Thor's Korea Diary

Who Wants a Unified Korea?
Some Reflections on War, Peace and the Armaments Business

@19 March 2001

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For related articles see :
North Korea - Pick Your Godfather (2006)
North Korea -  The Japanese Card (2003)
North Korea - The Smell of Rat (2002)
Korea, North & South: The Geopolitics of Unification (2001)


That "who" in "who wants a unified Korea?" could be directed at anyone. In truth though, the millions of Korean people most likely to be affected are the least likely to be consulted. They certainly will not have a determining voice. Even if they were consulted, and upon becoming fully informed, many of their answers might be surprising.

Today there are plenty of unhappy people in reunified countries. They heartily wish that the great coming together had happened in a different age, under different circumstances, when their own life chances would not have been jeopardized. It is not hard to find Vietnamese who are less than enchanted to be united under the sway of Hanoi. A great many Germans (east and west) are also less than satisfied with the new German "fatherland". It is not that the reunification of either country was not, in some larger sense, desirable. Rather that, at a personal level, large numbers of people found that they had to pay a high price for no tangible personal gain. For many individuals there were sacrifices of income or opportunity, social conflict, or a myriad of other problems. There are usually other people of course, and many of them, who make very substantial gains from major economic, social or political changes.

In Korea there have always been significant social and economic differences between the north and the south (although nothing on the fissiparous scale of, say, the Indonesian archipelago). However, the idea of a single country is a potent attraction. Any politician can count on general popular support for political union. Whatever the ideological differences between sometime communists and so-called free-worlders, ulimate motives and attitudes amongst ordinary people anywhere are not so divergent. When push comes to shove though, many South Koreans will realize (if they don't already) that an open door to the north will be enormously expensive, physically dangerous, and riven with conflict. The upside, if there is one, will be that such difficulties are "a fight within the family" rather than amongst strangers, and people will look forward to at least some benefit for their children.

There is another level on which we can ask "who wants a united Korea?", the level of realpolitik. In realpolitik large masses of people only come to play a part in political outcomes in the crudest ways. They can be mobilized by conscription (armies), by intimidation and fear (police states), by deception (demagoguery everywhere), by bribery (rent-a-mob) and occasionally by discrete political goals (for example, a threat or promise of jobs). However, such large numbers cannot in a pragmatic sense make explicit decisions and choices, they cannot negotiate, they cannot look their opposites in the eye. Above all, they cannot sustain common energy and purpose for long. It takes enormous energy and organizing effort by leaders to make large groups of people into a tool for the exercise of political power; (that is why the so-called political left, using the power of numbers, is always at a disadvantage against the political right, who usually use the power of privilege).

Who then wields actual political power? Who can articulate goals and decisions? In the answer to those questions we find that each world government is defined by a slightly different recipe. When the decision making is excessively narrow we talk darkly about dictatorships or oligarchies. This may be the the case in China and North Korea, but even apparently democratic states like South Korea may well have their main decisions directed from a rather narrow base.

In the context of Korean unification I have written about China elsewhere. For this question, Japan is an important element in the background, but for many reasons only a subdued participant. We can see however that both China ad Japan, for partly different reasons, would welcome a defusing of that military powder keg sitting on the 38th parallel. The impact of Russia is more complex, both because of its historical role (in the communist takeover of the North), its potential commercial interests, and its significant expatriate Korean population on the East Siberian seaboard. We can predict however that Russian interests now have much to gain and little to lose from Korean unification. Even at the level of naked politics, North Korea in its present condition is an embarrassment to Russia, while some legitimized influence on South Korean politics and economics would be extremely welcome both in Moscow and Vladivostok.

The least predictable player in the Korean poker game is the United States of America. It is arguably also the most important player apart from the Koreans themselves. This is simply by virtue of America's superpower status. American involvement in Korea has many dimensions. From a purely in-country investment perspective America, no less than China, Japan or Russia, would no doubt be happiest in the long run with a unified Korean state which approached some level of prosperity. To the extent that the American populace thinks at all about Korea -- and that is precious little -- then the motherhood desirability of unification would also be supported. This is important because it is the tune that any American politician must thump out on the honky-tonk piano in public, whatever the private goal.

The difficulty with America stems both from its manifold policy goals as a superpower, and from the multiplicity of power factions which seek to participate in American decisions. That is, America does not speak with one voice. For that matter, even a particular American administration often does not speak with one voice. Indeed, the same politician talking to different constituencies may appear to pursue quite conflicting goals, and on matters as complex yet "foreign" as Korea, his own convictions may fluctuate by the hour. All of this means that when it comes to the policy goals of America as a superpower towards Korea, we can only estimate the odds this way or that. There are no sure bets.

Our best way of estimating the American odds on any given policy is to identify the major factional interests, their influence at a given time, and how they may resonate with the basic instincts of the president and other critical decision makers. It is fair to say (I think) that the odds have distinctly shifted with the accession of George W. Bush to the American presidency. There is much that we don't know for sure about Bush yet, but there is a great deal that we know about the factions which were most responsible for putting him in power. We also know enough about his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to differentiate the basic instincts of the two men.

Clinton, as we all know, was and is no saint. He liked money, he liked power, and he was indiscreet about sex. He was also far more intelligent than average, had huge energy, was very well educated and had a wide knowledge of world affairs. Although Clinton lied to any number of people (an occupational hazard for a politician), and would double-cross anyone when his own neck was on the line, he much preferred a win-win situation. His basic instincts were humanitarian, and his intellect was broad enough to reach over narrow sectarian and national interests. In a way Clinton was representative of a certain group of the wealthy in America -- often self-made men and women who play the game hard and not always fairly, but are generous winners. They get no pleasure from the misfortune or poverty of others, and will happily help others to help themselves.

We conclude much about Bush from the character of his father (not especially promising), and his apprenticeship as governor of Texas. There is still room for surprises. The assumption at this point is that he is much less of his own man than Clinton ever was. That could be both good and bad for various American policies. Bush is no stellar intellect, and makes a virtue of delegating to skilled advisors. Given the right advisors working as a team, the outcome could be as good as you would get in any large corporation, which is precisely what Bush's (lackluster) education trained him for. The worry comes with his basic instincts, and those other "advisors", the power brokers who have put him in the president's chair. Often (too often) in America, character judgements are made from the simple masks worn by public figures. Like a medieval morality play, put on the mask of religion and you are a "good" man. Bush wears such a mask. In the real world, religion has never been a guide to any man's humanitarian instincts, and in Texas Bush had no compunction about signing off on the executioner's axe -- in a way that Clinton would never have considered. In a president's signature hand, that fatal lack of humanity can cost many lives, especially if they are "foreign. We will have to wait and see.

Now who put Bush in power, and who keeps him there? There is no simple answer to that. Also, in America fortunately, the president has nothing like the power that a nationalist-cum-fascist like Syngman Rhee (who also favoured "Christian" and "democratic" rhetoric) had in Korea from the time of Japan's withdrawal. Nevertheless it is clear that Eisenhow's "military-industrial complex" is alive and well in America, and has a very large investment in George W. Bush, just as they did in his father. The human face of this military-industrial complex is not simply a bunch of aging golf buddies. We are talking about 60% of the engineers in America, and hundreds of thousands of workers with millions of dependents -- relatively ordinary people living mundane lives. It has often been observed that nothing is more mundane than evil. For the producers of landmines, or tanks, or Star Wars missiles, their day is like yours and mine. They love their children, and worry about their mortgages. Though America enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during the Clinton years, the armaments business diminished in relative importance. Clinton for one was unethusiastic about the end products of that particular way of making a buck. There are strong signs that those particular scruples won't count for much with the Bush administration.

Ronald Reagan's big-ticket defense item, taken over by the elder George Bush, was the so-called Star-Wars project. This project absorbed staggering amounts of money. That is, it provided a very tidy income for many contracting corporations and the engineers etc. whom they employed. I once attended a lecture to the Australian Society of Engineers given by a professor of computing science at Pennsylvania State University. He had been employed on this project for a mouthwatering salary, and gave us a most lucid account of why it could never work technically. In an attack of conscience, he had jumped off the gravy-train, but of course that was the quixotic revolt of an individual.

Reagan was dead lucky to have the big, bad Soviet Union to pitch this crazy project against. It was his supreme good fortune that the moribund Soviet leadership spent their own empire to bankruptcy on armaments. (I agree with the veteran American diplomat, George Kennan's argument that very big countries are a menace to themselves and to others. Such countries would include America, China, India, the old Soviet Union, Japan etc. They are too complex to administer properly. A second, huge problem is that their central governments accumulate sums of money too large for anyone to really comprehend -- including the politicians and officials who are supposed to spend the money wisely. As a result, vast amounts get spent in incredibly wasteful, stupid and often dangerous ways. Then insane economic systems are developed to keep all this money going around in circles...Star Wars I and II were/are variations on this madness).

Now here is Korea's problem, as far as America is concerned. Russia has wised up, stopped spending up big on guns, and put on the cloak of democracy. Bush or his backers cannot sell Star Wars II to Congress over the dead body of Russia. Nowadays China is the main perceived threat to America. However China (officially) spends around 16 billion dollars a year on the military (probably more like $40 billion in real terms), as against America's $300 billion. Further, China has locked America into an economic panda-bear hug : each economy depends greatly on the other for trade. It is therefore not politically acceptable right now to run a Star Wars project with China as the public's Evil Empire; (maybe that can be arranged in time ...). So who is left? A few tin-pot "rogue states" like North Korea. Especially North Korea. Iraq is useful too, but Iraq has been reduced to making poison gas, not ICBMs and atom bombs, and it is not parked next to a major strategic ally like Japan.

To accuse even a faction of the American establishment of having a major vested interest in war is to risk being dismissed as a cynic at best, or paranoid at worst. That is a hard charge to live down with well-meaning people. Perhaps one of life's sadder lessons is to realize that "virtue" is strictly in the eye of the beholder. The many clever perverts who make computer viruses are unlikely to see themselves as "evil people" in any serious way; (nor does it take a genius to understand that a good percentage of computer viruses are now almost certainly written under the patronage of warped corporations and governments).

And so it is with armaments. The United States and Britain, supposedly leaders amongst humanitarian enlightened nations, are both leaders in arms productions and arms export. That is, there are major industries, dozens of leaders, thousands of managers, countless workers .... who are, in effect merchants of death. This has been the situation in both countries for at least two centuries. To make this explicit is, I think, not cynical but merely honest. We all put a cocoon around unpleasant facts in our own minds. Those many people do not see themselves as merchants of death. At the end of the day however, the products which they make must be sold, used or stored.

Using weapons is out of fashion in "civilized" countries. Selling them is big business, but embarrassing and therefore not the daily grist for news headlines. Storing weapons seems ridiculous without a major credible threat to justify the expense. All those nice people -- and they are mostly nice people -- making weapons therefore have a problem. To keep the contracts coming in, to make their way of life possible, there HAS TO BE a group of hard men behind the scenes who do the dirty work, and an army of spin merchants to put a pretty face on it. They are greatly helped by the natural tribalism of human beings. The little girl who gets hit by a car in front of your house is tragic. The millions who starve to death in, say, Africa are not only out of sight and mind, they are "different from us". Their tragedies don't hurt.

So the bottom line is that there are powerful factions in America (and in many another country) who NEED war, or the threat of war. It is Korea's misfortune, North and South, that at this moment in history some very influential lobbyists and policy makers in America would be most disappointed if the Korean unification problem went away any time soon. This has nothing to do with their personal feelings about Korea (mostly they don't care about Koreans at all: why should they?). It has everything to do with the need to keep large defense projects employing large numbers of Americans, and making a good quota of corporate millionaires. Every silly rocket that North Korea drops into the Sea of Japan is as good as money in the bank to the folk back home in USA who want Star Wars II to get approval by Congress.

So will Korea be unified soon? How would I know? ... Like you, I can only look at the pieces on the chess table, and like any chess player try to guess how the moves will work out. This is different from chess though, isn't it? In this game, the players can't agree on the rules. Worse, "checkmate" in the Korea-conflict-business means different things to different people. The diplomats and presidents will all say that they are working towards a common goal. That is the one thing which we know NOT to be true...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Who Wants a Unified Korea?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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