“If this seems gloomy, it is instructive to note how many other states have wrestled with this dilemma and fared far worse than Korea. As Kenneth Waltz tells us, states are ‘self-regarding units.’ They want domestic and foreign policy autonomy – for whatever purpose: cultural promotion, economic growth, individual liberty, ideological reconstruction, etc. But it is easy to get bullied. A few examples are helpful here. In the late 18th C Poland was partitioned three times – in 1772, 1793, and 1795 – by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. After the 1795 partition, it ceased to exist until 1918. But it was partitioned yet again in 1939 between the Nazis and the Soviets.
Paraguay and Mongolia suffered similar, if less well known, fates. From 1864 to 1870, Paraguay fought its much larger neighbors Brazil and Argentina, as well as Uruguay, in the War of the Triple Alliance. Inevitably the Paraguayans lost and were stripped of 25% of their landmass. After centuries of being kicked back and forth between czarist Russia and imperial China, Mongolia finally threw in its lot with the Soviet Union in the 1920s. It was a less an ally than a protectorate and became a forward staging base for the Red Army during the Sino-Soviet split. Like East Germany, Mongolia might easily have been the center of superpower war with little actual control over its fate and that of its citizens. This did not happen to Korea.
This prompts the question why, or rather why not? Why hasn’t either Korea been absorbed or otherwise bullied into submission since WWII? It happened frequently in Korea’s history before 1945. It has not happened since, and today with rising China on its doorstep, it does not appear to be happening again.
I propose two hypotheses to answer this question. One for each Korea. NK has learned to successfully play its opponents off of each other. NK is the weaker of the two Koreas, and it is the most likely to be subverted – by the USSR in the past, and by China since the early 90s. But it has hung on tenaciously. SK by contrast has recruited an external patron – the United States. The Republic of Korea has leveraged US power to push back on local encroachments quite successfully.
In some ways, the North’s ability to prevent domination is more remarkable than the South’s because the North is so much weaker. Its GDP per capita is low $1700 per annum. Yet NK has never been a proper satellite of either the Soviet Union or China. During the Cold War, Kim Il Sung regularly played the two communist behemoths off against each other for gains. Most spectacularly of course, Kim maneuvered both Stalin and Mao into support for his unification war. Material from the Cold War International History Project shows how wary both Stalin and Mao were. Both feared a major American response, including the use of nuclear weapons. Stalin worried about a distraction when the heart of the conflict was in Europe, and Mao feared that his long-sought, newborn revolution would unravel. So unprepared was the People’s Republic that its some of its ‘volunteers’ were sent into Korea without rifles. They were commanded to pick them up from fallen comrades.
Since the Soviet implosion, Northeast Asian geopolitics would suggest that China overlord NK. It is the last serious ‘friend’ of the regime. Without Chinese trade and aid, NK poverty would be so much worse. If the PRC wanted, the People’s Liberation Army could easily eliminate the Kim Jong Il regime. But this has not happened. And China’s much-touted ‘leverage’ over NK has not prevented its various missile and nuclear weapons tests, nor resulted in meaningful sanctions on food, fuel, and luxury items.
The moral of the story is that the Kims have done a masterful job keeping the other five members of the 6 party talks divided and unsure. The Kims have constantly juggled and separated their opponents, and NK has lived in the geopolitical ‘spaces’ created by all this confusion.
The Southern strategy differs. Rather than zig-zag on its own, the South chose to bandwagon with an external party. SK has acquiesced to an asymmetric patron-client relationship with the United States. But the benefits to the South have clearly outweighed the benefits to the Americans. Indeed, the US is an ideal ally for the South, because it is strong enough to project power to NE Asia and so resist local encroachment on Southern sovereignty. But the US is also too far away to really control Southern internal affairs. To which must be add a deep cultural gap which raises the costs of any US domination of Korea, and US liberal-democratic values, skeptical of imperialist expansionism. In short, the US is big enough to help SK, but geographically and culturally distant enough, and democratic enough, not to dominate it.
So Republic of Korea (ROK) received extensive assistance throughout the 50s, although US officials were unable to dissuade President Rhee from either his import-substitution industrialization plans or his constitutional shenanigans. Under General Park, the US had no role in emerging Korean miracle – the US would hardly have supported the oligopolistic cartelization of the Korean economy that created the chaebol. Nor was the US able to redirect Park’s constitutional misbehavior. In the 1980s, the US leaned on President Chun, but again, it hardly structured the emerging democratic politics of the Republic. It is highly unlikely, for example, that the US would have ‘approved’ the semi-presidential system Korea choose. Even the Kwangju suppression – frequently touted as proof of US domination by scholars like Bruce Cumings – occurred mostly by Korean special forces under local control. And certainly since the 1990s, no one would meaningfully suggest that the US Forces in Korea (USFK) dominate or secretly control the South Korean state. Finally, never in the alliance history did the US pursue anything remotely similar to the cultural genocide committed by Soviets in the Baltics, China in Tibet, or Japan in Korea. If Korea is Americanized, that process is driven by Korean consumer demand and interest in things like rock-and-roll or Hollywood films, not by enforced US cultural imperialism.
These two hypotheses from the Korean case suggest explanations for how a middle power with tough geopolitics can retain its autonomy. Other examples such as Benelux, Switzerland, or Canada would be usefully investigated as comparative cases.”