Sunday, February 14, 2016

encounter with a frog in a well

It was during my all-day session at KMA yesterday that I encountered a man who apparently sympathizes greatly with North Korea. At one point, during a break, he resentfully asked why America felt the need to force regime change on North Korea. I conceded that this was a difficult question, given the possibility of war, but I noted that no one really hates North Korean citizens: they hate the cause of those citizens' woes, i.e., the North Korean government.* Had I gone further, I would also have noted that North Korea has repeatedly threatened both Japan and the US with "sea of fire" rhetoric, which makes North Korea our problem as much as South Korea's. I asked my student whether doing nothing while North Korean people suffered could be considered moral. He had no answer.

To be fair to my NK sympathizer, he was probably focused on the issue of national sovereignty. From his point of view, America's actions—trying to pressure China to come down harder on NK, dialoguing with SK about installing a THAAD defense system, reinforcing UN sanctions that have already been put in place, enacting more sanctions, etc.—amount to foreign meddling. This is about as frog-in-a-well an attitude as is possible, given how it fails to consider North Korea in a more global context, but I can see where my interlocutor was coming from, blinkered though his perspective might be.

No one wants war. That's a given. But both North Korea, with its blustering rhetoric and escalating war-tech development, and China, with its recalcitrance at the UN and its enabling of North Korea, are forcing us further down that path. Something's eventually got to give. It might not happen for a few ears yet, but a sudden cascade failure up north seems very likely, and no one's going to be ready for it: not China, which is trying to clamp down on border activity, and which takes a hard line to NK defectors that it catches and repatriates; not the US, which doesn't have enough boots on the ground to do much in the event of a real refugee crisis; and especially not South Korea, which has chosen to hide in a corner, curled up in a fetal position, eyes squeezed shut and hands over the ears.

In that context, the closure of the Kaesong industrial complex is a welcome turn of events. I've seen a lot of weeping and wailing about this from softer hearts on Twitter (none of whom I'd want to have in charge of peninsular affairs), but as far as I'm concerned, it's the first hint of any spine from South Korea—a baby step toward dealing with North Korea in a firm and consistently principled manner. Some South Koreans want to blame Kaesong's closure on America and American pressure; ultimately, though, this was South Korea's decision to make. If America applied pressure, it was probably mostly rhetorical in nature: there was no brutal violation of South Korea's sovereignty, no Mafia-style strong-arming.

North Korea is being fed by all sorts of lifelines. China is the main supplier and supporter, but South Korea has been complicit, too, as it continues to bumble along the path described by the utterly naïve and misguided Sunshine Policy. The world at large is just as much a sucker: international NGOs do their best to supply food directly to the North Korean people, but the DPRK military is already there at the drop-off points, ready to redistribute those supplies to the military first, allowing barely a trickle to reach the people who really need sustenance. By closing Kaesong, South Korea removes one of many lifelines feeding the North Korean government—something that, by all rights, it should have done long ago.

My interlocutor was obviously blinded by his own weird admixture of nationalism and pro-North sentiment. He saw the matter too simply and superficially. He was also influenced by the natural Korean tendency to look askance at outsiders. Koreans often keenly feel the insider/outside divide even within the Korean social context: if two Koreans get into a brawl while inside a subway car, Korean witnesses will step back and give the brawlers room rather than try to intervene. "Not my problem; I don't know these people." Korean law also seems to reflect this value: would-be do-gooders who get involved in a brawl might end up facing legal action, a consequence that arguably causes witnesses to hesitate. Where's the motivation to get involved? With that sort of mentality being ambient in South Korea, it's not surprising that many South Koreans think the way my interlocutor does. Not surprising, and unfortunate.

*It might seem strange, at first, to dichotomize citizens and government: the government is, after all, composed of citizens, is it not? True, but in a place like North Korea, there is a divide so deep between government workers and regular citizens that it's practically ontological in nature, as if two completely different classes of beings lived in that part of the Korean peninsula. For that reason, I feel justified in positing this dichotomy.


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