James J. Na is a Foreign Policy Fellow of the Discovery Institute
While Americans are understandably absorbed about Iraq, events continue to unfold in other parts of the world. Last Thursday’s massive explosion in North Korea was a reminder that other international problems persist despite the recent emphasis on Iraq.
Whether the blast was a result of an accident or an assassination attempt gone awry, it is an indication that the reclusive totalitarian North Korea is tottering on the brink of an implosion. Most likely the explosion was an accident, graphically demonstrating the failure of North Korea’s infrastructure. If it were an assassination attempt, this may mean the political stability of the regime is unraveling. Either way, North Korea may be near its end.
It is instructive to take a long-term view of Korean-U.S. relations and explore what may occur once North Korea implodes. The current relationship between the United States and South Korea is at its nadir. Despite North Korea’s nuclear threats, many Koreans who grew up after the Korean War see the United States as “more dangerous” than North Korea. They consider the Chinese approach of “constructive engagement” to be more effective than the U.S. policy of confrontation. There are also underlying Korean resentments, real or imagined, toward the United States for South Korea having been its younger brother for decades.
China is increasingly becoming South Korea’s foreign partner de jour. Not only is South Korea’s trade with China overtaking that with the United States for the first time, many Korean students are choosing to study in China rather than in the United States. Some Koreans profess affinity to China for its supposed “common Confucian culture.” Others believe a regional alignment with China will be more helpful because of China’s leverage on North Korea. Still others think that the potentially vast Chinese market represents an economic boon for Korean businesses.
After North Korea, however, the calculus changes. A unified Korea will share contiguous land borders with China and Russia. Korea will again be at the dangerous nexus where China, Russia and Japan converge, the unenviable position it found during the 19th century. Whereas Japan was looking hungrily over Korea then, China is now the growing power ready to flex its muscle externally.
After Korea and the United States signed their first treaty “of Amity and Commerce” in 1882, the Korean king is said to have danced with joy, for he realized that the United States was an outside power that could help protect Korean independence from the three surrounding powers. The optimism was misplaced. The Americans turned out to be uninterested in a country they considered to be within Japan’s sphere of interest, a strategic situation they officially recognized in return for Japan’s recognition of U.S. interests in the Philippines. Japan eventually annexed Korea in 1910.
South Korea today is an economic powerhouse. Nonetheless, the collapse of North Korea will present South Korea with difficult challenges. South Korea will have to deprogram entire generations of communist-indoctrinated North Koreans and shoulder the enormous costs of salvaging the North’s infrastructure.
Will Korea be able to trust China’s help in this regard without succumbing to “undue” Chinese influence? Or will Korea again realize that the United States may be its best friend in preserving Korea’s capacity for independent action in a region surrounded by three great powers? Will the United States be distracted by other problems and sit idly by as Korea enters the Chinese sphere of influence? Or will the United States recognize Korea’s valuable role as an ally in preserving the balance of power in East Asia?
In pondering the world after North Korea, Americans and Koreans would be well served to consider the lessons from the past.
James J. Na writes about international security affairs from Seattle. His writings have appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal and Defense News.