Tuesday, September 12, 2006

History's Lessons: Could Kim Jong-il Look to China for a Future?

(I had intended to write this article to suggest a better way to live with multiple versions of history. Instead, it morphed into a rough, highly speculative first draft on a possible exit strategy for Kim Jong-il. Hopefully, there will be a forum where this idea can be discussed and, more importantly, develop a framework that ensures it will not come to pass. The Japanese version, as usual, follows.)

Robert Dujarric, a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs and co-author of America's Inadvertent Empire, sent along some recent articles in the South Korean media concerning the history controversy between South Korea and China. For those of you who don't have the time to go through this, this, this, this, this, and this (I think these are all that were available in the English language websites of Donga Il-bo and Chosun Ilbo as of Sept. 11), the essence of the South Korean objection is that Chinese teaching material for college students as well as history books now available to the public claim much of Korean history as their own. The most serious complaint is lodged against the assertion that Koguryo, a powerful kingdom (1-2 BC – AD 668) that once ruled much of the northern Korean Peninsula and parts of Manchuria, was actually a minority ethnic group within the Chinese empire. The Chinese materials give similar short shrift to other, less powerful kingdoms in the region that were eventually merged into the Korean dynasties. The South Koreans see this as China taking parts of Korean history and claiming it for their own. More ominously, many of them see Chinese revanchism, China’s territorial designs, behind this. To these people, Chinese inroads into the North Korean economy are particularly worrisome.

In fact, there is one outlier scenario that South Korea should worry about. Kim Jong-il could decide to merge his hereditary dictatorship with the autonomous Korean prefecture and become the leader of an autonomous republic. If there's anything in international law that says KJL can't do this, I'm not aware of it.

The economic advantages of this arrangement to everybody are obvious. China as it is current configured would be able to fully integrate the North Korean economy into its own. This, in turn, would free South Korea, Japan, the US, and China itself from the interminable payoffs and other drains on their economies that dealing with North Korea requires.

The geopolitics is more complex; here I'll assume that China does the right thing, and promises that it will immediately, completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle North Korea's WMD programs. It also announces an immediate, substantial reduction of North Korean (now Chinese) forces along the South Korean (now simply Korean) border. This is a huge relief for Japan, and, from the US point of view, it eliminates the proliferation issue from the region. And China does not have to worry about North Korean nuclear weapons provoking Japan into following suit. As a kicker, China promise there will be no more contraband and counterfeit money out of the new autonomous republic. That ought to please the Americans and the Japanese.

What does KJI get out of this? Well, KJI has a serious survival issue. The North Korean economy is in a long-term slide in both relative and absolute terms. He is the abusive father who keeps his family fed the way those aggressive panhandlers in Manhattan used to. But he is also by all accounts an intelligent, well-informed leader who is neither foolhardy, nor afraid of taking risks. He understands that he must open up his kingdom to survive economically. Yet he knows that any meaningful openness will be political suicide for him.

KJI has seen what happens to Korean political leaders, once they leave the seat of power. Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, the two military-leader-turned-presidents who eased the way to democratic rule, were convicted of high crimes and humiliated before they were pardoned. Even the venerated Kim Dae-jung has not escaped persecution of his family members. As things stand, the best Kim and his henchmen (the leadership is predominantly male) can hope for in the case of a unified Korean Peninsula is retirement in exile in China. In the unlikely case that some of his father’s aura can be passed on to his sons, that son will be a political leader of an impoverished minority outnumbered 2 to 1. At worst, the fate of Ceauşescu awaits him. Better then, to be the head of an autonomous republic than the disgraced ex-leader of a state that no longer exits.

But doesn't this go against the grain of the fiercely independent Korean ethos? Here’s where history comes in.

True, the new Chinese version of Koguryo history is, under the most charitable of interpretations, a gross simplification of a whole suite of complex relationships that went through many twist and turns before the Koreans pushed the Chinese empire out of the peninsula and a unified Korean kingdom emerged there. However, it is also true that various forms and degrees of Korean subservience persisted over the centuries that only ended in the 1893-94 Japan-China War. There is nothing to lead us to believe that the warlords and kings who accepted Chinese suzerainty were no less patriots than the Korean leader today. But the issue is survival, and we've heard this story before. For KJL, it could well be: Better Red Chinese than dead Korean. Cut a deal while you still have some cards left, rather than let history play itself out and hope for Chinese charity at the end.

There are surely many arguments to be made against such a solution, not least from South Korea's point of view. And I deliberately left the South Koreans out of the geopolitical equation. Of course it could be argued that South Korea would also benefit from the diminished threat from the north. But that is obviously a silly argument that ignores the devastating blow to the people of South Korea. And South Korea does have allies that would stand by its side in the unlikely event of such a threat, doesn't it?

In any case, President Roh seems to be dealing with the very real threat of North Korea drawing ever closer to China by kowtowing to every whim of the reclusive dictator and excusing his every provocation. But given the very real threat to KJI's well being in the case of reunification, it is prudent to make sure that its other neighbors and allies also have a stake in a unified Korea.

(Sidebar: The South Koreans see the Chinese take on North Asian history as a usurpation of their legacy. But why not turn it around and proclaim it as, at worst, a tacit admission that the Korean people threw off the yokes of a Chinese empire dominated by the Han people and established a unified kingdom. I believe that is how the various European nations deal with similar issues, and should find resonance with the allies it needs in coping with Chinese encroachments, real or imagined..)


ロバート・ドゥジャリックは、日本国際問題研究所の海外フェローにしてAmerica's Inadvertent Empireの共著者ですが、最近、韓国のメディアを賑わせている韓中間の歴史問題に関する記事をいくつか送ってくれました。これこれこれこれこれ、そして これをご覧になっていただくだけの時間がない方(それぞれのサイトの日本語ページには、もっと多くの記事が載っています)のためにかいつまんで申し上げますと韓国が異議を申し立ているのは、中国の大学向け教材及び一般向け歴史書が朝鮮の歴史の相当部分を中国の歴史であると主張しているというのです。最も強く異存があるのは、高句麗は、紀元前1―2世紀から668年にかけて存在した強力な王国で、最盛期には朝鮮半島北部の大部分と後の満州の一部を支配したのですが、それが実は帝政中国の一少数民族に過ぎなかったという点です。それ以外にも高句麗ほど強力ではなく、同様に後の統一朝鮮王朝に吸収されていった国々があるのですが、それなについても、中国側の資料はぞんざいな扱いをしています。韓国側は、これを自分達の歴史の一部を中国が獲って我が物にしようとしているというのです。もっと危険なことに、この背後に中国の復古主義、領土的野心があると見る人も少なくないようです。これらの人々にとって、北朝鮮経済に中国が食い込みつつあることは、とりわけ心配なのです。







確かに中国の高句麗史観は、大マケにマケてやっても、せいぜい、広範かつ複雑な諸関係が様々な曲折を経る中でやがて朝鮮人達が半島から帝政中国を追い出した歴史を過度に単純化したもの、と言うのが精一杯でしょう。しかし、様々な形を取りかつ程度の差はあるが、朝鮮側からの従属行為が、日清戦争までずっと続いたことも事実です。その中国の宗主権を認めた将軍や国王達が今の朝鮮半島のリーダー達と比べて特に愛国心で引けを徒弟他と信ずべき理由はありません。だが、大事なのは、生き延びること – 良くある話です。中国の下で生き延びる方が韓国人として死ぬよりいい、と金正日は判断するかもしれません。冷機の流れに身を任せて最後は中国のお情けにすがるよりは、持ち札が残っているうちに取引をしてしまおう。





Robert Dujarric said...

A very inovative solution. Officially South Korea will have to oppose this annexation of the DPRK by China. But in private, many South Koreans will be relieved of having the sword of Damocles (DPRK collapse) taken out of their living room and brought to China.
Robert Dujarric

Jun Okumura said...

Just because some people don't want to pay to play doesn't mean they'll let others do it.
More importantly, there's a need to look into all the endgame variations and plan accordingly. My scenario is an extreme example, but the North Korea elite do need an exit strategy. Otherwise, ther will be blood on the floor, perhaps a lot of it.