Monday, December 6, 2010

An American leftist teacher explains the North Korean crisis

Occasional Marmot's Hole commenter valkilmerisiceman linked to this video, which seems to me to do a decent job of summing up the leftist position on the recent North Korean crisis.

Just as we see with things like, say, opposition to the FTA, we have a situation where a little information can be a dangerous thing. Like with the above linked UAW action alert, this video is a cherry-picking of data intended to arrive at a pre-determined (and self-serving) conclusion.

Let's start with his description of what the US and South Korea were doing to (in his mind) provoke North Korea. He says:
The United States has 28,000 troops in South Korea and they're there for a specific reason. Most of the US troops are at the border. And the United States, just a few days ago, just yesterday, actually, had war games (what they're called), which is a preparation pretty much for war. War games is letting the country you don't like know that, "we've got the artillery, and at any time we want, we can invade you." That's exactly what war games are. And the United States and South Korea had a joint war games session in the Yellow Sea, and North Korea took it as a threat, which it was, and North Korea, well...
This is fraught with so many wrongheaded assumptions I can't possibly give them all their due, but I'll try to hit the highlights. First, the US troops are not at the border. Even the 2ID (Second Infantry) that is forward deployed is only as far north as Tongduch'ŏn [Dongducheon] and they are being moved south. On a related matter, while the primary role of USFK is to defend against an attack by North Korea, the US military presence in South Korea is instrumental in maintaining peace in Northeast Asia, a region that has been the site of immense volatility up to the Korean War.

Second, the "war games" (actually naval exercises) were not at all about invading North Korea but about defending South Korea's northernmost "Five Islands of the West Sea" (서해 5도) from North Korean attack or invasion, along with the waters south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto border. Ironically, in shelling Yŏnbyŏng-do's [Yeonbyeong] main island, North Korea has again demonstrated precisely the need for such naval exercises.

This teacher then suggests that North Korea was simply reacting to this threat by, well, shelling Yŏnbyŏng-do. This is a key place where his facile analysis falls apart, for it strips North Korea of any agency in setting its own agenda (agency achieved in part by repeated aggression). What is important to note here is that North Korea is not attacking South Korean ships, waters, and now civilian communities in the region because it feels threatened but because it is trying to bolster the image of the military by pitting it against the enemy, as a justification for the Pyongyang regime's Songun [sŏn•gūn, 선군; "military first"] Policy.

North Korea's sinking of the Ch'ŏnan in March and the shelling of Yŏnpyŏng-do were only the latest in a string of sometimes deadly attacks and clashes going back to 1999, when North Korea — for the purposes of promoting Songun Policy for domestic consumption — unilaterally declared its own maritime demarcation line that essentially laid claim to much of the South Korea-controlled waters south of the NLL. While the NLL follows principles of equidistance used in determining territorial waters and EEZs, North Korea's proposed line removes South Korea's "Five Islands of the West Sea" from the equation when determining who should control the waters in that part of the Yellow Sea.

It's a nonstarter and Pyongyang knows that, but it gives them continuous opportunity to push the envelope and create enough trouble to engineer (for domestic consumption) an enemy encroaching on North Korea's sovereignty that will bolster domestic support and justify their hold on power, while being low-key enough that it won't likely trigger a devastating wider war which would almost certainly mean the end of the DPRK.

The teacher fails to recognize that when making his argument about negotiations, the bulk of which is also problematic. "The United States could settle this in an hour if it wanted to," he tells us. In a nutshell, he is saying, the US is at fault for the North Korean crisis because President Obama, like his predecessor President George W. Bush, has refused to negotiate with North Korea. Under President Bill Clinton, there were negotiations and things were just fine, but without direct talks, like now under President Obama and ROK President Lee Myungbak, things just fall apart.

This is fraught with error. For starters, North Korea did engage in clashes with South Korea in this region during the Clinton administration when the two sides were talking. These attacks occurred under Sunshine Policy when Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun were president. They occurred not because of the existence or lack of negotiations, but because North Korea gains politically at home and economically from its neighbors by engaging in such brinksmanship.

Negotiation and Sunshine Policy had their place and may again in the future. But North Korea was hell-bent on the prestige and power of getting a nuclear weapon since the first Bush administration. The original Six Party Talks and Agreed Framework slowed down their progress (I believe Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo were working from the idea that buying time was the best option as Pyongyang would eventually collapse or make Chinese-style political and economic reforms), but did not eliminate North Korea's nuclear program. Engaging with North Korea economically and politically did not stop the attacks in the Yellow Sea.

So when Presidents Obama and Lee decide that it's time for the US and South Korea to stop being schmucks, this failure to communicate is not the cause of the confrontation but rather a response to it.

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