Only the Koreans can end their conflict
For a generation, the arc of international events has been mainly positive — the Cold War concluded, the Germanys reunited, apartheid is over. But a few conflicts refuse to end, and one became worse today as North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire, killing two South Korean soldiers. It’s not yet clear how the incident began. Presumably the United States, which has substantial forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam, is at the moment watching closely.
South Korea is prosperous, reasonably free, a budding democracy, and supported by the most powerful government on earth. North Korea is impoverished, repressed and alone. Nearly all North Koreans would benefit immensely if the wall separating their country and South Korea was the world’s next wall to tumble. So why does the conflict between these two states refuse to end?
North Korea is the last truly closed society. The old Soviet Union, and then Mao’s China, were able to keep their populations cowed by blocking nearly all outside information, then depicting the larger world as a nightmarish place. Once Russians of the 1970s and 1980s, and Chinese of the 1970s and 1980s, knew what the larger world was like, the clock began to tick on their nations’ dictatorships. Today’s global information flow is far from ideal, but North Korea is the last nation in which the average person takes a big risk by trying to find out what’s happening in the world. This allows North Korea to be the last secret-police state, and means little internal pressure against its corrupt, paranoid autocracy.
North Korea needs endless conflict for its ruling family to stay in power. Both Germanys wanted their conflict to end. South Korea wants the Koreas conflict to end. The United States, Russian Federation, China and Japan want the Koreas conflict to end. Kim Jong-Il does not want the conflict to end — without it, he and his son would be tossed from power. Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think Hamas) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.
There was no Korean War treaty. A 1954 armistice stopped the shooting, but no peace treaty ever was signed. This is deceptively important. Even former dictatorships, such as imperial Japan, respected the peace treaties they signed: while international agreements including the 1975 Helsinki Accords, on human rights, helped begin to dissolve the old Soviet system. No peace treaty to tie the knot on the Korean War exists, and the belligerents have long since stopped trying for one. This means no liberalizing treaty requirements bind Pyongyang, while the fact that the state of war technically never closed helps Kim Il-sung, and now Kim Jong-Il, maintain an internal condition of xenophobia.
The United States didn’t keep its word. The 1994 “Agreed Framework,” basically a very fancy memo, said North Korea would stop trying to make weapons-grade fissile materials in return for large amounts of oil (basically, foreign aid) from the United States and U.S. financing of a light-water power reactor (the civilian kind that generates electricity but doesn’t have much military value). Washington did not follow through, and after George W. Bush in 2002 proclaimed North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” the agreement essentially expired. Subsequent hot air from Washington, from Republicans and Democrats alike, has lacked credibility in Pyongyang.
(North Korea continues to try to build a light-water nuclear reactor on its own; probably this isn’t threatening, but since North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty after Bush began shaking his fist at Pyongyang, it’s hard to be sure. The centrifuges North Korea recently showed to a Stanford University professor might be for civilian power — but on-site inspectors are the only way to verify that.)
North Korea is not involved in international trade. Say what you will about globalization, in almost every case, it has made nations more open. At least since the Leipzig Trade Fair, which began nearly a thousand years ago, trade has caused different cultures to learn about each other, fear each other less, and generally, been a liberalizing force. Because hardly any nations do business with North Korea, nothing dilutes its xenophobia.
Family rule. Dictatorship based on lineage was the norm across the world during the Dark Ages, and in Europe as recently as the 19th century. Now it has vanished in most of the world — but still thrives in North Korea. Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, had the title Eternal Leader and remains, on paper, the head of state. Kim Jong-Il possessed just one qualification for office — he was Kim Il-sung’s son. Kim Jong-un possesses only one known qualification — he is the son of Kim Jong-Il.
Not only does the crooked ruling family live in extreme luxury while North Koreans starve: here is a satellite view of Kim Jong-Il’s mansion, plus water slide.
Family political rule based on oppression is essentially organized crime (think Cuba). But the awful reality of family rule in North Korea will not be changed by international action. North Korean patriots must be the ones to end it.
Nor can the United States, or the United Nations, or the six-party apparatus resolve the Koreas conflict. Only the Koreans themselves — North and South — can accomplish that. But a useful first step would be meaningful engagement with Pyongyang. Decades of bluster haven’t accomplished anything, as today’s events show.
Photo caption: Soldiers from the South Korean Army and Marine Corps take part in an annual river-crossing exercise against a possible attack from North Korea on the Han river in Yeoju, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Seoul, November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak