Korean Conundrum: Is There a Way Out?

Initial reports were unequivocal: those crazy North Koreans had once again broken the longstanding ceasefire and attacked the South, this time at Yeonpyeong Island, shelling civilian quarters, and killing two South Korean marines. A few hours later, however, a more nuanced story came out: it seems the South Koreans were conducting military “exercises” near the disputed island, which North Korea claims as its territory, and South Korean ships had opened fire, albeit – they claim – not in the direction of the North Korean mainland. The North Koreans responded by taking it up a few notches, as is their wont, and opening fire on Yeonpyeong.

Yet the headlines in the Western media belied such subtleties: “World Condemns Deadly N. Korean Artillery Attack,” blared CNN, while the War Street Journal declared “US Envoy: N. Korea Initiated Artillery Exchange With S. Korea,” and ABC News dutifully reported President Obama’s “outrage” over the attack. The smoke had barely cleared above Yeonpyeong before Western analysts were coming out with various “explanations” for what was characterized as a burst of unprovoked North Korean “aggression”:

  • The tenuous nature of the North Korean succession, which will install Kim Jong-il’s young son, Jim Jong Un, as the absolute ruler of the Hermit Kingdom.

  • North Korea’s “desperation” and the regime’s nature as an inveterate “aggressor,” according to the Huffington Post.

  • The influence of anonymous “military hard-liners,” who are eager to preserve their own power and maintain North Korea’s “military first” policy.

Yet a simpler explanation is readily apparent: the military exercises, code-named “Hoguk,” involving all four branches of the South Korean armed forces and some 70,000 troops, simulated an attack on North Korea, and were meant to provoke the North Koreans, who responded as might be expected. US troops were supposed to have participated in the exercises, but apparently the Americans thought better of it and pulled back at the last moment – perhaps because they knew a provocation was in the making. (These exercises, by the way, have been bad news for the South Koreans from the beginning, causing a series of accidents and killing six so far, not including the two marines killed on Yeonpyeong.)

Simplicity, however, is not the goal of Western analysts and their South Korean echo chamber: the New York Times dutifully ran a summary of the Western consensus view, aptly titled “From the North, a Pattern of Aggression,” which ascribes the usual succession fears and “insecurities” among the North Korean leadership as the motivation for the attack, and lists a whole series of incidents which are assumed to be similar “provocations.” Chief among these is the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, which the local authorities and the US both accuse the North Koreans of. Yet there is a continuing dispute within South Korea over how the Cheonan was sunk, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“’I couldn’t find the slightest sign of an explosion,’ said Shin Sang-chul, a former shipbuilding executive-turned-investigative journalist. ‘The sailors drowned to death. Their bodies were clean. We didn’t even find dead fish in the sea.’

“Shin, who was appointed to the joint investigative panel by the opposition Democratic Party, inspected the damaged ship with other experts April 30. He was removed from the panel shortly afterward, he says, because he had voiced a contrary opinion: that the Cheonan hit ground in the shallow water off the Korean peninsula and then damaged its hull trying to get off a reef.

“‘It was the equivalent of a simple traffic accident at sea,’ Shin said.

“The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Shin was removed because of ‘limited expertise, a lack of objectivity and scientific logic,’ and that he was ‘intentionally creating public mistrust’ in the investigation.”

Initial reports by the South Koreans stressed “no indication of North Korean involvement,” but they later changed their tune. While the official US-South Korea commission ended up accusing the North Koreans of launching a torpedo from a submarine that had gone undetected – itself an unlikely happenstance – several independent investigations conducted by US scientists contradicted the official report. But of course we didn’t hear much about those independent investigations in the lamestream media.

We also don’t hear much about the historical significance of Yeonpyeong Island, which has witnessed two previous confrontations between the North and the South, one in 1999 and another in 2002. The area has been a bone of contention between the two sides because the armistice, which drew a line of demarcation on land, failed to extend it to this maritime area: the US commander simply drew a line unilaterally, which the North Koreans later rejected.

For the South Koreans to conduct military exercises in this explosive region, never mind firing off rounds, is nothing but a naked provocation of the sort the West routinely ascribes to Pyongyang. In the context of North Korea’s recent revelation that it is increasing its nuclear capacity, the South Korean military maneuvers were meant to elicit a violent response – and succeeded in doing so.

The South Korean provocation is hardly surprising, however, as the administration of right-wing President Lee Myung-Bak has sought to elevate the two prior battles over the island – previously thought of as defeats for the South Koreans – as “victories” to be celebrated nationwide. This kind of thing is, for him, a welcome diversion. Myung-Bak’s presidency has been roiled by massive protests, charges of corruption, and the suspicion that he drove his predecessor to suicide. He’s been called “Korea’s Reagan,” but in reality his economic proposals have been statist boondoggles: massive public works programs that require lots of government subsidies, with corporate “partners” reaping the benefits while taxpayers pay the costs.

In contrast to his predecessor, Lee has taken a hard line toward the North: all aid to the North was cut off after the sinking of the Cheonan, and the nascent financial links between the two Koreas have been severed. We’ve come a long way from the days when Korean reunification seemed like a real possibility.

It seems like a hundred rather than ten years ago that the two Koreas were on the verge of an historic reconciliation. The leaders of a divided nation met for the first time in half a century, and many analysts were confident that Communist leader Kim Jong-il had decided North Korea must avoid complete economic collapse by opting for a “soft landing.” For a while, it looked like the “sunshine policy” of South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was going to succeed in preventing a catastrophic collapse of the Communist regime, a flood of refugees, or even the outbreak of war. The US, however, put the kibosh on that hopeful scenario. That didn’t stop the South Koreans, however: over US opposition, Dae-jung’s heir pursued the sunshine policy with even more vigor, traveling to North Korea and stepping over the physical border – but it was not to be. The liberal ascendancy in South Korean politics was ended, in 2008, by the election of President Lee Myung Bak, whose first act was to abolish the government department set up to facilitate national unification.

The chief obstacle to peace in the Korean peninsula hasn’t been North Korean intransigence, or South Korea’s enmity, but the intervention of the superpowers – China and the US. China, for its part, has been handed the role of North Korea’s duenna, managing its troublesome charge for the convenience of the Western powers. But Beijing has no interest in a reunified Korea, which would pose a threat to its own regional interests and hegemony. And the US has consistently opposed the “sunshine policy,” standing in the way at every turn, insisting on occupying the country with thousands of US troops who are generally resented. Our intervention in Korea is a relic of the cold war, one we seem unwilling to give up.

There is but one solution to the Korean conundrum: the complete withdrawal of US troops, who are being held hostage, in any event, by the prospect of a North Korean nuclear strike. Do we really want to sacrifice some 20,000 American soldiers on the altar of our cold war prerogatives?

Without US interference, the two Koreas would have reunified long ago: we have created an untenable situation which threatens to lunge out of our control at any moment. What is needed is a restoration of the “sunshine policy,” a negotiated end to the Korean war – no, we never signed a peace treaty! – and the withdrawal of US forces. Then and only then will peace blossom on the Korean peninsula.


Of course, if some people have their way, peace will never blossom anywhere: people like the evil nerd Glenn Reynolds, who claims to be a “libertarian” and yet can casually write: “I say nuke ’em!” Genocide is so easy for some people to enthuse over – especially while sitting thousands of miles away in front of a keyboard! “They’ve caused enough trouble,” he babbles, “and it would be a useful lesson for Iran, too.” Why is it always the pencil-necked geeks who turn out to be the most vicious potential mass murderers?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].