Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, February 12, 2003


Seoul Syndrome? Now that the North Korean crisis is headed to the Security Council, it's worth remembering that not everyone is so concerned:

Few South Koreans interviewed share that sense of danger. "I know, to the outside world, North Korea looks like Iraq," said Han Young Gyu, 32, a shop owner in Seoul. "But for us, we know the North Koreans very well. We are the same people. So I don't feel any sense of danger."

Belief that North and South Korea will be united--and that the 1950-53 Korean War was the result of foreign manipulation--has made some South Koreans perversely proud of the prospect that North Korea may have nuclear bombs. "I want North Koreans to develop nuclear weapons," said Park Soon Jae, 41, a housewife, in an opinion expressed by many people interviewed Saturday at a market in Seoul. "After all, we are one nation."

Reading these quotes in the Washington Post, I couldn't help but wonder whether those interviewed were suffering from a foreign-policy version of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop an irrational attachment to their captors. Over the years, North Korea has engaged in repeated military provocations of its neighbors, such as sending submarines into South Korean waters or firing missiles over Japan. And even though Ms. Park may feel that "we are one nation," the North Korean government doesn't seem to agree; it announced last week that if the U.S. builds up its troops in the region, "the whole land of Korea will be reduced to ashes, and the Koreans will not escape horrible nuclear disasters." (In 1994, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire," and they apparently still like the metaphor.)

There's also the small matter of how the North Korean government treats her fellow Koreans. As of last summer, millions of Ms. Park's big-happy-family-members were still eating grass to survive. In the late 1990s, the North Korean government stood by as up to 2 million citizens of this "one nation" died of hunger; the regime even drove out relief agencies such as Doctors Without Borders by hampering their operations.

One of the most moving images I've seen recently was a picture of the entire earth at night. It's inspiring to see the great swaths of human habitation in Europe, India, China, the Eastern U.S., and to think of the tiny houses, shops, and streetlights that are visible from space. Looking more closely, you can trace the Nile, the Fertile Crescent, the Trans-Siberian Railway--and the DMZ. South Korea is a sea of lights, with Seoul a bright splotch to the north-west; but then you look north, and there is only blackness. Except for one small spot at Pyongyang, the night in North Korea is as dark as in remotest Siberia, a darkness enforced by poverty and by a paranoiac regime that subjects its people to nightly blackouts.

It is this darkness that the scores of North Korean refugees have been fleeing--though they risk being imprisoned by a regime that won't let its own citizens leave. For its entire existence, the government of North Korea has been at war with its own people. And this is who Ms. Park wants to have nuclear weapons.

That said, I can understand why South Koreans might engage in such wishful thinking. Any moves to disarm North Korea will present a certain risk of war. If war breaks out with North Korea, the biggest losers will be South Korea and Japan. But if North Korea develops a significant nuclear capacity, the biggest losers will be Japan and especially the United States--the North will be happy to sell an extra bomb or two, and al Qaeda is looking to buy. This may help explain why the U.S. is interested in disarmament, South Korea is interested in lowering tempers, and Japan is torn in both directions.

For South Koreans like Ms. Park, accepting North Korea's program may be easier than fighting it. Until the North begins to make demands directly on the South, it's just a bystander--and in Robert Kagan's Old West analogy, outlaws shoot sheriffs, not saloonkeepers. From the saloonkeeper’s point of view, "the sheriff trying to impose order by force can sometimes be more threatening than the outlaws who, at least for the time being, may just want a drink."

This makes life difficult for the United States, and for anyone concerned by the possibilities of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. In order to pressure North Korea into giving up its weapons, there has to be a united front willing to isolate Kim's regime. If South Korea or China won't go along with trade sanctions, the North is no longer isolated. But we've already seen a similar united front fall apart in the case of Iraq, whether through U.S. belligerence or through Franco-German intransigence--and there the stakes were much lower for all involved. The worst-case scenario for Paris or Berlin isn't nearly so bad as the worst-case scenario for Seoul.

As to how a united front can be created, I don't have any good answers. All I can do is hope that a coalition will be found, and that this crisis--as no longer seems possible in the case of Iraq--can be resolved without war.




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