An Alternate Take on the Korean Crisis

I never quite understood the only book I ever tried to read by acclaimed security expert Edward Luttwak, but I found his take on the improbable survival of the North Korean regime enlightening.  For those who want the short version, he argues that the root of the problem has a lot to do with South Korea acting as an enabler of the North.  Among his points. . .

  • North Korea could never survive on its own, so its survival can only come by acting as a parasite
  • The South has acted as a primary enabler, through payoffs, work programs, etc.
  • The South enables the North also through a failure to realistically face the North militarily.

Basically, if the South can change its behavior, Luttwak argues, the North cannot sustain itself for much longer.  But the South fails to live up to strategic realities.  He writes,

Meanwhile, South Korea has matched the North’s bellicosity with its own strategic perversity: It remains obsessed with an utterly unthreatening Japan and has been purchasing air power to contend with imagined threats from Tokyo as opposed to the real ones just north of the demilitarized zone. Seoul is simply unwilling to acquire military strength to match its vastly superior economy. Instead, it spends billions of dollars to develop its proudly “indigenous” T-50 jet fighters, Surion helicopters, and coastal defense frigates — alternatives for which could be much better, and cheaper, imported from the United States. Meanwhile, gaping holes remain in South Korean defenses (and thus we see the ridiculous spectacle of last-minute scrambling for missing equipment and munitions in the present crisis). And the cycle continues: Because the South allows itself to remain so vulnerable, it cannot react effectively against North Korea’s perpetual threats and periodic attacks. Instead, Seoul checks its bank account and gets ready for the next payoff.

Luttwak’s article illumines a great deal of the reality of the North Korean situation, and provides insight that we did not hear during the heat of the crisis.  The idea of Japan still looming large in South Korea’s mindset testifies to the longevity and power of cultural memory.  It made me wonder, however, if one piece remains missing.  If Luttwak is right, we still have to ask the question why South Korea continues to keep North Korea on life support.  We might arrive if we think of North and South Korea not as two separate nation-states, but as two brothers of the same family.

Families are meant to stay together, and the unnatural separation of North and South Korea after World War II traumatized both sides.  But they coped with this situation differently, and South Korea, obviously, is the brother that made good.  With their newfound and perhaps unexpected success, the South Koreans would inevitably feel twinges of survivor’s guilt.  So, while others just see dangerous choices that need to run its course, South Korea remembers the way it used to be, back before things went awry.  They give into the North’s demands maybe because they truly believe North Korea’s reformation is surely just right around the corner.  This time, they’ll be good for it, if just for old times sake.

Cousin EddieI feel for the South, and if I’m right about this sibling analogy, they have my sympathy.  But I doubt that, whatever their good intentions, that their actions will pay off.  Cousin Eddie, after all, stayed Cousin Eddie no matter how many vacations the Griswold’s took.