People Power vs. Military Power in East Asia

People power does not just trouble the sleep of dictators. It can also introduce an element of unpredictability and uncertainty into the security debate in pluralist societies. People, to put it bluntly, can be a problem for the military because civilians frequently come between a military and its objectives.

“In the short term, making governments more accountable to people introduces new uncertainties and limits into diplomacy,” Kent Caldor has written about Northeast Asia. Calder’s point was that transitional democracies are not ready to open national security to public debate. But the people power quandary perhaps even more profoundly affects Washington. Other nation’s democracies sound good on paper and in principle but are risky business in practice. Having frequently forged comfortable military relationships with reliably authoritarian administrations such as Park Chung Hee’s in South Korea Chiang Kai-shek’s in Taiwan, the United States has recently discovered that democratic movements in East Asia can pose an unpredictable and worrisome challenge to U.S. security objectives. Indeed, the transformation of U.S. doctrine and force posture in East Asia results not just from technological changes and the identification of new threats but also from the impact of democratic movements within the countries of our allies.

At the same time, people power influences decision-making in dictatorships. In North Korea, for instance, citizens do not communicate their views in any meaningful way through elections. Yet they are still actors in an important political sense. The leadership in Pyongyang relies on people power–not in the sense of an anti-government movement but as an expression of nationalist sentiment–to achieve some measure of legitimacy for its policies. In this sense, people power and democracy are not interchangeable concepts.

In short, people power is viewed neither wholly negatively by putatively totalitarian regimes nor wholly positively by putatively democratic regimes. The notion that democracy and military security mutually reinforce one another both underestimates the staying power of systems like North Korea and China where democracy is anemic and overestimates the strength of military alliances between more robustly democratic states. This misreading of the relationship between people power and military power significantly distorts the understanding of three major shifts in security doctrine in the United States, North Korea, and South Korea. Conventionally interpreted as responses to geopolitical realities and technological advances, these transformations in thinking also strongly reflect the influence of the grassroots.

The failure to connect people power to these evolving shifts in doctrine has profound policy implications for the United States. By misjudging popular support for hard-line stances in authoritarian states and by glossing over grassroots challenges to U.S. security strategies in more democratic countries, Washington continues to risk clashing with its regional adversaries and, ultimately, losing influence with its regional allies.
Strategic Flexibility

According to conventional wisdom, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the development of the concept of “strategic flexibility” were chiefly responses to advances in technology (primarily computers and communications) and the application of market principles to military management. The end of the Cold War, the subsequent attacks of September 11, and an altered security environment further accelerated these shifts in doctrine and force structure. The latest war-fighting gurus view fixed military bases with lumbering tanks and static defenses as comparatively low-tech and incapable of addressing rapidly emerging conflicts and threats. U.S. forces, they argue, should be flexible enough to respond to North Korean missiles, Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, or a cross-straits confrontation in Taiwan.

But a case can be made that the RMA and strategic flexibility are also responses to NIMBY (not in my back yard) and democratic movements. Fixed bases were an easy target, not only for the enemy but also for popular discontent, starting in the Philippines and spreading to Okinawa, Tokyo, and Seoul (not to mention other parts of the world such as Vieques). The U.S. security umbrella was generally popular among allied leaders, but the actual U.S. security footprint was another matter.

In the Republic of Korea (ROK), popular anger against U.S. forces came to world attention in 2002, when tens of thousands of South Korean citizens demonstrated in the streets after the deaths of two schoolchildren run over by U.S. military armored vehicles. But this was not the first time that popular movements tried to effect change in the U.S.-ROK alliance. Earlier there were protests over the Status of Forces Agreement. Adding its voice, the “Reclaiming Our Land” movement targeted U.S. bases, as did organizing around prostitution. And the environmental movement campaigned against the toxic byproducts of the U.S. military presence. Nor has resistance dissipated with the planned reduction of U.S. troops. South Korean movements continue to challenge U.S. plans to expand military facilities in Pyongtaek.

It is also important to acknowledge the influence that the inter-Korean summit of June 2000 had on the transformation of security perspectives. Kim Dae Jung’s engagement policy, itself a response to and an incorporation of popular efforts at North-South reconciliation, changed the strategic nature of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The cross-border tourism projects, the efforts to reconnect the north-south train line, and the industrial park at Kaesong all challenged military planning and even the notion of an infantry tripwire. South Korea’s more conciliatory policy toward North Korea, which began to diverge from Washington’s hard line after 2001, has made Seoul a less reliable U.S. ally. For instance, reportedly apprehensive that Seoul would transfer advanced technology to Pyongyang, the United States cancelled the sale of four Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft to South Korea in July.

Roh Moo-Hyun’s more participatory style of government has also had an effect on security issues beyond the reunification question. It actively brought representatives of people power movements-of civil society-into government and raised expectations that the new administration would be more responsive to concerns percolating up from below. Due in part to this responsiveness, South Korea only begrudgingly sent troops to Iraq, has refused to join either the missile defense alliance or the Proliferation Security Initiative, and has looked askance at the whole notion of strategic flexibility for fear that it might draw Seoul into a conflict with Beijing.

Democratic movements profoundly informed South Korea’s new strategic posture. They also provoked both a long-term reappraisal of U.S. strategic objectives and, in 2003, a specific response by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to accelerate the process of U.S. troop reductions in South Korea and the transfer of wartime operational control to Seoul.

Washington’s concept of strategic flexibility, in other words, is not only useful for fighting an unpredictable enemy but also for dealing with an unpredictable ally. With Manila, the United States negotiated a Visiting Forces Agreement that not only sidestepped many NIMBY issues but also accorded U.S. forces much greater potential access throughout the Philippines to carry out a rather vaguely defined range of activities. With Seoul, Washington is negotiating a deal to reduce its costs and its overall footprint (though not its firepower). It will also reduce U.S. dependency on South Korean support for strategic flexibility.

Strategic flexibility has allowed Washington to count less on a South Korea perceived to be unreliable and to shift its security focus to Japan, a more dependable supporter of U.S. positions in the region and elsewhere. If Japan proves unreliable in the future, because of heightened NIMBYism or a nationalist backlash against the security partnership with the United States, strategic flexibility will allow Washington to negotiate a better deal with someone else. And indeed, with popular sentiment still running against U.S. bases in Okinawa and on the mainland, Washington has been forced to draw some forces back to Guam. Meanwhile, activists in Guam have already begun to protest the relocation of half the U.S. Marines Corps contingent currently based in Okinawa.

South Korea, even under authoritarianism, was not always predictably subservient to U.S. military objectives. Park Chung-Hee was notoriously resistant to the troop reductions that President Carter proposed in the late 1970s. But in general, an authoritarian South Korea was more predictably anti-communist, pro-United States, favorably inclined toward Japan, and suspicious of China than a democratic South Korea. The same can be said about a quiescent Okinawa, an authoritarian Taiwan, and the Marcos-era Philippines. Close U.S. relations with yesteryear’s East Asian dictators required a certain flexibility in stated principles. Today, close relations with their democratic successors require flexibility in strategic posture.
Military-First Doctrine

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is no fan of democratic movements. If the rumors of military coups are correct, he is even worried about popular uprisings within the North Korean military. Polls of North Koreans, if they existed, might strengthen Kim’s hand by revealing a fierce determination to defend the homeland, a preference for an “iron fist” to insure domestic stability, and even a nationalist pride in their country’s entry into the nuclear club. But popular discontent over budget priorities and disapproval of the leadership’s decisions over the last decade-not to mention widespread human rights abuses-would likely undermine his political position. There is no sign that the North Korean government plans to introduce even the modest political reforms adopted by its putative ally China. There is also no tradition of democracy in North Korea to which a dissident or opposition movement might appeal.

In the mid-1990s, Kim Jong Il introduced the “military first” doctrine to consolidate his own political position and mobilize the country against threats both external and internal. In 2003, the doctrine officially became an ideology. At one level, the leadership’s emphasis on the military is a pragmatic political decision. Because of its sheer size, the military substitutes for any representative political body. There are practically no civilians in North Korea: there are only future soldiers, current soldiers, veterans, and families of soldiers. The military is the only truly functioning institution in the society, not only in terms of protecting borders and preparing for the much-touted foreign attack, but also in maintaining infrastructure and keeping the extraction industries running.

By putting the military first, the North Korean leadership is responding to a perceived foreign threat from the outside and strengthening the regime’s hold on power. But it is also appealing to the country’s most representative institution. In this sense, the military-first doctrine is a populist platform. Pyongyang’s October nuclear test can be interpreted-in addition to its deterrent and “bargaining chip” purposes-as an attempt to stimulate nationalist pride and provide some measure of compensation for the economic adversity of the past decade, revealing that popular sentiment is not irrelevant to North Korean policymaking. North Koreans make their voices heard not through the ballot box or demonstrations but rather through their membership in military institutions and their capacity to respond to nationalist appeals.

Such informal political participation should not be construed as either pro-government or anti-government. It is very difficult to know the true feelings of North Koreans. But it would be a mistake for outside governments to assume an unbridgeable gulf between the people and the state. A mass organization like the army and mass ideologies like nationalism mediate between the two. It’s certainly not democracy. But even states that aspire to totalitarian control must factor people power into their political calculus beyond merely its potential threat to regime stability.
Strategic Redeployment?

When evaluating the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, particularly as it relates to security issues, it is routine to discuss the personal quirks of the leaders (Kim Jong Il, Roh Moo-Hyun, George Bush) or the characteristics of their coteries (the revolutionary generation in North Korea, the 386 generation of 40-something activists in South Korea, the neoconservative generation in the United States). Yet it may well be the clout of popular movements–or the threat of them–that will prove most influential in determining the future security environment on the peninsula.

Behind the headlines, popular mobilization has profoundly influenced three key doctrinal shifts: the military-first approach in North Korea, a more independent security policy in South Korea, and strategic flexibility in the United States. Leaders in both democratic and nondemocratic countries have kept watchful eyes on people power when formulating security policy, both in terms of mobilizing support (through nationalist or populist appeals) and avoiding negative responses (such as NIMBY).

The future of these doctrinal shifts remains unclear. Should the current tensions around the nuclear conflict subside, North Korea might conceivably switch its military-first doctrine to the competing concept of kangsong taeguk (strong and prosperous nation) and reallocate precious resources to economic modernization. If market reforms don’t benefit a large enough portion of the population, however, the country will face a pre-revolutionary predicament of rising and unmet expectations. Only if the military is fully behind these changes, in the sense of implementing them as well as benefiting from them, will the regime avoid collapse. As in Cuba, however, Washington’s policy of unmitigated pressure allows Pyongyang to retain a measure of popular support through relentless, nationalist invocations of an external threat.

In South Korea, the character of Roh Moo-Hyun’s more independent foreign policy is often ascribed to a narrow party agenda rather than reflecting more significant changes in how South Koreans view their country’s role in the region. China has become a much more important economic partner and diplomatic player in the region, and South Koreans are rapidly waking up to this reality (conflicts over the Koguryo historical dispute notwithstanding). U.S. force reductions in Korea, and what will inevitably be a widening conflict over military purchasing and interoperability, will only distance Seoul further from Washington. Even the conservatives, should they win the 2007 presidential election in South Korea, will likely continue Roh’s more independent military and foreign policy, partly in response to the pressures of popular sentiment and partly because of geopolitical realities such as China’s economic might.

The biggest question mark remains the future of Washington’s policy of strategic flexibility. Technological change and new threat perceptions suggest that this doctrinal shift will be with us for some time. But as a response to democratic movements on the ground, strategic flexibility might prove self-defeating. Shifting security emphasis from one ally to another depending on the amplitude of protests around U.S. basing, military policies, or out-of-area operations may not prove sustainable. In the grand scheme, with the focus of U.S. geostrategy still on the Middle East and a period of military belt-tightening likely to return to Washington, strategic flexibility may simply become a cover for U.S. disengagement–strategic redeployment–not just from South Korea but from the region as a whole.

JOHN FEFFER is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus for the International Relations Center, North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories Press).and the editor of The Future of U.S.-Korean Relations (Routledge, 2006).


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.