In denial about North Korea
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Here's a rum thing. Wherever you look, almost everyone is in denial about North
Let's start with the ludicrous. The Chinese government made itself look stupid
yet again by trying to deny that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was visiting -
even when he'd been photographed in Dalian, northeastern China, while his
armored train and convoy of limos visibly roamed the land. Why on earth do they
indulge him, and all that disruption? This jaded farce does no credit to either
host or guest.
Onto more serious matters. On March 26, the South Korean corvette Cheonan
exploded and sank, with 46 lives lost. Whodunnit? Guess. North Korea denies it,
of course - though it
took them three weeks to do so. And yet on May 4, Pyongyang TV said Kim Jong-il
had ordered the navy "to raise heroes for do-or-die squads at sea", while
boasting (falsely) that in a naval skirmish last November the North destroyed
six of the South's warships. As they say, go figure.
What's weirder has been the quasi-denial in Seoul too. For South Korea to stay
calm at first made sense, as I argued in these pages a month ago. (See
The Cheonan cover-up Asia Times Online, April 10, 2010.)
President Lee Myung-bak didn't want to scare the markets, much less unleash
(God forbid) the nightmare of a second Korean war.
But as time passes, such caution looks like a refusal to face grim truths.
After two years, it's clear that Lee's non-policy of cold-shouldering the North
while he struts the wider global stage - chairing the Group of 20, above all -
isn't working. The North just sent a nasty reminder that it won't be ignored,
knowing Lee is in no position to retaliate. A rethink is urgently needed.
Yet those who say Lee should have stuck with the former "Sunshine" policy are
in denial too. Like the three monkeys of fable, too many are blind to the
North's evils or their own failure. Ten years of being nice to Kim Jong-il,
with cash under the table to spend as he pleased, and what do you get? Not a
tamed or even a tamer beast - but a nuclear power and proliferator.
Speaking of nukes, remember the six-party talks? Like "Sunshine", this was
worth a try. But it didn't work, and a lot of people in the other five capitals
remain in denial about that too. Six snail's-pace years achieved nothing. This
circus hasn't met since 2008, yet China as host still peddles the illusion that
they may resume. Surely the Cheonan has sunk this. How can doves deny
that North Korea blatantly has zero intention of ever surrendering its nuclear
But the wellspring and acme of denial is in Pyongyang. States, like persons,
face a changing world. It hurts, but you have to adapt. For 30 years, North
Korea has fiercely resisted reality. The end of the Cold War and the rise of
globalization demanded a new approach. Brandishing nukes while abjuring markets
is a recipe to self-destruct. Yet Kim Jong-il is still in denial.
Bizarrely and no less fatally, this denial extends to the basic facts of life
and death. The Dear Leader is mortal; he will die. He's been ill, so he may die
sooner. Political succession is thus a key issue. A state that goes ballistic
at any talk of any of this renders itself vulnerable, and risible. The
ambulances in Kim's convoy in Beijing told their own story. Nobody is fooled.
Nothing can be expected from Pyongyang. But elsewhere it's urgent to move on
from denial to a long overdue reality check. Kim Jong-il has been given every
chance to do the sensible thing: to embrace markets like China and Vietnam, or
ditch weapons of mass destruction as even Libya has done. He has done none of
this. We now have to squarely face the fact that he probably never will.
For half a century, North Korea has mostly been a back-burner not-quite-crisis.
To the US in particular, somewhere else nearly always looks more urgent. This
too risks being a form of denial: hoping the darn place will just go away. It
won't. On the contrary, at this rate sooner or later the Pyongyang pressure
cooker is liable to explode. Understandably, but unwisely, no one wants to
contemplate what that might look like, and what will happen then.
We do have to deal with Pyongyang, but with gritted teeth and no illusions. The
reason to try to engage is because if somehow North Korea could still be
dragged in from the cold, a soft landing has to be better for Seoul than the
huge risks and costs of collapse and chaos. Unlike Germany this will surely not
be peaceful, and reunification's burdens will be far more costly.
But even while pursuing this, we must stop denying the odds against success.
Contingency plans for collapse are essential - quietly coordinated between
Washington, Seoul and Beijing - lest great power conflict compound what will
already be a horrendous and dangerous mess.
South Koreans above all should be ready - yet almost all 50 million of them
seem in denial about the challenges ahead. Reunification, long the impossible
dream, has become an all too plausible nightmare. You wouldn't know that in
Seoul, busy congratulating itself - rightly, as far as it goes - for a swift
bounce back from financial turmoil and rosy growth prospects.
Enjoy it while it's there. Each time I visit, it bothers me how little North
Korea figures at all in most South Koreans' thinking. This is a double failure.
Where are their hearts, that they care so little about their compatriots'
extreme suffering? And where are their heads that they don't see how the
Northern miasma will engulf them too, ere long, as a future South Korea
struggles somehow to absorb 23 million mostly ignorant and brutalized country
Seoul's uber-cool youth, sipping their smooth lattes, need to wake up and smell
unification's coffee: a bitter brew they'll be drinking the rest of their
lives. But they too are in deep denial.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and
broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has
followed North Korea for over 40 years.