Korea and Our Asia Policy

Korea and Our Asia Policy

Mini Teaser: On January 30, 1995, in response to a question in a Diet committee,Japanese Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi* said that Japan is partlyresponsible for the division of the Korean peninsula after World WarII.

by Author(s): Chalmers Johnson

On January 30, 1995, in response to a question in a Diet committee,
Japanese Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi* said that Japan is partly
responsible for the division of the Korean peninsula after World War
II. The following day, January 31, Murayama retracted his remark,
saying "I spoke of Japan's responsibility for the Japanese colonial
rule of Korea in the past. I want to make it clear that Japan has no
responsibility for the division of Korea into North and South Korea."

Japan may not be responsible for the division of Korea, but like
China, it seems utterly comfortable with two Koreas and stirs itself
only when it looks as if there might be some progress toward
unification. The ostensible reason for Murayama's reversal is that
Japan does not want to accede to North Korea's demand for
compensation for the division of Korea. But the real issues behind
Japan's ambiguous stance are: the place of Korea in the future of
East Asian international relations, whether Japan will always have
the American nuclear umbrella and thirty-seven thousand American
troops in Korea to provide the first line of defense, what would
happen to the Japanese-American "alliance" if the Americans ever
again had to use force in Korea while the Japanese merely looked on.
And indeed there is the even more fundamental question of why
American troops are still there forty-five years after the outbreak
of the Korean War and five years after the end of the Cold War.

The United States' position is no less ambiguous. Together with the
former USSR, it does bear responsibility for the division of Korea
after World War II, but that is something long forgotten. (In 1945
the Americans and Russians glanced at the map and chose the 38th
parallel as the dividing line between the zones where the two
putative allied armies would take the Japanese surrender.) Other
things the Americans prefer to forget are those aspects of the Korean
War that made it a civil war as well as a response to North Korean
aggression; the American role in delaying democracy in Korea by its
passivity in the face of Chun Doo Hwan's military coup d'état in 1979
and his massacre of civilians at Kwangju the following year; and
their continuing military presence in a nation twice as populous and
sixteen times as rich as its northern rival. The United States is
also an ally of Israel, a country with a population of five million,
compared to South Korea's forty million, and surrounded by enemies;
but the United States does not station American soldiers in Israel to
defend it. Arguably, the Americans have a greater stake than any
other external power in the unification of Korea, but current
policies, particularly the determination to keep U.S. ground forces
there until 2015 (according to the so-called Nye Report of February
1995), directly contradict long-term American interests.

The Chinese, Korea's first colonizers, are the big winners in this
situation. Not unlike the Tang Dynasty's relations with the three
kingdoms of Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche, China today enjoys
diplomatic relations with both the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea, with its capital in Pyongyang, and the Republic of Korea, with
its capital in Seoul. The Chinese prefer a structurally divided Korea
that is unable to play its full role as a buffer between China,
Russia, and Japan, thereby giving China a determining influence on
the peninsula. China's greatest worry has been that the North might
collapse due to economic isolation and ideological irrelevance,
thereby bringing about a unified Korea. This could make Korea an
independent actor in northeast Asian politics, one the size of, and
potentially as rich as, the former West Germany--and possessing a
good army with nuclear weapons. This is not a development the Chinese
would welcome. They would prefer to see the Americans, as outsiders,
performing the dual role of continuing to protect the South while
also propping up the regime in the North economically--and getting
their South Korean and Japanese allies to help pay for the latter.

The Russians no longer have much influence on the Korean situation,
although until the U.S.-North Korean agreement of October 21, 1994,
they were the second most important source (after China) of fuel oil
for the North. Today the Russians increasingly look to the Chinese as
trading partners and as models of how to get capitalism before, or
possibly without, democracy, and for the time being they seem to be
following China's lead with regard to Korean policy. But that is not
a path one can expect the former superpower to pursue indefinitely.

Meanwhile the Koreans themselves, both North and South, try to deal
with this ambiguous environment, their own legacies of civil war, and
their disputed claims to resistance or collaboration with the
Japanese colonialists. And, of course, there are the broader
questions raised by South Korea's capitalist miracle and North
Korea's failed autarky, the learning curve spawned by the collapse of
the Soviet empire and what happened to those countries that tried to
jump directly into Anglo-American capitalism, and the opportunities
and dangers posed by the shift in the global economic center of
gravity to East Asia.

Variables and Constants

We must look at the strategic choices of both North and South Korea
in this age of profound ambiguity, particularly as they relate to and
are influenced by the United States and Japan. The latter two are the
important variables in the equation. China is the major constant. I
take as given that China--for reasons of geography and history--is
the most important external power vis-Ã -vis the Korean peninsula and
that it desires a perpetuation of the status quo. Its policy is one
of "no unification, no war." (It is worth remembering that what the
United States calls the Korean War turned out actually to be a war
between the United States and China, fought on Korean territory. Had
it remained strictly a "Korean" war, the United States would have won
it and Korea today would not be divided.)

I also take it as given that China, Japan, and South Korea will never
join the United States in genuine sanctions against the North and
that the North knows this; that Japan will never join in the use of
force in the Korean peninsula, and that this effectively makes the
American military presence there both expensive and not credible; and
that the Americans will never staff their government with genuine
experts on the countries of East Asia, but will do so instead with
economic and military theorists who will always have trouble knowing
what is going on.

This last is the reason why virtually everything the Americans say
officially about North Korea lacks strategic insight into the world
as it appears from Pyongyang, as well as into what will be required
to prevent the many blunders of the past from exacting high costs in
the future. The U.S. news media have characterized North Korea as a
"rogue state" (whatever that might mean), and Kim Jong Il as "the mad
prince of North Korea whose troops (and nukes) make him the Saddam
Hussein of North Asia;" Secretary of State Christopher (testifying
before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) argued very
implausibly that only the threat of UN Security Council sanctions
brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

It must be acknowledged that no one knows much about the North Korean
leaders and how their decisions are made. The only absolutely certain
facts to emerge from the dramatic events of 1994 were that Kim Il
Sung met Jimmy Carter in June and shortly thereafter died. Whether
there is any relation between these two occurrences or, indeed,
whether Kim died a natural death are still open questions. What we do
know about North Korea, combined with a general knowledge of
international relations, suggests that it is less a rogue state than
a desperate one. In response to being driven into a corner, however,
it offered the world a textbook example of how to parlay a weak hand
into a considerable diplomatic and economic victory over a
muscle-bound but poorly-informed competitor.

Without a Patron

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991 precipitated an acute crisis in North Korea.
Even if it was not prepared to acknowledge that it had to reform its
economic system of juche (self reliance), North Korea still could not
help observing that the end-game of the Cold War was particularly
dangerous for players on the communist side. The former leaders of
Romania were put up against a wall and shot, the former leaders of
East Germany were tried and given heavy sentences by the courts of a
unified Germany, and the United States persisted in its boycott of
Cuba even though it no longer posed any kind of threat. (Recently
asked why Cuba was still being shunned, a "senior administration
official," speaking on condition of anonymity, said with a smile,
"To my knowledge they do not have a nuclear weapons program.")

Essay Types: Essay