Two Koreas

Posted on May 26, 2010


North Korean at DMZ

A North Korean officer maintains watch at the D.M.Z.

In a status update the other day I announced my perplexity on why in the twenty-first century the civilized world continuously allows itself to be bullied by madmen such as North Korea’s tyrant Kim Jong-Il.

Of course it was only a false perplexity, a phony curiosity donned as a loaded question in hope that the reader would find themselves asking that same question.

In truth, I am already quite convinced that I know why the world’s legitimate governments continue to feed with bitten hands the disobedient and undisciplined child-state of North Korea. I’m not special in knowing this, since I think most Western media outlets and even most brain-dead television pundits would agree with me if I were to parrot Christopher Hitchens’ most recent sentiments in Slate:

The military flags displayed at both ends of the Panmunjom strip are testimony to the fact of a cease-fire line, because the Korean War never ended. This is at best an armistice. And we are regularly reminded that the Korean peninsula could explode into a full-scale war or, rather, resumption of war, at any moment. The most recent reminder was the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, in March. After a very detailed and protracted investigation of this incident, it was announced last week that the warship had been hit by a North Korean torpedo. Everybody already knew this, so the only real question was why the unavoidable finding had taken so long.

The answer is not hard to discover. So volatile and unpredictable and hysterical has the North Korean regime become that it was believed in some quarters that even the finding might trigger a fresh escalation—an escalation that might pass the nuclear threshold before anyone could draw breath. Richard Nixon used to ask his sick and compliant operative Henry Kissinger to imply to the Russians and Chinese that he might be such a touchy president that he was capable of anything—this loopy strategy became known in policy circles as “the madman theory of war.” In the case of Kim Jong-il, nobody has any difficulty believing that he is delusional and worse, so the blackmail keeps on working.

North Korea is thought to have enough purely conventional weapons to destroy South Korea’s capital, Seoul, which is located very close to the cease-fire line or “border.” It has also built a series of dams, which, if opened or blown, could flood and drown a good part of South Korea. (A recent apparently accidental such flood, on a smallish scale, at least served to remind the South Koreans what the stakes were.) So this is the way we live now: conditioned by the awareness that no North Korean provocation, however egregious, can be confronted, lest it furnish the occasion or pretext for something truly barbarous and insane.

The Cheonan sinking might not be getting as much press/airtime as the Deepwater Horizon Spill is right now, but it’s still generating enough of a buzz to warrant frequent front-page updates on The New York Times.

I know my fellow Americans might not be so concerned about what happens on the other side of the world, but my cheerfully-ignorant comrades, consider what would happen if aggression on the peninsula escalated to the point where the only world power loony enough to go to war against superior forces would indeed do so: the massive loss of life would unwind in a cycle orchestrated by our modern alliance system; the predictably paranoid North would attack the South which would prompt an attack from the Japanese which would prompt an attack from the Chinese which would prompt an invasion by the U.S. which would completely destroy any advancements made in U.S.-Iran foreign relations and dialogue.

My point is that culturally my brain-dead compatriots tend to underestimate the impact that the domino effect has in international politics, and that is why it is crucial that we pay the Korean situation the attention it deserves.

Now that I’ve scared the reader into giving up their attention, what exactly happened to the ROKS Cheonan, and why is it important? On March 26, 2010 the South Korean naval vessel went down into the sea; subsequent rescue efforts managed to save fifty-eight of the hundred-and-four people onboard while the other forty-six perished. As it was going down, the ship’s captain radioed “We are being attacked by the enemy.”

Frankly, the fact that the international investigation’s findings point the finger at North Korea is no surprise, as Hitchens commented. As he continued to point out, what we can draw from the relative complacence of what I like to call the “non-asshole” countries of the world is a rather assholish response of complacence in the face of outright and unapologetic belligerence. We (supposedly civilized, freedom-loving people) have to this point contented ourselves in the name of diplomacy to idly comply with and tend to the demands of a tantrum-throwing paranoid midget, allowing ourselves to be blackmailed by the (probably empty) threat of nuclear aggression.

Our past has its own skeletal closets of appeasement. The diplomacy that emerged out of post-WWI anti-war mentality allowed for opportunists like Adolf Hitler to abuse the trust, faith, and good-will of pacifist nations to bide his time and eventually enabled him to damn-near conquer all of Europe. It is not wholly unreasonable to suggest therefore that the similar appeasements of the modern era, like say the dropping of food and medical supplies to North Korea in exchange for some half-hearted promise of nonaggression which it has consistently failed to show, might inevitably amount to the free world giving the rebellious, spoiled, undeserving, and ill-equipped teenager known as North Korea the keys to a new Porsche in spite of common sense dictating that perhaps it’s time to put our foot down and assert some discipline rather than to continue to reward bad behavior.

Unfortunately the world is a very complicated place and the situation is not as simple as it seems; for example, when I mentioned “alliance systems” I am of course alluding to the formal agreements between nation-states in which a nation entering war demanded and in fact legally bound its allies to support it. Were we still living in the pre-WWII era, the response from South Korea & Co. would have likely amounted to a full-scale allied invasion of the North, with the situation resolving itself once Kim and his buddies have experienced sufficient ass-kickage. That epoch is no more, however, and with the introduction of both nuclear weaponry and hyper-advanced communications into the scene, the waters of war and peace grow murky and diluted. Remember that the United States had no real interest in European affairs in the early 20th century until the terror hit home directly; it was the torpedoing of U.S. passenger ships by German military that pissed us off enough to enter what the public at the time considered a Eurocentric conflict. Once WWII rolled around, it was again only once our own interests were struck in Pearl Harbor that we felt the need to engage a foreign enemy. Immediately after 9/11, we were dusting off the M-16s and ready for them to “bring it on.” These were all single instances that initiated in their wake a movement above and beyond the scope of the instances themselves. Now, think about what it would be like if your nation experienced several such incidents time and time again for almost sixty years now. Now, imagine that your mentally-dangerous next-door neighbor is the source of your vexation and you can’t fight back because if you do their friends and family will squash you under a dogpile. That is the situation that South Korea must wade through—tiring diplomatic talks in the face of what could very well be the resumption of combat on both poles of the Korean peninsula, when all Lee Myung-bak probably wants to do is punch Dear Leader in the rittre ronery mouth. But as I said the times are as they are and the fact that one fell-swoop of a button press could end the world as we know it means that tired peace talks and continued international bickering and anxiety is a better option than anything that could be called a simple solution.

The Cheonan‘s tale did not end with the vessel’s loss— as soon as the first domino (the initial sinking) collided with the second (the investigation’s findings), the rest too would begin to fall:  South Korea instituted a trade embargo against the North, the North retaliated by cutting off all communications and prohibiting any South Koreans from entering for any reason, South Korea resumed psychological warfare propaganda broadcasts against the North, and before we knew it on May 24th we learned that the prior week Kim Jong-il had been preparing his forces for combat. Two months was all that was required for any progress made toward Korean reunification to be hastily set back twenty years.

The South’s “Sunshine Policy” has failed. There will be no sunshine for Korea, not for any determinable amount of time. And how in the world could we really expect otherwise?

The Korean Peninsula @ Night

Hey, I think I can see Kim Jong-Il's house from here!

North Korea, in the years since the 1953 armistice (sort of) ended the Korean War, has devolved from a socialist satellite state to a totalitarian military dictatorship to a tyrannical theocratic cult whose primary tenets can be summarized as the unending worship and praise of Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung. In that same window of history, South Korea ballooned from an arguably fascist counterrevolutionary government to a capitalist puppet state to an independently wealthy democratic republic. Even if the two countries weren’t sharing a border and constantly at each others necks for the greater part of the last century, they would still probably hate each other.

What we’re looking at is to us outsiders axiomatically two Koreas as separate from one another as they can be.

The situation, once again, is often more muddy and clouded than we imagine, because that’s not how they see it. It is the Korean culture’s emphasis on homogeneity that keeps them together, and incidentally a factor in preventing full-scale total war that could tear the peninsula completely apart. After the Cheonan investigation outed their involvement, the Korean Central News Agency (North Korea’s state news agency) responded:

Though the sunken large ship belongs to the south side, we have so far regarded the accident as a regretful accident that should not happen in the light of the fact that many missing persons and most of rescued members of the crew are fellow countrymen forced to live a tiresome life in the puppet army.

Based on the public executions, famine and starvation, censorship, torture, imprisonment, forced labor, and the various other subversions routinely committed by North Korea against its own people, that it considers forces from its historic enemy to be “fellow countrymen” is not too terribly surprising, since we know already that given the chance the South Koreans would likely be given equal brutalization from their northern brethren. In that light I can see how they would be telling the truth.

South Korea, by comparison, is host to an unknown number of North Korean expatriates and refugees, and along with most of the world acknowledges the plight of its enslaved denizens. Many North and South Koreans are brought together by family ties; ties that were severed by the 38th parallel. Some have since been reunited, but countless others remain amputated from one another—it is this light that makes the North and South one in the same to the Republic of Korea.

Despite everything that the North has done to them, in many ways the South admires the North as being, if anything, even more Korean than they are, more innately Korean due to their perceived racial purity. One of the few outsiders to have visited the DPRK, Christopher Hitchens again writes in “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs”:

Visiting North Korea some years ago, I was lucky to have a fairly genial “minder” whom I’ll call Mr. Chae. He guided me patiently around the ruined and starving country, explaining things away by means of a sort of denial mechanism and never seeming to lose interest in the gargantuan monuments to the world’s most hysterical and operatic leader-cult. One evening, as we tried to dine on some gristly bits of duck, he mentioned yet another reason why the day should not long be postponed when the whole peninsula was united under the beaming rule of the Dear Leader. The people of South Korea, he pointed out, were becoming mongrelized. They wedded foreigners—even black American soldiers, or so he’d heard to his evident disgust—and were losing their purity and distinction. Not for Mr. Chae the charm of the ethnic mosaic, but rather a rigid and unpolluted uniformity.

I was struck at the time by how matter-of-factly he said this, as if he took it for granted that I would find it uncontroversial. And I did briefly wonder whether this form of totalitarianism, too (because nothing is more “total” than racist nationalism), was part of the pitch made to its subjects by the North Korean state. But I was preoccupied, as are most of the country’s few visitors, by the more imposing and exotic forms of totalitarianism on offer: by the giant mausoleums and parades that seemed to fuse classical Stalinism with a contorted form of the deferential, patriarchal Confucian ethos.

And thus concludes:

But race arrogance and nationalist hysteria are powerful cements for the most odious systems, as Europeans and Americans have good reason to remember. Even in South Korea there are those who feel the Kim Jong-il regime, under which they themselves could not live for a single day, to be somehow more “authentically” Korean.

What can be drawn from these insights is that there is one Korean people separated by two Korean nations. It is nationalism and ideology that divides them, while simultaneously encouraging a spirit of unity and oneness from within their Korean motherland, creating what could be called the “Korea Paradox.” While more diversified or submissive nations would simply accept their differences and continue to quietly govern separately from behind borders, both states persist to insist that the other is not legitimate, and the fires of nationalism continue to keep them at odds, each force imposing what it sees as its superiority over the other. Thus the dirty secret of the two Koreas is that they both want domination more than they want reunification, and it is ironically that mutual desire for one to assimilate the other that unifies them through conflict.

The rest of the world is well aware of this, but the truth is that this doesn’t bother them, and why should it in a world in which nationalist fervor is the norm? To them it’s just business as usual, and that’s why Hillary Clinton has said that the international response to the Cheonan investigation should not be “business as usual” with North Korea. I could not agree more, and perhaps if the world saw two nations of the same people at war as something out of the ordinary, then the international response would involve a swiftness and magnitude that exceeds that of a slug stampede.

Post Script: The greatest tragedy to the Korean peoples, Northern and Southern alike, is not the slow international response, nor the encroaching possibility of total war, nor even the loss of life already incurred during and since the Korean War, but the fact that both factions cling desperately to a vision of the future based on a vision of the past in which the past is the future and Korea is one. In reality, the Korea of old is dead, and all that remains is the splintered soul of a people whose so-cherished culture has been watered down on both sides to the point where, even if the two nations ever do again become one, the agendas of the present regimes are likely to survive longer than the regimes themselves, and it will again, as long as conformity and homogeneity is stressed, lose itself to division, find itself in divisiveness.