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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At the end of 1949, Kim lacked Moscow’s and Beijing’s support to grab the South. But in January 1950, Washington disastrously signaled its limited strategic interest in Korea in remarks by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. In March, Stalin told Kim he would support an armed reunification if Mao could be brought on board.

Mao was cautious, but assurances from Stalin (of Soviet air support) and from Kim (that Washington would not jump in and that the South would rise up to embrace socialism) persuaded him to agree and prepare for war.

When North Korea attacked in June 1950, Truman reversed himself and sent substantial forces from Japan into Korea. Mao, already prepared for intervention, sent more than 200,000 troops when the U.S. and South Korean armies pushed back the North’s forces and reached the Chinese border.

China suffered 152,000 dead and 383,000 badly wounded in the war. Urgent home reconstruction tasks of Mao’s brand-new regime were also disrupted. A door slammed closed against Mao’s quest for the China seat in the Security Council of the United Nations. Incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC was indefinitely postponed. Beijing did not recover from the class‑struggle mentality developed during the “anti-imperialist” Korean War until the death of Mao in 1976.

The Korean people lost even more in the war and later from the spiritual deprivation of division and the intensifying human tragedy within failed North Korea. As a result of the role of Stalin and Mao (backing Kim) and of Washington’s failure to deter Kim, reunification was put out of reach for generations.

U.S. officials often declare the Kim dynasty inscrutable. In 2006, Nicholas Burns, then number three at the State Department, said that without a U.S. embassy in North Korea “it is hard to know what Pyongyang wants.” Not really. Kim Jong Il wanted exactly what his father sought in June 1950: a reunified Korea under Communist leadership, by military means if necessary and possible.

You would never know this from Jimmy Carter’s prattling about North Korea’s “seeking attention” and “respect” with its nuclear program. If all Pyongyang wanted was to be secure as a bug in its Stalinist rug, it would not have attacked South Korea in 1950, attempted assassinations of two South Korean presidents, and continued to attack the South—torpedoing the naval vessel Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island—even into the Obama years.

Our best tribute to the bravery of U.S., South Korean, and other soldiers 60 years ago, and our most appropriate response to the sudden political fluidity in Pyongyang, would be the reunification of Korea under democracy. It would be a smoke-and-mirrors process of negotiation that offered benefit to all parties—until the last stage.

A quiet bargain between the United States and China is the key. Beijing accepts the end of Stalinism in North Korea. Washington and its allies offer Beijing a reunified Korea free of U.S. troops and nuclear weapons. Given Pyongyang’s virulence toward Seoul last week, no chance exists for the two Korean states to take the first step. Obama and Hu Jintao must jointly urge the reunification process.

Beijing has long preferred the devil it knows (a Stalinist ally in Pyongyang) to an unknown devil (a unified Korea). But a threshold was reached in 2006 when Beijing said it was “brazen” of North Korea to perform a nuclear test; leading Korea specialists in China later declared past negotiations with Pyongyang “a failure.” Pyongyang’s defiance of Beijing, said Professor Zhang Liangui of the Central Communist Party School, is “the worst setback for Chinese foreign policy in the history of the PRC.” Yan Xuetong of Qinghua University compared the breach between North Korea and China to the Sino‑Soviet split of the 1960s. “The old relationship has gone to hell,” he declared. “It’s a big slap to China.”

This was strong medicine. These specialists did not speak out without a green light from a senior figure. One must be restrained in hoping for a better Korea policy from a government headed by Hu Jintao, who has praised both the North Korean and Cuban regimes, but Beijing’s tie with Pyongyang seems atavistic for a modernizing China. An adviser to Hu Jintao at People’s University told me over dinner in Beijing in November that Hu has not really praised North Korea; he just favors “the stability” of the present situation. But younger Chinese Communists no longer want China to be known for propping up Asia’s most repressive and unsuccessful regime.

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