Monday, January 01, 2007
Why Seoul is soft on North Korea
BY B.R. MYERS
December 24, 2006
No country today is as misunderstood as North Korea. Journalists still refer to it as a Stalinist or communist state, when in fact it espouses a race-based nationalism such as the West last confronted during the Pacific War. Pyongyang's propaganda touts the moral superiority of the Korean race, condemns South Korea for allowing miscegenation, and stresses the need to defend the Dear Leader with kyeolsa, or dare-to-die spirit--the Korean version of the Japanese kamikaze slogan kesshi. The six-party talks are therefore less likely to replicate the successes of Cold War détente than the negotiating failures of the 1930s. According to early reports from Beijing, the North Korean delegation appears more confident than ever. It has clearly been emboldened not only by its accession to the nuclear club, but by the awareness that Seoul will continue providing food and financial support no matter what happens.
This support is not meant to expedite unification, which South Koreans are happy to put off indefinitely. Nor has it much to do with concern for starving children; by now everyone knows where the "humanitarian" aid really goes. No, the desire to help North Korea derives in large part from ideological common ground. South Koreans may chuckle at the personality cult, but they generally agree with Pyongyang that Koreans are a pure-blooded race whose innate goodness has made them the perennial victims of rapacious foreign powers. They share the same tendency to regard Koreans as innocent children on the world stage--and to ascribe evil to foreigners alone. Though the North expresses itself more stridently on such matters, there is no clear ideological divide such as the one that separated West and East Germany. Bonn held its nose when conducting Ostpolitik. Seoul pursues its sunshine policy with respect for Pyongyang.
The relationship between the Koreas can therefore be likened to the relationship between a moderate Muslim state such as Turkey and a fundamentalist one like Iran. The South Koreans have compromised their nationalist principles in a quest for wealth and modernity, and while they're glad they did, they feel a nagging sense of moral inferiority to their more orthodox brethren. They often disapprove of the North's actions, but never with indignation, and always with an effort to blame the outside world for having provoked them. (The same is true of moderate Islam's response to fundamentalist terrorism.) To be sure, there was public anger at Kim Jong Il when his nuclear test made stock prices drop in Seoul, but it dissipated the moment the U.S. began talking sanctions. Seoul has since made clear that the nuclear issue will have no significant effect on its sunshine policy. This earns it no goodwill from the North, mind; between soft-liners and hard-liners, sympathy can only go in one direction.
The ideological landscape of the peninsula defeats the reasoning that led to the six-party talks in the first place. North Korea is not a communist country with ideological and sentimental reasons to listen to China and Russia; it is a virulently nationalist state that distrusts all the other parties at the table. And though the rhetoric of a "concerted front" against North Korea has proved to be just that, it has sufficed to heighten South Korea's sense of solidarity with the North. This will continue to mean plenty of aid money for Kim Jong Il with which to build weapons. The U.S. has urged Beijing to bring more pressure to bear on the North. But if America can do nothing with its own ally, it can hardly expect the Chinese to do more with theirs. ◦