Kim's Great Game

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Lee Myong Sok grew up in the town of Dongducheon, just 20 km south of Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the grotesquely fortified no-man's-land rimmed with razor wire, heavy military hardware and tens of thousands of soldiers. When he was a boy, Lee lived on "army-base stew": leftover meals from U.S. military canteens, which he would throw into a pot with cabbage and water after discarding the stray cigarette butts. Today, as an operator of a bar in which Russian girls serve the drinks, Lee is still living off the American troops who serve as a "trip wire": if North Korea attacks, these soldiers will come under attack, guaranteeing U.S. involvement in the conflict. But now Lee is deeply upset at the news that Washington wants to pull out 12,500 soldiers, or one-third of the American armed presence in Korea, after 50 years of peacekeeping. The plan is to remove all the troops now stationed on the front line. "This is devastating," says Lee. Fifteen of Dongducheon's leaders shaved their heads last week and went to Seoul to hoist a protest banner outside the National Assembly building. The banner was written in their own blood.

For the elders of Dongducheon, the departure of American soldiers is a pocketbook issue: the town survives by providing Yankee grunts with Pringles, Budweiser and raunchy nighttime entertainment. For the rest of the region, it's something far more significant: another indication that the status quo on the Korean peninsula for more than half a century, written in the blood of the Korean War's more than 2.5 million victims, is rapidly evolving. North Korea is no longer the region's pariah, a hermetically sealed place with whose leaders no others wanted to deal. On the contrary, South Korea is now dominated by a leftist-nationalist President and a political party whose members often see the North as a potential friend or partner, and only sometimes as an enemy that vows to invade and conquer them in a "sea of fire." (The two countries are still technically at war.) Last week, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave an astonishingly positive account of his recent meeting with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, saying that "I personally felt that North Korea was interested in moving forward in a positive way." (See following story.) Beijing said last week that it did not share Washington's assessment of the north's nuclear programs. These changes in attitude toward Pyongyang are being played out against the backdrop of a revised American military posture on the peninsula and strains in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Echoing the famous complaint about Washington's China policy in the late 1940s, South Korean conservatives are already starting to ask: "Who lost the U.S.?"

Hovering above all this, doing one of the great geopolitical levitation acts of our time, is Kim Jong Il. The world has consistently underestimated North Korea's "Dear Leader." Of his potential to cause a bloody war on the peninsula there is little doubt, even if such a war concluded, as it almost certainly would, with the collapse of his own regime. Kim has vast arsenals of biological and chemical weapons, along with the rocket launchers and missiles needed to lob them over the DMZ, onto South Korean cities and even as far as Japan. The North is trumpeting its ability to make nuclear bombs; according to U.S. intelligence, Kim may have at least eight nuclear devices by now, up from only a couple before the latest nuclear crisis. But the policy of South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun is not to confront Kim but to engage with him. Roh is keen on sending tourists across the border to help the North's economy and on building rail and road links that may someday zip through the DMZ. Japan's change in approach to Kim is even more marked. In 2002, the Japanese public was outraged when North Korea admitted it had abducted 13 Japanese. But Koizumi flew to Pyongyang last month, met with Kim, and got some of their families back to Tokyo—while his government promised the North 250,000 tons of food and $10 million worth of medical supplies, staunchly denying it was a quid pro quo.

It might be a stretch to label Kim the Teflon Dictator, but so far, he's looking mighty unscratched. His government is still engaged in talks with the U.S., Japan, China, South Korea and Russia on ways to dismantle his nuclear program, and all sides insist they're united on that goal, although little headway has been made. And the U.S. is hardly pulling its boys in fear. "You can be a trip-wire force with 5,000 troops," says one U.S. Air Force officer in Washington, "as well as with 37,000." That's especially the case given the parlous state of Kim's own infantry and air force, which work with equipment designed and built in the 1960s.


But Kim, whose country George W. Bush placed on his "axis of evil" list in 2002 (along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq), isn't exactly in need of a spider hole. The methods he uses to maintain control of his army, Politburo and people might be opaque, but his manipulation of the outside world is looking surprisingly and consistently adroit. Kim quickly recognized that South Korea's shift from cold war to détente (under former President Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy") was based on the fear that if the North collapsed it would touch off a ruinously expensive unification of the peninsula. Seoul suddenly desired what Kim wants most desperately: his own survival. That drove a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. Now, Washington is tinkering with its trip wire after 50 years. "The winner is North Korea," says Lee Dong Bok, a former top South Korean official who led negotiations with North Korea over a 30-year period. "There's no doubt about that." In other words: the world does deal with terrorist rogue states when the situation is complex, when there are distractions around such as Iraq—and when dictators play their cards right.

Washington insists the pullout of troops isn't a lessening of support for South Korea but merely part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's re-engineering of the U.S. military. Rumsfeld wants to have speedy and flexible units around the world that can move into various kinds of conflicts. The G.I.s in South Korea, in contrast, are configured for one war alone, against the old-fashioned (if potentially cataclysmic) weaponry of North Korea. "'Imperfectly' is how I would characterize the way the United States is arranged," Rumsfeld said this month about the U.S. troops. Victor Cha, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agrees: "This is an alliance that has not changed in 50 years. It was a static force, heavily ground-based." Last week's announcement of the pullout followed two earlier U.S. plans to move 14,000-15,000 American soldiers from the DMZ to bases farther south and transfer 3,600 troops to Iraq.

But for all its military logic, Seoul was rattled by the Pentagon's latest decision. In an interview with TIME, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon bristled when asked about the "withdrawal" of U.S. troops—he insists on the term "reduction"—and said the details were still being thrashed out between the two governments. "We'd like to see whether this can be delayed," he said. "And, if it can be delayed, by how much." (Ban is pushing for the U.S. to hold off any pullout until 2007, although Washington has said it wants the troops gone by December 2005.) President Roh had come to office by exploiting anti-American sentiment among the young generation of voters, but even Roh has started to recognize South Korea's vulnerability behind a smaller U.S. shield.

That's wise. If Kim Jong Il chose war, he would start with a barrage from the thousands of North Korean artillery systems arrayed on the 248-km front. Some of the shells could be loaded with chemical or biological weapons. Then hordes of North Korean infantry and Kim's giant fleet of tanks and armored personnel carriers would be sent, headed for Seoul and other strategic targets. The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division near the DMZ flies Apache attack helicopters capable of stopping the tanks—but that's the unit the Pentagon plans to downsize and move south. The U.S. insists that even if the artillery division is moved, the defense of South Korea will not be compromised, and Washington has promised an $11 billion upgrade of the country's defenses, including new Patriot antimissile systems. But South Korean experts are worried that North Korean artillery will have freer rein until the South can plug the hole with its own antiartillery batteries. "If they move out the artillery and the helicopters," warns Kim Tae Woo, a military analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, "we will have serious problems." He points out that equipment and boots on the ground are concrete shields against the North. "Yes, capability is more important than the sheer number of soldiers," Kim Tae Woo says. "But the health of the alliance is more important than both those things combined."

The alliance, however, looks far from healthy. Foreign Minister Ban's assessment of the North Korean nuclear threat is less dramatic than the official U.S. position: that Pyongyang is probably already a nuclear power. "We are not quite sure whether they are in possession of nuclear weapons," Ban told TIME, adding that South Korea nonetheless took the issue seriously. (China's Deputy Foreign Minister last week also said he doubted the American assertion that Kim was running a covert uranium-enrichment program on top of making weapons from plutonium.) Washington and Seoul are also bogged down in a dispute over a new base for American soldiers currently stationed at the Yongsan garrison in central Seoul. The U.S. says it needs 11.9 million sq m of land for its soldiers; the South Koreans haven't been prepared to set aside quite that much. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless complained earlier this month in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that if that dispute isn't settled, the $11 billion weapons-upgrade program could be threatened. Park Jin, a lawmaker in South Korea's conservative opposition Grand National Party, visited Washington last month and got the feeling from U.S. officials and scholars that the South was being viewed as wobbly or maybe even plain old untrustworthy: "I was told there was a question mark over whether South Korea was a true ally." Marcus Noland, a scholar at Washington's Institute for International Economics, says the two governments are clearly "further apart" since Roh took office. "There is blame to be shared by both sides," he says. "But the Roh people appear to be particularly inept and/or hostile."


The "Roh people," in fact, describes not just a government but a generation: younger Koreans who weren't alive during the Korean War and barely remember South Korea's Herculean effort to escape poverty. They came of age during the years of authoritarian rule, and they squarely blame the U.S. for supporting such military dictators as Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. (Roh himself had a career as a human-rights lawyer who took on the South's strongman governments.) Many of these younger Koreans are quicker to direct their anger toward the U.S. than to North Korea. Washington, they suspect, keeps troops in the South solely for its own security interests, at the cost of a divided peninsula. They may fear North Korea in one part of their minds, but they hate the U.S. in another.

Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" replaced decades of invective toward the North with a rapprochement that resulted in his June 2000 summit with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang and the Nobel Peace Prize four months later. Kim Dae Jung had to compromise with a conservative opposition, and so did Roh when he was elected on his anti-American, pro-"Sunshine Policy" platform in December 2002. But now Roh has got a free hand, thanks to a recent rise from the ashes of controversy. The opposition impeached Roh on slender charges in March; then a brand-new pro-Roh political grouping, the Uri Party, won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. A court reversed Roh's impeachment a month later, and the new, hastily reconstituted government is all of one mind: pro-Sunshine. "Anti-Americans and pro-North Koreans are now masters of the political landscape," says former government negotiator Lee.

Indeed, South Korean newspapers no longer harp on the hard life in the North but instead find lots of space to report on fledgling economic reforms or the progress of economic projects between the two countries, such as the busloads of southerners who take tours through the DMZ to the Mount Kumgang resort, built by the Hyundai Group at a cost, so far, of $568 million. Two weeks ago, the two countries announced a formal agreement to stop blasting propaganda at each other across the DMZ, which was sealed with a hearty handshake between North Korea's General An Ik San and South Korea's Rear Admiral Park Jeong Hwa. South Korean schoolbooks used to teach grade-schoolers to hate and fear "the enemy." Today's texts contain pictures of North Korean food shops ("A lot of women," reads the caption, helpfully, "are participating in economic activity") and suggest students practice writing letters to their counterparts across the border (without mentioning that North Korea prohibits mail from the South.) In today's classrooms, you can find a third-grade textbook with a cartoon of two boys from either side of the border deciding not to throw rocks at each other.

Northern Boy: I'm sorry I threw the rock at you first.

Southern Boy: I'm sorry, too. It is not right for brothers to throw rocks at each other.

Northern Boy: Our parents and ancestors would be grieved to see us fighting.

Southern Boy: Speaking of which, do you want to participate in the international Ping-Pong game together as one team? ... If we become one team, we can make up for our weakness and no other country will be able to beat us.

Teachers need little encouragement to use such texts. Park Geun Byung, a teacher at Song Chun elementary school in Seoul, uses a storybook that instructs his fourth-grade class in the tale of an evil dragon that prevents a Romeo and Juliet on either side of a river from marrying. The river is plainly the DMZ. The evil dragon is meant to represent the U.S. Park is a believer in what he calls "unification education." "Teachers," he adds, "don't have to be neutral."

What will Kim Jong Il make of Washington's move to reduce its forces in South Korea—and how will he react? "He is a brilliant strategist," says Sohn Kwang Joo, a North Korea analyst at the Seoul-based Institute of National Unification Policy, "an expert at brinkmanship. He is very focused on maintaining his regime." Kim's next task is to get through the third round of the six-party talks on his nuclear program, which is supposed to take place this month. That shouldn't be too difficult. China's main role has been to cajole Pyongyang into attending; South Korea has been reluctant to pull off its gloves; Japan has been distracted by the kidnappings of its citizens; and Russia is largely an observer. The U.S. counts the fact that the talks are continuing as a success in itself, not least of all because it adamantly refuses the only other alternative, the one that Kim really wants: bilateral discussions with Washington to discuss diplomatic recognition and a noninvasion treaty. (When Koizumi met Bush at the G-8 summit last week, he carried just such a message from Kim.)

None of this means that Kim's position is unassailable. If he launched a war against the South, the U.S.'s huge technological advantage would almost certainly be decisive, notwithstanding the cutback in American troops on the peninsula. "If North Korea attacked," says James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul, "[it] would be blown off the face of the earth." But Kim would be mad to wage such a war. Right now, his survival skills have made him master of the moment. With the security that comes from his weapons and a changing regional attitude to his regime, Kim needs to do little more than continue to keep his adversaries off balance. In the propaganda posters that dot North Korea, Kim is always seen smiling. Now you know why.