits of newspapers that print critical editorials. If these suggestions seem fanciful, they shouldn’t. If you’ve read the links I’ve embedded in this post, you already know that similar occurrences took place during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency.
Korea’s extreme-left tide has receded since 2008, but the pendulum will swing back, and voters grow weary of one-party rule. South Korea will hold its next presidential election in 2017. Despite some earlier flirtations with moderation, the recent direction of South Korea’s political left isn’t encouraging. The newly elected leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party is Choo Mi-ae, a disciple of Moon Jae-in, who is himself a disciple of Roh Moo-hyun. In 2003, Roh appointed Choo to serve as his special envoy to the United States on the North Korean nuclear crisis, where she “set out a series of bold proposals for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula and for resolving the international deadlock with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.”
One of Choo’s most prominent policy positions today is a promise to lead her party’s opposition to American’s deployment of THAAD missile defense batteries. She gives every indication that she intends to steer Seoul in a more anti-anti-North Korean direction and return it to policies like Roh Moo-hyun’s. This would mean a sharp left turn for South Korea’s security policies, diplomatic posture, and its enforcement of sanctions against the North. The foreign policy establishments in both Seoul and Washington are universally — and understandably — terrified that the election of Donald Trump would destroy our alliances in Asia, invite Chinese hegemony and North Korean aggression, and destabilize much of the region.
What no one is saying is that the election of Choo Mi-ae could present just as great a danger.
For years, Pyongyang’s sympathizers have demanded that the U.S. sign a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Recently, Pyongyang has raised that demand itself. In reality, North Korea doesn’t really want peace; after all, the perpetuation of conflict with foreign enemies is its raison d’etre, the justification for its oppression and its abysmal standard of living. For the same reason, it doesn’t even want a peace treaty. What Pyongyang really wants is a peace treaty negotiation. It wants the concessions it will demand and get as preconditions to keep the “peace process” moving forward. Above all, it wants to buy time. It needs, if only briefly, the relaxation of sanctions and subversive challenges to its legitimacy while it rushes to complete its nuclear arsenal. With this accomplished, its bargaining power will be greatly enhanced, and U.S. and South Korean options to deter its threats will narrow to a vanishing point.
Would the Clinton administration simply go along with this? I suspect so. In the dozen-plus years I’ve watched Korea policy in Washington, it has never ceased to astound me how much Washington defers to Seoul’s preferred approaches to Pyongyang. A new administration might waste months on policy reviews it should be doing now, and the policy review it should be doing now is premised on the preferences of a lame-duck president in Seoul. Already, we can see the calls for a peace treaty metastasizing from the pro-North Korean fringe into the U.S. foreign policy establishment, through the usual suspects.
U.S. experts and former officials secretly met several times with top North Korean officials this year, and some of them have emerged believing the regime of Kim Jong Un is ready to restart talks about its nuclear program. [….]
“The main thing they are interested in is replacing the current armistice with a peace treaty. In that context, they are willing to talk about denuclearization,” Joel Wit, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-Korea Institute, told me. “They made it fairly clear that they were willing to discuss their nuclear weapons program, that it would be on the table in the context of the peace treaty.”
Wit traveled to Berlin in February with other U.S. experts and met with Ri Yong Ho, who in May was promoted to North Korea’s foreign minister. He said the Pyongyang delegation sent signals that the door was open for resumed negotiations.
Robert Carlin, a former U.S. official and North Korea negotiator, was on the Berlin trip. In July, he wrote an article analyzing a new statement from North Korea in which Pyongyang also talked about denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula as part of a grand bargain with the United States.
Other Americans who have met recently with the North Koreans are skeptical that real signals are being sent or any real opening for negotiations has emerged. Victor Cha, the top Asia official at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, was at the same meetings as Wit and Carlin but came away with the opposite conclusion.
“They don’t seem like they are speaking in a leaning-forward quasi-official capacity,” he said. “They seem to be just spouting talking points.” [Josh Rogin, Washington Post]
It’s not hard to imagine what the North’s opening demands for that peace treaty will look like. It will demand “mutual respect” and an end to all forms of “slander” against its system. Quietly, Seoul will again suppress the criticisms of defectors and activists. Newspapers that “slander” will lose government funding, investors, leases, and tax exemptions. Seoul’s already-considerable internet censorship with tighten, perhaps with friendly technical assistance from China. High-ranking and high-profile defectors from North Korea, already bullied by the far left’s lawfare, will be intimidated out of fleeing to South Korea. Many will choose to take their chances in Pyongyang instead. Seoul will pressure the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights office in Seoul to slow-walk its work and dilute its criticisms of Pyongyang. Seoul’s diplomats would return to abstaining from U.N. resolutions, or quietly lobbying to soften their language.
Pyongyang will demand more aid and “engagement” projects that increasingly amount to transfer payments from South Korean taxpayers to the North Korean elites and military. The demands will grow steadily until the lifestyles of North Korean elites reach parity with South Korea. Instead of leveraging its substantial diplomatic talent toward the enforcement of U.N. sanctions against the North, Seoul would re-initiate “engagement” projects that would refill Pyongyang’s coffers and deprive sanctions of the leverage they would need to disarm Pyongyang.
There will be more demands to suppress South Korea’s capacity to defend itself — an end to military exercises, the cancellation of THAAD and other missile defense systems, and South Korea’s withdrawal from the Proliferation Security Initiative and intelligence sharing agreements. Slowly, its alliances with democratic states will be eroded to nullity. Eventually, Pyongyang will insist that the very existence of an alliance with the United States is an impediment to the peace process. South Koreans would turn from a distant America toward the appeasement of North Korea to guarantee their security, with China as the final adjudicator of its appeals. That will put Seoul on an irreversible course to domination by Pyongyang and Beijing.
The fall of Seoul will not begin with a massive artillery barrage or an armored thrust through Panmunjom. It might begin with a missile attack on an empty mountaintop near Busan, the burst of a single shell at Camp Red Cloud, or an unexplained bombing at Hannam Village, where the families of American soldiers live. World-weary Americans, with their own cities now within range of North Korean submarines, might well decide that an unfriendly, ambivalent South Korea isn’t worth defending. I wouldn’t blame them. We’ll have problems enough of our own once Pyongyang feels no restraint about selling nuclear weapons to any bidder willing to pay the purchase price, and after the global nuclear nonproliferation framework collapses completely.
Once North Korea has an effective nuclear arsenal, it may demonstrate its new capability dramatically, perhaps with a nuclear explosion in the waters off Cheju Island. Then, the North’s attacks — for one pretext or another — will grow bolder. A limited artillery attack might drive thousands of refugees south from Uijongbu and cause a collapse of the real estate market in northern Kyonggi Province. A mine in the Yellow Sea might block a crucial sea lane, or an artillery strike on Incheon Airport might destroy South Korea’s tourist industry and force an evacuation of American civilians. Perhaps North Korean special forces will seize Baekryeong Island, and stage demonstrations by residents welcoming their new “liberators.” Any of these events would trigger capital flight or a market crash, throw South Korea into recession, and leave investors clamoring for appeasement. They would serve the secondary purpose of narrowing the differences between the living standards of the North Korean elites and South Koreans. These things are almost as unthinkable today as the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were in 2009, but none of them will be cause, by itself, to start a nuclear war, especially if South Korea’s next president believes she can negotiate peace.
The fall of Seoul will not end with the crash of tank treads through the Blue House gates, or by renaming Seoul Kim Il-Sung City, but with signatures, handshakes, smiles, clicking shutters, and the praise of editorialists that two warring states “de-escalated tensions pragmatically” by embarking on a “peace process.” The surrender will be too gradual, and the terms too vague, to be recognizable as such. It will have something like the consent of the governed — that is to say, the soon-to-be-ruled — through the assent of elected leaders who will approve a series of easy, lazy decisions to yield to Pyongyang’s calculated confrontations, embarking irreversibly toward the gradual strangulation of free debate, and then, a slow digestion into one-country-two-systems hegemony on Pyongyang’s terms.
It may or may not involve the dismantling of South Korea’s nominally democratic system, but with no opposition press, and with the South Korean people held hostage to nuclear blackmail, it may not have to. The pendulum might even swing back — a little — but it won’t be able to swing very far. Thus ends the “gradually” portion of our program, and thus begins our segue into the “suddenly” portion. The way in which this portion will play out is, naturally, much harder to predict, although the way this story ends should be clear to everyone.
But at the time, they will call it “peace.”