Korean Impressions

I have just returned from Korea, where I spent a few days at a conference in Asan City, a couple of hours south of Seoul. (Full disclosure note: It was sponsored by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, which is part with the constellation of Sun Myung Moon-affiliated organizations. My function was to make the case that peace on the Korean peninsula would be for the U.S. to withdraw its troops on an announced date certain, and soon – a position most of the speakers didn’t agree with for various reasons – for which I was compensated by having my expenses paid, including a long but pleasant flight on Korean Air. I had not been to Korea before and thought I would learn a fair amount. I did, but that doesn’t qualify me as anything like an expert, just a better-informed-than-average journalist. End of caveat.) I return more convinced than ever that war with the North would be extremely foolish, and perhaps a tad more hopeful that it won’t happen.

The parts of the countryside I saw looked green, and on the surface it looked as if South Korea is active and prosperous. The larger cities all seem to have these characteristically narrow and tall – 25-to-30-story – apartment buildings in clusters, sometimes dozens, on the outskirts. For some reason I was struck by the preponderance of blue roofs, and was informed that the Koreans for centuries have been fond of blue and proud of their blue ceramic roof tiles. Asan, according to the tourist guides, has been noted for its hot springs, and the baths and saunas in the basement of our hotel were delightful.

My major interest was political, however. There were panels on other regions but I focused on Korea.


Although various speakers had different approaches, most of those who had some qualifications as experts believed it was important to try to handle the brewing problem with North Korea without military conflict. K.A. Namkung, currently at UC Berkeley’s Center for Korean Studies, who has traveled to North Korea some two dozen times and participated in the meetings New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has held with the North Koreans, says he thinks the Bush administration has a more comprehensive approach to Korea than the Clinton administration did. He thinks the Bush approach really does contemplate military action only as a last-last resort, though he acknowledges that some comments might suggest otherwise.

Dr. Namkung believes there will be multilateral talks among at least four parties (North Korea, South Korea, U.S., China, maybe Japan) soon that will include smaller side negotiations within the overall multilateral "umbrella" talks. There are obstacles to getting them started – who goes first, how to make it look as if everybody is coming from a position of strength, especially those who aren’t, how will face be saved all around – but they shouldn’t delay some talks getting started, perhaps by fall. He suggested it might work better if North-South talks were held separately, outside the multilateral umbrella, but couldn’t predict the exact shape of the eventual conferences.

Winston Churchill once said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Without judging whether he was sincere at the time or whether the maxim always holds, let’s hope it works out that way. I didn’t get a chance to visit the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, but I know that heavily-populated parts of Seoul can be reached by North Korean artillery. They wouldn’t need nukes to wreak mass destruction. Otherwise, however, Kim Jong Il is not in the strong position.

North Korea is a basket case and Kim knows it. You can find all kinds of opinions as to whether his nuke-rattling is designed to secure aid from other countries, an entrée into the world market, a way to get the United States, the 800-pound-gorilla, involved in talks from which he can extract a non-aggression concession, a prelude to a bomb – or is a sign of an unstable personality and a fair amount of ignorance about how the rest of the world really works.

It seems highly unlikely that he would launch a missile at the United States or even at Japan. North Korea hasn’t tested the two-stage delivery system that makes sending a missile to the west coast of the United States at least theoretically possible. Launching without a test would be a high-risk proposition, leading to embarrassment if it didn’t work. But can Kim Jong-Il really think it would "work" in a way that would benefit him in any way? Surely he knows even an unsuccessful launch would wake the sleeping dragon and lead to the U.S. incinerating his country? But even those who have been inside North Korea often and had conversations at high levels don’t seem to have strong insights into the mind of Kim Jong-Il, at least to my way of thinking.


Dr. Yong Soon Yim, dean of the graduate school at Sungkyunkwan University in Korea, did offer a reasonably nuanced presentation on the North’s possible motivations in stirring the geopolitical pot. The first, second and third priority of the regime, he said, is regime survival. This is true of almost any political regime, of course, but the North Korean regime, for reasons that may or may not be entirely valid, feels more insecurity than most. It believes it might well have lost power during the 1950-53 war if China had not entered the conflict, and that the United States has never given up hope of ousting it. George Bush’s statements and comments to date haven’t exactly reduced this sense of paranoia.

The North also is aware of the huge disparity in economic development between the North and South. I have been using the figure Doug Bandow, author of "Tripwire," has used, that the Gross Domestic Product of the South is about 40 times that of the North, although the South has only about twice the population. Dr. Yim said the GDP disparity was more like 70. The annual income in the North is about $700 and shaky, while in the South it’s $10,000 and rising. When he has spoken to North Korean officials, he says, they insist that the U.S. economic embargo (they call it a "blockade") is a major reason for this disparity. That seems unlikely to me; the main result of an economic embargo is usually to give the regime being "punished" a handy target on which to blame all the results of their own stupid policies to the people they rule. But the officials may actually believe that.

To the North, as to many regimes, it seems as if the best way to get a hearing from the sole superpower is to have nuclear weapons. They see Iraq as an object-lesson in what they had already believed: that countries with nukes get negotiations and countries without them get invaded. They also see a nuclear program as cost-effective, in that it costs less than trying to build up the conventional military even more – more people, more armored vehicles, more artillery, more training, more uniforms, more weapons, more of everything – in an already heavily militarized society, and still ending up with something that looks like a 90-pound weakling compared to what the U.S. can bring to bear.

One thing that frustrates the North is that with international communism dead they no longer have the opportunity to play the Soviet Union and Red China off against one another and reap goodies from both. They also think, however, that the South has more to lose and will pay almost anything to avoid an attack. That might be almost true. The South Korean regime no longer speaks of the "sunshine" policy between north and south (family visits, slightly more open communications, some investment in the North) but speaks of "unification."

Nobody thinks that will happen in the next decade or three – South Korean political scientists and economists have studied German reunification and decided it cost West Germany inordinately, so they’d rather pay subsidies than have the Pyongyang regime collapse – but the preference is for a gradual peaceful resolution. I got the strong impression, without the kind of documentation one would want to hang one’s hat on, that a lot more in the way of money and resources has flowed from South to North than has been publicly acknowledged.


I picked up a lot more information of varying degrees of reliability, and I’ll have more to report next week. But let me close with a quick reaction to yesterday’s events in Liberia.

If policy were based on cold calculations and logic, the forced evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia would probably delay the insertion of any significant American military force into Liberia indefinitely. There is no "peace" to be "kept," as recent violence confirms, and the U.S. strategic interest in the country as close to nil. (Some letter-writers have suggested an oil-production angle, and that might be possible, but I haven’t investigated enough myself to have a solid opinion.)

But policy is seldom based on cold calculation and logic. It might be that the recent violence will hasten the insertion of U.S. troops. Let’s hope not.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).