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The risk of war in Korea

Global trade | The risk of war in Korea Bill Sharon

Regardless of your opinion about the existence and intent of Wikileaks perhaps the most surprising thing about the internal diplomatic cables that have been revealed to date is that they are not very surprising. The Karzai brothers are corrupt and/or ineffectual, Ahmadinejad is unstable, Al Qaeda gets significant funding from the Saudis, Syria is still arming Hezbollah and so on. While perhaps no one says these things for public attribution they are reasonably well known to most people who follow foreign affairs and read something other than the official communiqués of sovereign governments.

But there was something new conveyed by a conversation that an American diplomat had with a South Korean diplomat about a conversation he had with a Chinese diplomat. China is said to be supportive of a unified Korea even if it was run by the existing South Korean government with its alliance with the United States. As Americans hear this, their Cold War view of the Korean peninsula takes a big hit. For the last 50 years most Americans think of the DMZ as a dividing line between democracy and communism. This made sense in the days when we all imagined Mao sending the screaming hordes of Chinese and North Koreans to destroy the South. After all, it actually happened once before.

But unlike Mao, Wen Jiabao is more focused on property bubbles and currency fluctuations than spreading the Great Leader’s dogma. Korea has to be a headache. The Kim family, with its obsessive and singular goal of retaining power is a distraction from the very real problems that China must manage as it continues to emerge as a global economic power. The prospect of trading the mercurial (and apparently dying) Kim Jong Il for the 25 year old four star general Kim Jon Un can’t be a very happy one.

So the fact that reunification is being contemplated by the Chinese is news indeed. The last time we all had this experience was in the fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was breached. That seemingly spontaneous event was preceded by fits and starts; East Germans were leaving by the thousands initially through Hungary and then through the former Czechoslovakia. The final breach in the Wall resulted from a politburo spokesman adlibbing in a press conference. But all these events were preceded by Reagan’s strategy of economically bleeding the Soviet bloc via the arms race. Spending money they didn’t have on the military and ignoring social needs and physical infrastructure is what brought the communist house down. If that strategy sends a chill down your spine it probably should.

South Korea has just belatedly completed a trade agreement with the United States (just a few weeks after embarrassing President Obama on the world stage at the G20 meeting). We can debate who came out on top in that deal but what can’t be debated is that China has replaced the US as the major trading partner of South Korea. Having kept the peace for over 50 years through diplomacy and the threat of force the United States now finds itself in a situation that is clearly in transition.

North Korea is not East Germany. The fact that they have atomic bombs changes the equation dramatically. More importantly, they have a dynastic family that wants to hold on to power and they seem to have put together a succession plan in a very hasty manner. One has to wonder about the calculation to choose the youngest son – one whose experience would have to be called into question by the coterie of generals and party officials whose survival depends on the absolute authority of the ruler. If the leadership transition happens sooner rather than later the risk of a calamity becomes greater.

There is an expectation that the North Korean regime will unravel slowly over three years after the leadership transition. That would be nice, but unlikely. The demise of totalitarian systems is rarely graceful. Add to that the recent provocation on the part of the North and the ongoing war games on the part of the South and the United States and it certainly begins to feel like a broader conflict is in the works.

But there is also another possibility. When we look at potential conflicts we often limit our observations to the military, political and economic information that is available. We tend to ignore the underlying cultural history and beliefs. That has come back to bite us in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might just be the key to a solution in this situation. Korea is the home of Tae Kwon Do. Most of us believe that the martial arts are about fighting but Tae Kwon Do is as much an art of peace as it is of self-defense. It has to do with loyalty, faith and respect. Will that tradition become more powerful than the drive towards conflict? Will the underlying cultural values of a people trump the push towards war? It will be instructive as we all find out.

This guest blog was first published on

Tags: global economy , Global trade , North Korea , South Korea , trade agreement , trading , US
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