The Trilateral Conflict USA – North Korea – South Korea

EDITORIAL, 9 Nov 2009

#87 | Johan Galtung

Seoul:  Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen; a great honor to be invited for a keynote on unification–a key concern of mine since 1972–in a room in the National Assembly, the symbol of democracy.

And we are meeting in the context of the 20th anniversary of that 1989 miracle, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and then the implosion, first of the Soviet Empire, then of the Soviet Union, of socialism as a social order, and of communism as a philosophy.  And shortly after: the collapse of DDR and in 1991 the unification of Germany.

Miracle?  Not quite.  I used the category of absurdity, the disconnect between structures and cultures, facts and values, to predict, in 1980, the fall within ten years of the wall, followed by the fall of the Soviet Empire.  It fell on time, because of hard work of the peace movement in the West and the dissident movement in the East–both of them denigrated by governments with nothing to say but the lame “nobody could have predicted this”.

The ending of the Cold War became a metaphor for ending the division of Korea.  There is absurdity in the North I know from visits, like in “free world” military dictatorship in the South.  It will yield, like in the South, and many have waited 50+ years for its collapse; even calculating the cost-benefit to the South of absorbing a failed society based on the German scenario.

I am not among them, and for three reasons.

First, N Korea is confucian, not protestant individualist.  Dissident defectors, yes, but gross defection is less likely.

Second, there is–like in Cuba–pride in their historical role: the first time since 1812 the USA did not prevail in a war.

Third, DDR’s Big Brother, the Soviet Union, was in crisis and refused to help.  But NK’s Big Brother, China, is more vigorous than ever, and uninterested in S Korea-USA at their doorsteps.

A study of the collapse of autocracies(1) sees the collapse of a much bigger, global, autocracy, the US Empire (not the USA which may blossom) rather than that of North Korea.  Time will show.

    What, then, will happen to North Korea?  NK will go the same way as other East Asian societies, guided by the Japanese dai-to-a Empire 1910-1945: Japan under Meiji, China under Mao-Deng, Taiwan under Chiang, Singapore under Yew, SK under Rhee-Park and others, NK under Kim Il Sung-Jong Il.

First, autocratic distribution of education and health; second, autocratic growth; third, opening up, loosening up.  For autocratic growth N Korea now has a choice between US-inspired S Korea and China-inspired China.  One is in the throws of a deep economic crisis Made in USA, another handles that crisis quite well.  Whom would you choose?

But overriding all economic considerations is a key political concern, even of dignity: the USA, withholding a peace treaty they had no qualms signing with a South Korean dictatorship and general normalization, denies NK any legitimacy.  NK will only cooperate with SK as an equal, not as an illegitimate pariah brother under collapse scenarios.  Should they collapse they will take somebody with them, given the WMD capacity to do so.  Pride.  Dignity. Han.

The root of the whole calamity on the Korean peninsula is the USA-NK relation.  Since the Jeju 3-4-1948 uprising.  Or partition August 1945.  Or the 1910 colonization.  Or the Taft-Katsura 1905 memorandum.  Change that relation and miracles may happen.  Refuse to do so and second strike WMD capacity, sufficient to deter, will stay.  Accompanied by double digit China-inspired economic growth.

And the Six Power Talks?  Once a five-against-one US formula to mobilize the other four to exercise pressure on N Korea.  But,

* SK is subject to its internal East-West conflict parliamentary pendulum, with each administration bent on canceling the impact of the other, making SK impossible as a reliable cooperation partner;

* USA is in a deep and broad process of decline(2) in its foreign relations–not “Obama notwithstanding”, possibly even accelerated by Obama–with quickly decreasing global legitimacy;

* China with a highly successful, and East Asian, economic model– unmistakably Kaname Akamatsu Flying Geese inspired (with China, not Japan, as the Head Goose)–capitalism with state intervention; exits the cult of personality, enters the cult of money;

* Japan in a deep transformation process after more than 50 years one party rule–if Hatoyama Yukio does not turn out to be a Barack Obama, with rhetoric untranslatable into concrete politics–we are heading for a Japan reconciling with China and the Koreas, solving the Yasukuni shrine issue, keeping the Article 9 essence, working for an East Asia Community, and for a regional dollar-free currency; and

* Russia, self-conscious, not a Yeltsin style puppet state.

So we have the inner triangle of the title of this essay, with a highly change-resistant USA-NK relation–subject to the disingenuous US diplomacy of non-contact with undeserving, uppity parties–and an oscillating East-West SK pendulum, now sunshine, now darkness, now thawing hearts, now deep freezing them.

And we have the outer triangle with a balance away from the dominance by the US and allies–Japan and SK–toward China-Russia, meaning the SCO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (where Article 14 should not be underestimated).  A rapidly changing world.  Not easily captured by the USA or its acolytes –whether countries or individuals.

 Bilateralize.  Peace Treaty.  Normalize.  Denuclearize.  Use USA-China-Japan-Russia for a joint security-guarantee umbrella.

And, then, unification?  Yes. If this happens, unifying the Korean nation by opening the border should be feasible.  Much of the cooperation will be carried by non-state actors (NGOs, TNCs, local authorities).  For cooperation to lead to conciliation it has to be equitable, with mutual and equal benefits.  Watch out.

But unifying the two states into a unitary state, with one government less, is not on the table.  A confederation, or a loose federation, of two equal states, with a center, say, in Panmunjom, protected by a hundred DMZ cooperation flowers, might be.  But the road passes through normalization.  And then, proceeding from there.


1. Galtung and Scott, Democracy*Peace*Development, TRANSCEND University Press, 2008 (see chapter 7 “How do Autocracies End“.

2. The Fall of the US Empire – And Then What? TRANSCEND University Press, 2009, see


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Nov 2009.

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