Saturday, August 09, 2003

and Chief Wiggles spake to the Marmot, saying thus...

After taking a closer comparative gander at Chief Wiggles and Captain Scarlet's "Silent Running" blog (go find the link elsewhere; I refuse to link to this joker now that I've actually seen his blog), I must say that Scarlet can just keep on running silently away. Wiggles is the real deal. Scarlet's a lightweight, third-tier frother (not to imply I'm a heavyweight, for God's sakes... I only just started excreting this blog in early July). If you want the straight dope, Wiggles is your man.

Having said that, I turn to something Chief Wiggles (holy shit, he linked to me, though not by name) wrote as part of a comment made to the Marmot here. (I don't know if I should be posting this on my blog; I didn't ask permission, and will delete this if either The Marmot or Chief Wiggles request that I do so. But my assumption is that a posted comment is for public consumption and possible reply-- there's no implication that the reply MUST be on the same comment board.)

Chief said a lot of important things, but this is what I'd like to focus on:

I have never been one to advocate the removal of US troops from Korea, but I am slowly but surely revising my opinion. Maybe it is time to let them sink or swim on their own. I'll have to think more on this.

I actually think it's time for us to go, and not just because of anti-Americanism: I'm sympathetic to the issue of SK morale. It is, for many South Koreans, demoralizing and infuriating that there's an American troop presence here (as I wrote once, how would we feel if DC were occupied by the French? it's bad enough that all those diagonal roads and circles were designed by a Frenchman). I kind of hope Rumsfeld will get Bush to back out of his promise to Noh for a strong presence on the peninsula. I'd like to think that moving our troops southward is a first step in the eventual quitting of the peninsula. Certainly, that's a Korean-style way to deal with a promise one doesn't want to keep. Say "yes," then incrementally act in a manner that clearly but politely says "no."

And why not? As I've argued before, I think our war tech is good enough that it will matter little whether we're actually on the spot or a few hundred miles away if/when war breaks out. Seoul will still be pulverized; that can't be helped no matter where we are. It will be lost and regained, like in the first Korean War. In the meantime, sacrificing nearly 20,000 frontline troops in the first day or so of combat is senseless and horrifying as a strategic doctrine. So to the Chief I say (even though he wasn't speaking to me): I think we should leave. There'll be bitching and moaning here in Seoul, but that will pass, and it can only make South Korea stronger when it realizes what it will take to stand on its own.

One of the first major improvements will be that Korea will take its own military seriously again. My mother (who is Korean) has scary stories of male relatives who, in the old days, went through army training here. You don't hear these stories now. Training isn't that hellish. These days, what you hear is that training is lax, the chain of command is full of weak links (thanks to corruption or soldierly indolence), and the overall structure is fraying. A South Korea that stands on its own will be forced to realize that lardasses like yours truly cannot form the bulk of a South Korean army that must face a lean (by necessity) and mean (by ideology) North Korean fighting force. Training will once again be brutal and focused, as it should be for this country. A sense of honor and esprit de corps will be re-instilled. The shameful tales of rich, privileged Korean kids getting knee surgery to remove cartilage and avoid serving their country will eventually die out. And NK will find itself facing a steelier South.

Another improvement may well be a renewed sense of corporate responsibility, coupled with a more realistic view of who and what North Korea is. My mantra is that North Koreans ARE NOT the brothers of South Korea. Though they might become brothers again, this will happen best if reuinfication is under the South Korean flag. In the meantime, there are two major hurdles to this "one people" nonsense.

1. Significant divergences in language over five decades. NK, as part of the "juchae" ideology of "self-reliance," doesn't use any Chinese characters-- hanja-- in its newspapers & other documents, whereas SK children still have to learn nearly 2000 hanja, which are sprinkled liberally in newspapers, books, and the like. Meantime, South Korean Buddhist monks have to know classical Chinese to study the Chinese sutras. The DMZ has proven to be as solid a barrier as the Swiss Alps were in the old days (I lived in Switzerland; there are four official languages but over twenty cantonal dialects, and this is largely because the Swiss, throughout history, were isolated valley people, living in communities that developed independently, with relatively little cross-pollination), resulting in dialectal changes that often veer into mutual incomprehensibility. The South already jokes about its own variety of dialects (the Swiss "valley" phenomenon operates here as well); talking with Northerners is not impossible, but does take some concentration, from what I've heard. Language is shaped by culture, but it also shapes culture, which is why this linguistic divergence is something we have to pay attention to.

2. Fundamental divergences in culture over five decades. This is, to my mind, the key reason why I can no longer consider Northerners to be "one people" with the South. Confucian family value system? Gone in NK, where hierarchy among the people is anathema (for an excellent article on this, read Thomas St. John's "You're the Man!", which is part of a series Tom wrote about his trip into North Korea last year). The pluralism we take for granted in South Korea, a pluralism made possible partly through the Western political and economical paradigm, is largely absent in the North. I doubt there's a robust and variegated Christian movement in NK, for example. I doubt the Buddhist temples, to the extent there are any functioning ones left in NK (someone please email me with info on this), have much social and religious pull. I doubt that North Korean TV offers 24-hour access to 300 cable channels, and I don't think they enjoy full use of the democratizing Internet (along with the lovely DSL connection that makes my blogging so easy). When the "Kimist" cult of personality was established in the North, all pluralism was sucked out of the picture, and all that is good and noble about Korean culture went along with it. All religious devotion is channeled Kimward. All art is for the greater glory of the state, whose incarnations are the Kim dynasty-- currently instantiated, bodhisattva-like, in the corporeal forms of the Great Leader and Dear Leader. All rhetoric in some way serves Kimism. There are scary parallels between the fanatical ideology that places a deified Kim dynasty at its center and the radical, fundamentalist Muslim culture that screams "God and God alone" while failing to recognize that sacred and profane are not, and never have been, separate realms (maybe I'll do a religious rant later; fundamentalists piss me off).

Don't get me wrong-- I was touched when the Koreas walked together at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. I always get a lump in my throat when I watch the footage of Koreans in their twilight years, reunited briefly after decades of painful separation on either side of the DMZ. When I say I don't consider the North "one people" with the South, I'm not ruling out the possibility that they can become, at some distant point, culturally one again.

But as things stand, what we see is not k'a-t'n minjok ("same people"). The North's ideological, economic, and rhetorical stagnancy has seen to that. "One people" is a great myth-- or as the PoMo academics might say, a powerful metanarrative. But what it means to the South is different from what it means to the North, because both dream that reunification, if and when it happens, will be under the flag and ideology of the dreamer. It is very much in the North's interest to maintain and disseminate this metanarrative as often and as strongly as possible, and perfectly OK for SK to interpret it as it will; the point is that the South must remain a prisoner to the myth, to make it pliable and psychologically ready for when the red flag will fly on flagpoles all the way down to Pusan.

But that's where we see the North's own fantasy: this isn't ever going to happen. Which makes me wonder: if bloggers and pundits are right that the NK government, led by Kim Jong-il, isn't crazy, then Kim Jong-il must know what I know: reunification under the NK flag will never become a reality. That being the case, then I would say that the North's entire gamble rests on the indefinite continuation of the status quo. The moment the status quo shifts significantly, the North will know it has lost.

And that's why I think war, if/when it happens, will be all-out, not limited. For the North, loss of the status quo is the only loss that matters. Beyond that, there is only what the Hindus call adharma-- disorder, chaos, disappearance of structure, end of cosmos (was it Marmot who said "reform = death"? Damn straight). The powerful ideas-- the memes that drive the Koreas-- will have taken over, will have been activated in an irrevocable way. And that's also why I think we need to clear our troops out, because when the hammer falls, there's no reason for our military men and women to be sitting ducks. And finally, that's why I think our departure will force the South to accept that the North, as it stands, represents a very real danger to it... a thought that's difficult to maintain simultaneously with the idea that "we're one people."

With thanks and respect to Chief Wiggles and the Marmot.

UPDATE: Cathartidae links to a Doug Bandow (Cato Institute) article about troop deployment. Bandow argues they should be brought home. I don't think they should go all the way home; I think they just need to leave Korea.

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