The Magazine

One Korea, After All

Time to undo the Kim family regime

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ROSS TERRILL
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With 28-year-old Kim Jong Eun propped up to handle Pyongyang’s succession crisis, three facts about North Korea are salient. Kim Jong Il, who died December 17, like his father was a tyrant whose damage makes Qaddafi seem a choirboy. After six decades of peaceful competition with the capitalist South, the socialist North’s per capita GDP is 5 percent of South Korea’s. Years of futile disarmament talks with North Korea compare with the worst peace-effort fiascoes of League of Nations days.

Photo of Kim Jong Eun

Kim Jong Eun

NEWSCOM

George W. Bush’s comment to Bob Woodward, “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” was a fitter summation of this cruel nonentity than the full-page world-historical pomposity of the New York Times’s obituary. Kim Jong Il made but two offerings to his people: poverty and nuclear weapons. Now, in rituals the world takes too seriously, his son Kim Jong Eun gathers titles in Pyongyang’s totalitarian edifice as a house may add gargoyles, but it means little. Half a dozen Communist regimes in Europe looked stable until suddenly gone.

“No good options exist,” the pundits always say of North Korea. “It’s the six‑party talks or another Korean War,” they declare. Give Seoul’s “sunshine policy” toward Pyongyang more time to mellow the Kim family regime. Results justified none of these hopes in 17 years’ arguing over the North’s nuclear program. There is no way to “address North Korea’s security concerns” when Pyongyang simply wants the United States to leave so it may grab the South.

Why did the Obama administration last month express hope for a “stable transition” in Pyongyang? John Bolton correctly wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “It is a self-fulfilling prophecy for Washington to see [Kim Jong Il’s] death only as a risk, rather than an opportunity.”

Fortunately, a good option does exist that would terminate the problem of nukes on the Korea peninsula. Talks would switch from Pyongyang’s “intentions” and weapons to the shape of a reunified Korea. The basis would be Pyongyang’s longstanding suggestion of a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo and Seoul’s similar idea of a Korean National Community.

Restoring the unity of a split country raises transforming possibilities; in this case, it can be “regime change” acceptable to nearly all parties. For 1,269 years there was one Korean state; for six decades there have been two. The reward for 28-year-old Kim Jong Eun would be respect from all Korea and a personal achievement absent in the life of his father and grandfather. Educated in Switzerland, with some knowledge of the West, he is young enough to glimpse redemption from his family’s horrible record by permitting peaceful reunification for the Korean people.

Hawks and doves have a rare opportunity to unite in this project. Reunification of Korea is a positive goal and susceptible to subtle negotiation. Hawks would see the Pyongyang regime swallowed into a new Korea government. Doves would see nukes gone from the Korea peninsula. A One Korea government, dominated by southerners, would renounce nuclear weapons. When did an American president or secretary of state last give a speech pushing the reunification of Korea? Obama should deliver one within weeks.

The Korean War (1950-53) stemmed from a struggle over reunification. The war was Kim Il Sung’s attempt to reunify Korea by force. The armistice of 1953 left unsolved this crucial issue of reunification and began the unfolding spectacle of freedom’s success and tyranny’s failure.

World War II and its aftermath were years of fluidity in international relations during which maps were redrawn almost by the week. The Soviet Union and the United States, mopping up against Japan, agreed on slicing Korea into two at the 38th parallel after a late night map examination by State Department officer Dean Rusk in August 1945. Kim Il Sung sought international Communist support for an attack on the South to end the murky maneuvers between his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (proclaimed in September 1948) and Syngman Rhee’s Republic of Korea (proclaimed in August 1948), each government claiming to represent the whole nation.

During 1948‑49, on the ground in southern Korea, Washington signaled declining commitment to Korea’s unity and security as Rhee’s fledgling government dealt with Communist rebellions that Stalin was supporting.

Everett Drumright, who set up the U.S. mission to the Rhee government, conveyed the atmosphere of insouciance about the threat of Kim Il Sung: “In 1948 only two divisions of troops were left in Korea,” he said in an interview. “But, over our objections at the embassy, they were recalled in the middle of 1949.” The diplomat described Rhee’s reaction to Truman’s policy: “[He was] extraordinarily bitter about the .  .  . evacuation and what he saw as a lack of help by the U.S. at this critical juncture.” Drumright summed up sadly, “We didn’t know what was going on in Washington.”

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