Why you should care
Because we need to understand South Korea’s past to appreciate their goals for the future.
OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS
Having just spent a week in South Korea with graduate students from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on today’s political tensions in the region. We were studying the Korean War (1950–1953), and it quickly became apparent that you can’t understand today’s pressing issues on the peninsula, or South Korean attitudes toward them, without understanding what that long-ago war means to South Koreans — versus what it means to us.
As we know, South Korean diplomacy has set the stage for US and South Korean negotiations with Pyongyang on a range of issues, primarily the North’s rapidly expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs. President Trump has accepted an offer, relayed by the South, to meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un as part of this process in late May.
Discussions with officials from South Korea and the US military during our trip underlined both the severity of the problem and how the South Koreans are approaching the negotiations. On the military side, between 2006 and 2017 the North conducted six nuclear tests of increasing yield, and Kim Jong Un has launched 87 missiles since coming to power in 2011, exceeding the total of his two predecessors combined. Coalition military forces led by the United States have exercised for decades on how to deal with the North Korean threat. But there is a recognition that any fight would be ugly and costly in both blood and treasure. The American military believes North Korean artillery near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the country is capable of raining more explosive power on the greater Seoul area, home to 26 million people, than Germany dropped on London during the entire World War II Blitz.
Nothing is easier than to view this with skepticism, given the North’s track record of extortionist diplomacy and cheating on agreements.
As for diplomacy, South Korea is preparing carefully for negotiations and planning for a difficult, protracted process — assuming talks begin at all. They have no illusions that progress will be rapid. At best, they hope for painfully slow and incremental progress as the two sides struggle through difficult obstacles bit by bit. As a hedge against failure or setbacks, the South Korean government of Moon Jae-in is increasing its defense resources sharply, raising that budget by 8 percent compared to the 2.5 percent planned by the preceding government. They are also building toward a complex program called Kill-Chain that is designed to preempt a North Korean attack. The North objects, in particular, to the South’s increasing commitment to missile defense.
Meanwhile, talking with South Koreans strengthened my long-held conviction about dealing with problems on the peninsula. To be sure, we have vital national security interests there and should not shrink from forcefully pursuing them — all the more so now that the North appears capable of reaching the United States with an intercontinental missile. At the same time, it would be unwise to brush aside South Korean views and interests or to get too far out of step with them as we strategize on reducing or countering the North’s threat. In addition to sharing our concerns and resisting the North’s pressure, they have interests we can barely comprehend and that they seldom articulate: divided families, the certainty that they will bear the heaviest costs of any conflict and societal wounds that persist from having had their country divided during the Cold War.
Which gets us to that long-ago war. Though it is often called the “Forgotten War” in the United States, it is far from forgotten on the peninsula. But their memory of it is very different from ours. To us, the Korean War was a conflict that we and other United Nations members fought there against the Communist powers of the day — Communist China, the Soviet Union and the latter’s then-newly-created postwar puppet state north of the 38th parallel (today’s North Korea). It was the first and most serious military clash of what became the Cold War. It ended in the 1953 stalemate, bequeathing 60-plus years of international tensions.
If I heard Southerners correctly, the term “Korean War” makes little sense to them. It took place in Korea, of course, but it would be like us calling the American Revolution the Anglo-French war because both powers were present on our continent maneuvering against each other as we pursued our independence from Britain.
South Koreans refer to what happened on their peninsula as “Six-Two-Five” — the war that they and others fought, starting on June 25, 1950, after World War II had ended a 30-year Japanese occupation of the peninsula. South Koreans come across as realistic about the dim prospects for unification (even though their government for years has had a Ministry of Unification). But over a longer term that no one can gauge, this is a hope that’s hard for them to abandon, even if it is not an immediate tactical objective.
So in the coming negotiations, we need to be aware that they may be peering more deeply into the future than we are. We want the North’s nuclear program shut down — and for us, that is probably enough for now, given how hard that’s certain to be. The South wants that too, but if it is ever achieved, they are likely to see that as the “end of the beginning,” not the end of a journey.
This is consistent with what some South Korean politicians refer to as the “Sunshine Policy” — a belief that by slowly increasing economic, social and political engagement with the North, over time this will move the regime away from its isolationism and bring it closer to global norms. Current President Moon and his advisers lean toward this view and in all likelihood it is in their minds as they pursue this latest effort with the North.
Nothing is easier than to view this with skepticism, given the North’s track record of extortionist diplomacy and cheating on agreements. But if we put ourselves in South Koreans’ shoes — and fully appreciate their history — it’s also easy to understand why they may discern possibilities on a distant horizon that will not be apparent to us. And we need to respect that.