Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Some reading material on North and South Korea

Last week Newsweek published an article by B.R. Myers titled "Planet Pyongyang" (seen via the Marmot's Hole). I found this interesting:
During much of his father’s reign the obsession with unification exerted a mildly moderating influence. Being poor and weak, yet popular with the South Korean left, the North figured it could better achieve its goal through pan-nationalist propaganda and subversion than through naked intimidation. Things have changed dramatically in the past five or six years. It isn’t just that the nuclear program has taken such a big step forward. Pyongyang’s ally is now so obviously in the ascendant, Seoul’s so obviously on the decline; Washington’s growing deference to Beijing is no secret to anyone in North Korea. At the same time, the South Korean electorate has aged into a more conservative demographic than it has been since the 1970s. The second successive election of a pro-American president was a bitter disappointment for Pyongyang.

This could well explain certain changes in the North’s invective. Last year the death threats were mainly leveled against the then-South Korean president himself. His successor, Park Geun-hye, has been getting off lightly in comparison, for lexical more than political reasons. It is one thing to say, “Tear the rat bastard apart!”—a favorite slogan on last year’s grisly posters—but with female-specific curse words it becomes too harsh even by the North’s standards. This restraint is more than made up for with blanket threats directed in the same breath at Seoul and Washington, as if they were equally hostile territory. The party daily talked in March of leaving “no bastard alive to sign the surrender.” (Imagine, by the way, the U.S.S.R. or East Germany talking like that.) It goes without saying that we need not take all this rhetoric at face value, but the North Koreans are dead serious about wanting to intimidate the enemy state into submission.
Reading that last sentence, I'm reminded of Tom Coyner's article in the Joongang Ilbo about economic warfare involved in North Korea's recent provocations (via ROK Drop):
From the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War, the North has relied upon asymmetric tactics. With the recent change of engagement rules by the South to immediately respond militarily to North Korean attacks, we have anticipated some other kind of provocation. We now are witnessing a new class of warfare via the media.
I recently came across this fascinating interview with Myers on the Korea Realtime Wall Street Journal blog from late last year, in which he discusses the lack of state patriotism in South Korea (as opposed to identifying with the 'nation' or 'race') as opposed to a strong sense of patriotism in the North. I heard a talk he gave on the topic a year and a half ago, and it's clear he's been developing his ideas on it:
Well, people tend to overlook the fact that North Korea’s economy collapsed at about the same time as South Koreans lost faith in their own state. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time when South Koreans were questioning the very legitimacy of their republic. People who had grown up under the right-wing dictatorships were learning just how horrible they had been. They were also learning that North Korea was not as bad as it had been made out to be. It was not, for example, the lackey of the Soviet Union that Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-wan had portrayed it as being. [...]

Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea in 1950 because he believed South Koreans weren’t going to fight. He kept his troops in Seoul for three days because he thought the South Korean masses would rise up and do the rest of the job for him. And he kept lapsing back into this way of thinking. He wanted the East Bloc to green light another invasion in the 1960s and another in 1975, even though the U.S. had nuclear weapons on the peninsula back then.

The South Koreans don’t seem to realize this. I think if there had been mass candlelight demonstrations in the weeks after the Cheonan sinking, the attack on Yeonpyeong-do wouldn’t have happened. The North Korean regime is keenly sensitive to South Korean public opinion and does not want to alienate it. It now feels that by acting up, it can help the South Korean left to do well in the elections. The election held after the Cheonan sinking and the one held after the Yeonpyeong attack both resulted in massive victories for the South Korean left. You could say there were other issues at stake there, but the North Koreans don’t know that.
I thought this part of the second half of the interview was worth posting:
WSJ: It’s pretty difficult for foreigners to talk about the difference between nationalist-based ideology and an economic or political one with South Koreans, isn’t it?

Mr. Myers: As an American, of course, I have no right to tell the South Koreans to do anything. My quibble is with my own country. Why do we treat these South Korean nationalist frenzies, which happen every two years or so, as if they were natural disasters that we just have to sit out? [...] The U.S. needs to say to the South Korean people, “Our mission on the peninsula is not to protect moderate nationalists from radical nationalists. That is too unstable and dangerous a position for us to be in. We’re not allied with half of a race, we’re allied with a republic. If you’re not interested in defending it, how can we tell our own troops to lay their lives on the line?” If South Korea’s main enemy is considered to be free and democratic Japan, and not the dictatorship in the North that has attacked South Korea twice in the last few years, I really don’t see much hope.
Another lengthy interview with Brian Myers (here and here, also translated into Korean) can be found here, but I'll save a closer look at one particular sentence in it for tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with Myers' arguments is - and your arguments based on them - is, that they rest on a more stable set of historical facts that are far more useful than getting stuck in the mud of cultural and ethnic interpretations. Not only do we know from documents about Kim Il-sung's preparations for war in 1949-50, but now we know that the division of the peninsula resulted the Yalta negotiations between Stalin and FDR. In short Korea is divided because the U.S. had not yet developed the atomic bomb, did not want to allow Japan to surrender without anything less than the "unconditional" terms the US demanded since the Civil War, and did not believe American public opinion would tolerate any more casualties than they had endured in the run up to the conjectured invasion of the home islands. So, when the US and Soviets were allies, and its president beleived he could deal with its dictator, the incredibly powerful Red Army was useful. But when the US thought it had the Bomb, the Soviets, after destroying japan's best army in Manchuria and racing southward as a loyal ally with their own geopolitical ambitions, were suddenly a threat to American interests. A divided Korea is the result of American lack of confidence in its own interests and people, and shifting diplomatic policies. The resulting client states now have their own competing/overlapping institutional legacies.

The Koreas' cultural and ethnic peccadilloes are as irrelevant now as they were in the mid-1940s. The US made a mistake and the entire region has suffered. The onus is on Washington to end this geostrategic mess.