What Next For Korea?
December 23, 2011 Leave a comment
The history of Korea doesn’t begin with the Cold War, as many might believe. Its a fascinating part of the world that this blogger likes to keep a close eye on. Korea was a monarchy from at least the 11th Century BCE, until the Japanese assassination of the Korean queen in 1910 and subsequent Japanese occupation. This was a humiliating period in Korean history. Koreans are proud of their country’s historic resistance to foreign occupation and colonialism. It was the first country to use metal warships, and Christianity was fiercely suppressed immediately upon its arrival on the Peninsula’s shores. To this day, Koreans North and South have a special loathing for the Japanese. Japan-bashing is often used to score political points in the South, and its instrumental in state propaganda in the North.
That said, the old Korean royal family are deeply unpopular. The Yi Dynasty ruled Korea for five centuries, but the weakness and infighting in the monarchy is blamed for the Japanese walkover prior to World War I. Unlike Laos, which like North Korea is one of the last outposts of Communism, the overthrown royals have no great support among the people and offer no hope for the future (I happen to be quite passionate about the restoration of the Laotian Monarchy, but that’s for another post). In fact, Yi Seok, the man who would be heir to the Korean throne, made his living as a lounge singer, heavily influenced by Andy Williams and Pat Boone. He spent much of his working life destitute and living in the back of a van, until a few years ago when the Seoul municipal government granted him a house. Today, he gives tours of the former royal residences and happens to be an endearing fellow.
North Korea is the place we are supposed to be seriously worried about when it comes to nukes and WMDs. I am somewhat skeptical about that threat. The North Korean army may be the second largest in the world, but its arsenal is obsolete and the regime probably couldn’t even muster enough fuel for their Soviet era jets in an actual war. I’ve long said nuclear war is far more likely to erupt over the disputed, often overlooked region of Kasmir, where violent clashes are more common than at the famous 38th parallel. The United States has made some lumbering progress towards getting Kim Jong-Il to drop his nuclear weapons program, beginning in the era of Albright and Clinton. However, the process has always seemed to follow a particular pattern: North Korea huffs and puffs and occasionally explodes something, and America steps in with some much-needed cash and supplies to placate them. Then it starts all over again. North Korea has promised to freeze, but not dismantle its nuclear program. As they would, considering the foreign bribes constitute a lifeline. Interestingly, during the 1990s, Donald Rumsfeld was the director of the European engineering company ABB that won the contract to provide light water technology to North Korea. In 2003, he was US Defense Secretary when Bush made his famous ‘Axis of Evil’ speech, which so angered the North it caused a battle in the Yellow Sea. Almost 30,000 American troops are still in the line of fire by the border, however, with many more stationed in Guam and Japan ready to pay a visit at a moments notice. Considering North Korean forces are little match for their southern neighbour alone, the regime of the Kims will never launch a nuke unless they are actually invaded, which is unlikely.
Most South Koreans I know strongly desire reunification, though were the Northern regime to collapse tomorrow its hard to see how South Korea could cope with millions of starving refugees and the prospect of bringing such a devastated country up to speed. Japan and China similarly fear a human flood, as well as the rival a united Korean Peninsula might be. Lets not forget this is a very, very strategic location. The last thing the Chinese want is a united Korea in bed with the United States, with American bases right by the Chinese-Korean border and the highly important industrial region of Manchuria.
The most likely prospect in my opinion is one of Kim Jong-Il’s descendants gradually freeing the economy from state control, stopping the bluster and threats, and developing closer ties with its neighbors and the United States. Kim Jong-Il was the fiercest opponent of capitalism on the world stage. He repeatedly promised to destroy the private markets most North Korean relied on to live. These markets were grudgingly overlooked by the authorities, until a series of fanatical crackdowns and currency reform in 2009 that effectively killed them. This launched a wave of hardship the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1990s famine that killed an estimated two million people. Kim’s four sons have had western educations and traveled widely. Our dear departed elder Kim was a notorious recluse, who wrote about cinema, opera and socialism while rarely leaving his palace. Kim Jong-Nam, his eldest son, was seen as the likely successor until he was arrested trying to visit Disneyland Tokyo on a false passport in 2001. Kim Jong-Chul, the youngest, was the next favorite. A serious effort was made to glorify his mother, a dancer named Ko, who until that point had her existence kept secret. I don’t Know much about the new Kim, Jong-Un, except that he went to a Swiss boarding school and bears the closest resemblance to his father. Like his father, he is said to be a ‘heavy drinker’ who ‘never admits defeat’. Not good signs, I fear.