Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
THE Korean people have a civilisation that has an antiquity of several millenia, and despite several periods of pain in their history, have shown uncommon resilience. Although they themselves have in the past been attacked and on occasions even temporarily conquered by China and Japan, the Korean people have themselves remained true to their age-old maxim of “Hongkik Ingan”. This means that each individual should work for all rather than simply himself or herself. The Koreans share a link and even a bloodline with another ancient civilisation, that of India. Millenia ago, a princess from eastern India travelled to the Korean peninsula and married into a ruling family. Both the lady and her immense retinue remained in their new home, and in time their offspring got acculturated with those who were the early residents of a land longest ruled by the Choson dynasty from 1392 to 1910 AD. Every child in both parts of the now divided country has been taught by parents and teachers about the history of their land, and consequently possesses a pride in nationhood that surpasses equivalent feelings in several other nations.
In 1945, the defeat at the hands of the US of Japan (which had been occupying the peninsula) led to the separation of north from south of the country, the line of separation being drawn at the 38th paralell north of the equator. North Korea (otherwise known as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea DPRK) came under the control of the communist leader Kim Il Sung, who had earlier fought with great courage against the Japanese occupiers despite having much less weaponry and manpower than what was then the most powerful military in Asia, and which had defeated France, Britain and the Netherlands in conventional warfare before being overcome by atom bombs dropped by the US Air Force on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ever the fighter, Kim Il Sung sought to unify Korea through force, and initially succeeded before being driven back by US forces that were nominally under UN command.
When General Douglas MacArthur reached the Yalu river, alarm bells rang in Beijing at a hostile army at the doorstep of the Peoples Republic of China. Despite having just finished a deadly civil war and with the new state still in a state of disarray, Mao Zedong ordered the Peoples Liberation Army to battle US forces. This resulted in a multitude of casualties, as the Soviet Union avoided sending its air forces to protect Chinese soldiers. Stalin was concerned that such direct involvement in the Korean war may trigger a US atomic attack on his country. Indeed,military strategists such as General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force favoured a nuclear strike on China to push back that country’s forces, but President Harry S Truman turned down such advice, of course after conventional bombing had killed more than 20% of the population of the DPRK.
Kim Il Sung established a dynasty in North Korea,passing on the baton to his son Kim Jong Il. After the latter’s death, his second son (Kim Jong Un) took over as Supreme Leader in December 2011 of what had become a true Hermit Kingdom. Through discussions with those who knew the principal players in the DPRK, it became clear to this columnist that the grandson of Kim Il Sung was a formidable player on the international stage despite his youth. At that point in time, such a view was an outlier. Most saw the DPRK’s Supreme Leader as being a reckless young man, who was certain to crash his government on the rocks prepared by his opponents within and outside Korea, including a sizeable number of assassination strategies worked out between the Republic of Korea’s then leadership and the US. Before her downfall and overly harsh punishment, President Park Guen-hye joined Tokyo and Washington in applying “maximum pressure” on the DPRK, at great cost in terms of human suffering. In subsequent elections, Moon Jae-in was elected on a policy centred on reaching out to North Korea.
Rather than rebuff such moves, Kim Jong Un welcomed then, while at the same time taking advantage of the diplomatic opportunity offered by President Trump, who is confident enough to brush aside advice from the DC Beltway and has paid for such effrontery by a hysterical,almost manic, media campaign by the Beltway to dismiss him from office. Although Jong Un pushed forward the nuclear and missile projects of North Korea at a speed far above that sanctioned by his father Kim Jong Il, he made a point of appearing conciliatory once it became clear that he had the technical means to cause Guam and Japan tens of thousands of deaths in the event of war. The unprecedented warmth of his meetings with South Korea’s Head of State is resulting in a situation where Seoul may no longer sign off on a military campaign by the US and Japan to try and destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal. Unless the muscular South Korean military joins in an attack on North Korea, the brunt of the blows that will be delivered by Pyongyang will fall on Japan.
Small wonder that Shinzo Abe (whose focus has been on the economy while hoping that the North Korea issue would mainly be taken care of jointly by Washington and Seoul) has discovered some virtue in Kim Jong Un, and has asked his officials to meet with their DPRK counterparts. Given that it was Tokyo that has been the loudest in urging the international community to “squeeze North Korea till the pips squeak”, this is a pragmatic reversal. The reality is that US and its allies have only two options regarding North Korea. Either launch a fullscope military assault on the state or enter into a “Bright Sunshine” policy designed to incentivise Pyongyang into adopting a policy of conciliation and cooperation rather than hostility natural in a situation where DPRK is being squeezed by US and Japanese sanctions in an effort to get the Kim regime to melt down. President Moon seems to have decided against any military solution to N-Korean problem, and is wisely making moves to ensure that two sides work together for mutual benefit.
A possible solution would be for the two sides to agree on a “One Nation Two States” solution. This would entail the two regimes co-existing side by side, but with vastly increased contact between them. South Korean businesses would be free to invest north of the 38th parallel, and gradually the two sides would increase the areas of convergence, belonging as they do to a single Korean nation. Hopefully Washington and Tokyo will not seek to sabotage such a process, for such a settlement would be a way to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula using a method that avoids bloodshed.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.