Radioactive Nationalism: The Risky Maneuverings on the Korean Peninsula

The New York Times Magazine
October 22, 2006

In a classic Mexican standoff, two men point guns at each other’s heads. Neither wants to shoot, but each knows the downside of not pulling the trigger first. It is an inherently gripping situation, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” offers one of the most memorable examples: in a climactic scene that takes place in a warehouse, three men aim guns at one another, with catastrophe (for macabre laughs) just a twitch away.

We can now thank North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, who is credited with directing several movies, for creating a Mexican standoff that outdoes Tarantino but is no postmodern parody; it takes place in the real world. Earlier this month, North Korea announced that it had exploded an atomic bomb, thus becoming the newest and scariest nuclear power in the world. This set off alarms in South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States; all have good reasons to fear North Korea and one another. We now have a Mexican standoff that involves a) as many as six participants, including b) countries that are threatening one another with c) nuclear weapons. Tarantino couldn’t invent it.

Yet something — someone — is missing from this semi-apocalyptic drama. Warming his hands over a fire in north Waziristan or wherever, Osama bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in our times, is no more a factor than John Dillinger. True, there are fears that North Korea might try to sell a nuke to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But diplomats are just as concerned that Japan might choose to build a nuclear weapon or two, that South Korea would be tempted to do the same, that China, Russia and the United States will shove against one another and that in the Middle East, Iran will accelerate its nuclear program, leading Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Google “how to build the bomb.”

What’s happening, in other words, is an old-fashioned clash of nations and national interests, exacerbated, as often happens, by the imperatives of regime survival. The suspicions and alliances date back a century or more, though the weaponry, instead of muskets and catapults, is nuclear. After 9/11, we came to believe that the menace that mattered most was the wrath of religious terror, and our geopolitical lingua franca embraced a new vocabulary to define it — jihad, suicide bombers, asymmetric warfare, nonstate actors. Whatever happened to nationalism and the risky maneuverings of states? Nothing, actually. Kim Jong Il, entering from stage far-left, reminds us that new threats, like Islamic extremism, do not replace old ones.

The Korean peninsula is an ancient hothouse for nationalism and its offshoots; it is also a brilliant example of the uses, abuses and durability of national esteem. The peninsula is sandwiched between China and Japan, which are two of the great powers of modern and not-so-modern history; without their pride and willingness to sacrifice for a common goal, Koreans would speak Japanese or Chinese today. Defiantly, through a millennium or two of attack and occupation, they held on to their language and even their gene pool. When I lived in Seoul in the 1980’s, intermarriage, to a Japanese or an American or whomever, was rare and an occasion for scorn or, at best, pity. The taboos are lessening — earlier this year, the government lifted a ban against mixed-race Koreans serving in the military — but as a recent article in The Asia Times noted, “A foreigner, even another Asian, stands out.” More so on the other side of the DMZ: not long ago, a North Korean general chastised South Korea for even allowing intermarriage.

The Korean peninsula was divided into American and Russian zones after World War II — Japan had ruled Korea brutally for nearly a half-century — and was then reduced to cinders by the Korean War. The resurrection of North and South was stunning because they started from utter scratch and without a blueprint or Marshall Plan. Both governments drummed into their people that unless they worked hard and prepared to fight hard, they would be overrun and subjugated by their brother enemies. Each side wanted to prove itself as the true carrier of the Korean torch. The peninsula’s division and war was akin to the splitting of a highly charged nationalist atom that unleashed an explosion of directed energy.

The cross-border rivalry provided material not just for political experts but also for Freudian analysts. In addition to postwar spasms of violence — like several attempts by northern assassins to kill South Korea’s leaders — the one-upmanship reached the absurd. American soldiers at Panmunjom, the truce village, entertain visitors with a story of how, at the outset of armistice talks in the 1950’s, delegations from North and South brought in larger and larger national flags — each side wanted its totem to be the biggest. Eventually, the flags were too large to fit through the doors; physics rather than good sense forced them to agree to modest and identically sized flags.

My three-year sojourn in South Korea was punctuated with iterations of nationalist fervor, some of them charming. There was, in those days, a club that supported Koreans training for stunts that would get them into The Guinness Book of World Records; if memory serves, one hopeful was a man who walked up mountains on his hands. The club’s aim wasn’t just to help zealous citizens get into the holy book, but to have South Korea itself inscribed as the country with the most world records. This wasn’t entirely removed, in its linking of nationalist glory and athletic achievement, from East Germany’s effort to legitimize itself, and trump its brother state, by becoming an Olympic power, even if that required doping a generation of athletes (which it did).

Today, even though it has a highly advanced economy — more than 80 percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world — the country has a nearly provincial relationship to its local heroes, like Ban Ki-moon, the foreign minister who will be the next U.N. secretary general. The most famous South Korean of recent times was Hwang Woo Suk, a scientist who in 2004 and 2005 announced breakthroughs in cloning. At home, he was worshiped, a hybrid of Einstein and Madonna. The government awarded him the title Supreme Scientist and gave him millions of dollars. The embrace was so intense that when a television news program reported on unethical conduct in Hwang’s lab, the program’s sponsors withdrew their ads and the show was temporarily taken off the air. The reporting was accurate — Hwang faked his research. The awards were withdrawn, prosecutors charged him with embezzlement — yet even so, supporters staged rallies, and a Web site in his honor pleads, “Please come back, Dr. Hwang.”

In North Korea, nationalism has taken a different course and been put to different uses by a tyranny that exports counterfeit dollars and has been described, with amusing accuracy, as a “Soprano state,” after the Mafia family in the HBO series. But until the 1970’s, when it began to be hollowed out because of the inherent contradictions of command economics, North Korea was more industrialized and prosperous than South Korea. It has always, and proudly, had the upper hand in a key nationalistic category — foreign troops are not based on its soil. When I visited Pyongyang in 1989 (a long time ago, but North Korea’s cryonic rhetoric has changed little in half a century), officials I met were obsessed by two things: the threat posed by American troops on their doorstep and South Korea’s cowardly acceptance of these foreigners. It was not unlike, I now realize, the religious fervor with which Islamic conservatives criticized the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the cowardly royal family that welcomed them (when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990).

The decades-long rotting of North Korea’s economy, and thus the erosion of its military power, was a key reason to develop nuclear weapons: nukes are a poor man’s defense, cheaper to build and maintain than an army, and a guarantee that you will not be invaded because the stakes are cataclysmic. North Korea’s million-man army is poorly equipped and poorly trained, and no match for the smaller but more sophisticated South Korean military, which is augmented by 28,000 G.I.’s on the ground and additional U.S. forces that would come to South Korea’s aid if attacked. Nukes are also a great way, if you lead a small, hopelessly poor and violently repressed nation, to get the attention of the rest of the world; rather than being treated like Albania, North Korea will be treated like Albania with nukes. The government’s English-language announcement boasted that its test came “at a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation.” This nationalist, and deluded, phrase was in the first sentence.

Because nationalism is more of a collective belief than a particular policy, the positions adopted in its name can evolve, even rotate. Inter-Korean hostility subsided as a result of the “sunshine policy” initiated by former President Kim Dae-jung, who dropped the stance of utter hostility taken by the conservative generals who ruled South Korea from the 1960’s until the 1990’s. The same national pride that set North and South against each other can also create common ties. Now, instead of regarding the North as a violently psychotic regime, the southern attitude is more along the indulgent yet exasperated lines of “Oh, no, what’s our nutty brother done today?” Particularly among South Koreans with no memories of the Korean War — that’s now most of the country — yearnings for peace and good relations, as well as anti-Americanism, are stronger than the hostile anti-Communist intent of their fathers and grandfathers. And in the wake of Germany’s costly unification, policy makers in Seoul realize that the collapse of the North, which an older generation wished for, would create a high degree of political instability and an enormous financial burden that should perhaps be avoided. This helps explain why Seoul has limited its antinuclear criticism of the North, and why South Koreans aren’t rushing for bomb shelters quite yet.

One factor bringing the Koreas together is their shared enmity for Japan. North Korea’s tirades against Tokyo are nearly unprintable; the South Koreans are more polite but fervently resolute whenever their prestige is challenged by Japan. In the mid-1990’s, when FIFA, the international soccer organization, decided to hold the 2002 World Cup in Asia for the first time, the host-country finalists were South Korea and Japan. The competition was intense beyond belief; among other extravagances, Buddhist monks in Seoul prayed three times a day that their homeland would get the nod. In the end, recognizing that the humiliation of losing to an ancient rival would be too much for either side to bear, FIFA took the unusual step of splitting hosting duties between the two countries. Even then, naming the event was problematic; FIFA called it “World Cup 2002 KoreaJapan,” but when Japan printed its tickets, the geographic reference was deleted because Korea came first.

More than any other country, Japan feels threatened by North Korea’s nuclear capacities. The brutality of the Japanese occupation of parts of China and all of Korea has not been forgotten in the region nor fully apologized for. The sexual slavery of Korean women during World War II remains an issue the Japanese avoid rather than accept full responsibility for. Of course Japan is linked to China and South Korea in good ways — they are major trading partners, and Japan has been an important source of loans and investment. None want to go to war, and one triumph of the nation-state system is that it is not a suicide pact, though neither is it a foolproof way to keep the peace.

If this sounds familiar — history shaped by the rivalries, interests and missteps of nations rather than terrorists dashing from hideout to hideout — it should. It’s the way the world has been ordered and disordered since the emergence of the nation-state and even before, and it did not vanish on Sept. 11, 2001. If anything, traditional powers that kept to themselves in past years are asserting themselves in new ways. Because of an influx of funds for its oil and gas, the Russia of Vladimir Putin is far more aggressive than the shipwreck presided over by Boris Yeltsin. The fast growth of China’s economy has increased its appetites for not just greater political clout but also for resources with which to feed its bustling industries. And of course there is Iran, which has not forgotten its Persian history and would not mind recapturing, by becoming a nuclear state, the influence it once had.

In the 19th century, Britain and Russia struggled for control of Central Asia in what was called “the Great Game.” In the 21st century, the great game is far more complex, taking place across the globe between an expanding number of actors with a multiplicity of interests and a variety of weapons. Yet certain basic facts — war is an extension of politics, politics are often driven by a need for resources as well as collective feelings of pride or shame — remain much the same in the wake of Sept. 11. We are obliged to focus on Islamism and the terrorist threat it has produced, to study Arabic and the work of Sayyid Qutb, but we should not fail to consult Kennan, Clausewitz or Thucydides either.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.