The Korean Situation

I’m scared. I’ll admit it.

I don’t think anything is about to happen, and I have reasons for that. South Korea is going about its business as if everything is normal, because what the hell else can we do? But it’s unnerving to have talk of fire and fury directed at the place you live. I’ve started thinking about what I’d do if I had to leave.

Setting aside the rhetoric, though, it doesn’t appear that either the United States or North Korea is preparing for an actual war. The US has sent some planes our way, but that’s about it. No carrier group, no calling up of reservists like before the Gulf War and the Iraq War, no massive movement of troops or materiel. Soldiers in Korea and Guam are still in their barracks. (For what it’s worth, moving any great number of troops into South Korea would require at least the tacit approval of the government here, which has a pretty serious stake in not getting its country destroyed.)

On the North Korean side, I haven’t seen any reports of big troop movements: no tanks massing by the DMZ, no large-scale mustering, no panic in Pyongyang.

The biggest sign to look for — and there’s no hint of it — is a move to begin evacuating American citizens. There are well over a hundred thousand of us here, including diplomats and their families, and the US is likely to want to move us out of the way before doing anything big. So for the moment, at least, nothing big seems to be planned.

But it’s the small and unplanned that scares me. A planned large-scale war is something Trump’s generals are very unlikely to encourage, but I worry that our president might order a missile strike on impulse, without waiting for our military to be ready for North Korea’s response. What that response would be, we can’t know. It could be anything from total silence to a strike at Guam to a massive bombardment of Seoul.

 

I don’t think any of this is likely, mind you. But it’s not pleasant to consider the odds, or to keep hoping that something serious happens somewhere else in the world to distract the president. I hope this passes soon, and we can all move on with our lives.

Imaginary Lines

Much of what we think of as the real world is actually collective dreaming. Money, laws, social mores, nation states don’t exist in any absolute sense; they’re not real the way rocks and trees and gravity are real. They’re shared agreements that could evaporate in an instant, and sometimes do.

Confronted by a national border, we are suddenly reminded how arbitrary our shared agreements are: the money in my pocket can be exchanged for goods on this side of the imaginary line, but not that side; I can relax here in the shade of this tree, but if I try to rest in the shade of that tree over there, armed men will stop me unless I go through a particular ritual involving specially prepared documents.

The DMZ — the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea — is an especially arbitrary border, the result of hasty decisions at the close of World War II and a military stalemate in 1953. It’s also the site of a bitter struggle between competing collective dreams, where each side has been preparing for 64 years for the other side to wake up and adopt the worldview of its opponent.

Dorasan Station

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A full-day tour of the DMZ begins at Dorasan Station, the northernmost point on the South Korean railway system and a monument to a South Korean dream of unification. The fully functional station has been used exactly once, for a test run into North Korea during a thaw in relations. It sits waiting for the moment when rail service to points north becomes possible. You have to buy a ticket to go to the platform. On the way in, I noticed a South Korean tap his paper ticket to the top of the turnstile, the way you do with your digital transit card in an operational South Korean train station. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens here.

The Third Tunnel

For all that borders and nation states are imaginary, certain things are all too real: the landmines that make the DMZ impassable, and the tunnels the North Koreans dug at various points in attempts to infiltrate into South Korea. We visited the Third Tunnel because it’s the closest to Panmunjom. Surreally, you enter the tunnel in a little open train that feels like a kiddie ride at an amusement park.

Like everything else along the DMZ, the tunnels are the subject of a propaganda war. The North Koreans first claimed they had nothing to do with the tunnel — discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 because of underground explosions — then later claimed it was a coal mining operation, though the walls are obviously granite and the odds of finding coal in such a location are exactly zero.

Outside the tunnel, big letters spelling out DMZ are a kitschy place to take a photo, while a statue of young people pushing a divided world back together unfortunately made me think of Humpty Dumpty.

In a small garden at the edge of the compound, you could hear music drifting in on the breeze: South Korean propaganda being blasted at the North. This audio war, in which the North and South played music and taunting messages at ever increasing volume, had fallen into an armistice during the period of the Sunshine Policy, but the South started it up again a couple of years ago in response to some North Korean provocation or other, and now any North or South Koreans close enough to the border are subject to the whimsical musical choices of whatever South Korean colonel is in charge. On this particular day, I caught a bit of an old pop tune from 1994. (Thank you, Shazam.)

Looking down

From the tunnel, you continue on to Dorasan Observatory, where you can finally peer down on North Korea itself and see its enormous flagpole — once the highest in the world — which was built to overtop a South Korean flagpole. There’s a village down there that US officials say is empty and always has been: a Potemkin village that would be more laughable if we hadn’t just visited South Korea’s Potemkin train station. And you can see out to Kaesong, the industrial complex that was once the site of South Korean businesses operating in North Korea but is now shuttered.

There’s a line of mounted binoculars at Dorasan Observatory, and for 500 won you can take a closer look at the mysterious country beyond. I managed to catch sight of some fieldworkers — most clad in white, a few on the edges in gray, maybe supervisors or guards or who knows what. There was a frisson to seeing actual North Koreans, like spotting a rare animal on safari, and also a kind of sickening feeling about such voyeurism. It’s true that I’ve taken photos of poor peasant farmers in Laos and Myanmar without feeling particularly weird about it, but at least those folks could engage with me if they had wanted to. I was looking down on North Koreans who had no way of looking back.

Human beings

A DMZ tour isn’t really about North Koreans as human beings. At no point did any of our tour guides, South Korean or American, mention North Korea’s awful human rights record or the recurring famines that continue to torment the North Korean people. One way the DMZ works as an imaginary space is by turning North Koreans from individuals into representatives of their state: Bob the soldier, or tiny little dots in the distance seen from Dorasan, or anonymous tunnel diggers. But I know about all these things. I have friends who grew up on the other side of that border, and I know some of the hardships they endured, some of the traumas they still carry with them.

Perhaps that’s why the most affecting moment of the tour, for me, was a brief stopover after lunch, at a kitschy little tourist trap in Paju, close to the border. There we saw the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged and had the option of choosing one or the other Korea to stay in. To consider the bridge was to think about the individuals crossing it, the reasons they had for choosing one side or the other and the sacrifices this must have entailed. We also learned about a shrine where people with North Korean roots come to do ancestor worship on the major Korean festivals, when all the other Koreans are heading to their hometowns. The thought of those people cut off from their roots was ineffably sad, and it made me think of the Book of Lamentations and the suffering of Jews in exile who could no longer reach their beloved Jerusalem.

Panmunjom

The highlight of the tour was our visit to the Panmunjom Truce Village. South Koreans aren’t allowed to join this part of the tour, and it’s frankly weird that anyone else can go there. We switched from our tour bus to a different bus, leaving our bags behind, and now we were under the care of a young American infantryman with a pistol prominently at his side.

The truce village itself isn’t much to look at, just some military buildings and some sheds in the middle, but everything is formal and tense. First we were given an introductory slideshow, narrated by our American soldier. We learned about the incident in which North Koreans hacked to death with axes two Americans who were trying to cut down a tree that blocked their view. We learned of a firefight that broke out in the 1980s when a Soviet journalist bolted for the South Korean side. We learned that the North Koreans never give the South Koreans or the US any information about what they plan to do, but that the South Koreans announce the day’s schedule and activities through a bullhorn each day to try to minimize the chances of any incidents.

Then, as we marched out into the open, we were told not to stop for anything, not even to tie our shoes, and not to try to signal to the North Koreans in any way. We stood outside for a bit, gazing across at a lone North Korean soldier standing in front of their rather formal building. The Americans call him Bob because he likes to bob in and out of the columns when the tourists come. South Korean soldiers stood around here and there, facing both north and south, motionless and intense in their taekwondo stances. (Their shifts are three-and-a-half hours.)

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Finally we had our turn to go inside the conference room. The American cheerfully said, “You’re in North Korea! You’re in North Korea!” as people began crossing the dividing line at the center of the room. Also in North Korea were two more of those motionless North Korean guards, there to prevent anyone from doing anything interesting. We stayed there for a few minutes, then filed out again.

Self-defense

Once we’d departed the truce village, I asked the American soldier about his life in Korea. He’s never been able to go down to Seoul, but sometimes he goes drinking in the nearest South Korean village. (Villagers near the border get free land and exemptions from taxes and military service, but you have to have North Korean roots to get the deal, and you also have to be back in your village before dark each night.)

He also said that being a tour guide made him the laughingstock of the infantry. “I got buddies who’re going to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan,” he said. “At least they can defend themselves.” Then he paused. “I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

I wondered what he meant by that. Are American troops at the DMZ supposed to retreat or surrender if fighting breaks out? Maybe. I think the US would rather lose a few soldiers as prisoners and have time to negotiate or calculate a response rather than have an escalating military engagement in which North Korean soldiers are killed or wounded. This is probably not much fun for the US troops involved to contemplate, but it makes sense.

Back to our reality

And then, with one final visit to a gift shop, our tour came to an end. You can buy I Heart DMZ merchandize, which has a certain absurdist charm. I bought an armband like the ones the South Korean soldiers wear.

Then we rode the bus back down to Seoul, and my friends and I headed for Hongdae and its Saturday Night crowds. We ate barbecue and bingsu, watched buskers, bought some swanky new clothes at Aland. Some rampant capitalist indulgence felt good after a day spent contemplating one of the least compelling alternatives ever devised. But it also felt a little less real, a little more imaginary than usual. 

Minister Kang

When I was a speechwriter for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, from 2004 to 2008, Kang Kyung-hwa — Moon Jae-in’s appointee for Foreign Minister — impressed me before I was even hired.

I was interviewed for the job by a panel of five diplomats. At first I was asked the usual stuff: my background, how I heard about the job. Then the questions turned political, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me but did. “What do you think,” one of the men asked me, “about the United States response to 9/11 and the War on Terror?”

I gave what I thought was a diplomatic answer, saying that I appreciated South Korea’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing, and also that I had differences with the Bush administration, but that I didn’t want to criticize my government too strongly.

That’s when Kang Kyung-hwa spoke up. “But isn’t that the beauty of America?” she asked, smiling. “That you can criticize your government?”

The question cut through my bullshit. Somehow she invited criticism of the United States by praising it, and she made it clear that my evasions weren’t good enough. I responded, after maybe a bit more hedging, with something much closer to the truth.

I came to admire Kang for her strength, intelligence, and ability to cut through people’s preset defenses to get to what matters. During my years at the Mission, she had a significant role in the rapid passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, transformative global legislation that Koreans should be proud to have played a part in. Since then, she’s done human rights work at the United Nations.

Human Rights, in diplomacy terms, is considered a soft issue, along with social and cultural affairs. When I was at the Korean Mission, it was always women who had the soft-issue portfolios, while the men handled the so-called hard issues: defense,  security. Foreign ministers usually come from the hard-issue side. In choosing Kang, Moon Jae-in is doing more than just selecting a woman. First, he’s selecting an extraordinary woman; second, he’s signalling that issues of human rights and culture will play a central role in his administration’s domestic and foreign affairs.

When I worked with her, Kang Kyung-hwa’s title was Minister. I hope that she’s confirmed quickly, taking on that title again in a much higher-ranking role.

The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.

 

[korea? i hardly know ya!]

Last week was a hectic one here at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the UN. A quiet lull, during which most of our staff seemed to be out at JFK to meet Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, gave way to an unusual burst of activity, as I spent the better part of a week going back and forth with the Minister’s team as we revised and refined his statement to the General Assembly, as well as his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. At one point, I was even invited to a breakfast meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Whether all this work resulted in anything worthwhile, I leave it for you to judge (PDF/webcast), but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of it.

Now that the Foreign Minister has gone home, things have settled down considerably, though there’s still plenty of work to be done. Tonight, though, we’ll have our annual reception in honor of Dangun, the legendary founder of the Korean people, whose heroic act is mysteriously commemorated according to the Gregorian calendar. What this means for me is free hors d’oeuvres tonight, as well as an opportunity to check out a bunch of ladies in hanbok, and then the day off tomorrow for what is officially termed National Foundation Day.

[who is a korean?]

In an interesting and laudable development, South Korea has decided to start teaching units in its elementary schools about mixed-race Koreans and overseas adoptees.

“Children in multi-cultural families get disadvantages and unfair treatment due to their accent, physical appearance and culture upbringing. We need to teach children that discrimination against or contempt of biracial people or overseas adoptees is wrong and that we can get along with children from an international marriage,” said Kwon Ki-won, head supervisor of the ministry’s curriculum policy division.

As the article points out, the number of biracial students in Korea is still incredibly small — well under 10,000 — but this will be a growing issue as Koreans continue to move abroad while maintaining links with home, and as interracial marriages continue to increase. I don’t think Korea will ever be an immigrant society like America, nor should it be, but the Koreans will have to come to an understanding of what it means to be Korean that is not wholly centered on race and native understanding of the language. This is a step in the right direction.

[whaddaya know?]

So the early report is that a deal has been reached with North Korea: energy aid in exchange for steps toward disarmament.

It’s very preliminary still, and this whole thing could collapse over a North Korean demand for more energy than the other five powers are willing to give, or, more likely, over shifting North Korean positions on what disarmament steps they will take and when.

It will be interesting to see, as the details emerge, where exactly this leaves the Bush administration in terms of its North Korea policy. Did the hard line work? Were the Bushies right all along to toss the Agreed Framework over North Korea’s dabbling with uranium? Were they right to insist on talking only through the six-party framework rather than one on one?

The last question is the easiest to answer: No. The North Koreans have proved far more willing to compromise since Chris Hill, our lead negotiator, started talking one-on-one with the North Koreans (albeit in a format that the Bush administration, never sticklers for reality, continue to insist doesn’t qualify as one on one). As for the rest of it, let’s keep in mind that we’re now asking North Korea to roll back its plutonium-bomb developments, which wouldn’t exist if not for the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

There is no indication that the central problem of a poor, hostile, dictatorial, aggressively criminal North Korea has been solved. Still, if we’re all stepping back from the brink of nuclear war, that’s good.

For more on North Korea, check out Richard Bernstein in the New York Review, who notes that back in the early Clinton years, conventional wisdom had it that the communist regime in North Korea would wither and collapse like so many others had in Central and Eastern Europe. At this point, I think a more realistic model is that of China and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has maintained control while transforming into something new and pro-capitalist. And the road to such a transformation is through engagement, not isolation.

The Kim dynasty seems unlikely to collapse through internal decay, though one never knows. And even if it did, that would hardly be the end of our troubles: a headless state full of fanatical militants with no food is not a pretty prospect for any of its neighbors. Only engagement has any chance of creating a North Korea that can join with South Korea to become a prosperous, peaceful Korea.

Update: It turns out that South Korea’s lead negotiator is Chun Yung-woo, with whom I had the pleasure of working closely on a number of occasions when he was Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. In my experience, he was extremely intelligent, incisive, charismatic and tough-minded — ideal for his current role, really. Should an accord be signed, I will have to send him a note of congratulations.


[still a closed country]

South Korea thinks it wants to welcome the world, but it doesn’t. After hundreds of years of keeping the borders closed, followed by a period of foreign occupation and war, Koreans still have a hard time thinking of their country as anything but a bastion of Korean monoculture. One still hears about blood and soil — ironically, since the very concept is probably German by way of the Japanese occupiers — and half-Korean children are still treated terribly in schools, to the extent that apartheid villages have been proposed.

But forget all that. How good is South Korea with long-term visitors? A new report suggests: not very. From buying cellphone service to getting fair prices on clothes to going to the doctor, foreigners find daily life in Korea difficult. Worse yet, they don’t know what recourse they have, if any, when things go wrong.

South Korea still has a long way to go if it wants to be the hub of Asia.