The North Korean dilemma

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Gwynne Dyer

South Korea's De­fense Min­is­ter Kim Tae-young was forced to re­sign af­ter crit­i­cism that he was too slow to re­spond when North Korea at­tacked the is­land of Yeon­pe­ong on Tues­day, killing at least four peo­ple. But what was he sup­posed to do? What can his re­place­ment, for­mer chair­man of the joint chiefs of staff Kim Kwan-jin, do? Not much, re­ally. South Korean ar­tillery fired back, drop­ping eighty shells on North Korean gun po­si­tions along the coast fac­ing Yong­pyeon, so honor has been served. But now North Korea is warn­ing that the joint US-South Korean mil­i­tary ex­er­cises that be­gan just off that coast on Nov. 28 (and in­clude a huge US nu­clear-pow­ered air­craft car­rier) are push­ing the re­gion "to the brink of war."

So what was US De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates sup­posed to do? Can­cel the ex­er­cise (which has been sched­uled for months, and was al­ready post­poned once to al­lay Chi­nese con­cerns)? Launch air strikes against North Korea and risk a wider war, maybe even one in which Py­ongyang tried to use the prim­i­tive nu­clear weapons it claims to pos­sess? Re­sign?

And what is North Korea's Chi­nese ally sup­posed to do? Bei­jing is doubt­less ap­palled by what Py­ongyang is do­ing. A ma­jor war in the re­gion is the very last thing it wants. But China can­not pub­licly con­demn North Korea's ac­tions with­out risk­ing the col­lapse of the Py­ongyang regime, which is the next-to-last thing it wants.

Bei­jing desperately does not want its peo­ple to wit­ness the col­lapse of an­other Com­mu­nist regime: it is still haunted by the events of 1989. It does not want a huge flood of North Korean refugees com­ing across the long fron­tier be­tween the two coun­tries. And it most cer­tainly does not want a uni­fied, demo­cratic Korea as its neigh­bor along that fron­tier. So it mur­murs plat­i­tudes and does noth­ing.

Even South Korea is deeply am­biva­lent about the prospec­tive col­lapse of North Korea. In prin­ci­ple, ev­ery South Korean wants a re­united coun­try, but in prac­tice most of them don't want it quite yet.

I hap­pened to be in Seoul, in­ter­view­ing peo­ple in govern­ment of­fices, on the day in 1994 when the death of the orig­i­nal North Korean dic­ta­tor, Kim Il-sung, was an­nounced. There was panic, un­der­stand­ably, since he had been in power since any­body in those of­fices could re­mem­ber, and they had no idea what was com­ing out of the box next. But one of the things they feared most, they dis­cov­ered, was uni­fi­ca­tion.

I don't think most South Kore­ans had thought it through be­fore that day, but faced with the prospect of 25 mil­lion poverty-stricken North Kore­ans land­ing in their laps, they quickly re­al­ized that this was not go­ing to be good for them. Like good pa­tri­ots, they wanted the bless­ings of re­uni­fi­ca­tion even­tu­ally, but not on their watch.

It was un­der­stand­able. They were the first gen­er­a­tion of South Kore­ans to scram­ble back up to a de­cent stan­dard of liv­ing af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of the Korean War - by 1953, per capita in­come in Korea was lower than in what is now Bangladesh - and they feared that re­uni­fi­ca­tion would knock them back for an­other gen­er­a­tion.

They had watched the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, and they knew that had been very ex­pen­sive. But West Ger­mans out­num­bered East Ger­mans by more than three-to-one, whereas there were only 45 mil­lion South Kore­ans to bear the bur­den of 25 mil­lion North Kore­ans. More­over, West Ger­many was far richer than South Korea, and North Korea was vastly poorer than the old East Ger­many.

South Kore­ans are more used to pros­per­ity now, but the cost of re­uni­fi­ca­tion would still be crip­pling, even if it hap­pened peace­fully. If it in­volved a North Korean at­tack, launched by a mil­i­tary elite who saw their priv­i­leged po­si­tion in so­ci­ety slip­ping away, the level of de­struc­tion would be so great that it would take a gen­er­a­tion to re­pair. So in prac­tice, South Korea also wants the North Korean regime to sur­vive.

In fact, ev­ery­body wants the weird North Korean dic­ta­tor­ship to sur­vive - even the United States, al­though it would never ad­mit it - be­cause the level of un­cer­tainty in East Asia if it fell would be ut­terly ter­ri­fy­ing. That makes it very hard to "pun­ish" the North Korean regime when it be­haves badly.

It wasn't pun­ished for tor­pe­do­ing a South Korean war­ship just to the west of Yon­pyeong Is­land last March (if that is what ac­tu­ally hap­pened: the "in­ter­na­tional panel" that in­ves­ti­gated the in­ci­dent all came from South Korea's al­lies). Nei­ther will it be pun­ished for shelling Yeon­pe­ong Is­land this month.

And it won't even be pun­ished se­verely if, as the North Korean news agency promised, it makes "sec­ond and even third rounds of attacks with­out any hes­i­ta­tion if war­mon­gers in South Korea make reck­less mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions again." Like the cur­rent US-South Korean war games in the Yel­low Sea, for ex­am­ple.

This year's North Korean attacks may be re­lated to a power strug­gle within the mil­i­tary, or they may be a dis­play of de­ter­mi­na­tion by the newly anointed heir to the throne, Kim Jong-un, son of cur­rent leader Kim Jong-il and grand­son of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung. No­body out­side Py­ongyang knows what is driv­ing this pol­icy. But they are avoid­ing mas­sive re­tal­i­a­tion that would make mat­ters worse, and hop­ing that the cra­zies are not in con­trol.

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