Having just visited South Korea, I felt as if I were in a time warp. It’s not that South Korea itself is out of date; if anything, it is ultra-modern — at the cutting edge of technology, culture, and social and economic development. But its neighbor to the north seems never to have passed out of its Stalinist phase. In addition to starving and repressing its own people, and proliferating weapons technology, counterfeit currency, and other illegal substances, North Korea keeps on threatening the south.
The latest manifestation was of course the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which occurred back in March and which killed 46 sailors. It is now generally agreed that the culprit was a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. This is a bit out of the norm, but not wildly so. Every few years, North Korea commits some provocation along those lines. This is actually fairly mild compared with the bomb blast back in 1983, which killed a number of top Korean officials while they were on a visit to Rangoon.
More often, of course, the North-South standoff results not in actual fighting but in tensions along the DMZ, or demilitarized zone — a misnomer for one of the most heavily armed places on earth. Along with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, I visited Panmunjom, the area in the DMZ where negotiations with the north are conducted, and found a surreal scene, with North Korean guards peering at us through the windows of a hut as if we were animals at the zoo. Meanwhile tense South Korean soldiers in sunglasses and shiny helmets stood around, fists clenched, in what is called the “ROK Ready” position. Don’t dare open the back door, we were told; a soldier who made that mistake was snatched by the North Koreans.
There seems scant hope of ending this standoff anytime soon — not unless the bizarre North Korean regime collapses. It is certainly dysfunctional enough to come to an end at any time, but it could just as easily last for decades as impoverished dictatorships still do in Burma and Cuba. The ultimate objective for American and South Korean policy should be to encourage the north’s peaceful implosion, and that in turn means reducing outside support for the regime. That’s something South Korea, under a more conservative government led by Lee Myung-bak, has already been doing lately. Ultimately, though, the north relies for life support on China, and there seems scant prospect that Beijing will do anything that might undermine the Kim Jong-Il regime. There is nothing that Chinese leaders fear more than an implosion on their border, leading to huge refugee flows and possibly the establishment of a unified Korea aligned with the West, not with China.
So in practical terms, South Korea and its American allies will have no choice but to continue preparing for the resumption of the war that was suspended in 1953. That task is increasingly being taken up by the Republic of Korea, which has 655,000 active-duty military personnel and 3 million reservists — the sixth-largest military in the world. The U.S. still maintains 28,000 troops in the south, but they are increasingly being pulled back from Seoul and from the DMZ toward a new base farther south, away from any major population center. Their role is not to so much to contribute ground combat power as to help in the naval and air operations against North Korea while, critically, providing a tripwire that will guarantee American nuclear protection against North Korea’s nukes.
South Korean generals already exercise full control of their forces in peacetime, but if war were to break out, their military would revert to the control of the Combined Forces Command, run by an American four-star. That is due to change in 2012, when “opcon” (operational control) is supposed to revert to the Koreans even in wartime, but South Korean officials we spoke to said they want to move that date back by several years. Not only are they still lacking confidence that they can exercise the same kind of command and control as U.S. officers, but they also think it would be a bad signal of disengagement to the north at a dangerous time. Of course, on the Korean Peninsula, every moment since 1950 has been a dangerous one.