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Trusting Big Brother: The Korean Family Feud

Commentary, 18 December 2007
Pacific
In the run up to the South Korean Presidential election, a number of significant events are taking place that will impact North-South relations.

By John Hemmings

In the run up to the South Korean Presidential election, a number of significant events are taking place that will impact North-South relations.

As of 11 December, the two Koreas were connected by the first regular rail service in fifty-six years. So far, the twelve car train service is set to transport only raw materials from South Korea to the joint industrial zone in Gaesong, North Korea. But there are hopes in Seoul that this service may broaden to include passengers, opening a sluice-gate in the most heavily fortified border in the world. There is ongoing progress in the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization, and South Korea’s top brass are meeting with North Korea’s senior military leaders in a number of meetings this week in order to discuss border security and a joint fishing zone. However, some commentators have suggested that it is best to take the cautious approach when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

As the first freight train left Munsan Station at 6:20am on 11 December, 2007, carrying boundary stones and materials for shoes, senior military officials from both sides began planning a series of meetings to take place Wednesday to Friday in the truce village of Panmunjeom. These meetings, held at the request of North Korea, will focus on resolving several issues that remained after defence ministerial meetings failed in Pyongyang last month. The top issue to be discussed is the joint fishing zone on the area of the de facto border in the West Sea, which has caused military friction in the past. South Korea wants the fishing area to be located on either side of the border, which North Korea refuses to recognize. North Korea, by contrast, wants the fishing area to be located south of the Northern Limit Line.

Although South Korean newspapers are pessimistic about the chances of the Generals succeeding where politicians have failed, only a week before South Korean presidential elections, the fact that both sides are meeting more regularly is a good sign. The top three candidates all have slightly different views on how to deal with North Korea, but front-runner Lee Myung-bak seems to lead the nation with his approach. His policy is a realistic one: South Korean aid, trade, and investment directly linked to progress on the nuclear issue.

South Korean Presidential Candidates at a glance:

Name Age Party Views on the DPRK
Lee Myung-bak 65 Grand National Party (GNP) Tough line on North Korea, linking aid to progress on the nuclear issue.
Chung Dong-young 54 United New Democratic Party (UNDP) Steady flow of aid to North Korea as well as expanding joint co-operation.
Lee Hoi-chang 72 Independent (formerly of GNP) Toughest line on North Korea, demanding North return the hundreds of kidnapped South Koreans.

A brief look at Korean English-language news websites last week showed that the inter-Korean train line figured on every front page in the Republic of Korea (ROK). By way of contrast, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) English-language news site Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not mention it at all. Instead, the top KCNA story listed was the 'indictment' of South Korean presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang, who is called a 'fascist man-killer, separatist and confrontational maniac, kingpin of irregularities and corruption and human scum.' So what motivates North Korean rhetoric? The fact that Lee Hoi-chang opposes a soft approach to the hermit state is one factor in his indictment. The difference in news output is telling, and reveals much of the mentality of the two states.

The modern history of Korea is a sad one. North Korea’s sudden drive into South Korean territory in 1950 was only pushed back gradually by the combined forces of the US, the UN, and the South Korean Army in 1953. The stalemate brought about by the Chinese intervention froze the seperation of Korea into two states. This separation has outlived the Cold War ideology that spawned it, an aberration of history. Just as our perceptions create reality to some extent, so inadequate ones might create unhelpful policy. The narrative of the idelogical struggle has been woven into the fabric of the Cold War struggle so well, that one hardly notices that it’s not about ideology at all. Certainly, the DPRK carries the trappings of a communist state, but it functions more as a kingdom with a ruling dynasty. Kim Il-sung’s transferral of power to his son Kim Jong-il in 1994 looks likely to be repeated between Kim Jong-il and his second son Kim Jong-chul. Already, Kim Jong-chul (27) has assumed a key official post in the road to the throne, becoming Vice Chief of the Korean Worker’s Party’s Organisation.

Classic international relations theory does little to help with the Korean problem, as it views states as complete entities within themselves, motivated by individualized state interests. A more helpful narrative in explaining (and dealing) with Korea is the ‘family feud model’. In many ways, the splitting of Korea can be viewed as a bitter family feud, in which two brothers have broken from each other in an acrimonius dispute on how to run the house. The feud has been aided and complicated by outside parties such as the former Soviet Union, China, and the US who all have their own interests and motives for helping. An added complication is that North Korea’s defining Juche concept, and guerrila-warfare inspired foreign policy give it the appearance of a mentally-ill ‘big brother’.

The idea that North Korea is a mentally ill big brother is a useful metaphor in many ways, because it explains the continued willingness of the ROK to give more than it gets. It also explains the unwillingness of North Korea to consider any historical interpretation of the region except its own, a behaviour pattern which is actually very difficult to sustain in the twenty-first century. It also explains Western and ROK confusion on how to confront the DPRK with the truth of its behaviour; to point out that it is a kingdom rather than a socialist state, to point out its obvious lies, its indiscretions, its problems. Finally, the metaphor of North Korea being the paranoid older brother explains why it feels inferior to its more successful younger sibling, an inner-Korean emotional context that is lacking in straight forward security analysis.

As elections loom in South Korea, the choice of candidates reflects divisions in how to approach this family feud, how to perceive ‘big brother’, and indeed, how to bring him into the fold once more. It must be remembered that North Korea remains a major security threat. In addition to its nuclear ambitions, North Korea can still field a million-man army, and has a large concentration of artillery based on the border within firing range of Seoul. The two leading candidates, Chung Dong-young of the United New Democratic Party (UNDP) and Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party (GNP) have a basically concillatory approach to North Korea, while Lee Hoi-chang, an independent, focuses on resolving the nuclear issue first and foremost. Next week, we will see which way South Korea is leaning, and whether a rosier future is actually possible.

John Hemmings
Studies Co-ordinator
RUSI

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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