The U.S. should ask Seoul to renounce support for the goal of inter-Korean confederation in order to frustrate Pyongyang’s long-term desire to rule over the South, the academic and long-time Korea analyst B.R. Myers said on Tuesday.
North Korea is building nuclear weapons to compel a peaceful withdrawal of U.S. troops, subsequent breakup of the alliance, and eventual DPRK-led unification of the peninsula, Myers said in a Royal Asiatic Society presentation about what he described as Pyongyang’s “unification drive.”
“It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes,” Myers said.
“This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of a confederation, the South’s support for which has long conveyed to the North a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional liberal democratic values.”
But conceding that South Korea would have a right to turn down any such request, Myers said “the U.S. government [would owe] it to the American people to take the next logical step, and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.”
Myers didn’t go on to specify what that step implied.
High-level confidence in the idea that North Korea’s ultimate goal is unification of the peninsula – under its terms – has been growing in recent months.
South Korea’s Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon told the Wall Street Journal in November that nuclear weapons progress had revived Pyongyang’s unification ambitions, while an October-dated Washington policy brief seen by NK News showed the idea to be supported by some parts of the U.S. administration.
But Myers said his view on the matter still receives far from consensus support, with most analysts continuing to believe that Pyongyang’s practical overarching goal – after the full development of nuclear weapons – is to seek a balance of power.
“The problem is that no two countries can be thought equally strong, so long as one is occupying half the other’s territory, as U.S. troops now occupy half of what the North Koreans consider to be DPRK,” he said.
“I get a blank look when I say that because most Anglophones do not distinguish between nationalism and state-ism…the Koreans don’t get them mixed up, but Anglophones have a really hard time telling the two apart.”
Consequently, those analysts who view North Koreans as nationalists, but who don’t subscribe to a goal of DPRK-led unification, “just don’t see the contradiction” of their position.
Looking forward, Myers said it would be difficult to see how North Korea would ever be able to justify its long-term existence adjacent to the South, adding to the logic of needing to pursue unification.
“You’ve got to have a very low opinion of Kim Jong Un to think he now risks nuclear war to maintain the division of the peninsula, the very thing his grandfather fought a conventional war to overcome,” he said.
But Myers said that far from seeking to use force to unify the South, Pyongyang would rather “avoid fighting no matter what,” seeking to pursue a U.S. withdrawal of troops as the first means to eventually taking overall control.
And in that regard, Myers said historians would look back at the current “nuclear crisis” and wonder why observers didn’t see what has been “staring us in the face” for the past 25 years.
“You have a rapidly arming country that is pledging to eliminate a rival state which it invaded in 1950 and attacked twice only seven years ago, and most Western observers still think it can’t be possibly serious [about unification].”
The fact the international community has to date been unable to prevent the North from obtaining nuclear weapons, Myers said, shows that nuclear weapons were “never vital” for its security in the first place.
“If a North Korea without them were as vulnerable as a Libya without them, it would have been bombed by 1998 at the latest,” he said.
And while Pyongyang’s resilience to date may have been supported by decades of “war without war,” Myers said once the nuclear program is fully completed that it will be be difficult to maintain the status quo indefinitely.
“So the guaranteed extension of a peace that is already 64 years old is not something that they are going to feel on their skin, to use a Korean expression,” he said. “They expect a lot more from the nuclear program than that…”
Instead, and because catching up with the South’s economy – something that could boost Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy and long-term viability – is almost impossible, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are therefore intended to support a different kind of strategy.
“Kim Jong Un, then… must ride this nationalist tiger to final victory or be thrown off it…(or)…at the very least, have to accept that nothing less than U.S. troop withdrawal will justify the costs and the risks of the nuclear program.”
Evidence of the seeds for this strategy go back many years, Myers said, first citing captured North Korean spies from the 1990s who warned Kim Il Sung was pursuing a nuclear program primarily to force American troops to leave the peninsula.
Domestically, too, North Korea’s long-declared cause of “final victory” has always “lined up with its behavior,” Myers added, something which put Pyongyang in the “driver’s seat of inter-Korean relations, even if it couldn’t drive as fast as it wanted.”
Consequently, even though the Korean war didn’t go as Kim Il Sung had planned, Pyongyang came out of it “determined to get the job done” with a strategy designed to weaken South Korea from within, and then work for the withdrawal of American troops.
Myers said the way the domestic situation in South Korea has been evolving in recent decades was key to understanding the basis for North Korea’s “unification drive”.
Pointing to the lack of major South Korean military responses to either the sinking of the Cheonan corvette or the exchange of artillery at Yeonpyeong-do in 2010, Myers said he was surprised the then conservative Blue House hadn’t considered shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex as an immediate response.
“It was then that I realized the peninsula can be grasped as one ideological community.”
But while many in the international community still view North Korean strategic goals as being defensive in nature despite those incidents, he said South Koreans today offer a “much less sanguine assessment” of their country’s will to defend itself.
“Many will tell you, U.S. troops are needed not just to give the South an edge in fighting the North, but in order to motivate the South Koreans to fight at all,” he said.
As a result, should North Korea detect any indication that Washington might leave the ROK for good, Seoul could be subjugated with “very little fuss.”
And fortunately for Pyongyang, Myers said, until the arrival of Lee Myung-bak in 2008, “each leader [in South Korea] was less anti-Pyongyang than the leader who came before him” – despite a history of assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, incursions and threats.
“How could the North not have seen this tendency as a steady weakening of the South Korean resolve?”
While the current Blue House has refrained from bold anti-American or pro-North Korean statements since the arrival of President Moon in 2017, Myers said that prior to taking over, “[Moon’s] camp was evidently expecting that they could get that ethnic exemption from UN sanctions that the previous administration had received.”
Notably, Myers said, Moon’s government also appears “more hostile to anti-North pro-American forces than any other administration has been,” citing ongoing reforms at the National Intelligence Service and anti-corruption drives that are resulting in problems for figures within former conservative administrations.
And Myers pointedly described Im Jong-seok, Moon’s “right hand man … [and] a former pro-North student” as a figure who votes at the National Assembly in ways Pyongyang would approve.
Taken all together, even if the Moon administration’s intentions are otherwise, Myers asked “how does this Blue House look to North Korea?”
South Koreans among the “Gangnam left” would like to start a unification process as quickly as possible, Myers continued, but with the wish of dragging it out as much as possible in order to delay impact far into the future.
Citing commitments made in Pyongyang towards confederation from Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in 2000 and 2007, as well as five years ago from Moon and reiterated in his 2017 election campaign, Myers said South Korean liberals see the goal of confederation as gradually raising living Northern standards until a time in the future when the countries would become equals.
But with such circumstances Kim Jong Un would likely be aware of the extreme difficulties in leading the North alongside a far more prosperous South, because any such agreement would “imply equality between him and a mere South Korean president,” provoking a legitimacy problem in Pyongyang.
“He is [therefore] even unlikely to discuss it unless it is linked to withdrawal of U.S. troops,” Myers said, something which if approved “would result very quickly in a take-over.”
Providing historical background to such a goal, Myers referenced what Kim Il Sung told Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov in 1973: “‘if the South agrees to confederation, it is done for.”
And though it has been decades since then, Myers continued that Kim Jong Un would be “hardly less ambitious now that he has nukes, his ally is a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever.”
But while nationalism is not yet strong enough in the South to facilitate a North Korean take-over, “all Kim needs is for it to weaken a resistance to one,” something he may think possible given the indifference shown by many South Koreans to the sinking of the Cheonan.
North Korean state media shows Hwasong-15 ICBM launch
“INEXCUSABLE FAILURE OF INTELLIGENCE”
Myers said that North Korea watchers have for years failed to parse Pyongyang’s true intentions, with wishful thinking underpinning much of the most active years of U.S.-DPRK diplomacy.
Ideas such as North Korea simply wanting aid, that the Sunshine Era could resolve the situation, that black markets would weaken the country, or that Kim Jong Un would be a reformer, Myers said, were all proven to be incorrect.
“This may be the most catastrophic protracted inexcusable failure of intelligence in American history.”
But moving ahead, Pyongyang watchers would soon need to find a “different part of the world to be consistently wrong about,” the reason so many observers probably find it hard to accept “the concept of a unification drive.”
Pyongyang’s over-arching ideological goal, therefore, “is the radicalization of the moderate nationalism that is already the dominant ideology [in South Korea].”
In that regard, North Korean propaganda that showcases new developments like Ryomyong Street, new water parks and department stores are designed to reassure South Koreans that things may not be so bad in the event “the North Koreans come down.”
Because of this, Myers said, under the right circumstances Pyongyang will not predict there being much resistance from South Koreans.
“The issue is not what will happen … but what the North expects will happen,” he said, suggesting Kim Jong Un’s advisors would likely convince him he has the character to “win over the South Korean public.”
CONDITIONS FOR PULL-OUT
A full U.S. military pull-out of South Korea, a key requirement for North Korea’s “unification drive,” could come as a result of two main circumstances: a peace treaty with Washington or a wedge emerging in the alliance.
And while South Koreans for now appear content for U.S. troops to remain, Myers said “the North cannot afford to sit around and wait for the mainstream to come around and reject the alliance,” especially in light of the growing bite of sanctions and unpredictable qualities of the Trump administration.
As a result of the potential for status quo to otherwise prevail, Kim would have no choice but to force U.S. troop removal, either by cutting a deal with Washington or one with Seoul that the U.S. would find unacceptable.
Alternatively, Kim could try and split the alliance by incentivizing Japanese desires to attack the DPRK, in order to force Washington and Seoul to clash over an appropriate response.
“A missile lands on a Japanese island,” Myers speculated. “For Japan and the United States, that would require some form of retaliation [but] the South Koreans would likely oppose it.”
And in the event of a pull-out of U.S. troops, followed by capital flight, economic problems, and an exodus of the upper class, “the North and the South might agree to a confederation.”
He said that such a situation would likely also draw support from the international community and that the subsequent “struggle for primacy inside the confederate” would be seen as an internal affair, or “domestic violence.”
Looking ahead, Myers warned that “peaceful noises” from the Moon administration would not be heard as “pacifying noises” to Kim Jong Un.
“The more docile the South appears, the more content Kim becomes of getting the Yankees out.”
Consequently, the danger of Washington being drawn into war as a result of Moon’s rhetoric, Myers said, “is at least as great as the danger of South Korea being drawn into war by Trump’s.”
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