NBC is reporting that the US is preparing to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises held with South Korea, as part of a bid to placate North Korea. This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.
North Korea, of course, would love to see the US depart the peninsula, and according to BR Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, that is in fact the goal of its nuclear program:
More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.
The concept of unification under North Korea’s control is not as crazy as it sounds. In a fascinating speech from December 2017, Professor Myers explains South Korea’s vulnerability to a Northern-led unification drive:
The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. […]
His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]
Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.
Moon is pushing the idea of a “low-level confederation” between the South and the North, which Kim understands to be a path toward unification of the peninsula – under Pyongyang’s auspices:
Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.
His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.
North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers [Ed: like Steel Rain] that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.
Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.
While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of [Ed: North Korean] aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak [Ed: the South Korean president at the time]. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.
Apparently, I spoke too soon when I speculated that Kim Jong-un may try to reinvent himself as an economic reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping:
Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.
How hard would it be for the North to pacify the South in a unification scenario? Perhaps not very, according to Myers:
I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?
Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves. […]
Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.
Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.
Myers doesn’t spell it out, but the next logical step would, of course, be for the US to cut South Korea loose and let it face the North on its own. The piece should be read in full by anyone remotely interested in Korean politics, but Myers provides the TLDR version in an interview with Slate.
And here’s a great article, dated last October, in the South China Morning Post detailing the growing willingness of many in South Korea to countenance the idea of some sort of unification with the North:
Since April , when Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first inter Korean summit, the Herculean challenge of North Korean denuclearisation has dominated the world’s attention. But on the Korean peninsula, the spotlight has shone with equal intensity on the steps being taken to complete a potentially even more monumental task: reunifying North and South.
In a Gallup Korea opinion poll last month, 84 per cent of South Koreans said they supported unification, the highest proportion since 2004, with most favouring a gradual process over the next 10 years.
“We expect debate about plans for unification to kick off in earnest in the second half of next year,” said Han Sung, a spokesman for the left-leaning civic group People’s Congress for Peace Federation. […]
With inter-Korean relations at their warmest in years, a growing chorus within South Korean politics, academia and civil society has steered discussion towards various models of political integration with the North – ranging from a federation to a union of states – that would mark the first practical steps toward unification.
A North Korean defector warns that a federation would be a Trojan horse for a Northern takeover of the South:
It is no secret that North Korea, which claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, originally conceived of a federation as a way to subjugate the South without the bloodshed of war. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to ever defect to the South, detailed in his 2001 book Sunshine Siding with Darkness Cannot Beat Darkness how Kim Il-sung believed federation would allow the North, united under “one ideology”, to dominate and propagandise the politically divided South.
The US, as well as South Korea, will certainly have some hard choices to make about their alliance in the years ahead. A US withdrawal would be extremely dangerous, as it would invite North Korean aggression. On the other hand, for the US to maintain a massive military commitment to a country that is increasingly aligned with our nuclear-armed adversary, is pretty insane. Something has to give, sooner rather than later.