WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 (UPI) — From an American perspective, the attitudes of South Korean leaders toward the United States’ current confrontation with North Korea over its defiant nuclear program is filled with ironies and paradoxes.
In other words, the people most immediately threatened by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction see the issue in very different terms from the dominant policy-makers in Washington.
South Korea’s President-elect Roh Moo-hyun put the difference in a nutshell Tuesday. As reported Wednesday in The New York Times, he told reporters: “Success or failure of a U.S. policy towards North Korea isn’t too big a deal to the American people, but it is a life-or-death matter for South Koreans. Therefore, any U.S. move should fully consider South Korea’s opinion.”
The consensus of policy-makers around Roh is that the Bush administration hasn’t done that since taking office nearly two years ago.
Roh’s election victory came as an unwelcome surprise for Bush administration policy-makers. They had made no secret of their support for his far less dovish main opponent, and for the “sunshine” policy of cautiously building ties with the reclusive and paranoid North than his predecessor, outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, pioneered.
Bush administration officials and their supporters in the U.S. media believe that the “sunshine” policy was weak and naive. But South Korean policy-makers argue that it is the armchair hawks in Washington who underestimate the unpredictability and potential dangers of a militant, isolated North Korea that remains armed to the teeth. Both President Kim and President-elect Roh have warned that ending the South’s economic assistance to the North could trigger a ruinous war on the Korean peninsula.
The South’s prime strategic aim has always been to prevent such a war erupting. South Korean leaders and officials know that although the North is an isolated, moribund communist regime that has not even been able to feed its own people for decades, the military dangers it poses are very real.
North Korea has South Korea’s capital city and largest urban center Seoul within range of up to 13,000 artillery guns and launching tubes just north of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. They are certainly armed with many chemical warheads, and the North has even been researching biological weapons for 35 years — far longer than Iraq has.
Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic International Studies even warned in a new report, “It is possible that North Korea has smallpox cultures and it seems likely that it now has dry biological agents, highly lethal micropowders, non-destructive dissemination mechanisms and modern missile warheads.”
Despite these appalling threats, and the proven ruthlessness and unpredictability of the North’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, South Korean leaders believe they know how to win his trust to a cautious degree. Ironically, it is not the unpredictability of the mysterious hidden tyrant in Pyongyang that most concerns them but the unpredictability of the Bush administration in Washington.
The South’s President Kim enjoyed excellent relations with two-term U.S. President Bill Clinton. But Seoul insiders say he quickly felt he was being hung out to dry when President George W. Bush took over in January 2001. When Kim visited Washington in spring 2001, he felt Bush and his White House staff went out of their way to give him the cold shoulder, East Asian diplomatic sources say.
Kim and his inner circle were appalled, these sources said, by such tough U.S. actions as the president naming North Korea along with Iraq and Iran in an “axis of evil” and Bush’s confrontational rhetoric calling on the North’s leaders to tear down the DMZ on his visit to the peninsula.
In contrast to previous Korean governments, Kim abandoned even paying lip service to any goal of seeking to reunite or absorb the North with the South in the foreseeable future. Privately, South Korean policymakers made no secret of their assessment that the South, still in a fragile economic condition following the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, would be in no position to integrate the North for decades, perhaps even generations.
Well-placed South Korean officials and experts, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told UPI that they studied very carefully Germany’s experience of integrating the five states, or “lander” of the former East Germany after the 1989-90 collapse of communism. And they were struck by how disruptive, expensive and exhausting the process was to the West German economy and society.
North Korea, they add, is in infinitely worse state than East Germany ever was, and South Korea lacks the size and prosperous base that West Germany had in dealing with the East.
Therefore, Kim’s “sunshine” policy, now enthusiastically endorsed by President-elect Roh, is seen by Seoul policy-makers of both the new regime and the old as being essential for internal domestic reasons as well as external national security ones.
They cannot afford to absorb the North even if the communist regime there collapsed over night. And they believe that any measures by them or by the United States to threaten, isolate or destabilize the North run the risk of setting off a ruinous and catastrophic war that would certainly kill hundreds of thousands of their people, and possibly even millions.
Nor would either President Kim or President-elect Roh support or approve any preemptive nuclear strike by the United States against North Korea that would kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Bush administration officials have made clear they are not contemplating any such drastic action, but South Korean policymakers believe leaders in Pyongyang may imagine that they do.
This does not mean that South Korea’s leaders believe they should be defenseless against the North. South Korea has a standing army of 683,000 men — not much smaller than the strength of the U.S. Army, and all of it concentrated against the threat from its grim neighbor to the North. But even so, the North far outguns the South.
Today, South Korea, with more than double the population of the isolated, famine-stricken North, has significantly smaller forces mobilized and on reserve status.
As Cordesman noted in his study, the North for all its isolation and misery has more than 1,000 more main battle tanks than the South — 3,500 against 2,410 and no less than 10,400 artillery weapons — more than twice the South’s. And the North has 2,500 multiple rocket launchers. The South has only 200.
If war broke out, in the long run a South Korea backed by the United States would almost certainly totally destroy the armed forces and regime of the North. But the cost in lives and human suffering would be horrendous.
Nevertheless, South Korean policy-makers around Roh, like those close to President Kim before him, are confident that they can deal safely and productively with the North, providing that Bush and his hawks do not drive Pyongyang into a corner, or panic its leaders into a rash and potentially catastrophic adventure. And they insist that their confidence is based strong data, not ignorance or wishful thinking.
For decades, U.S. policy-makers in Washington were contemptuous of South Korean intelligence access and assessments about conditions in the North. But South Korean officials say that since the catastrophic famine swept the North, killing 2 million people only a few years ago, their data and the reliability of the assessments they have been able to make have improved enormously.
Through the 1990s, a significant number of very high-level officials fled the North and shared their observations and experiences with Southern officials. Hundreds of thousands of Northern peasants have also been able to flee into Manchuria in neighboring China where they lead lives of destitution, backbreaking work and squalor that is still preferable to them to starvation and virtual enslavement they escaped. And they have brought out a reservoir of detailed information about life in the North and official attitudes too.
It is, therefore, a remarkable irony that at the start of the 21st century that South Korea’s leaders and senior officials believe they understand and can deal with their historic, deadly enemy to the North far more predictably — given the chance — than with their superpower protector and ally of the last half-century, the United States.
Even if the current tensions with the North are successfully defused, this paradox does not augur well for the U.S.-South Korean partnership in the years ahead.
(The third in a five-part series that looks at the dispute between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Next: Why China protects Pyongyang.)