I find Edward Luttwak’s approach to the Koreas compelling.
A “palace system” drives the entire regime and its policies: To keep the Helots in isolated servitude cut off from the outside world, a stance of relentless bellicosity is kept up by the rulers year after year, decade after decade. Even though there has been no war for two generations, North Korean life is shaped by nonstop war propaganda, war censorship, martial law, and above all, a centrally planned war economy in which resources are allocated not exchanged.
But the inward projection of bellicosity is not enough, because the North Korean economy is so unproductive, especially in earning foreign exchange. To feed the palace system, North Korea must also extract payoffs from the outside world: some from enabling NGOs (food aid from which allows domestic food production to be used for army rations), some from the United States and Japan in exchange for Pyongyang’s nuclear promises (never kept), but most from the fellow Koreans of the South (whose payoffs are won by sheer intimidation). South Korean President Kim Dae-jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his unprecedented reconciliation summit with Kim Jong Il, a moment when peace and even unification seemed imminent. Only later did the truth leak out: The summit had been purchased for $100 million in cash. Unsurprisingly, it led to nothing.
Unwilling to deter North Korea — which would require a readiness to retaliate for its occasionally bloody attacks and constant provocations, thereby troubling business and roiling the Seoul stock market — South Korea has instead preferred to pay off the regime with periodic injections of fuel and food aid, but most consistently by way of the North-South Kaesong industrial zone, in which some 80,000 North Korean workers are paid relatively good wages by South Korean corporations. The workers themselves receive very little of their salaries, of course, the majority of which gets funneled back to Pyongyang and makes up the North’s largest consistent source of foreign currency. Even under supposedly “hard-line” South Korean presidents, the Kaesong transfer has continued. It was not shut down when the North sunk South Korea’s Cheonan warship, killing 46 sailors; nor when the North opened artillery fire on a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians; nor when the North tested a nuclear device and launched a long-range ballistic missile. Even as the present crisis has unfolded, it was the paying South that feared an interruption of production at Kaesong, not the North, which reaps the benefits. And when media in South Korea noted with much relief that Kaesong was still open, the North Koreans promptly shut it down.
Having successfully extracted payoffs so consistently through threats and occasional attacks, the North is naturally at it again. Even though another nuclear test and the threatened launch of a mobile long-range ballistic missile appear imminent, a payoff from the South, not war on the Korean Peninsula, is the likely outcome. And Pyongyang knows this.
Meanwhile, South Korea has matched the North’s bellicosity with its own strategic perversity: It remains obsessed with an utterly unthreatening Japan and has been purchasing air power to contend with imagined threats from Tokyo as opposed to the real ones just north of the demilitarized zone. Seoul is simply unwilling to acquire military strength to match its vastly superior economy. Instead, it spends billions of dollars to develop its proudly “indigenous” T-50 jet fighters, Surion helicopters, and coastal defense frigates — alternatives for which could be much better, and cheaper, imported from the United States. Meanwhile, gaping holes remain in South Korean defenses (and thus we see the ridiculous spectacle of last-minute scrambling for missing equipment and munitions in the present crisis). And the cycle continues: Because the South allows itself to remain so vulnerable, it cannot react effectively against North Korea’s perpetual threats and periodic attacks. Instead, Seoul checks its bank account and gets ready for the next payoff.
It’s time for this to end. The United States cannot force the North to give up its bellicosity, but surely it can force the South to renounce its perversity. The price of continued U.S. protection should be the adoption of a serious defense policy, the closure of the Kaesong racket, and a complete end to cash transfers to the North, whatever the excuse. Pyongyang may still try to pick a fight, but at least this will eliminate the incentive to persist in this monstrous extortion strategy.
Yet Luttwak fails to consider that Seoul has few choices, or that “extortion” is an optimal strategy.