Commentary  Can Korean partition be undone?

A look into the politics surrounding the situation in Korea

North Korea is acting like “a spoiled child,” a high-ranking Chinese official said in a leaked cable. It is a spoiled child – one with nuclear capabilities, although the extent to which they can be deployed is highly questionable.

And if you stop and think about it, almost everything about North Korea is questionable. No one seems to know what’s really happening in this hermit kingdom.

There are so many “unknown unknowns,” but this is exactly the “unknown unknown” every ruler needs to maintain a siege mentality over their population. Pyongyang needs the narrative that every country in the world is out to get them. Western democracies need a caricatural form of communism. We have here a mutualistic relationship where the only losers are the regular Joes and Janes and their Korean counterparts.

North Korea’s military might is highly exaggerated. If Western powers intended to take North Korea out, they could do so easily. In any war between two countries, the one with higher productive capacity will always be the victor. The brilliance of this or that general might play a role, but only within the confines of what’s possible. With this in mind, then for the longest time, North Korea – a country plagued with famine and dependent on the UN to feed its population – has not been a real threat to the far superior South Korea. Of course, the game changes when the conflict on the Korean peninsula becomes a proxy war between different superpowers. In that case, we’re no longer talking merely about the respective military power of the North or the South.

However, the Cold War having ended more than twenty years ago, China has less and less interest in defending North Korea. According to a leaked cable, Chun Yung-woo, national security adviser to President Lee Myung-Bak, confided to the U.S. ambassador to South Korea that China “would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the U.S. in a ‘benign alliance’ as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.”

Others will argue that the advent of nuclear capabilities has changed the war game; that now, even a small poor country, as long as it possesses a nuclear warhead, can pose the same threat as a superpower with hundreds of them. However, this view does not take into account the fact that there’s a common understanding that the use of nuclear missiles would mean mutually assured destruction. Since the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings in 1945, many wars have been fought without these horrifying weapons. The stockpiled nuclear warheads have instead become an economic burden, and hence they’re continuously being dismantled.

At the end of the day, both sides – the North and the South with their allies – are not looking to duke it out. If anything, North Korean officials are looking forward to opening themselves and even reunification. They look at their Chinese “comrades-in-arms,” many of whom have converted themselves into successful, prosperous bureaucrats and tycoons by auctioning off their subjects’ cheap labour – and the North Koreans aspire to that. It’s true that these North Korean officials are already living lavishly compared to millions of their hungry fellow citizens, but their desire knows no bounds.

These so-called “communists” seek to reunify with capitalist South Korea and to participate in the global market on their own terms, with their privileges secured – and improved. They have to do so without causing social turmoil because, for decades, they have indoctrinated their people with the concept of Juche, of self-sufficiency, of the-whole-world-is-out-to-get-us.

Can the people of North Korea break this spell? Yes, but not by themselves, because their fate is tied to their Southern siblings, and certainly not through secret dealings and diplomacy.