Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Life in Korea These Days

By Richard Norman

I was recently pleased to receive a copy of the Canadian embassy’s evacuation procedure for Canadians residing in South Korea. While it assured that the risk of an evacuation is minimal, it informatively detailed how much food and water we should bring with us if we were forced out of our homes and how long we might have to wait while American soldiers aided American citizens before they moved onto the citizens of other countries with whom they have “global agreements.” But inspiring confidence is a tall order for a post-nuclear contingency plan.

The world is still noisily reacting to North Korea’s nuclear test last week; South Korea, however, is relatively calm. Even air raid siren tests this week did not disturb students in English language classes (they quietly continued their adverbs of frequency worksheet). Fifteen or twenty years ago, the response from the South Korean government and its people would have been much more visceral. Indeed, the country might well have been put on war footing. But in the wake of eight years of the Sunshine Policy, a concerted effort by Seoul to engage with the North (and for which Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000), the South Korean perspective on the situation has shifted from one of North Korea versus South Korea to one of Korea versus the World. A plurality of South Koreans, for example, believe that the United States is more responsible for the current crisis than the government (if it can be called that) of Kim Jong-il. (China and Japan also get mentions, albeit quiet ones).

Whoever is “responsible” for the latest crisis, there appears to be no major political groundswell to give up on the Sunshine Policy (though there are divisions over the question). The policy has been looking increasingly rickety in the last few years as a variety of economic incentives, freer trade, and make-nice gestures have done little to thaw North Korea. One South Korean editorial (by no means the majority opinion) summed up the current debate very adroitly:

The [South Korean] government has persistently maintained that South Korea will persuade the North to give up its nuclear programs through dialogue under its leadership. Once Pyongyang scraps its nuclear development programs, it proposed, Seoul will pay it over W1 trillion (approximately US$100 billion) in the form of heavy oil, power transmission and perhaps building a light-water reactor. In the nebulous “comprehensive approach” toward resolution of the nuclear standoff, it may have promised an even larger sum to the North.

Yet North Korea pushed ahead with a nuclear test, regardless, demanding more U.S. carrot without paying any attention to South Korean carrot. Presumably getting the North to abandon its nuclear program now that it has tested a nuclear weapon will be rather more difficult than before that. Insisting on a formula that so signally failed when it was easier now that it is hard, then, is tantamount to giving up on a resolution of the nuclear standoff altogether.

And yet many in Korea see no problem with the status quo. They have been promised reunification, and not even nuclear tests will derail the dream. The happily-named Sunshine Policy has altered both foreign and domestic thinking. South Korean reaction to the North's missile tests in July, for example, was borderline friendly, focusing on Japan's "overreaction" rather than the aggressive act. The public school curriculum in the South has changed in the last ten years: students now consider Koreans north of the border their brothers and sisters, rather than a bloodthirsty Communist enemy. And ordinary citizens see the North's nuclear program a consequence (perhaps even justified) of American pressures and threats, not as a dangerous attempt to ensure the survival of a government that is strangling to death one half of their people.


News today of American criticism of inter-Korean projects is likely to increase feelings that the United States is trying to drive a wedge between the two Koreas.

[cross-posted at fog of war]

The photograph above is of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Il-jong (no relation) shaking hands. From

Monday, October 09, 2006

What does North-Korea's test mean?

By Richard Norman

Much has been made of North Korea’s supposed instability. While no one would deny it is one of the poorest and most unlucky countries on earth, it has been ruled consecutively and with an iron-fist by the Kim family for more than fifty years in a dynastic communist dictatorship. A politically unstable country is roiled by coups, civil wars, or an aggressive, revolutionary opposition. These things do not exist in North Korea, and while it is fashionable to imagine an economic meltdown bringing down the Kim dynasty, the North’s leadership has already shown such massive disregard for the welfare of its citizens that it is becoming possible to imagine Kim contently presiding over a nation of twenty-three million corpses. Kim Jong-il has tight control over the military and all domestic media, and he retains a spectacular cult of personality which has a back-story that is essentially all of Korea’s post-WWII history. And now he has proven to the world he possesses nuclear weapons.

Monday morning, Korean time, North Korea announced it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Immediate international reaction was similar to the reaction last week when North Korea announced it would soon test a nuclear weapon. Japan’s new prime minister called the action, “Absolutely unacceptable,” again, while a Pentagon spokesman was reported as saying, "If there was a test, obviously it would further isolate them from the international community,"
similar in tone to Rumsfeld’s comments on the situation last week.

Though more official reaction will be available in the next few hours, military action on the part of the United States, Japan or South Korea is extremely unlikely considering how little is known about North Korean nuclear capabilities and how much is at stake. The most likely course of action will simply be to sit and wait and worry (also, coincidentally, the unofficial Bush policy on Iran) while trying to drum up support for further UN sanctions.

If this nuclear test does have major military ramification, as it almost certainly does not, what then is its significance? The larger lesson is that if a nation is placed outside of the international system and its regime is made to feel insecure—as North Korea was, as Saddam Hussein was, and as Iran has been—no amount of carrots or sanctions will convince such a regime to stop their pursuit of major deterrents like nuclear weapons. (And if, in the case of Saddam Hussein, the regime is incapable of acquiring such deterrents, then they will bluff until the bitter end). Carrots have not worked. And neither have sticks. The United States may try to remove hostile regimes from the equation, but in today’s world when you invade a country to topple its government you become responsible for the security of its people. And you are tied down while other major powers are free to pursue their conflicting interests.

Clearly there is no easy solution to the problem. The good news, however, is that these “evil” regimes seek to acquire nuclear weapons not to hasten Armageddon but to ensure their own survival. Which indicates, at a minimum, rationality.