Last week, I noted that I was drafting an interpretation of the NK shelling of Yeonpyeong island on November 24 for the Korean National Defense University. I am grateful for the many comments on received. My posting this week will represent my full thinking after three weeks of posting and comments and will be submitted for publication early next week. I would appreciate comments and thoughts no later than Monday. Thank you.
2.3. Long-Term/Structural: NK’s Permanent Legitimacy Crisis
NK faces a permanent legitimacy crisis in the wake of communism’s collapse. During the Cold War, Korea’s division could be explained, like Germany’s, by competing visions of economic justice (socialism vs capitalism). And indeed, Kim Il-Sung likely believed in socialism. But the son clearly does not; the Cold War is over; East Germany is gone. North Korean citizens increasingly know this. The post-famine explosion of private trading across the Chinese border has brought new information to the NK citizenry through (illegal) cell phones and SK VHS tapes (after-market resales due to the 1990s global switch to DVD). North Koreans now know that SK is wealthier; that Germany has unified; that USSR is gone. Indeed, the regime no longer speaks of communism or even juche much. So the obvious question for a people with no previous history of division, with substantially worse living conditions than the other national alternative, and ruled by an elite formally committed to unification is why NK cannot go as East Germany did. This existential problem ultimately destroyed East Germany after the Wall opening; its elites could find no answer and simply gave up. In Korea, unification on Southern terms would almost certainly result in a truth-and-reconciliation process given extreme Northern despotism. Post-unification courts would likely imprison or even execute senior KWP, KPA, and Kim family officials. (SK still retains the death penalty, likely for exactly this purpose.) NK elites do not want to go the way of Mussolini, Ceauşescu, or Saddam Hussein.
With communism a dead letter and unification blocked for elite security reasons, the only possible justification for the existence of separate, poorer, unhappier, unhealthier NK is that SK is a revanchist puppet of the imperialist US. NK’s last-ditch, post-communist ideology against the Southern and American ‘aggressors’ is now the ‘military-first’ policy, in which NK is reconceived as a national defense state protecting Korean national integrity. As such tension with SK is existentially required. NK must have a permanent oppositional relationship with the South, otherwise, why does it still exist? This is the structural cause of Sunshine Policy’s failure, despite heroic efforts and good-faith bargaining by SK’s liberal administrations. Normalization is simply impossible for the regime if it is to continue as it is. So even if SK does not provoke the North, then North must do so anyway; ergo, the long list of incidents in point 1 above. Something must justify deprivation, national division, and military privileges to the disconsolate, long-suffering Northern population, and ‘national defense’ incidents like the Cheonan or Yeonpyeong serve this purpose. This is why Yeonpyeong is nothing new and why something like it will happen again; it is in the structure of the regime.
2.4. Permissive: China’s Cost-Benefit Calculus
China continues to calculate that an erratic, nuclearized NK is preferable to unification on Southern terms. A peninsula-wide version of SK is the only realistic unity scenario given NK’s extreme backwardness – decrepit, corrupt NK probably could not even manage the whole peninsula – and SK’s demonstrated unwillingness to sacrifice democracy for unity. China’s continued subsidization for NK’s economy is well-known and has only become more crucial as events like the famines, failed currency reform, UN sanctions, expensive nuclear program, and continued resistance to Chinese-style reforms have effectively devastated the NK economy, all the more ironic for its autarkic claims of juche. (The CIA estimates NK’s GDP at just $42 billion for 24 million people.) China’s refusal to endorse the Security Council reprimand of NK over the Cheonan signaled that when pushed, it will choose North over South.
This opens the door for continued NK intransigence and provocation. Given NK’s extreme asymmetric dependence on China, it is highly unlikely that NK would openly cross its benefactor. One can only speculate what if any Chinese red-line warnings on provocations were given to Kim Jong-Il on his recent trips to Beijing. Yeonpyeong probably did not cross that line, as the Chinese response has been widely regarded as tepid and insufficient.
China is formally committed to Korea unification – ideologically required for its own claims to Taiwan. Yet Chinese scholars openly speak of NK as a buffer, hence instrumentalizing NK to Chinese foreign policy. China fears a ‘southernized’ peninsula – a unified, populous, wealthy, nationalist, democratic, American-allied Republic of Korea on its border. The NK buffer keeps SK and its American and Japanese allies one step further away. NK antics also serve to keep these three Chinese semi-rivals off-balance and confused in northeast Asia. Further, Manchuria contains millions of Korean-Chinese whose potential ethic nationalism China does not wish stirred by emotional, globally-evocative imagery of Korean unity.