Another week, another North Korea conference. It amazes me just how much we (in Korean IR) talk about this issue. It is a never ending thrill-ride. And it is not just academics. I meet military, intelligence, even literature and photography experts (deciphering NK propaganda) from the US, SK, and Japan regularly. If you thought the GWoT created a defense-intel-IR gravy train in the the US, try Korea’s never ending circus on what to do about NK. It’s a cottage industry military-industrial-academic complex all of its own. Honestly, I wonder if we’ll all miss NK when she finally goes. Shamelessly, of course, I too am a part of that circus. Part of me understands obviously. The US doesn’t live next to the wackiest, more dangerous state on the planet. But still, I am amazed just how much of my time goes into this issue because of the simple fact of teaching IR in Korea.
So this week, the Korean Institute of Defense Analysis (KIDA) held its conference on what has changed since the sinking of the Cheonan in March. Here is my previous thinking on this. Here is the ROKG final report on it, clearly blaming NK. KIDA is a great institution, with really high-quality material and a super SSCI journal. So off I went to talk about this with the usual suspects of intel, military, diplomacy, academics, and the rest.
So now, 6 months out, tempers have cooled. No one is talking about air-strikes anymore. So what have we learned?
1. We didn’t learn much about NK. We already knew that NK is erratic, prone to savage, but limited outbursts, shamelessly denies everything, and uses external military-intel actions for internal in-fighting purposes. The tree-cutting incident, the cabinet bombing, the KAL bombing, and Cheonan sinking all show these characteristics, as well as the smaller incidents like the sub penetrations or Yellow Sea skirmishes. So yes, the regime may be attributing this to the new boy-king, Kim Jong-Eun,for internal promotion purposes. But while that is important, it is not new. We didn’t see much we haven’t seen before.
2. Regarding the cause, we still don’t really know. I tend to agree that Jong-Eun (Kim III) is being given some accolades to establish him. But the larger structural cause is the steady factionalization common in late-stalinist systems. We saw internal jockeying among elites and interest groups in the USSR in the 80s, and in China in the early 70s. My read of the Cheonan sinking is that it is a message from the NK military to everyone else – the party and civilians in NK, including Kim III, the ROKG and military, the US, etc. – that it is a major, if not the central, actor to be reckoned with in peninsular affairs. There is no deal to be had without the KPA’s approval, and they will shoot up SK facilities every once in awhile to remind us all of that fact.
3. The Cheonan sinking told us more about SK than NK actually:
3a. We learned that SK has a very high threshold for NK pain; ie, that South Koreans don’t care much about NK and just don’t want to hear about it. There was no outburst of popular anger at NK. No call for air or naval strikes, much less war. Like the Chinese insistence that maybe the Cheonan just hit a rock or the Russian notion that it hit a mine, South Koreans too just want to put their head in the sand and not know the truth. Everyone just wanted it to go away as soon as possible. No one wants to recognize that NK did this, because it is so nasty, it screams for retaliation. Consider if Iran sank a US warship in the Gulf, or if Pakistan shot down an Indian jetfighter. The rhetoric would have been sharp and the responses swift. Here, nothing happened. No one, but for the SK military perhaps, wanted a strike-back. So it all just faded to black, and we are back to where we’ve always been – NK asking for aid, rumors about the 6 party-talks again, a focus on nukes, more talk of succession. The Cheonan changed nothing, because SK doesn’t it want it to.
3b. From this minimal willingness to risk escalation, we can conclude that SK has become a status quo power effectively in the peninsula, despite its formal (ie, constitutional) claim to the whole Korean landmass. SK has labored tremendously to build its consumer society-trading state, and it does not want that wrecked by NK. While most observers would say that NK has more to lose in a war – the regime leaders are terrified they will be hanged in the end – South Koreans clearly don’t see it that way. Instead they see their wealthy democracy getting trashed to save poor people they scarcely know, possibly including the use of nukes on their own soil. For this, they are willing to pay this price of a few Cheonans now and then. 6 months ago, most of us would have said something like the Cheonan would be a redline. But here we are over it with little change, so the question arises, just how far can NK go?
3c. We also learned how deep anti-Americanism runs in SK. To the astonishment of just about every mi-guk-in I know in Korea, something like 1/3 of Koreans believe the US sank the ship. And another third or so, think the sinking reveals the incompetence of the Lee administration. This just floors me. It tells me SK is so desperate to avoid escalation, they’ll believe anything. And how the Lee administration could realistically have been expected to defend against something like this is just beyond me. The case for NK blame is so obvious – yet so disruptive to regional stability – just about everyone – the SK public, the Russians, the Chinese – want to pretend otherwise, and NK denials dovetail perfectly.
4. Finally, the Cheonan tells us just how willfully unhelpful China and Russia really are. Russia’s primary foreign policy goal is to be perceived as a great power, because it can only barely claim that status now. Crises which get Russia invited to the top tables of world politics are therefore to be kept going as long as possible. Russia’s interest is the perpetuation of the stalemate, not its resolution. Regarding China, the news is even worse. When forced to choose between the two Koreas, China chose the North (foolishly); China refused to admit that the North sank the ship. This more clearly pushed NK into China’s embrace, making it ever more likely that China will keep the North alive for awhile yet, and that when unification does happen, China’s role will be more intrusive, including perhaps demands for a buffer zone or unified Korea’s finlandization.
Part 2 will discuss possible responses to the sinking.