Who's Provoking Whom in the Koreas?

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POHANG, SOUTH KOREA — “Just let me know if I have to worry,” read
my mother’s email. With her son living in South Korea for close
to fifteen years, we have been through this several times. Whenever
North Korea is in the news, she naturally worries about my safety,
and now that I’ve given her a lovely daughter-in-law and two beautiful
children, her worries have quadrupled.

Since I’ve been here, there have been raids by commandoes, missile
launches, alleged nuclear tests, threats of a “Sea of fire,” two
sea battles, claiming six and forty-six South Korean sailors respectively,
and, most recently the first artillery exchange since the 1953 armistice
that lulled the Korean War, in which four South Koreans, including,
most disturbingly, two civilians, were killed.

When I first got here, I, too was, spooked whenever North Korea
was in the news, but I soon did what any resident of a foreign country
should do; I learned from the locals. I saw that South Koreans didn’t
care. They ignored the news coming from the North. They acted like
the sibling of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome or severe Autism;
while the behavior looked scary to outsiders, they were used to
it. Those of us who’ve been “in country” a few years like to laugh
at the “rookies” who get all jittery and start packing their bags
whenever CNN finds it necessary to show scary pictures of menacing
North Korean soldiers at Panmunjŏm.

So I wrote back to my mother, “You don’t have to worry, Mom.”

I lied.

This time is different. This year, South Koreans are talking about
it. The naval battle on the eve of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup
was ignored. (A traffic accident involving the US military at the
same time, in which two middle school girls tragically died, was
not ignored; there were anti-American demonstrations that
brought hundreds of thousands to the streets, unreported by most
mainstream media in America.) The sinking of the Ch’ŏnan
earlier this year was not ignored, perhaps because the loss of life
was so great. The 46 sailors were properly mourned, and, along with
the anger directed northward, there seemed to be even more conspiracy
analysis in the South regarding their government’s version of the

Things are really different with last month’s shelling of
the disputed Yŏnpyŏngdo Island, perhaps because of the
loss of civilian life and property. My students and colleagues are
talking about this event, bringing it up freely, voicing their concerns
and fears.

I, too, am a bit nervous, but I’m less nervous about what P’yŏngyang
(and Beijing) might intentionally do than what Seoul (and Washington)
might accidentally do.

A day after the November 23rd Yŏnpyŏngdo attack, Justin
Raimondo rightly noted that “the South Koreans were conducting military
‘exercises’ near the disputed island, which North Korea claims as
its territory, and South Korean ships had opened fire,” going on
to suggest that “the military exercises, code-named ‘Hoguk,’ involving
all four branches of the South Korean armed forces and some 70,000
troops, simulated an attack on North Korea, and were meant to provoke
the North Koreans, who responded as might be expected” [Korean
Conundrum: Is There a Way Out?
]. He continued, “US troops were
supposed to have participated in the exercises, but apparently the
Americans thought better of it and pulled back at the last moment
— perhaps because they knew a provocation was in the making” [ibid].

Mr. Raimondo went on to argue, even more pointedly, “For the South
Koreans to conduct military exercises in this explosive region,
never mind firing off rounds, is nothing but a naked provocation
of the sort the West routinely ascribes to Pyongyang. In the context
of North Korea's recent revelation that it is increasing its nuclear
capacity, the South Korean military maneuvers were meant to elicit
a violent response — and succeeded in doing so” [ibid].

A few days later, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said of
the incident, “Launching a military attack on civilians is a crime
against humanity, even during wartime” [South
Korean president takes responsibility for failing to protect country,
signals hardened military stance toward North
]. Of course, he
is about right attacks on civilians being crimes against humanity,
but he said nothing of the irresponsibility of holding war games
so close to an inhabited and disputed island.

Speaking of President Lee, analyst Peter Lee has argued that “significant
North Asian takeaways from the WikiLeaks cables” clearly show that
“South Korea, under President Lee Myung-bak, wants the North to
collapse and to dominate the reunification process” (while “North
Korea is desperate to establish relations with the United States”)
and that “South Korean government officials are indefatigably, crudely
and rather transparently ‘working the refs’ — selectively packaging
and vociferously pushing their arguments — to persuade the United
States to abandon mediation through the People’s Republic of China
(PRC) and/or negotiation with North Korea and instead put South
Korea and its reunification agenda in the diplomatic driver’s seat”
Leader’s designs on Uncle Sam

Since the Yŏnpyŏngdo attack, there have been joint games
with the United States, which sent the U.S.S. George Washington,
against Chinese warnings (not to mention the warnings of George
Washington against “foreign entanglements”). These were followed
by joint war games between the United States and Japan, who has
her own territorial dispute with Russia, leading South Korean journalist
Yi Yong-in to warn that “a ‘three against three’ framework with
South Korea, the United States and Japan on one side and North Korea,
China, and Russia on the other is showing signs of taking shape
once again” and to speak of a “New Cold War” [Cold
War alliances reborn with regional tension

If the danger of a “New Cold War” were not bad enough, there is
the very real danger of a hot war, with South Korea launching its
own live fire war games in dozens of areas around the peninsula
and warning of responding to any North Korean reaction with air
strikes: “The extent of possible South Korean air strikes on the
North is not clear, but anything other than an extremely limited
and localized action is likely to trigger total war,” warned Koreanologist
Gregory Elich, “a war that the U.S. will inevitably be drawn into”
North Korea

The last total war on this peninsula resulted in the deaths of
tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Chinese,
and millions of Koreans. Even a cursory glance at world history
shows how a minor incident can escalate to a total war.

(Of this possibility, fellow Korea resident Andray Abrahamian has
reminded us, “If through an overly aggressive deterrence posture
war breaks out, millions on both sides could die [and] the two generations
of sweat and tears that drove South Korea’s economic growth could
be undone,” rightly concluding that “it is absolutely inappropriate
for foreign Korea-watchers to call for greater aggression in confronting
the North” [Pyongyang
stretches deterrence limits

are those who would argue that with the indisputably tyrannical
nature of North Korea, total war would be “worth it.” Perhaps the
best argument I’ve read recently against such interventionist arguments
comes from James Church, pseudonymous Western intelligence officer
turned mystery novelist, in the second of his great Inspector O
series, Hidden
, which he put into the mouth of his North Korean detective
hero in a retort to a Western spy caught attempting to destabilize
his country:

“This isn’t about you, Inspector, it’s about something bigger.
The future of your country. Your people’s future.”

“You have no idea what you are talking about, do you? You’re
just reciting some crap they handed you at a briefing. My country’s
future? Forgive me, Superintendent, I don’t know anything that
flourishes when it’s washed in blood. Let’s not float away on
visions of the future… What happens here is not yours to worry
about. It’s for us, it’s our business, our future, our fate.”

Yes. Let the Koreans, South and North, decide their future. It’s
not for us to worry about as it’s their business, their future,
their fate. The last thing we Americans need is to get sucked into
another war on this peninsula.

15, 2010

An American
Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send
him mail
] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where
he lectures English at a science and technology university. He blogs
at The Western Confucian.

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