Going Over the Number 70 in Divided Korea

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By Mark P. Barry

Mark Barry Photo 2This year marks 70 years since the division of Korea. From August 1945, the Korean Peninsula has been split between a communist North and democratic South. Unificationists know Reverend Moon foretold, exemplified by a 1985 conference, that the Soviet Union would collapse after going over the number 70, figured from 1917. While it took four more years, highlighted by the Soviet experiment with perestroika and glasnost, President Gorbachev resigned and dissolved the USSR on Christmas Day 1991.

With the Unification movement focused on Vision 2020, it begs the question: “Can the Korean Peninsula be reunified by the end of this decade?” or, at least, “Will the two Koreas develop a peaceful and constructive relationship, ending their decades of hostility and division?”

East Asia knows the special significance of 2015. For Korea, China, and Southeast Asia, it is a year to commemorate their liberation from Japanese military occupation. For Korea, 1945 also marked the end of 40 years of Japanese colonial domination and annexation. For Japan, as it has already experienced in recent months, this year has been a painful reminder of its wartime legacy in Asia, and the expectations of its victims of 70 years ago for Japan to sincerely apologize and take responsibility for the profound harm it caused. It’s also a time when East Asia is reacting to China’s bid for regional hegemony, given it recently became the world’s largest economy.

For Koreans north and south, this year also marks the 15th anniversary of the historic summit meeting between the North’s Kim Jong Il and the South’s Kim Dae Jung. Both leaders are no longer alive, but Kim Dae Jung’s widow is expected to make a goodwill visit to Pyongyang later this month to commemorate the June 2000 summit. Sadly, little progress was made between the two Koreas after that first summit, and in particular since 2010, their relations have gone steadily downhill.

The first commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II took place May 9 in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, China’s President Xi Jinping, and other world leaders to mark the Allied victory in Europe. Up until the last moment, it was expected that current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, would attend; but he canceled his trip.*

Until April, there was even a slim hope that South Korean president Park Geun-hye would also attend the ceremonies. However, because the United States and other Western states refused to send their leaders to Moscow due to Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine last year, South Korea followed suit. Yet, this was a missed opportunity for the leaders of the two Koreas to meet in a multilateral setting.

Moreover, very meager efforts have been made by both Koreas to communicate and cooperate since the beginning of this year. December 2014 marked three years since Kim Jong Un had been in power following his father’s death. Most experts assess he is clearly in control in the North, has achieved regime stability, and even made marginal improvements in the meager economy. If the South had any doubts it had a potential negotiating partner by then, they should have been dispelled.

January this year was ripe with opportunity for some dramatic moves on the part of the South, which, as the obvious victor in the inter-Korean competition, is in a position to be magnanimous and take bold initiatives. Instead, nothing happened, and as sure as the change of seasons, once we reached February, with the onset of annual US-ROK joint military exercises, the North predictably reacted with vituperation and hostility.

Last year, the South became enmeshed in mounting problems that, in the least, distracted President Park from pursuing meaningful initiatives with the North. Most notably was the Sewol ferry disaster that April in which nearly 300 drowned, mostly high school children. Lax safety regulations and corruption were blamed as the underlying causes of this tragedy that has deeply and negatively affected the perceptions of South Korean youth of their elders and the government.

But it was not simply unexpected domestic problems that diverted President Park from pursuing her trustpolitik policy, which she announced before the U.S. Congress in 2013. No South Korean president has given better speeches on the promise and benefits of Korean unification than President Park (including for a DMZ peace park). From her speeches alone, one can almost touch and taste unification (though her referring to it with the gambling term “jackpot” had negative connotations). She even set up and chairs an advisory Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation.

Yet, they were only words. It seems the time-honored de facto South Korean policy — expecting the DPRK to change first and make major concessions with little-to-nothing in return from the ROK — is alive and well. Having followed North-South Korean relations on a daily basis for 25 years, I see today almost no serious political commitment and determination on the part of the South to improve relations with its northern neighbor. I’ve concluded, much as with Israel’s fraught relationship with the Palestinians, that the status quo is far too convenient and comfortable — for each nation best positioned to make a difference — to risk bold action.

As with Israel and Palestine, the underlying ROK policy toward the DPRK is to manage long-term conflict with the goal of maintaining the status quo, no more. Lip service is paid to a two-state solution by Israel, but it is mere posturing without serious intent. President Park’s government pays eloquent lip service to Korean unification; but fundamentally for domestic policy reasons — fear that genuine efforts to reach out to the North would upend party politics — the South presumes it’s too risky to do more than contain and manage the North Korean problem as it has since the Korean War. For many ROK policymakers, another excuse given is “the North is bound to collapse soon” — a discredited theory since the death of Kim Il Sung over 20 years ago.

From a Unificationist perspective, both places are holy lands: one is the land of the Bible, the other, Korea, is the fatherland of our faith and birthplace of our founders. It would not be surprising that there is a linkage between what happens in the former and what occurs in the latter. A common problem is an unwillingness to alter a pattern that has existed since the end of World War II – despite vastly changed circumstances.  “Managing conflict” has a nice ring, but it connotes a belief that there are no good solutions, and more importantly, a lack of desire for real solutions. For both holy lands, some of the intransigence is attributable to extreme nationalism and ethnocentrism; but much is also due to a profound disregard for the welfare of people who either are under your control or your long-suffering neighbor.

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While director of the Europe-Korea Foundation in May 2002, Park Geun-hye (left) met the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. However, as ROK President, she has not met his heir, Kim Jong Un.

When President Park took office in February 2013, like many, I was elated South Korea could elect its first woman president, much less the daughter of a previous president who lifted the South up from the ashes. Her inauguration took place just months after the passing of Rev. Moon and almost contemporaneous with the first Foundation Day. For Unificationists and non-Unificationists alike, there were high expectations for what President Park would bring. But her first two years in office have been a major letdown in terms of her northern policy, even when  compared to her bolder predecessor at the Cold War’s end, President Roh Tae-woo (1988-93).

Perhaps the problem is not the leader but the sociopolitical culture in which he or she works. How can you lead a people to reconcile with an enemy and antagonist when there is lacking a desire by the populace to change their basic reality? It’s a pity the North is looked upon by much of the South’s population as at best a nuisance, or worse, their crazy neighbors to be avoided. Except for the elders who remember the Korean War and its separation of families, younger generations in the South seem to prefer an indefinite division of the peninsula for the sake of their own material well-being.

This year is still young. A low-key civilian inter-Korean event will occur in mid-June to commemorate the first summit. More importantly, on August 15, the date they celebrate as Liberation Day, a higher-level exchange could occur between North and South, although a summit is a longshot. The number 70 only comes once; to ignore 2015’s significance would be foolish for both Koreas. But meaningful, long-lasting change happens only with a clear-cut change of attitude and eventually of policy. Without these, at best, we will see one-time symbolic events observed by the Koreas which will be forgotten in weeks.

To go over the number 70 — for the North to grasp the hand of the South in an act of accommodation, while reducing overbearing Chinese pressure — requires the South actually to extend its hand rather than voice mere rhetoric. The South should passionately and aggressively promote opening of the DMZ border, integration of roads and rail lines, the flow of goods, eventually leading to merger, integration and reunification. Absent real action, instead we might see a prolongation of this 70-year period of peninsular division because a potential partner for peace preferred keeping things just the way they are.♦

*One report indicated Pyongyang asked Moscow to publicly endorse it as a nuclear power, but Russia denied the request.

Dr. Mark P. Barry is Managing Editor of the Applied Unificationism blog and Lecturer in Management at UTS. He met the late President Kim Il Sung with a delegation from the Summit Council for World Peace in 1994. He earned his Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and M.A. in national security studies from Georgetown University. Follow his Korean affairs Twitter feed at @drmarkpbarry.

7 thoughts on “Going Over the Number 70 in Divided Korea

  1. I agree very much with the writer. Instead of always criticizing and badmouthing the North, the international community needs to also see the good points; granted, freedom is very essential and important, but, surely the problems that the youth of Western nations faces with regards to materialism, individualism and sexual immorality will be less in North Korea.

  2. Mark,

    Thank you for your article. I also have studied extensively about Korea, both formally and informally, studied under and personally known a former Korean foreign minister and Korean ambassador to the U.S., personally know a leading assemblyman of the opposition party, have been living and working with Koreans for much of the last thirty years, am married to a Korean, and have been living in Korea for most of the last three years while teaching MBA students at a Korean university. So my experience with Koreans and Korea has been academic, professional and deeply personal.

    While living in Korea I have increasingly been considering the idea that the only way to change the status quo in Korea would be for the United States to announce and implement a gradual withdrawal of its military forces from Korea. Sometimes it seems that would be the only thing that would cause the South Koreans to take responsibility for their own affairs and cause them to try to deal seriously with the North Korean issue. At that same time perhaps that would undercut much of the North’s justification for their military-first policy. Furthermore, fearing Chinese hegemony, perhaps both Koreas would then feel an urgency to reconcile with each other and take control of their future. Of course this would involve risk and I know that Father strongly objected to President Carter’s plans to do so many years ago, but times have changed and while I am not convinced yet that this would be the correct course of action, I gradually have been giving it more and more thought. I would like to know your thoughts on this.

    • The US presence in South Korea indeed provides little incentive to alter the status quo for the ROK. And clearly, the US is more concerned about nuclear non-proliferation on the peninsula than it is about bringing an end to the Korean War through a peace treaty. Moreover, the US-ROK defense relationship has many unfortunate aspects, including unwarranted US pressure to adopt expensive new weapons systems. This alliance arrangement seems built for self-perpetuation.

      That said, I disagree with the experts, like those from the Cato Institute, who urge US troop withdrawal from Korea. In a US troop absence, North Korea could create a skirmish on the DMZ, seizing a small amount of territory, then sue for peace, asking the UN to intervene — not an outright invasion, but an effort to create an international crisis. The US troop presence also provides a balancing function in view of China’s regional projection of power. However, if trust were enhanced between the US and DPRK, a troop reduction, not withdrawal, would be feasible. When I was in Pyongyang in 1994, Kim Il Sung’s right-hand man privately told us the North wanted a US presence maintained on the peninsula after reunification as a counterweight to China.

      • Thank you very much. It is a very difficult and complex problem with no easy answers. I get the sense that currently all the powers in the region prefer that U.S. troops stay to maintain the status quo, which all seem to find relatively comfortable and profitable, while at the same time providing them with a scapegoat to blame for the problem and an excuse for not taking responsibility to find a real solution. However, if the ultimate goal is a neutral unified Korea that is the Switzerland of Northeast Asia, then sooner or later, U.S. troops will have to leave.

  3. Mark, thanks for a stimulating essay.

    I was involved in organizing the Geneva Conference on the “Fall of the Soviet Empire” in 1985. I believe that Reverend Moon had already announced the number 70 to members before the Washington Monument Rally in 1976. Soviet Russia began with the October Revolution of 1917, but the Soviet Union itself was created in 1922. Using that date, Reverend Moon was even closer at predicting the collapse.

    The number 70, he said, referred to three generations of power. I think it is useful to reflect on this number 70 and the idea of three generations to determine whether there might be some social law that actually might back up his proclamation.

    The first generation were converts to Communist ideology led by Lenin. They were idealistic, often worked at great personal sacrifice, and many leaders and early bureaucrats were viewed favorably for this reason. Even when economic experiments failed, the first generation was willing to tolerate the leadership because they were committed and working hard.

    The second generation came to power with Stalin, who ruled his own members with an iron fist, creating an internal elite trust list, based on personal loyalty, who became known as the nomenklatura, who became the true ruling class. Stalin purged the idealists, calling them useful idiots, and changed communism from an ideology that guided government to a rhetorical tool of oppression. The Soviet Union grew economically under Stalin through great sacrifice of the people and slave labor. He ruled like a king that inherited the regime.

    The third generation, from Khrushchev on were Stalin’s successors, all members of the CPSU. It became bureaucratic rule, largely made up of children and relatives of the nomenklatura. They jealously kept power for themselves, and made government jobs for their friends to look good, causing uncontrollable bureaucratic growth that led to an inevitable economic collapse. Sociologist Max Weber had predicted the unsustainability of such a system as early as 1925 because the communist system was basically bureaucratic. Stalin was able to delay this natural bureaucratic growth with an iron fist.

    Using the Soviet experience as a guide, the North Korean system today might be about where the system was under Brezhnev, except for the ruler is a member of the royal family who still prevents a state bureaucracy from expanding and collapsing the way the Soviet system did. Its collapse might be more along the lines of Romania, which was ruled much the same way.

    For me, much of the Soviet collapse was due to forces increasingly strong in the U.S. today, namely an elite class that is organized by political parties that use the state to nurture themselves creating out-of-control bureaucracy and budgetary expansion that strongly resembles the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, where the bureaucracy got out of control. While the U.S. still has two parties and some checks and balances left, the course it is on has much in common with forces operating in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. One striking example is that since George W. Bush and Obama in the 21st century, most bureaucrats and legislators are given their jobs as party loyalists, not because they are most qualified for the job, and even if they owe back taxes and behave badly as citizens. They are simply willing to obey their party and do whatever is necessary to extract wealth from the system for the Party’s largest donors. This delegitimizes the system, much the way the Soviet system became delegitimized.

    I think the U.S. system may have lost control under Lyndon Johnson and Carter, was reigned in a bit by Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and has been running increasingly amok since. There may be the start of a 70-year point that we could apply to it too — a shift where state power becomes stronger than democratic power. If we use 1945, then 2015 would be the end. If we use 1960, we might make it to 2030. Reverend Moon came to America to turn this trend around and restore founding principles. But, without the persistent effort he showed being continued by Americans who understand core principles of society, the United States, too, is destined to collapse. Its founding principles are barely operating today, and those in Washington are largely trying to extract wealth from the system rather than creating an environment, like the Founders, who wanted everyone to be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness on their own terms —- not the terms of a party elite.

    • Two particularly insider Unificationist overviews with much to ponder, but I’ll respond mostly to what Dr. Anderson writes in his response to Dr. Barry here regarding the diminishing or hypocritical posture of US influence worldwide with a little perspective noting the current Administration’s public approach (or persona) toward Cuba as it is “liberated” and/or emerges from its closet.

      An interesting observation from Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics as the Administration (naturally) promotes entrepreneurship there and elsewhere that comes with power or that certain advantage:

      “Ideally you would have a balance, but if you have a slight or greater dominance it’s not too surprising.”

      Indeed.

      As for my own opinion on the idea that the “delegitimization” of the American system or “way of life” is occurring as noted; I believe it is instead, perhaps often, the romanticization of [the American and other] founders that can color vision and inexorably weigh one down toward irrelevance and obscurity.

      And surely, just as well, the naysayers to “The [Uniquely American] Dream” should not be viewed as static or even a merely contemporary phenomenon.

      America, warts and all — from its very beginnings — needs to continually face the enemy, both within and without, simultaneously. That is its [great] legacy up to this day.

      It should (or must) be the same for all civilized people everywhere; in theory, process and ultimately, consistent practice.

      As for the actual path beyond such battles and even wars to “heaven,” perhaps it truly was uttered best by our founder:

      “What method other than cross-cultural marriage will empower Whites and Blacks, Jews and Muslims, Orientals and Westerners, and people of all races to live as one human family?”

      Are we (anywhere near) there, yet?

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, and equally appreciated Dr. Anderson’s historical and insightful perspective on Soviet communism.

    It is a high priority objective to bring the situation on the Korean peninsula to the center stage of world diplomacy — perhaps even backstage, out of the bright lights, where quiet diplomacy has a chance. Not much has been said about the Kaesong industrial complex since it was abruptly (but only temporarily) shut down. Nonetheless, it’s an activity that has potential benefits to both sides of the DMZ. Anywhere where money and goods can exchange hands there is room to compromise. It is a delicate compromise for the ideological purists in the North, South, East and West. Also, the idea of a UN peace park in the DMZ continues to be a bridge too far in the eyes of most. Crises in other parts of the world continue to draw attention away from Korea.

    Going over the number 70 is an idea that calls into mind that diplomatic responsibilities have to be accompanied by a large dose of luck — a chance that can be either good or bad. Good fortune or misfortune can come in mysterious and unpredictable ways. 70 is a good luck number to traditional Chinese people: the age of liberation and complete freedom according Confucius; the culmination of a long life, prosperity, good health, and a large extended family. Like their Soviet elder brother before them, the fortunes of communist China, at the age of 70, will reach a turning point in 2018. It has been nearly a century since the Chinese people have had the luxury of hindsight. The question is when they look back, what will they recall, feel and see?

    I am especially interested in what the presidential candidates have to say about the Korean problem and problem of Chinese military expansion. In the mind of militant Communist Chinese, it’s their backyard and they want to dominate. Our Washington policymakers are keeping a close watch on China’s restive western provinces and the radicalization of the regional Muslim Uyghur people and the Sino-Tibetan problem. Millions of Chinese men have little or no chance of finding a wife; and, starting a family is a distant dream. Even the great dragon has an Achilles heel.

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