South Korea's perilous historical revisionism

Posted in Koreas | 02-Aug-04 | Author: David Scofield| Source: Asia Times

Once upon a time, South Korean schoolchildren were taught to draw North Koreans as pigs and wolves, ravening beasts, the "main enemy". Today, however, South Korea makes nice in a kinder, gentler, misguided policy of historical revisionism, reconciliation and engagement. After all, the North Koreans are misunderstood brethren. The real enemies are the United States and Japan.

Now South Korea describes the 468 North Korean refugees who arrive last week as those who escaped economic hardship. South Korea harasses North Korean exiles and dissidents who try to run a radio station telling the truth about the North. It stifles talk of North Korean gulags, and its menacing intelligence agents tell defectors who want to talk about Pyongyang's deadly chemical experiments to keep their mouths shut.

South Korea's policies of engagement with North Korea are predicated on the belief that modifying the perceptions and identities held by the people of South Korea, officially softening how a former aggressor is described and depicted throughout society, will mitigate animosity and, the theory goes, ultimately prompt North Korea similarly to change its views of the South.

It appears very altruistic and humane, but it does leave one important question unanswered. What if the other side doesn't change its views or moderate its stance? What if one side lowers its guard, engages the other as an equal partner and not as a belligerent, but the other side remains hostile? Portraying Pyongyang as an insecure brother, a misunderstood weaker sibling that only needs the right reassurances and enticements to break its half-century of hostility and jingoism toward the South, is a high-stakes gamble. If North Korea does not moderate its perceptions and depictions of its neighbor to the south - and there's precious little evidence that it will - then North Korea will hold a strategic advantage against the overly pliant South - the tail wagging the dog.

In fact, North Korea, which condemned South Korea's admission of the refugee/defectors, has canceled Tuesday's working-level talks on defusing the North's nuclear-weapons programs. It was the third cancellation of the working-level group involving both North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US. It was to be hosted by China.

The changes that Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy and Roh Moo-hyun's Peace and Prosperity Program have made to South Korean society are nothing short of monumental. Prior to Kim's election, the North was widely regarded as dangerous and threatening, an unmitigated evil to those who monitored its human-rights abuses and the famine of the mid- to late 1990s, caused by misguided political ideology. Indeed, some members of President Roh Moo-hyun's affiliated party, OOP (Our Open Party), are protesting the passing of the censorious North Korean Human Rights Act in the US House of Representatives; they hope to get between 80-90 lawmakers' signatures on a protest letter to the US Senate, demanding senators quash the bill.

Now, North Korean refugees, like the 468 who arrived last week in Seoul via Vietnam, are not heralded as survivors of a tyrannical regime, but rather as defectors escaping economic hardship - privations that many South Koreans believe are a direct result of US policies toward the North, not North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's callous disregard for human life. Reasoned discussion of the true political cause of the horrors in the North generally, and analysis of these most recent newcomers specifically, is preempted. The South Korean media and the government have largely abandoned the issue, leaving questions of state persecution and the reasons behind the absence of men in this latest exodus - 90 were women and children - unanswered.

Nor does South Korea's engagement policy encourage discussion of North Korea's gulags, or its illicit trade in human labor, drugs, weapons and counterfeit currency. On July 28, BBC 2 in the United Kingdom ran interviews with two North Korean defectors in Seoul who claim to have first-hand knowledge of human experiments within the North's gulags. One defector, referred to in the piece as Dr Kim, offered the name of the compound used in experiments on North Korean civilians as para-cyano-nitrobenzene, or NP-100. The cyanide-based chemical was being developed for possible use on military and civilian targets in South Korea. Both Dr Kim and a previous defector who came forward with similar testimony in January, Kwon Hyok, declared that they are constantly harassed and threatened by South Korean intelligence services to keep their knowledge to themselves, stories of gas chambers and gulags in the North being less than congruent with South Korea's official depiction of North Korea.

The military too sees a kinder, gentler Pyongyang
Within the South 's military as well, the removal of the designation "main enemy" from South Korea's defense White Paper due to be released this October alters the defense dynamic considerably. The North, long defined as the primary threat or "main enemy" of the South, has now been redefined in line with the policy of softening the nation's collective perception of the North. The result, exemplified by recent Northern Limit Line (NLL, the sea border between North and South Korea) incursions, is a military command reflecting little faith in the government's commitment to defend the South against Northern aggression.

On July 14, a North Korean patrol boat - the same boat that crossed the naval boundary in 2002 and attacked a South Korean naval vessel, killing six sailors - crossed into South Korean territorial waters. South Korean naval forces responded by firing warning shots across the vessel's bow. The North Korean ship retreated, but its navy later protested, saying it had utilized the newly designated radio frequency (a radio "hotline" agreed to in general-level talks between the North and South in late May) to contact the South Korean navy and inform it of the transgression. Of course it did not make the call until it had already crossed the line, but nonetheless the South Korean navy was now in the hot seat.

What emerged from the inquiry and the subsequent resignations of naval Vice Admiral Kim Seong-man and Defense Minister Cho Young-kil is a picture of a navy that feared informing political superiors of the radio transmission for fear they would be ordered to hold their fire. Indeed, North Korean ships have violated the NLL five times since agreeing to use the specified frequency and protocols, a 500% increase over the average of one incursion per month before the communications agreement. What was to have been a step forward for intra-Korean relations may actually be a new strategy to weaken Southern defenses as Northern ships violate the border then send messages effectively preempting a response from the South: a strategy that would buy the Northern side precious time during a preemptive assault, by ensuring hesitation on the part of the South in responding.

The same such strategy may well be tested against South Korean ground defenses along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) after US forces are redeployed from the area at the end of next year. As for the South Korean field officers and the defense forces they manage, it's hard to imagine how they will maintain a seamless defense against the North when senior command members and rank-and-file soldiers are conditioned not to see an enemy in the North. In the immediate aftermath of the deadly attack by North Korea's navy two years ago, a surviving sailor was quoted as saying, "We didn't believe the North would attack us."

Schoolchildren once demonized the North
The pro-North indoctrination of the South Korea's younger generation comes in the form of school curriculum. The previous Kim Dae-jung administration began "updating" the way the texts describe the North, and indeed such a measure was long overdue. South Koreans in their 30s and older tell of being instructed to draw North Koreans as pigs and wolves in primary school. These state-sanctioned activities demonized the North Korean people as a whole, making no distinction between the North Korean people and their despotic leadership.

But today's policies promote wholesale perception change, not a considered, reasoned update of Cold War propaganda. The evil of the North Korean regime has been mitigated; the nation's pampered ruling elite and the starving huddled masses are again one and the same from a policy perspective, and this is not a temporary phenomenon. Most analysts believe that even if the present "progressive" government in Seoul were replaced with a conservative one, there would be little change in the policy. Grand National Party (GNP) leader Park Gun-hye went to visit the North Korean leader before the last election. This move was believed by many to be designed to assure North Korea that the current policies of engagement started by Kim Dae-jung would continue regardless of the person occupying in the Blue House.

South Korean policies of engagement have been successful in changing how South Koreans view the North. Most South Koreans no longer view the North as the primary threat to their security. That designation is increasingly reserved for the United States. These policies of rapprochement have successfully tapped into South Korea's inherent "one blood, one people" view of the world. Teaching graduate students in South Korea, this correspondent was often struck by how deep this blood affiliation goes, as students majoring in NGO (non-governmental organization) development - many self-described human-rights activists - would challenge evidence of atrocities committed by the Northern regime. Students would often assert in so many words: "Prove there are people starving and being tortured, there is no proof ... it's all a campaign by the United States and Japan to demonize the North and weaken Korea."

Politically prickly issues from South Korea's recent past have a history of being buried or politically manipulated, leaving rumors and animosity to fester as a true accounting of events and the reconciliation that should accompany it proves elusive. Perhaps then it's not surprising that many policy architects in the South believe that North-South reconciliation can be achieved while turning a blind eye to the callous indifference to human life so often demonstrated by the leadership in North Korea. But at some point the South will have to answer for its myopia, its refusal even to raise the issue with the North or include the well-documented proof of crimes against humanity in the administration's dialogue with the people. A North-South relationship predicated on denial and half-truths is unlikely to bring lasting peace and stability.

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.