Korea: The Politics of the Peninsula

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For Kim Jong-Il, to think that we can just give him carrots and be generous and he will change is a bit like trying to cure pneumonia with cough drops and vitamins. The intention might be earnest, but the application is misplaced. Nuclear weapons are the key to his long-term survival, and for his children as well.

Sung-Yoon Lee
north_korea

Looking north across the DMZ [buck82 / Flickr]

A casual American observer would have noticed something interesting in the chorus of responses to North Korea’s glaring rocket tests on July 4th: Washington and Tokyo are defiant, pushing for sanctions from the Security Council. Moscow is quietly “disappointed,” but opposes sanctions. So does Beijing, which is publicly conciliatory, maintaining that China and North Korea are still “friendly neighbors.” But it’s South Korea — the 11th biggest economy in the world, the once-surging and still impressive “miracle,” the vibrant democracy that has lived under constant threat from their cousins to the north for 65 years — that gave the most muted response.

That’s because while our mental images of North Korea start with soldiers marching in Pyongyang and end with men in lab coats in underground bunkers (perhaps with starving peasants fleshing out the picture), the South has been steadily following its path of Sunshine Policy since 1998. With the ultimate goal of reunification — not today, the theory goes, but at some point — the South has been sending food, fertilizer, and loans, and last year made up about a third of North Korea’s total trade. (To put that last number in perspective: the $1 billion in trade, 33% of the North’s total, was only .4% of the South’s.) And the recent missile tests haven’t yet lead to a serious change in public opinion.

What would it take? Could any amount of North Korean saber-rattling — or any ratcheted-up American response — cast some shade on the Sunshine Policy? Is it too early to tell if the Sunshine Policy is the right policy, or are we about to see the closing of the opening?

And, finally, what about reunification itself? Can we begin to imagine not just what it would take to happen, but what it would actually be like?

Sung-Yoon Lee

Research associate, Korea Institute, Harvard University

David Kang

Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth College

Adjunct Associate Professor, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College

Balbina Hwang

Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation

Extra Credit Reading

Gary Feuerberg, Can North Korea be Trusted? An interview with Sung-Yoon Lee, The Epoch Times, June 19, 2006.

Balbina Y. Hwang, A North Korean Missile Test: Implications for the U.S. and the Region, The Heritage Foundation, June 20, 2006.

Brian Lee, Seoul ponders limit on aid to the North, JoongAng Daily, July 7, 2006.

Oranckay, NK just lost its own game of strip poker, oranckay, July 5th, 2006.

Barry Briggs, Why Have They Launched?, North Korea zone, July 6, 2006.

Inter-Korean talks to go on as scheduled, The Korea Herald, July 7, 2006.

Timothy Savage, North Korea’s Giant Firecracker (or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Taepodong), Ohmy News, July 7, 2006.

David E. Sanger, Few Good Choices in North Korean Standoff, The New York Times, July 6, 2006.

Jodi, Overheard about North Korea, also “Please Take My Son”, The Asia Pages, July 6, 2006.

Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Basic Books, September 2002.

Related Content


  • lawhawk

    I think the one thing we should take away from the latest out of North Korea is that we cannot underestimate L’il Kim’s ability to surprise. Did anyone expect his missiles to fizzle? To the contrary, most folks expected him to be successful – including him.

    That’s why his minions were so quick to launch off a bunch of other rockets, as though sending up a bunch of the shorter range missiles would hide the fact that

    North Korea’s long range missile ended up like Bantha fodder at the bottom of the Sea of Japan. Maybe they were hoping that L’il Kim wouldn’t notice either – and send off the scientists for a bit of reeducation in the North Korean paradise (aka the gulag archipelago).

    Going forward, the North will still try to provoke a response from the rest of the world, hoping that they’ll be taken seriously. And if we underestimate the threat, we do so at our own risk. We must honor the threat.

  • loki

    Let’s send Little Kim-just out of Jail-to Korea. She should shake things up!

  • maotalk

    Bravo North Korea: Scare the biggest bully and the rest of them will show you some respect. Pyongyang has every right to test missles any time it wants as long as it delivers all necessary maritime warnings. If Uncle Sam wants to undermine Kim Jong Il, Bush should fly into the North Korean capitol, Nixon style and bring a plane-load of free-market hustlers: McDonalds, Burger King, Pepsi, KFC, GM, Ford and Bloomingdales. Shut up with the anti-North Korean propaganda–Comrade Kim is not a threat!

  • Ben

    We seem to only hear about the antics of Kim Jong-il and the party regulars. Is North Korea changing in any way generationally like China? Would or could the people ever revolt or engage a coup? Is there any viable dissent?

  • Old Nick

    I heard the Prez say on the radio today (in paraphrase): “We expect North Korea to follow international law.”

    Uh, excuse Mr. President, but the world would really like it if the United States followed international law. (Never mind Kyoto. Or the treaty banning land mines.)

    International Court of Justice, anyone?

    IRAQ???

  • graydaddy

    While there is not much good to be said about Kim Jong-il’s little slave camp of human misery, as far as “rogue states” go, what state illegally invaded Iraq and killed 100.000 of its civilians? What state dismisses the Geneva conventions and has a policy of torture approved from the top? The war criminals of the Bush administration (yes, that’s what they are!) are hardly in a position to cast aspersions on North Korea.

  • brosenmass

    N. Korea –

    Like Iraq, but without oil!

    (And thus, without American liberators)

    That’s my next T-shirt. Anyone know any T-shirt makers out there?

  • scribe5

    Old Nick:

    “I heard the Prez say on the radio today (in paraphrase): “We expect North Korea to follow international law.â€?

    Uh, excuse Mr. President, but the world would really like it if the United States followed international law. (Never mind Kyoto. Or the treaty banning land mines.)

    International Court of Justice, anyone?

    IRAQ??? ”

    Cheap shot, buddy.

    The North Korea situation is appalling. Don’t know what we can do about it besides complain.

    How is it that the same people could have ended up with such drastically radically regimes. It boggles the mind to think that two brothers born in 1945 and who are now living on opposites sides of the frontier could end up living in clover or in a gulag for no better reason than the fate of geographical location.

  • scribe – the answer to your question as to why the same people ended up with radically different regimes is the US and the US military.

    And P.S. The Iraq invasion and the subsequent occupation, the interim govt and all the election where millions of people voted were ALL GOVERENED UNDER UN SANCTIONS. Every year since the war the UN passes another resolution authorising all of the activites there. But, why woyld we expect someone who doesn’t even know about the Korean War (which was also authorized by the US, by the way) to know this?

  • raq Resolution Endorses Plan for Transition, Elections, June 8, 2004

    (Text of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546)

    Following is the text of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546, adopted unanimously June 8, which endorses the new interim government of Iraq, allows the multinational force to provide security in partnership with the new government, sets out a leading role for the U.N. in helping the political process over the next year, and calls upon the international community to aid Iraq in its transition:

    http://www.usembassy.it/file2004_06/alia/a4060913.htm

  • scribe5

    “scribe – the answer to your question as to why the same people ended up with radically different regimes is the US and the US military.”

    I know, winston. My question was in part rhetorical meant to highlight the idiocy of condemning US interventions.

    I also believe that the Koran war wasn’t popular, in the early fifties, either among leftists.

    btw: I do resent turning every program into a Bush bashing occasion.

  • Scribe: “btw: I do resent turning every program into a Bush bashing occasion.”

    To be fair, you should also resent turning every programme into glorification of US hegemony.

  • Old Nick

    Scribe5 wrote: “Cheap shot, buddy.�

    You should know, scribe: ‘cheap shots’ seem to be your unfortunate specialty. One per post, it sometimes seems. It does little to help make these threads appealing, re:

    “As regulars, then — the ones we trust to keep this community alive — you should ask yourself in every thread how you can make the conversation more inviting.”

    http://www.radioopensource.org/commenting-guidelines/

    Perhaps you missed my invitation to a private discussion. Click here to spare this thread any further ugliness.

    Back on topic: my ‘cheap shot’ seems representative of other opinions in this thread, at 6:12, 6:29, and 6:58.

    By the way, ROS staff: this was a fine, illuminating show. Thank you.

  • Potter

    Yes- it was a very good show. The guests were excellent. WGBH’s World/BBC had an interview with former Ambassador to South Korea and China, James Lilley worth a listen ( 8 min .)

    http://www.theworld.org/latesteditions/07/20060706.shtml

  • scribe5

    “To be fair, you should also resent turning every programme into glorification of US hegemony.” sidewalker

    “Hegemony,” great ideological term without any definite meaning. Thanks to the grumpy Gramci it’s become the term of choice for those who like to sound profound when they are attacking the west in general and the US in particular.

  • scribe5

    Google Maps directions to Graceland from I-55

    1. Take the US-51 exit 5B to Elvis Presley Blvd South – go 0.2 mi

    2. Bear left onto the Elvis Presley Blvd ramp – go 133 ft

    3. Bear right at Elvis Presley Blvd – go 1.2 mi

    4. Turn left at Dolan Dr – go 0.1 mi

    This comment broke the rules and has been Gracelanded.

  • Old Nick

    Google Maps directions to Graceland from I-55

    1. Take the US-51 exit 5B to Elvis Presley Blvd South – go 0.2 mi

    2. Bear left onto the Elvis Presley Blvd ramp – go 133 ft

    3. Bear right at Elvis Presley Blvd – go 1.2 mi

    4. Turn left at Dolan Dr – go 0.1 mi

    This comment broke the rules and has been Gracelanded.

  • scribe5

    Google Maps directions to Graceland from I-55

    1. Take the US-51 exit 5B to Elvis Presley Blvd South – go 0.2 mi

    2. Bear left onto the Elvis Presley Blvd ramp – go 133 ft

    3. Bear right at Elvis Presley Blvd – go 1.2 mi

    4. Turn left at Dolan Dr – go 0.1 mi

    This comment broke the rules and has been Gracelanded.

  • We’re thinking about doing more shows on this topic, hopefully staying with the South Korean perspective. (We have some e-mails back from Oh My News, for a start.) What threads from last night’s discussion were most interesting to you?

  • Old Nick

    Thank you, sincerely, for the ‘Gracelanding’. (Although I didn’t get a chance to read scribe’s reply.)

    Hopefully, we’ll never need it again! 🙂

    I will happily, with great relief, and immediately, delete the off-site post linked to in my 12:16.

    To David’s question: “What threads from last night’s discussion were most interesting to you?”

    I for one found fascinating the contradiction between the cross-border sense that Koreans are all one people even while the schools try to teach their students that the other population across the 38th parallel is somehow ‘demonic’.

    To put it in a question:

    How do young people on either side of the border view their peers?

    Is it an answerable question, considering that North Korea is the veritable poster-child for the phrase “closed society”?

  • scribe5

    “scribe5 Says:

    July 7th, 2006 at 7:10 am

    Google Maps directions to Graceland from I-55

    1. Take the US-51 exit 5B to Elvis Presley Blvd South – go 0.2 mi

    2. Bear left onto the Elvis Presley Blvd ramp – go 133 ft

    3. Bear right at Elvis Presley Blvd – go 1.2 mi

    4. Turn left at Dolan Dr – go 0.1 mi

    This comment broke the rules and has been Gracelanded.”

    I didn’t post the above.

    I don’t know what is going on here, but I am out of here.

    When you people decide that you want to debate fairly let me know.

  • It would seem like the best topic would be to cover what will happen post currnet NK gpvt. If one uses the former USSR as an anology it is only a matter of time until the current regime is finished – be it 5 or 25 years. And, just like someone who puts off getting help with a health care problem – let’s say dental treatment – the problems only get worse. So, the longer NK hangs around in its death throws the worse the post colapse problems will be.

    What will the world do with 30 million plus, starved, ignorant / misinformed, and many still probably dangerous to themselves as well as outsiders? I don’t see how the SK society / govt could hope to cope. Talk about an “occupation”. The entire country will be unable to govern itself.

  • This could fill an entire show

    7/9/2006

    West mounts ‘secret war’ to keep nuclear North Korea in check

    The python strategy: North Korea in the squeeze

    A PROGRAMME of covert action against nuclear and missile traffic to North Korea and Iran is to be intensified after last week’s missile tests by the North Korean regime.

    Intelligence agencies, navies and air forces from at least 13 nations are quietly co-operating in a “secret war� against Pyongyang and Tehran.

    It has so far involved interceptions of North Korean ships at sea, US agents prowling the waterfronts in Taiwan, multinational naval and air surveillance missions out of Singapore, investigators poring over the books of dubious banks in the former Portuguese colony of Macau and a fleet of planes and ships eavesdropping on the “hermit kingdom� in the waters north of Japan.

    Few details filter out from western officials about the programme, which has operated since 2003, or about the American financial sanctions that accompany it.

    But together they have tightened a noose around Kim Jong-il’s bankrupt, hungry nation.

    “Diplomacy alone has not worked, military action is not on the table and so you’ll see a persistent increase in this kind of pressure,� said a senior western official.

    In a telling example of the programme’s success, two Bush administration officials indicated last year that it had blocked North Korea from obtaining equipment used to make missile propellant.

    The Americans also persuaded China to stop the sale of chemicals for North Korea’s nuclear weapons scientists. And a shipload of “precursor chemicals� for weapons was seized in Taiwan before it could reach a North Korean port.

    The [Japanese] government is already committed to installing defensive Pac-3 Patriot missiles in co-operation with the Americans. But radical opinion in Japan has been fortified by Kim’s adventures.

    “The vast majority of Japanese agree that we need to be able to carry out first strikes,� said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

    “I spoke to Mr Abe earlier this week and he shares my opinion that for Japan, the most important step would be for Japan to have an offensive missile capability.�

    Such talk causes severe concern to Washington, which has sheltered Japan under the umbrella of its nuclear arsenal since forging a security alliance after the second world war.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2261782,00.html

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