Page 1 of 2 The most dangerous man in Korea
By Peter Lee
Who is the most dangerous man on the Korean Peninsula? Maybe it's not Kim
Jung-il, but South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.
The big story in North Asia in 2010 was the destabilizing effort by South Korea
to use its growing profile as a regional power to seize control of the
reunification agenda and promote a policy for reunification under its aegis.
Its initiative attracted the determined opposition of North Korea and China,
the qualified support of the United States, and the glum acquiescence of Japan.
But the Lee government has succeeded only in foreclosing
alternatives. Fear of North Korean reprisal has constrained major, overt moves
by South Korea to hasten the collapse of Kim Jung-il's regime.
Instead, Lee must wait on events, and hope that North Korea tumbles into
oblivion before his own domestic and international support fades or China
establishes itself irrevocably as the guarantor and economic benefactor of the
North Korean regime's sustained survival.
The cornerstone of Lee's North Korea strategy is his eponymous "MB doctrine"
(using the initials of his name). With window-dressing meant to distract the
large and suspicious liberal left component of South Korea's electorate, the
doctrine is essentially one of institutionalized hostility toward Pyongyang.
As reported by the Guardian, a WikiLeaked cable characterized Lee's North Korea
President Lee is determined not to give in to North Korean
pressure. Our Blue House contacts have told us on several occasions that
President Lee remained quite comfortable with his North Korea policy and that
he is prepared leave the inter-Korean relations frozen until the end of his
term in office, if necessary. It is also our assessment that Lee's more
conservative advisors and supporters see the current standoff as a genuine
opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve
considerable brinkmanship. Also favoring the Lee Administration's stance is the
the Korean public, which is calm to the point of apathy about the inter-Korean
On one level, the MB line is simply a
conservative reaction against the liberal "Sunshine" policy of Lee's
However, South Korea's growing economic clout and international stature as an
emergent world power symbolized by Seoul's triumphant hosting of the Group of
20 summit in November - and the geostrategic ambitions of its president - have
given a new significance and impetus to Lee's North Korea policy.
It appears that Lee's dream involves unifying the entire peninsula and its
population of 75 million under the banner of the democratic, capitalist South
in alliance with the United States, replacing Japan as the primary US security
and economic partner, and confronting China with the prospect of a major
pro-Western power on its doorstep while reaching out to the sizable Korean
minority in China's northeastern provinces.
Whether Lee has reasonable expectations of realizing this ambition during his
term or in subsequent Grand National Party presidencies is open to question.
The conventional view is that reunification at this point in the North's
wayward economic development would place an unacceptable burden on the South.
On the other hand, Lee has in the past shopped the idea that North Korean
minerals and cheap labor could completely fund reunification.
Certainly the prospect of doubling his government's territory and going down in
history as the leader who presided over the historic reunification of the
sundered peninsula and put Korea on the path toward becoming one of the world's
top half-dozen economic powers would be attractive to politicians with a lot
less drive and ambition than Lee.
Even if it is just a politically opportune pipedream in the near term, the
reunification endgame is central to Lee's vision of South Korea as an emerging
global power and justifies a geopolitical alignment away from China and toward
the United States.
Lee's desire to make reunification on South Korean terms the default condition
of North Asian geopolitics toppled a row of strategically placed dominoes.
The United States had to be wooed to support Seoul's position, rejecting the
six-party talks and also direct negotiations with Pyongyang.
The delicate task of sidelining the talks - and China - from a leading position
in Korean security had to be accomplished without breaching relations with
Beijing, a major economic partner.
And - a work in progress - Japan has to be shouldered aside.
America's strained relationship with Japan and its new ruling party - the
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) - provided South Korea with its opportunity.
The US defense establishment was on the outs with the DPJ over the contentious
issue of relocating a naval air station off Okinawa.
While an increasingly palsied Japan dithered, Lee's Grand National Party
offered the United States the services of a vigorous and enthusiastic strategic
ally in North Asia - an ally eager to sustain a significant frontline role for
America in the Asian security equation.
In an April 2010 interview with the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, Lee described
his envisioned US-South Korea relationship as transcending regional issues to
Last year when I had my announcement for a summit
meeting in Washington, DC, we announced what we called [a] "Future Vision of
the Alliance" between Korea and the United States. If you look at this
document, it stipulates that not only will the United States and Korea work
toward the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, but also they'll work
toward bringing stability to Northeast Asia and beyond, and that the United
States and Korea will work together to really tackle global issues that we both
think are very important. So as you can see, the alliance now has gone into the
phase where we, of course, will talk about security issues, but also we will
work to expand and strengthen mutual economic cooperation but also work
together to resolve global issues like climate change, stopping the spread of
nuclear materials, eradicating terrorism, poverty and so forth. So you can see
that [the] relationship between Korea and the United States has become much
more comprehensive and holistic. 
Efforts of previous
administrations to wean the South Korea's military away from US leadership were
reversed and US operational control of the country's forces in wartime was
extended to 2015.
The Lee government also took the shameful step of gutting a commission
investigating the killings of Korean civilians by US forces - and the presence
of US observers at some of the widespread executions of Korean leftists by
South Korean operatives - during the chaos of the Korean War in order to
demonstrate the government's determination to ingratiate itself with the US
Another factor in South Korea's favor was Washington's disenchantment with the
six-party denuclearization process, which yielded much inconvenience and
embarrassment but little progress.
As summed up in Secretary of Defense Gates' pithy phrase, "I'm tired of buying
the same horse twice," the Obama administration declared its conviction that
North Korea would never denuclearize willingly.
Engagement with North Korea through the six-party talks was subordinated to the
Barack Obama administration's pursuit of a non-proliferation grand bargain
enforced through international treaties and organizations that would establish
non-proliferation as a genuine global norm, with the pesky North Korean problem
to be solved somewhere down the road.
As WikiLeaks revealed - and as was reported with excessive credulity by the
press - South Korean diplomats worked assiduously to convince the United States
that, not only was North Korea on its last legs, China had resigned itself to
the collapse of the regime and reunification.
Therefore, it would be foolish for the United States to engage with North Korea
or turn to China for mediation when the ripe fruit of North Korean regime
change was about to drop into its lap.
The United States appears to have had enough information to be skeptical of
South Korea's claims.
However, with North Korea wedded to a policy of nuclear brinksmanship as the
only way to attract US attention, the Obama administration didn't have a lot of
As far as the United States was concerned, South Korea had a lead role in North
Korean affairs. The US military also welcomed a more proactive role in South
In addition to wargaming defense against North Korean attack, the US command in
South Korea - the Republic of Korea, or ROK - announced it was also working up
options for pacifying the North in case of regime collapse-and cited some
rather dubious precedents to reassure the public everything would come off
The Korea Times reported:
South Korea and the United States have
executed "realistic" training exercises to respond to various types of internal
instability in North Korea, the top US military general said Thursday.
Such drills were held during the latest Ulchi Freedom Guardian computerized
simulation exercise from Aug. 16 to 26, said Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of
U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
[W]e take lessons learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan that we think apply here
in the ROK and exercise those also," he said. "So one of the things that we
have learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan is that you can be fighting and
attacking at one area and defending at another area."
The main mission is to stabilize and protect the population in the area, he
said, adding both militaries are designing such exercises to ensure that they
"are able to not only to defend, not only able to attack and kill, but also
able to provide humanitarian assistance" to help ensure security and stability
for everyone in the region.
Sharp said North Korea stabilization operations are to be conducted by both
North Korea, which yearned for negotiations
with the United States, and China, which yearned to have a major say in North
Korea's destiny through the six-party talks, viewed joint US/South Korean
disengagement with considerable displeasure.
North Korean decision-making is a riddle wrapped within an enigma, but it is
likely that Pyongyang decided that military provocation was the best if only
way to demonstrate the shortcomings of America's South Korea-first policy and
refocus the attention of an indifferent United States on North Korean matters.
On March 26, the South Korean ASW frigate Cheonan was sunk off the west
coast of the Korean Peninsula. The working assumption, supported by the
findings of an international commission put together by South Korea, is that a
North Korean minisub was responsible.
Lee decided to respond in a manner suitable to South Korea's new stature, as
the president of an aggrieved world power, not the controlling authority of the
southern half of a divided nation.
He spoke before the Asian Security Summit and exhorted responsible, joint
efforts on security; he solicited and received the explicit support of the
United States; with US support he succeeded in having the issue taken up by the
He did not coordinate with China or give any solicitude to the six-party talks.
North Korea may have miscalculated in assuming that the United States would
respond to an outrage like the Cheonan by resuming its engagement with
But South Korea and the United States seriously miscalculated if they assumed
that China would be eager enough to burnish its responsible stakeholder
credentials in the West by joining the public condemnation of North Korea.
The most significant event in North Asian relations in 2010 was probably
China's refusal to support any meaningful sanction of Pyongyang over the Cheonan
issue at the United Nations.
It was the first overt indication that China would resist a re-ordering of
Korean peninsula affairs by South Korea and the US without Chinese
It was also a clear signal that China had decided that the intangible psychic
benefits of shoehorning itself into America's definition of what a "responsible
stakeholder" should be in Korean affairs carried negligible practical
advantages and, indeed, brought with it serious strategic liabilities.
In the face of Chinese and Russian resistance, the UN process yielded a
meaningless president's letter instead of a Security Council resolution.
United States President Barack Obama tried to put a good face on things and
score some political points against China by accusing it of "willful blindness"
and conducting a series of high-profile joint naval exercises around the Korean
The Chinese, for their part, displayed a complete unwillingness to back down,
excoriating the US for actions that China deemed provocative and "heightened
tensions on the peninsula".
Just in case somebody hadn't received the message, China's President Hu Jintao
received a visit from Kim Jung-il in Changchun in August, signaling to the
world that China stood behind the Kim dynasty and the approaching succession of