On Domination Scenarios — B.R. Myers
In Asia Times this week Andrew Salmon writes:
Ever since 2006, when North Korea first tested a nuclear device, the broad understanding among analysts and observers has been that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal exists to deter an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style attack by nuclear-armed US forces… Of late, cracks have appeared in this long-held belief.
This reminds me of reading in the media in 2013 about how we Pyongyang watchers had all wrongly expected “Swiss-educated” Kim Jong Un to be a reformer, and were bitterly disappointed. In The Cleanest Race (2010) I had predicted a very military-first chip off the old block.
I realize “broad understanding” doesn’t mean “unanimous consensus,” but surely David Maxwell, Nicholas Eberstadt, Daniel Pinkston and I, to name just a few of us, made for a few earlier cracks in the conventional wisdom Salmon describes?
His article induced me to revisit what I’d written on this point. Like the following, from a cover story for Newsweek in 2013:
Especially subversive, now that so many of Kim Jong-un’s subjects have access to outside sources of culture and information, is the South Korean public’s manifest lack of interest in either the personality cult or unification. The regime is right to believe it cannot be secure until the peninsula is unified under its own rule. This is, of course, the “final victory” that Kim Jong-un and his media keep boldly promising the masses.
In 2016 I wrote an article for NK News entitled “Taking North Korea at its Word”:
The nuclear program has already progressed far beyond the stage needed to keep the enemy at bay. The regime hardly needs long-range missiles, or any more nuclear capability than it acquired years ago, to keep using Seoul as the world’s largest human shield.
Isn’t it time, then, that we paid more attention to the DPRK’s own declarations of its intentions? …. The slogan of “autonomous unification” seems harmless to most outsiders, as the regime knows only too well. To the North Koreans themselves, it has always stood for the conquest or subjugation of South Korea.
In February 2017 I said in an interview with Reuters War College:
Those who treat the “axis of evil” remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on [its] developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed.
…. The very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea’s security in the first place.
So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties?
The only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence: the unification of the peninsula.
That year saw journalists finally take notice of this view of things, as I noted in a blog entry:
For a long time there, I seemed to be the only Anglophone Koreanist who kept bringing up unification when discussing the North’s motives….[But] with every new missile launch or nuclear test, a few more people seem to realize that the North is arming too urgently, and at too great a risk to its own security, for such benign explanations to keep making sense. As a result more journalists than usual have been asking me to elaborate on my published views….. I feel safe in saying that this interpretation of North Korea’s motives has finally “arrived.”
How premature I was. Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to create a bandwagon effect. Granted, the old maddening consensus that the regime wanted to develop nukes only in order to trade them away for an aid deal had disappeared by 2017, but the newer trendy ideas were equally wishful, equally far removed from my view: the regime wanted only perfect security from US attack; it wanted to force the normalization of Pyongyang-Washington relations; it wanted a peace treaty; it wanted only to survive, to muddle through; and so on.
If memory serves, Andrei Lankov went in for most of those reassuring lines in turn, making him more popular in Foggy Bottom than yours truly. For a while there the US Embassy in Seoul would invite us in tandem to deliver North Korea briefings to people passing through. In retrospect I think the reason I was always instructed to speak first was so that Andrei could provide the quick economy-centric antidote to my nationalism-centric poison.
“Between us existed from the beginning the antagonism that unites dear friends,” as Yeats said of AE. In a Russian-language article in December 2017 Andrei nutshelled my views in indulgently-dismissive passing — including my assertion of the North’s intent to conquer the South — while expressing doubt about their “relation to reality.”
But I’ll be darned if he didn’t appear in the FT the other day sounding uncannily like — well, you tell me:
“But now [the nuclear program] is clearly overkill from a defensive point of view. They don’t really need intercontinental ballistic missiles and they don’t really need a thermonuclear device. This leads me strongly to suspect that their ultimate dream is to assert their control over South Korea.”
They all come around in the end.
Here’s the thing though: you can’t do justice to the topic of the North’s unification/control/domination drive without also discussing South Korean politics. To talk of the former while ignoring the latter is to convey the very wrong impression that Kim can only get his way through some form of “hot” coercion. Indeed, the FT quotes Andrei as giving the following scenario:
“When the situation is favourable … the North Koreans would provoke a crisis, deploy their ICBMs, and keep the Americans out by forcing them to choose between sacrificing San Francisco or Seoul,” said Lankov. “They could then use their tactical weapons to obliterate the significant conventional superiority of the South Korean forces, and install an ambassador in Seoul with veto power over any South Korean policy they do not like,” he added, likening Kim’s ambitions to Vladimir Putin’s “demilitarisation and denazification” strategy in Ukraine.
I feel bad criticizing soundbites, because I know how much vital and qualifying context they tend to get ripped away from. Let me say it anyway: Kim needn’t go to those lengths to achieve that end. The simple reason is that South Koreans’ attitude toward their state and the would-be hegemon next door couldn’t be less like Ukraine’s.
The longer explanation, which my readers have heard ad nauseam from me already, is that the South can be much less riskily subjugated via confederation, something that North Korea began proposing in 1960, and both states formally pledged to work towards in 2000. The ROK’s Unification Ministry has promoted the concept online and around the country since 2017.
The planners and architects of confederation — like Moon’s mentor Paek Nak-chung — make clear that the main goals are a) the elimination of the American military threat to North Korea and b) the elimination of the ideological threat to the Kim regime posed by the very existence of the South Korean state. Note also the expert consensus that the supra-state body administering the confederation should be located in Kaesong, and consist of equally-sized delegations from the two states. The North’s delegation, I need hardly add, would vote en bloc, enabling it to win every vote with only one supportive vote from the more pluralist side. An easier way to veto power than risking nuclear war, eh? Lankov would no doubt agree, if he didn’t consider the imputation of a confederation drive to the South Korean left a laughable “conspiracy theory.”
Not that the inter-Korean partnership has to be accompanied by any visible institutions or formal procedures. As many here argue, it makes more sense for Seoul and Pyongyang to come together “underwater” until such a time as the masses (and the US) can be safely apprised of the new reality. The Moon years thus saw both flashy displays of nascent partnership — like the construction of the liaison office, touted in the press as the first step to confederation — and “underwater” stuff like the South’s coaching of Kim on how to deal with Trump.
Then the breakdown of US-DPRK dialogue in Hanoi in 2019 forced the Koreas to revert (as they had done in 2002 after the “axis of evil” speech) to outward frostiness. This brings me back to what I call the Fraternization Trap, i.e. the fact that any significant, lasting improvement in inter-Korean relations raises the risk of America thinking it can strike North Korea without incurring the retaliatory destruction of Seoul. It was to keep an increasingly unfriendly Trump administration from doubting the automaticity of such a retaliation that the inter-Korean liaison office had to be blown up in 2020, and Moon subjected to a string of theatrical insults he well understood the reasons for.
The spirit of partnership continued regardless, occasionally making itself plain to the public, as when Kim Yo-jong angrily demanded the passage of a law criminalizing the launch of leaflet balloons into North Korea, and South Korean lawmakers proposed relevant legislation the next day. They did this not because they feared the dictatorship but because they respected it, on nationalist grounds I have explained here at length. No coercion was necessary.
Contrary to what some Westerners may have assumed, the recent election to the presidency of an ostensible conservative — who is in fact an avowed admirer of the two Sunshine presidents, and a former prosecutorial scourge of the anti-North right — portends no reversal of South Korea’s drift into confederation. A slowing down or arrest of it perhaps, until the bumbling Yoon is either impeached or made irrelevant through constitutional revision, but not a reversal. His people have already pledged to abide by the 2018 Moon-Kim military agreement that effectively prevents ROK troops from rehearsing the defense of Seoul.
Lankov and others are free to go on discussing North Korea’s nuke-backed unification/domination drive in isolation from the topic of South Korean politics. They should realize, however, that in doing so they may make Uncle Sam more worried and jittery about the threat of fireworks than is conducive to peace on the peninsula. I’m afraid it does no good for Andrei to add the somewhat contradictory disclaimer, on the apparent basis of nothing more than optimism, that the scenario he describes is “very unlikely.” We Koreanists may be listened to in regard to Kim’s motives, but the man’s ability and readiness to act militarily on them is for experts of a different sort to judge.
In closing let me repeat what I’ve said before: There’s no understanding the one Korea without understanding the other. I hope I don’t have to wait five more years for people to come around to that.