Friday, November 03, 2006

Selig Harrison's "Korean Endgame", Part 1

Selig Harrison’s book, Korean Endgame, is a rare one. It is unusual to read a careful, thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable and non-ideological account of one of America’s chief foreign policy opponents. Harrison has 30 years experience studying the area and has many personal contacts in both Koreas. Since this is a long, detailed and scholarly treatment probably only a few specialists will read it. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of the surprising judgments contained in just the first few pages.

(I use the term “judgments” because when it comes to the complicated events of foreign policy it is very difficult to separate “facts” from “judgments”. This makes foreign policy particularly vulnerable to ideological distortion. For example, in North Korea, Part 3 I discussed a disagreement which in principle is a factual matter: Are the U.S. Treasury financial sanctions on N. Korea, instituted in September 2005, simply aimed at alleged illegal activities or are they aimed at stopping as many worldwide banks as possible from doing any lending business with N. Korea? While “in principle” a factual matter it would be difficult to collect the information necessary to decide which judgment was true. Thus, ideologues can interpret the matter pretty much at will. I tried to establish what was factual by citing administration statements in a New York Times article and the statement of the U.S. Treasury official with chief responsibility for these sanctions.)

What judgments of Selig Harrison’s at least surprised this reader? From p. xiii-xiv: “Mounting historical evidence makes it increasingly clear that the meaning of the Korean War has been widely misunderstood. The original assumption underlying U.S. intervention was that the North had acted as a puppet of the Soviet Union in the opening thrust of a worldwide Communist expansionist offensive…. But historians have now established beyond doubt that it was Kim Il Sung, not Stalin, who instigated the invasion, primarily in response to an internal factional challenge from his most significant rival…. Recent research in the Soviet Union and China has unearthed extensive documentation that shows how hesitant Stalin was in responding to Kim’s pressures for an invasion…. Stalin finally yielded to Kim because he mistakenly concluded that the war would not take long and would not lead to conflict with the United States.”

I don’t find this hard to believe. I think the American public should always be suspicious of any internal or external policy advanced by people who use emotions, especially fear, to advocate their policies. (Cold War anti-communism is a prime example.) I don’t hold that there aren’t things in the world to be afraid of; there are indeed things for which we need to be realistically and adequately prepared. But whenever a group of politicians tries to whip up fear and demonize those domestic opponents with whom they disagree, the public should be extremely skeptical of the case the fear-mongers make. Demagoguery is a poison to be devoutly avoided. The only problem I have with Dr. Johnson’s admonition, “Patriotism, sir, is the last resort of scoundrels”, is that he should have said it was the first resort.

Harrison continued (p. xiv-xv): “Moscow and Washington saw themselves as the puppeteers pulling the strings. More often than not, however, they were manipulated by clients who had their own agendas…. Kim secured Mao Tse-Tung’s blessing for an invasion, which greatly strengthened his hand in dealing with Stalin, who feared a Chinese challenge for leadership of the world Communist movement…. The United States, for its part, has been manipulated by a succession of South Korean leaders, starting with Syngman Rhee. It was Rhee’s refusal to sign the 1953 armistice and his threats to ‘march North’ that forced the United States to buy him off with economic and military commitments…. Initially modest, the resulting influx of U.S. economic and military aid to South Korea totaled some $19.07 billion by 1997…. The only countries that have received more American assistance have been Israel ($56.1 billion), Egypt ($36.7 billion), and South Vietnam ($21.8 billion).”

Commenting upon the policies of Russia and China Harrison wrote (p. xv): “But now Moscow has nullified its security treaty with Pyongyang and is selling its most advanced military equipment and technology to Seoul. Beijing, while retaining its security treaty, has phased out its military aid to Pyongyang and is seeking to promote a reduction of military tensions between North and South…. Equally important, both Russia and China have forged much more important economic links with the South than with the North. Since 1958, there have been no Soviet or Chinese forces in North Korea. Nevertheless, the United States continues to maintain 37,000 U.S. troops in the South at a direct cost of $2 billion per year….”

(P. xvi): “While South Korean policies have softened since the [2000] North-South summit, the U.S. policy posture has remained largely unchanged, except for a brief but notable thaw during the final year of the Clinton administration. As I will show, such a reassessment has been blocked, in part, by entrenched military and industrial vested interests in Washington and Seoul alike with a stake in sustaining North-South tensions and in keeping the specter of a North Korean threat alive as a justification for maintaining the present level of U.S. force deployments in Asia.”

OK, all I'm succeeding in doing here is proving yet again that I can't write a short post. I'll continue this in later posts.

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