I have been busy for the past month, attending a stream of conferences marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. One of them was at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Korea, which prompted me to write this piece, a short version of which was published in the Moscow Times.
Nationalism in the two Koreas
The major unknown in Korean politics is the question of reunification with the North. Kim Jong Il’s death will not substantially alter the prospects for unification – which remains unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Over the past few years tensions in the Korean peninsula have been mounting due to uncertainty over the political transition that was clearly looming in the North, given Kim Jong Il’s failing health and overt steps to groom his son Kim Jong Un as his chosen successor.
Now that Kim Jong Il has died, there are various scenarios that could play out if the leadership transition goes sour. The worst case scenario would be chaos and civil war, possibly leading to Chinese intervention. Dartmouth College academic Jennifer Lind estimates that even a peaceful collapse could require up to 400,000 troops to stabilize North Korea. The best case – a popular uprising leading to unification with the South – seems extremely unlikely.
Repeated efforts by South Korea and the international community to seek a peaceful resolution to the 60 year-old military standoff have been set back by Pyongyang’s erratic behavior, most notably its pursuit of nuclear weapons as the ultimate bargaining chip. Currently the Seoul government has suspended all contacts with the North in the wake of last year’s violence – the March sinking of the naval vessel Cheonan, with the loss of 46 sailors, and the shelling of the Yeonpyong island in November. These acts were seen by some observers as part of an effort to appease military hardliners and bolster Kim Jong Un’s image as someone who could stand up against North Korea’s perceived enemies.
Officials from the Korean National Unification Institute whom I talked to during a visit to Seoul last week confirmed that prospects for unification look grim. The current government of President Myung-bak Lee has lost faith in the prospects for diplomatic overtures to the North, and there will be no fresh initiatives from Seoul until parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
More broadly, a new generation of Koreans has grown up for whom the war is something their grandparents lived through, and who enjoy life in a prosperous democracy. They seem reluctant to shoulder the burdens that unification would entail – from the risk of war to the economic costs of reconstructing the North. It is ironic that South Korea’s incredible success as an industrial powerhouse and technological innovator seems to have made the resolution of the unification issue even less feasible.
Germany’s unification in 1990 in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall had raised hopes that Korea would soon follow suit, but that has not happened. The Pyongyang regime is a home-grown tyranny that shows no sign of throwing in the towel, unlike the East German regime which had no chance of surviving once Moscow signaled that the use of force would not be tolerated. In North Korea of course there is no possibility of an organized resistance from civil society of the sort we saw in East Europe. Nor is it even clear that the people, totally isolated from outside media, are able to see through their indoctrination and develop a desire for change. The regime has abandoned Marxism in favor of an extreme nationalism, the purported goal of which is unification of the peninsula through the military might of the North.
Unification aside, nationalism continues to play a leading role in South Korean politics. Every day there is a headline carrying a nationalism-related theme. The legacy of World War Two and the Cold War weigh heavier on Korea than any other nation. In this part of the world, the Cold War is not over, and there is a real danger that it might turn into a hot war.
This history is embedded in a tense triangular relationship between China, Japan and the Koreas, where historical enmities currently play out in clashes over territorial claims over the surrounding waters.
On December 14 hundreds rallied in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to insist on a formal apology and compensation for the estimated 200,000 Korean women forced into sex slavery during World War Two. The rally attracted headline coverage because it was the 1000th weekly rally since the movement began in 1992. Japan argues that the issue was resolved by the 1965 treaty between the two countries, which included an $800 million compensation payment to Korea in return for waiving any future claims for wartime-related damages.
The same day a shot was fired at the Korean embassy in Beijing – a response to Korean complaints about an incident on December 12 in which a Chinese fisherman stabbed to death a Korean naval officer who had boarded the Chinese vessel, which was fishing in Korean territorial waters.
The continuing presence of 28,000 U.S. troops is a trigger for nationalism-inspired protests from the Left. The most recent demonstrations are protesting the new free-trade agreement with the U.S that was ratified by the South Korean parliament last month.
Given the uncertainty in the North, however, the U.S. presence is seen by many Koreans as a deterrent against full-scale military aggression by Pyongyang. North Korea is a nuclear power, while South Korea is not, so the U.S. nuclear arsenal may well be key to preventing an all-out North Korean attack.