In 1910 Norman Angell published his famous book The Great Illusion, in which he argued that war between the interlocked advanced economies would be so dysfunctional that militarism was obsolete. 1914 showed that he was wrong about militarism, but right about the consequences. A variant of this illusion is currently permeating South Korea, based on misconceptions about unification and how to achieve it.
Unification has had a fresh lease of life recently, especially since South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s “jackpot” speech on January 7 of this year. Unification, or more correctly reunification, has been high on the agenda of both Koreas, at least in rhetoric, since 1945. The Korean War of 1950-53 was, of course, an attempt at unification, with both sides having come to the conclusion that force was the only option. It was an assumption not unreasonable under the circumstances. The Chinese Civil War seemed, in 1950, to be on the verge of reunifying China. That reunification was to be thwarted, ironically, by the Korean War itself, but no one knew that in June 1950. Reunification by force was historically the most common way and the American Civil War – by far the bloodiest conflict in American history – was, in the mainstream narrative at least, accepted as a legitimate resolution of the problem of a divided country.
Apart from the dreadful cost of the Korean War in human lives and infrastructure – 3-4 million dead, and huge devastation – the war had one vital lesson. Because of its strategic location none of the interested great powers – the U.S., China, and Soviet Union/Russia – would lightly tolerate the whole of the peninsula coming under the control of adversaries. That was true in the 1950s and remains true today.
Is this reality recognized in Pyongyang and Seoul (and by extension Washington)?
THE SURPRISE ATTACK MYTH
U.S. and ROK military thinkers claim that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is poised to launch a surprise attack on the South. According to James M. Minnich, a major in the US Army with a long experience in Korea:
North Korea lacks the economical resources to successfully fight and win a protracted war. Therefore, their strategy is to defeat the South before the U.S. military and/or international community can intervene. By launching an asymmetrical massive first strike, North Korea intends to lead the attack with its forward infantry corps/armies then exploit the initiative and maintain the momentum by surging deep into ROK territory with its armored and mechanized corps.
Indeed, the biannual joint U.S.-ROK military exercises are publically justified by the need to deter such an attack. This seems very far-fetched. First, there is the huge disparity in military capacity, as roughly indicated by military expenditures: 34-to-1 in the South’s favor according to a recent report and, by extension, more than 600-to-1 for the U.S. We might add in the Japanese, very anxious to promote remilitarization by lending a hand to the Americans on the Korean Peninsula (to the dismay of Seoul). Another lesson of the Korean War was that ground forces on the peninsula are vulnerable to an enemy which has control of the sea and the air and it is noticeable that amphibious landings are an important facet of the current exercises. It is difficult to envisage the leadership in Pyongyang actually believing that the U.S. would write off its troops in the South (currently 28,500) and the strategic Korean Peninsula so lightly.
THE MYTH OF CHINESE ACQUIESCENCE
The South is another matter, and a more complicated one. First, the huge disparity in military power, which is a disincentive to the North, is an incentive to the South. Then, whilst the U.S is inextricably tied to any military conflict on the peninsula, China’s position is ambiguous.
The South Korean government and media have tried to convince the Americans that China would not really object to its taking over of the North. This theme has been reiterated by a range of American commentators. For instance, Andrew Scobell is reported as saying, “Beijing might stop propping up Pyongyang and allow North Korea to fail if it believed a unified Korea under Seoul would be more favorably disposed toward Beijing.” America’s actual war plans, such as OPLAN 5027 (an invasion of the North in response to an attack on the South) and OPLAN 5030 (“collapse of North Korea”) remain, of course, under wraps. However, two American academics, Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind, have published extensively on the military requirements of a conquest of North Korea, and they might reflect thinking in military circles. Bennett and Lind argue that there is:
…the need for advance planning with China. Seoul and Washington should discuss with each other and with Beijing the prospect of Chinese participation in missions to stabilize North Korea after a government collapse. If Seoul and Washington oppose Chinese involvement, then they should be prepared to conduct these missions in ways that obviate the need for Chinese intervention.
Since this hypothetical “government collapse” is unlikely to happen without massive outside intervention, it is surely fanciful to assume “Chinese participation” or acquiescence. Moreover, although the ROK would be required to provide the bulk of troops for any substantial military intervention in the North, it would be essentially an American-led affair. Under the prevailing Operational Control (OPCON) agreement the U.S. has wartime control of the ROK military. In addition, for technical reasons it is doubtful whether the ROK military could mount an invasion of the North without U.S. help.
In short, a successful invasion of the North would take U.S. power right to the borders of China, and of Russia, and neither is likely to acquiesce without a response. Exactly what that response would be is unknown, but war cannot be ruled out. China has consistently rejected U.S. feelers for discussions on cooperating on what is euphemistically called a “North Korean contingency.” However, much more explicit warnings are needed, mainly from China but also from Russia, in case America stumbles yet again into war.
This brings us back to unification. There are basically two paths. The first involves dialogue between the two Korean states to map out mutually agreed, mutually beneficial measures to defuse tension, and to restore and advance economic and social linkages. This could develop into a virtuous cycle where confidence-building measures produce benefits that lead to the next stage. Some form of confederation as a stepping-stone to greater unification was for many years on the agenda of the South – though it seems to have disappeared since former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) – and is still advocated by the North. It is easy to identify actions which would propel that process. Cutting back, then abolishing the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises, and lifting the sanctions imposed by Lee Myung-bak stand out. The latter would bring immediate benefit to both sides; the ban on tours to Kumgansan alone has resulted in losses of close to $1 billion just to the South, with proportionally greater damage to the North.
However, there are substantial obstacles. Since most of the restraints were initiated by the South, then the remedy must come from the South. Whilst Kim Jong Un appears to have his military-industrial complex under control, as indicated by his peace overtures, the situation in the South is less certain. And then there is the United States, which cuts across all these possibilities. The U.S. opposes rapprochement between the two Koreas, and any loss of control over South Korea. The North’s nuclear deterrent is a response to the American threat and will only be negotiated with the U.S. These obstacles are formidable, but if they are not tackled and overcome, it becomes increasingly likely that the second path will be taken, with calamitous results.
The second path to unification involves force. Many in South Korea, seemingly including Park Geun-hye, indulge in the German fantasy where they expect North Korea to go the way of East Germany, overwhelmed by the force of the changing geopolitical environment. Hence the use of German, as intrustpolitik, and unveiling unification policy statements, such as the Dresden Declaration, in eastern Germany. However, Korea is not Germany and 2014 China is not the disintegrating Soviet Union of 1989-90. North Korea has a resilient economy that has withstood sanctions and there are indications that “it is recovering and catching up.” It is clear that North Korea would fiercely resist any invasion, and any attempt at takeover and absorption.
Park’s policy of rebuffing peace overtures from Kim Jong Un is bad enough in itself, and bodes ill for the peninsula. However, when combined with fantasies that the jackpot of unification is just around the corner, and that the current path is leading towards it, a toxic illusion is produced. Unless dispelled by clear and rational thinking, this illusion about the efficacy of force is likely to lead to catastrophe just as it did in Europe in 1914, and in Korea in 1950.