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Op-Ed

A futile message to Pyongyang

A South Korean leaflet barrage shows Seoul's current rulers' ignorance of the North's nationalist ethos.

March 04, 2011|By Selig S. Harrison

South Korea's air force has been dropping balloons with leaflets into North Korea describing the struggle to oust Moammar Kadafi in Libya and calling on the North Koreans to rise up against their oppressors.

This is a ridiculous exercise for the obvious reason that Libya is split by countless tribal and regional divisions. By contrast, North Korea is ethnically homogeneous and strongly united by a nationalist heritage deeply rooted in the struggles against the Japanese colonial occupation and three years of U.S. saturation bombing during the Korean War.

More important, the South Korean leaflet barrage illustrates the utter ignorance of the conservative ruling party in the South concerning the nationalist ethos of North Korea, and thus explains why the current hard-line U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, reflecting the same lack of realism, is not working.

The psychological cement that holds North Korea together is nationalism, and the key to understanding the strength of nationalist feeling in the North lies in a recognition of the traumatic impact of the Korean War. The North's founding leader, Kim Il Sung, skillfully utilized his totalitarian control to enshrine himself as the defender of Korean sovereignty and honor in the eyes of his people, but he was able to do so primarily because memories of the war made his nationalist message credible.

The American visitor is reminded constantly that the scars left by the war are unusually deep in the North. The South suffered brutal but relatively brief anguish during the latter part of 1950, with Pyongyang using little close air support in its operations there. The North, by contrast, endured three years of heavy U.S. bombing in addition to the Yalu offensive on the ground.

The defiant distrust of the outside world that persists in North Korea today recalls the American Revolution flag that bore the motto "Don't Tread on Me" and depicted a rattlesnake poised to strike. But soon after winning the Revolutionary War, the United States adopted a confident posture toward the world. North Korea, however, continues to feel defensive and embattled more than five decades after the armistice. This "permanent siege mentality" has been systematically kept alive first by Kim Il Sung and now by Kim Jong Il to fortify their domestic power.

North Korean leaders have been able to appeal for support in the face of a foreign threat by pointing to the many reminders that the Korean War is not yet over: the continuance of the U.S. economic sanctions imposed during the war until a partial relaxation began in 1999; the presence of U.S. forces in the South, still operating under the same U.N. command structure used during the war and still conducting regular military exercises with South Korean forces; and above all, the legal reality that the Korean War has not ended.

To the United States, the fact that the armistice has not been replaced with a permanent peace settlement is a mere technicality. But to North Korea, the unresolved stalemate with Washington over the terms of a settlement reflects an American-Japanese plot to stall for time while promoting the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.

The reason that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, kept the peace so successfully for eight years, avoiding military tensions such as those of recent months, is that their policies were not based on the assumption of a North Korean collapse. Their goal was cooperation leading to a loose North-South confederation, a goal reaffirmed in the North-South summit meetings in which Kim in 2000 and Roh in 2007 affirmed that they sought confederation.

Lee's first act on becoming president in 2008 was to disown the concept of a confederation. And I found on my Pyongyang visit in June 2009 that North Korea viewed this as proof that Seoul wants to promote a collapse.

Instead of trying to stir up a rebellion in North Korea, where there are no parallels to the Arab world, Lee should make it clear that he accepts the confederation commitment made by his predecessors.

What the ruling oligarchs of the Arab world have lacked is precisely the ethnic homogeneity and nationalist ethos that has given North Korea its staying power despite the ravages of famine and economic hardship. For this reason, it is the Arab world, not North Korea, that will continue to dominate American TV screens, while Seoul tries in vain to wish away the Pyongyang regime instead of pursuing the path of coexistence.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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