December 9, 2005


Gap between allies widens over N. Korea (Choe Sang-Hun, DECEMBER 8, 2005, International Herald Tribune

A long-running disagreement between the United States and South Korea over how to deal with North Korea widened publicly Thursday, when international human rights advocates gathered for a high-profile conference here and called for the overthrow of the North Korean government. [...]

The U.S. enthusiasm for the conference and South Korean coolness followed a sharp and direct exchange between officials of the two governments.

On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, called North Korea a "very repressive" and "criminal regime" that trades in illicit drugs and runs "concentration camps for political prisoners." These charges have been repeatedly stressed recently among hawks in Washington who favor a tough, confrontational policy toward North Korea.

In an unusually quick response, South Korea, which favors a conciliatory approach to the North, articulated what amounted to a public rebuke, apparently fearing that Vershbow's comments might derail the multinational talks on ending the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

What do they think the North is really like?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 9, 2005 8:49 AM

Is there anything more craven, more cowardly, than South Korea's support for the North Korean regime? Their policy can be summed up thus: "We'll give you anything you want and help you stay in power and even let you infiltrate us; just don't hurt our chances for re-election and do whatever you want with your citizens, just don't let them come here and complicate local elections. Screw the Americans; we're on your side.

Man, were I president of the United States, I would issue an executive emergency order for US forces to evacuate the peninsula in under 48 hours.

"Temporary redeployment" to Quemoy anybody?

Posted by: John at December 9, 2005 9:44 AM

just pull every troop out of soko, abrogate any trade/defense pacts, and withdraw from the nuclear talks. oh, and arm up japan to the teeth. let the the soko's deal with the mess themselves, no loss to the u.s. if they get merged.

Posted by: Gen. McArfthur at December 9, 2005 10:31 AM


Think about this for a moment from their perspective.

They know what the North is really like. What worries them is what the US might be really like: they've seen the abandonment of allies in South Vietnam, when only Vietnamese forces were fighting, they've seen the abandonment of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam after the first Gulf War, and they are looking nervously north, because the troops maintained by the US are not sufficient to respond to any first strike the north comes up with. They are afraid that the allies they have will abandon them. And if you listen to certain people, we're proposing to do just that.

Posted by: Arnold F Williams at December 9, 2005 10:40 AM

Arnold F Williams:

If that's the case, then why isn't South Korea armed to the teeth ?

They're a rich nation, they could afford to make it clear that any North Korean attack would be suicidal, just in terms of a South Korean response, allies aside.
If NoKo has missiles, the South can certainly have missiles, and far better ones, too.

NoKo has nukes, but only a handful.
SoKo could do an MX style strategy: Build 100 missile silos across the nation, put 50 MOAB-tipped missiles in 'em, and dare the NoKo's to use up their nukes randomly blasting possibly empty silos.

The U.S. troops stationed in Korea have NEVER been enough to defeat any potential North Korean attack, nor were they ever meant to.
They're essentially there so that their demise will stir the American public to righteous anger.

Further, I'm confident that SoKo can count on Japanese aid, should NoKo ever attack, and it's far from certain that NoKo can count on Chinese aid if the two Koreas throw down.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 9, 2005 11:20 AM

Michael: "why isn't South Korea armed to the teeth?"

You provide the own answer, of course. It's the same reason that Europe isn't armed to the teeth--they don't have to be, because we'll come to their rescue.

Posted by: b at December 9, 2005 12:46 PM


I don't know about armed to the teeth, but South Korea is hardly unarmed.

With half-a-million troops and a $16B defense budget, most military observers think the South would soundly defeat a northern invasion, though likely not before Seoul was devastated.

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 9, 2005 2:32 PM

What do they think the North is really like?

Let's ask all those South Korean kids who demonstrated in favor of reunification with the North -- on its own terms -- a few years ago.

Although it would be grossly immoral to send anybody into that gigantic prison known as North Korea -- no matter how much they claim to want it -- one daydreams about the fun you could have with a bilateral swap of teenagers and college students.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at December 9, 2005 6:14 PM

Mike Earl:

Yes, that's the sticking point.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2005 5:05 AM

"Is there anything more craven, more cowardly, than South Korea's support for the North Korean regime? Their policy can be summed up thus: "We'll give you anything you want and help you stay in power and even let you infiltrate us; just don't hurt our chances for re-election and do whatever you want with your citizens, just don't let them come here and complicate local elections. Screw the Americans; we're on your side."

What people seem to forget is that North Korea is effectively holding a gun to South Korea's head. They have 12,000 pieces of heavy artillery ranged along the border, a significant proportion of which is targeted at Seoul. Seoul has a population of roughly 10 million -- about a quarter of their total population. Seoul's environs also contain the nerve centre of both the government (hence the abortive proposal to move central government functions further back into the peninsula) and the economy. For South Korea, the loss of Seoul would be catastrophic.

If Kim Jong Il wants to attack South Korea, shells would start landing in downtown Seoul between 30 seconds and two minutes after he gave the order. Even if, say, half the artillery doesn't fire, and the ROK airforce manages to blow up the artillery that's not in heavy emplacements, Seoul would suffer an attack so terrible it would make September 11th look piddly, all within the first half hour of the war.

This is, one might say, nothing more than the usual pattern of deterrence. Except that here, there's a gap in how much the South is willing to spend vis-a-vis the North. The North will spend anything, or has led us to believe that they will. South Korea is just unwilling to risk the loss of the capital. The South has been deterred from pursuing the North too aggressively.

And perhaps (living so long under the shadow) they have come to accept the North, and are tired of mandatory military service, and the constant fear of attack. Hence KEDO, the demonstrations, the gifts of food, the Sunshine policy, etc.


I should also note, though, that it looks to me as though our interest in the North is not actually a product of our alliance with the South. The loss of South Korea would be grievous, to be sure -- more for me, perhaps, than most Americans -- and the loss of the South Korean economy (i.e. Samsung, LG, SK, Hyundai, etc.) would trigger a nontrivial recession, certainly in Asia, and probably elsewhere. But really, it wouldn't be that bad. 1997 saw South Korean investments plummet in value, and the world recovered in short order. South Korea just isn't that important, in the general scheme of things.

For us, the real deterrent that North Korea could offer -- the thing that distresses us most -- would be the possibility that North Korea gets nukes, and then nukes Tokyo, centre for the world's second (or third, depending on where China is) largest economy, and home to the world's third most important capital market (after London and New York). That would be a catastrophe not just for Japan or East Asia, but for us as well. And North Korea knows it -- that's why they've taken care to demonstrate that Tokyo is well within the range of their Taepodong missiles. And Japan knows it as well -- that's why they've been cooperating with us on missile defense. They're North Korea's most likely missile target.

(It helps, of couse, that North Korea was founded not only on Communism, but also on the principle "Hate the Japanese!")

Posted by: Taeyoung at December 10, 2005 9:07 AM

taeyoung, excellent post. the problem with the soko position, which is appeasement, is that it doesn't work. the capital should have been moved in '54. eventually dear leader will pass, and the threat from the north will go away, but the bad feelings caused by the appeasement will still be felt (in soko).

Posted by: Baekdusan at December 10, 2005 11:56 AM