[Observer] Fear itself, and opportunities lost

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[Observer] Fear itself, and opportunities lost

Ten thousand leagues under the sea, a giant squid rests upon the ocean bottom, its auditory organs (do squid have ears?) assaulted by “the melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans.”

These paeans, being broadcast from a satellite, according to the North Korean official KCNA news agency, are the “Song of General Kim Il Sung” and the “Song of General Kim Jong-il.”

Pyongyang says the satellite is in outer space; Western tracking agencies say it is in the fathomless depths of the Pacific Ocean. I have no way to verify the matter, but I rather enjoy the image of hapless cephalopods serenaded by the melodious chorus: “We will smash the American imperialists and their puppets in the South.”

If the North Korean missile test was a dud, that’s good, I guess. But for all the boasting (North) and belittling (South), the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula has not changed much. The tragic fact is that each day, each year, Korean reunification recedes over an ever fleeting horizon.

I did not always think so. For eight years I have been an occasional commentator on this page, and I have on record, several times, written that unification may come “sooner than you think.”

I based this judgment on my observation of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the reunification of Germany. Both events occurred unexpectedly, even as the wisest pundits were declaring that they would not happen for many years, and leading politicians were calling for negotiations.

Lesson: Events are not controlled by politicians, nor predicted by pundits.

So what has changed to make me backtrack on my expectation of a sudden, unexpected unification?

Nothing dramatic. But looking back over the years since the 2000 summit meeting of the North and South leaders, Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung, I am struck by the lost opportunities.

Both sides suffered failures of nerve. It has often been noted that the Chinese character for “crisis” consists of two elements - “danger” and “opportunity.” Neither North nor South after 2000 could see past the dangers to the opportunities.

Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy was an explicit admission that the dangers of unification outweighed the opportunities. The example of German unification terrified Korea’s political classes. Absorbing East Germany was a huge drain on the vast wealth of West Germany - how much heavier a burden would fall on South Korea, whose wealth paled beside West Germany’s, to absorb North Korea, whose poverty vastly exceeded East Germany’s?

“Sunshine,” as Kim Dae-jung himself acknowledged, was designed to postpone unification for 10 or even 20 years, until, through cooperative projects, North Korea had been sufficiently strengthened that the eventual merger could go through with the two countries more nearly equal in economic and social development.

At the time, it seemed a brave and farsighted policy, and it also displayed the confidence, widespread in those “end-of-history” years, that liberal democracy was certain to win out over its ideological competitors, autocracy, nationalism, corporatism.

Korean businessmen in those days put a compass point on Seoul in a map of East Asia, and drew circles 500, 1,000, 1,500 kilometers in diameter to demonstrate that Korea was indeed the “hub” of the most dynamic region of the globe, encompassing the greatest cities of Japan, China, Taiwan and the Russian Far East. That was “opportunity.”

But a satellite photo of the Korean Peninsula at night gave the lie to the “hub of Northeast Asia” euphoria. The photo showed points and blazes of light all over the southern half of the peninsula. On the eastern periphery Japanese cities were alight, and on the western periphery, Chinese cities. Even to the north, some few lights shone in Siberian Russia.

Other than the seas, east and west, only one area of the photograph was completely dark, except for a pinprick around Pyongyang. North Korea was a black hole in Northeast Asia. How can you build a “hub” around a black hole?

You can’t, of course. And this was South Korea’s missed opportunity. Ten years of “engagement” policies under presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008 failed to build on the boldness that led to the 2000 summit.

Perhaps boldness would not have availed, for the North’s Kim Jong-il had his own opportunities lost to failures of nerve.

Several times he dipped his toe into the chilly waters of reform. A few months after the 2000 summit, he visited Shanghai and hailed the example of China’s liberalization. He announced a free-trade zone in the border town of Sinuiju. He permitted peasant markets to operate free of the state food-distribution network.

And then, more attuned to the “danger” than the “opportunity” in North Korea’s crisis, he pulled back on all these moves. North Korea is now - politically - as closed and controlled as it was 10 years ago, before the North-South summit.

I say “politically” because smuggled technology - cell phones, DVDs of South Korean soap operas, and the like - are enlightening the North Korean population.

And so, mindful of what happens to dictators when the population sniffs the possibility of change, Kim Jong-il has fallen back on the dictator’s tried-and-true portfolio of repression and grand gesture - such as last week’s missile test.

What a pity that South Korea in the “sunshine” era failed to make Kim Jong-il an offer he could not refuse. Ideas for a “confederation” of an independent North and an independent South had been kicking around for 30 years. Why not accept North Korea’s terminology and name Mr. Kim the first president of confederated Korea? But make it a ceremonial position reviewing parades, with South Korean entrepreneurs in charge of rebuilding united Korea into the “hub of Northeast Asia.” Thus Mr. Kim’s physical security would have been guaranteed.

No doubt domestic politics in the South would have stymied such an overture. Still, it was one more lost opportunity.

Ah (I can hear Koreans saying), but there was never an opportunity to lose, because the superpowers would never have permitted reunification.

That’s a pretty sad statement. It says that Koreans regard themselves as helpless stooges, subject to the manipulation of outside powers.

I don’t believe it. Korean governments both South and North have repeatedly ignored or defied the wishes of their patrons - most recently with Pyongyang’s missile test last weekend. Do you believe that Beijing approved a move that can only strengthen the case for Japan’s rearmament and perhaps nuclearization?

As long ago as 1972, and as recently as 2000, North and South Korea jointly declared their determination to reunify the peninsula “independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country,” and “without reliance on outside forces.”

Why have they not done so? Don’t blame the superpowers. Blame Koreans for fearing dangers and shunning opportunities.

That’s sad. Here is what is terrifying: North Korean defectors reaching the South are being quoted as describing a calamitous collapse of morale in the North. Supposedly, one hears sentiments like, “Our only chance is to start a war” - in the desperate hope that whatever would follow would be better than current reality.

Alarmist? I hope so. But I know a South Korean who traveled to the North on economic missions several times in 1998, when the country had suffered three consecutive years of famine.

After the day’s negotiations, over soju in the evenings, the mid-level ministry officials who were his hosts were saying the same things: “It is too late for us. Reform is useless. Our only chance is to start a war, and win.”

Perhaps Kim Jong-il’s only chance is to distract his dispirited people with “immortal revolutionary paeans” emanating from a satellite - even if only deep-sea creatures get to listen.

Perhaps I was right all along - perhaps the crisis will find a denouement “sooner than we think,” bewildering politicians and pundits. Perhaps China will step in to rescue the North. What prospects then for Korea’s unification?

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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