Tue, 23 Aug 1994

Korean conflict still a civil war

By Harvey Stockwin

HONG KONG (JP): In the wake of the death of Kim Il-sung on July 8, and following the modest "agreed statement" issued on Aug. 13 by the U.S. and North Korea, the true complexity of conflict on the Korean peninsula has come into sharper focus. Critically, the relations between North and South Korea are again deteriorating.

Korean conflict is partly a consequence of cold war, with North Korea having its own peculiar vision of messianic communism, plus the offensively deployed armed force to back that vision up.

Korea is also, inevitably, an international conflict, since three of the world's major powers are neighbors of Korea, and the world's only superpower has been and remains involved as a consequence.

A third, and perhaps most crucial element in the ongoing struggle is a condition of civil war. South and North Korea do not regard each other merely as separate nations, but as the renegade segment of one historically united family. Each Korea reserves for the other the passion, the preoccupation, the sheer intensity which makes civil wars the bitterest of all conflicts.

In the Korean case, it can hardly be otherwise given that as many, maybe more, civilians died in the 1950-1953 Korean War than did fighting men. It can hardly be otherwise given the many massacred then, behind or at the front lines, or given the million or so families still separated now, 41 years later, often without knowing whether long lost loved ones are alive or dead in the other half of the divided and totally separated nation.

It is worth noting that whereas the two Chinas and the two former Germanies were never entirely cut off from one another, the two Koreas have not been in touch with each other since 1945. Neither radio nor TV broadcasts from either side can penetrate to the other, while virtually no one can cross the demilitarized zone which serves as the border between them.

The state of civil war has never been formally ended. The situation remains additionally complicated by the fact that the Korean Armistice was signed by American commander on behalf of the United Nations, by China and by North Korea but never by South Korea, which in 1953 saw approval of the truce as betrayal of reunification.

The armistice made provision for a peace treaty to be quickly agreed but it never was. At long last, in 1991 and 1992 the South and the North seem on the way to make amends by reaching several interim agreements, most notably the joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But this apparent breakthrough soon came to nought as the crisis developed over North Korea's assumed nuclear weapons program (NWP).

A sub-plot to the nuclear crisis was the resumption of a cold war of words between the two Koreas, most notably as North Korea assailed South Korean President Kim Young-sam as one more American puppet who should be overthrown.

It had been hoped that the advent of South Korea's first truly civilian-led administration since 1962 would mark an easing of the civil war. In fact North Korea's verbal attacks were little different from those launched against Kim's military predecessors.

The current deterioration of relations comes as a reversal of the brief period of positive hope ushered in when a summit between President Kim Young-sam and Northern President Kim Il- sung was agreed in June, in tandem with the resumption of high- level U.S.-North Korean negotiations.

The twin initiative seemed perfectly designed to allay any South Korean fears of being excluded as a result of the North Korean talks with the Americans. Additionally, and more important, the summit agreement seemed to signal reluctant North Korean acceptance that the South was an entity in its own right, rather than a puppet whose fate would be decided between Pyongyang and Washington.

Whether the Kim Il-sung - Kim Young-sam summit would in fact have achieved anything is debatable. At least it might have reverted North-South relations to the more constructive path set earlier in the decade. At best the summit might have served to legitimize each state in the eyes of the other, thereby laying a foundation for real progress in the relationship. But with Kim Il-sung's death the summit instead became one of modern Asia's great might-have-beens.

It has been a complete reversal. The U.S.-North Korean negotiations have attained tentative initial agreement, but no summit is in sight, not least because Kim Jong-il has yet to be installed as the North Korean president.

The perennial North-South war of words, while not yet in full spate, has been resumed. The underlying tensions are well illustrated by the emerging dispute over the light-water nuclear reactors (LWR) promised to North Korea by the U.S. if it freezes the building of two new graphite ones and abandons its nuclear weapons program.

The North Koreans, desperately anxious never to acknowledge Southern economic supremacy, have argued against accepting a LWR from South Korea and would prefer a Russian model. The South Koreans, equally anxious to assert themselves, have insisted that they should supply the two LWRs, especially as they will probably bear most of the cost. But Seoul has offered a sweetener: the idea that electricity transmission lines could cross the DMZ to supply the North until the LWRs come onstream.

In the wake of the reversal, South Korea has been widely criticized for mishandling the situation. The main charges are that Seoul did not send condolences to the North on Kim Il-sung's death. It has used the occasion to rake over old coals, notably its publication of old Soviet documents recently released by the Russians concerning the outbreak of the Korean War. It has used the demonstrations of a small minority of students to launch a hard-line crackdown. The U.S. has gone so far as to once again urge the South to repeat its National Security Law (NSL) under which unauthorized contacts with, and visible sympathy for North Korea are prohibited and severely penalized.

The critics do make a point. Above all, if it was right for Kim Young Sam to meet Kim Il-sung on July 27, then it was incongruous not to send a small delegation to Pyongyang to express condolences for him on July 19.

That said, the liberal critics miss the civil war realities which make the Korean conflict so intractable.

It was the North which got the Kim mourning period off to a false start by going over the head of the South Korean government and positively inviting Koreans to break the NSL.

While a surprising number of foreign observers naively saw the continuing Kim mourning period as an expression of mass grief in the North, for the South Korean government it was a harsh reminder of the tightly organized totalitarian threat, in the face of which they simply cannot afford to relax.

Additionally, the nuclear crisis has resulted in endless struggles between "doves" and "hawks" both in South Korea and the U.S.. Given the current ascendancy of the "doves" in the Clinton Administration, illustrated by the wishful thinking behind the tentative agreement with North Korea, it is entirely understandable that the "hawks" have currently increased their influence in Seoul.

Yet another significant trend is also at work: Seoul has been catching up with its own naivete. For many years, up until and even after the high cost of uniting Germany forced second thoughts, South Korea's reunification rhetoric had two important consequences. It indirectly served to legitimize the North, or at least to minimize the North's hostility in the eyes of the South. After all, why unify with those who were illegitimate?

It also served to muddle the South's sense of purpose. This was vividly brought home at a recent seminar in Seoul. A foreign analyst suggested that in any reunification process, care must be taken not to weaken the South's democracy. A South Korean academic replied by deriding democracy and insisting that reunification came first.

It may have been unfortunate timing but the South appears to have chosen this time to correct both tendencies. The South, for example, could not go along with the North's view of Kim Il-sung as a liberator but had to remind itself of the suffering which his vision of reunification by force brought about.

So the current deterioration of South-North relations serves as a salutary reminder that Korea is dangerously divided into two countries, each of which adamantly believes that the whole nation can only be entrusted in their hands.

Window: Korea is dangerously divided into two countries, each of which adamantly believes that the whole nation can only be entrusted in their hands.