Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Korea Are Necessary

December 21st, 2011

By Dan Miller

Although from the same culture, the two Koreas are now very different.

In February of this year, North Korea celebrated the sixty-ninth birthday of Dear (not really) Leader Kim Jong-il. Following the official announcement at noon on December 19th of his death on the morning of December 17th, there were many instant analyses of what might and might not happen. I wrote one at PJ Media suggesting that although a regency for Great Successor Kim Jong-un seemed likely it was simply too soon to make useful predictions.

As noted here, our intelligence sources for North Korea generally stink.

Kim Jong Il reportedly died on a train at 8:30am on Saturday. Guess when American and South Korean officials learned about it? Some 51 hours later, from North Korea’s own media reports. Though we have spy planes and satellites trained on the country, we intercepted no phone calls and observed no hubbub around his train, making the two-day secret yet another North Korea-related intelligence failure, reports the New York Times. “It seems everyone learned about Kim Jong Il’s death after” the press reports, a South Korean lawmaker who leads parliament’s intelligence committee told Reuters. “The US, Japan, and Russia knew after North Korea’s announcement.”

China? Hu knows? At least we are not alone in our lack of reliable intelligence; maybe we could do a bit better at seeing through the cultural and ideological fog. Here, for example, is a video showing Kim Jong-un and others of the Kim establishment viewing Kim Jong-il’s corpse.

Others, members of the proletariat, appear elsewhere in tightly organized demonstrations of grief. As the video commentator notes, at least some of the tears appear to be real. Having inadequate intelligence sources on the ground, we don’t know what may have been real and what may not have been; and, without better insights into Korean culture and the ways that Koreans — particularly North Koreans — commonly behave in such circumstances, we are at a double disadvantage. In their culture, weeping, wailing and falling on the ground are expected on various occasions and can be either real or simulated well enough to give an appearance of real emotion. As noted in the Daily NK, a generally reliable Seoul based publication with substantial access in North Korea,

From inside sources I have heard of the different atmosphere in North Korea compared with the death of Kim Il Sung. They have told me that the people do not show signs of grief in private gatherings. They are saying, “I don’t feel as sad as when Kim Il Sung died.” They say that they would need to feel something to cry, but there is nothing that would make them do so this time around. These are the real, raw feelings of the North Korean people.

For some and perhaps for many, there appears to be relief that Kim Jong-il is gone.

There are some objective facts we probably know with reasonable certainty. For example, North Korea closed her the border with China. According to the Daily NK, orders for the border closure were issued sixteen and one half hours after the death (assuming that it actually occurred at 8:30 on the morning of the 17th) and well before the death was officially announced thirty-four and one half hours after the closure.

An inside military source told Daily NK this morning, “At 1 AM on the night of the 18th a ‘Special Guard’ order was handed down to the unit. All officers who had finished work were recalled to the base and have been on emergency duty ever since.”

“At the time even commanding officers did not know about the contents of the order, and as per the order to completely close the border, normal patrols in groups of two were stepped up to groups of four. We only learned that the General had died from special broadcasts,” the source added.

Thus, it is clear that the North Korean authorities took steps to avert civilian unrest and potential mass defection attempts by shutting down the border and reinforcing patrols prior to announcing Kim’s death.

In addition, the same source reports that

Following on from news of the closure of North Korea’s border with China, Daily NK has learned that armed soldiers have been deployed en masse to the center of the city of Musan.

A source from the border city in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK this lunchtime, “Troops were mobilized from 9 AM this morning and they chased out all the grasshopper traders from the alleyways around the market here. The people, who didn’t know the reason for it, all withdrew to watch and wait.”

Grasshopper traders are those traders who operate in the alleyways outside officially sanctioned markets in North Korea. As reported earlier this afternoon by Daily NK, official markets have been shuttered by the North Korean authorities.

“Now there are armed troops standing guard at four meter intervals downtown, and every available National Security Agency and People’s Safety Ministry agent is out there on guard duty,” the source added.

According to the source, a number of long sirens rang out immediately after the news of Kim Jong Il’s death was reported by state media, and it was after this that troops and the security forces emerged onto the streets and ordered everyone to return to their homes.

“Not even children are allowed to go out,” the source said.

It is not immediately clear why North Korea, rather than China, closed the border so energetically. It might seem, from a North Korean perspective, that the more disenchanted peasants who left the better; fewer to feed and otherwise to worry about later. China probably does not want to be burdened with them. On the other hand, a significant exodus by defectors might have snowballed into an undesirable mass exodus as others came to realize that defecting to China to find better living conditions had become less risky.

North Korea had about twenty years to prepare for Kim Jong-il’s succession when his father, Kim il-Sung, died. Not so in the case of the current succession, for which there was only about one year to prepare; Kim Jong-un was the final but not the first choice. He will have minders and keepers, some immediate family members and others from the military. A list of family members who will likely have the real power is provided here, in Lebanon’s Daily Star. They include Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-il’s brother in law, and Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui who was Kim Jong-il’s sister. She is “the link that ties Jang to the ruling family.” She had been “the person Kim Jong Il had increasingly turned to in recent years for advice and friendship” and was “the most active companion of Kim Jong Il during his frequent field guidance trips, according to the North’s state media.” There are several others and “few observers believe either Jang or his wife will try to push the junior Kim out and grab power for themselves.” They and the members of the military who are expected to share power will likely stick together in supporting continuation of the Kim Regime because it will be in their best interests to do so. So will be maintaining their regency as the real locus of power. However, it remains to be seen who will be the most powerful of the regents. And, as noted here by John Bolton, there can be little certainty.

Under the surface in Pyongyang, the maneuvering has almost certainly already begun. There is no reason whatever to believe that opinion among the military leadership will be unanimous, either to support or oppose the regime’s succession plan. In fact, the early reports are that Kim Jong Il’s death went undisclosed publicly for days, perhaps indicating a power struggle already under way. Many generals may simply not accept that Leader 3.0 is competent or merits their support. …

The prospect of conflict among various military and other [civilian] security forces, which like the Kim family also have everything on the line, is real. Control over the weapons of mass destruction and other key assets (missile launch sites and storage facilities, communications facilities, the loyalty of major military formations such as the artillery, and armor massed near the borders) will be essential. (Insert added)

North Korea does have a truly formidable military arsenal and who will control it is of paramount importance within and outside of North Korea. The United States and other nations are legitimately concerned.

“For the United States, up until today, the North Korea problem was a denuclearization problem,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now it is potentially a loose-nukes problem.” …

“We just don’t know enough about others in the system to say whether there will be ones who will resist this third dynastic succession,” Mr. Cha said.

Meanwhile, the White House has assured us that

it has “no new concerns” about North Korea’s leadership after the death of dictator Kim Jong-il, but a spokesman for President Obama said he is “closely monitoring events.”

“I don’t think we have any additional concerns,” said presidential spokesman Jay Carney. “The issue here isn’t about personalities, it’s about the actions of the government. President Obama has been regularly briefed on the situation.”

Yeah, right. Except that in North Korea it is mainly about personalities, their interplay and how those in and outside the regency will seek to maintain and augment their personal power and statures. That’s the way the government in North Korea operates; to ignore that is to rely instead upon unreality.

Korea’s recent past can help to predict its future.

As a young captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, I had two tours of duty in South Korea between 1967 and 1970. Stationed in Seoul, my duties frequently took me to the Second and Seventh Division – I Corps areas well to the north, to Taegu well to the south and to many points in between. I also traveled widely on my own. Many changes have come to Korea since then.

When I first arrived in Seoul, carts drawn by oxen were common on the main streets, retired Army jeeps were used by the few owners of private cars and buses were often made from retired two and a half ton Army trucks. Charcoal formed into cylindrical bricks was widely used to heat buildings; even government buildings tended to be very chilly during the winter and the air was badly polluted. By the time that I left in 1970, ox drawn carts had become rare in Seoul and charcoal bricks were on the way out. Now, Seoul is quite a modern city with a sophisticated subway system and numerous modern amenities. South Korea’s exports skyrocketed to $363.5 billion by 2009. Her imports in 2009 were $323.1 billion. Her Gross Domestic Product amounted to $1.459 trillion.

In the North, life and death go on much as, and even worse than, in earlier years. The DPRK has relied on handouts since the late 1990s. According to a December 1st article in South Korean Yonhap News, Katharina Zellweger, “who led the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development in Pyongyang for five years until September,” said that this year food rations fell for a while to one hundred and fifty grams per day, only about three hundred and sixty calories. When the Kim Regime’s begging for assistance worked, much of the food went to the North Korean military. After getting what it wanted, the regime consistently reneged on its promises to behave nicely. Life remains rotten for most.

Few automobiles are seen on the streets of Pyongyang and those are often luxury models imported for the use of high government officials. Here’s another video, portraying the pleasant life of an elite family in tightly controlled Pyongyang. They live in a very different world than do their countrymen elsewhere.

Propaganda notwithstanding, the contrasts between the North and the South are stark. While racially and for centuries culturally homogeneous, the cultures of the two Koreas have diverged significantly in recent years. Gross disparity in living conditions, including degrees of freedom and prosperity, have contributed to the divergence but separation for more than sixty years has also been a big factor — many in the South who once cherished recent memories of family members in the North no longer have them. Members of the younger generation have no such memories. According to a recent opinion poll, South Korean enthusiasm for reunification, particularly among those of the younger generation, has declined.

The change is clear both from anecdotal evidence and public opinion polls. In a recent survey conducted by the Peace Research Institute, respondents were asked whether they see North Korea as the same state and North Koreans as their ethnic brethren.

In regard to the first question, 44.1% chose the following response: “In the past North Korea was the same state, but now I am beginning to feel it as a different state.” In regard to ethnic solidarity, a majority (52.9%) said that they still perceive North Koreans as their ethnic brethren, but the second most popular (30.2%) response was: “In the past they were our ethnic brethren, but now I am beginning to feel that they are foreigners.” And an additional 9% said: “North Koreans are as foreign as Chinese.”

Just 15 or 20 years ago, such replies would have been virtually unthinkable. Every good, patriotic Korean, regardless of his/her views on other subjects, was supposed to be an ardent believer in the glory of unification.

The more distant past is also important.

Less recent history may also help to understand the present and increase our chances of guessing correctly about the future. In 1910, Japan essentially annexed all of the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese occupation was quite unpleasant for the Koreans. In 1948, following the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in 1945, the peninsula was divided more or less along the thirty-eighth parallel with the Republic of Korea (ROK) to the south governed from Seoul under the stewardship of the United States and with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north governed from Pyongyang under the stewardship of the USSR. Kim il-Sung, the progenitor of the Kim Dynasty, governed the DPRK until his death in 1994.

We have learned much about how and why the Korean Conflict began. As I wrote here,

Many documents became available during the “global warming” of relations among the United States, the Soviet Union and China. Many if not most have been translated and studied by scholars and they show that North Korea’s Kim il-Sung had wanted to reunify the Korean Peninsula through force since 1948 but that Stalin had resisted until he became convinced that it would work. He then provided substantial military assistance. China’s Mao was not generally consulted during the period leading up to the invasion of the South. He eventually was and agreed to an invasion despite his greater interest in invading Taiwan, which Stalin had pragmatically discouraged. In the end, China bore the brunt, not of the initial invasion but when the United States and South Korean forces retaliated by pushing north into North Korea and reached the Chinese border. …

[When] Kim il-Sung secretly visited Moscow between March 30 and April 25 [of 1948], he assured Stalin that his attack would succeed in three days: there would be an uprising by some two hundred thousand party members and he was convinced that the United States would not intervene. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s January 12, 1950 speech was [additional] persuasive evidence. There, Secretary Acheson had omitted South Korea from a list of nations which the United States would defend if attacked. Stalin gave the go-ahead. (Inserts added)

The North’s invasion of the South began on June 25, 1950 and the U.S. soon intervened; there were no significant popular uprisings although some Communists and their sympathizers in the South tried to foment them. A young South Korean woman I knew who worked in Seoul had been about eight when the conflict broke out. I learned that her father — a disowned member of the cadet branch of a powerful South Korean family — had been one of the North Korean sympathizers who had tried to stir up an insurrection. His motivation had much to do with his hatred, common in Korea, of the Japanese who had dominated the peninsula until the end of World War II. It also had much to do with his ideological bent toward Communism and desire for reunification under Communist control.

Seoul, 1950When the U.S. forces’ surprise amphibious invasion at Inchon on September 15, 1950 succeeded and Seoul reverted to U.S. and South Korean control, a North Korean army lieutenant assisted and accompanied her family in fleeing to the south; perhaps not a good move with U.S. troops still rapidly advancing from the south.

China began to play a major role in the DPRK’s conflict with the South when the U.S., ROK and allied forces under General MacArthur’s United Nations command pushed fleeing DPRK and their allied Russian forces all the way north to the Yalu River on the North Korea-China border. When that happened, Chinese forces entered the fight massively. Aspects of our retreat from the Yalu are well and gruesomely presented in a work of fiction, The Marines of Autumn by James Brady. Our troops generally lacked even winter gear; General MacArthur had vowed that they would be “home for Christmas.” They weren’t and many died.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice was declared with the dividing line between the North and the South again established roughly along the thirty-eighth parallel; a two and one half mile wide buffer zone, the DMZ, was also established. The ROK retained dominion over various islands to the west and east, and they have remained points of contention. The “disputed territories” have been the scenes of military conflict, most recently on November 23, 2010 when DPRK forces shelled Yeonpyeng-do.

What do these events suggest for the future?

As a now very prosperous nation, the ROK has much to lose and very little to gain in the event of another war. The DPRK ruling elite also has much to lose and very little to gain. The other people in the DPRK are already so miserable that they too have little to lose but they also have little if any impact on what may happen. Those in power in the DPRK must be aware of these factors; a black hole for information, far more enters the DPRK for the use of the ruling elite than escapes for the use of others. Even China is probably to a greater extent than she wishes left in a sort of twilight.

It is quite likely that the North will continue to seek concessions from the ROK and her allies, often making promises that she will later withdraw or ignore. That’s pretty much a given. The question is, what can and should we and our remaining allies do about it. On December 20th, an article at National Review Online argued that we should take an aggressive stance and give the DPRK good reasons to fear us — military exercises around the peninsula, surveillance flights over their nuclear sites, freezing of assets and providing

our allies in South Korea all the military capability necessary to defend themselves and strike back at the North should they once again be hit.

Even ignoring the reality that the Obama Administration is probably unwilling and congenitally unable to do that and that the DPRK might well respond with excessively aggressive actions, it seems unlikely that the ROK — with far more to lose than the United States in the event of chemical, biological and/or nuclear attacks from its closest neighbor — would get on board. Why should she? The status quo has been if not pleasant at least tolerable for her and disrupting it could be far worse. True, hopes for peaceful reunification, while fading, remain. However, coming to grips with actual reunification would be very stressful for the ROK, probably more so than was the German reunification. The cost to the South has been estimated to be as high as “$2 trillion to $5 trillion, spread out over 30 years.”

Who would foot such a bill? China is the greatest supporter of the current regime in Pyongyang, with trade, investment and economic assistance worth $3 billion a year. Even if that flow continues, it’s only a fraction of the $67 billion a year needed to equal $2 trillion over 30 years. Japan is willing to pay $10 billion in reparations for having colonized the North in the 20th century, but that too would barely make a dent.

Whatever may be the current prospects for reunification, a war with North Korea would so debilitate both countries that reunification would be economically and otherwise impossible for the foreseeable future.

With the status quo, the ROK has reasonable assurances of a continued U.S. presence. Although some in the South gripe about the U.S. military presence, others realize that it is well worth keeping. The money spent by the U.S. military and military personnel is useful and having us there in the event of (and hopefully by our mere presence to avert) an actual sustained attack from the North is far more valuable. An grim analogy can perhaps be drawn to a discussion in January of 1910 between Britain’s General Wilson and France’s General Foch noted in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. The former asked the latter, “what is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you” in the event of a German attack? General Foch’s rapier-like response was, “a single British soldier — and we will see to it that he is killed.” Having about twenty-eight thousand U.S. troops in South Korea is far more useful for South Korea even than General Foch had imagined for France and, in the event of an attack from the North, many more than one would be killed, only to be replaced by many more.

China appears willing to provide food and other aid for the DPRK and should be encouraged to do so.

Topping the list of possible Chinese objectives is avoiding unrest that could disrupt regional trade and prompt a wave of refugees to cross the 880-mile (1,416- kilometer) border it shares with North Korea. …

A North Korean collapse could jeopardize China’s trade with Japan and South Korea. They are its third- and fourth-biggest trading partners after the European Union and the U.S., with combined two-way trade amounting to $536.8 billion in the first 11 months of the year, or about 10 percent of China’s GDP, according to Chinese customs statistics. …

China is expressing its support for Kim Jong Un to make sure it maintains its influence over the regime in Pyongyang, which is increasingly dependent on China for political and economic support, said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in an e-mail.

The United States and her remaining allies, with different national interests than China, should decline entreaties and promises from the DPRK and should refuse to provide even minimal humanitarian assistance as well as to ameliorate existing sanctions; more of the latter should be imposed. We should maintain and even strengthen at least symbolically our military presence in the ROK, an increasingly important trading partner. Perhaps Japan and the ROK should strengthen their own ties further; it’s time for that and concomitantly to try to diminish the Korean animosities toward Japan lingering from well before World War II. Efforts to do so are being made but should be increased. Modern Japan and South Korea have quite a lot in common.

The Washington Times presented this happy scenario:

The death of North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to settle the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and bring North Korea into the community of nations. …

The challenges of dynastic succession provide the young Mr. Kim a historic opportunity to prove his leadership ability by embarking on a bold new course of openness.

Optimism is great, but if relied upon in the present context it is likely to result in disappointment or worse. The specter of North Korean hostilities, possibly or even probably involving nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, will be with us for the foreseeable future. We must deal with that specter realistically and in our own national best interest, something the Obama Administration has generally been incapable of doing. It is to be hoped that, after 2013, things will be very different and much better.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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