The Most Dangerous Man in Korea is Not Kim Jung Il

Who is the most dangerous man on the Korean Peninsula? Maybe it’s not Kim Jung-il, but South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak.

The big story in North Asia in 2010 was the destabilizing effort by South Korea to use its growing profile as a regional power to seize control of the reunification agenda and promote a policy for reunification under its aegis. Its initiative attracted the determined opposition of North Korea and China, the qualified support of the United States, and the glum acquiescence of Japan.

But the Lee government has succeeded only in foreclosing alternatives. Fear of North Korean reprisal has constrained major, overt moves by South Korea to hasten the collapse of Kim Jung-il’s regime.

Instead, Lee must wait on events, and hope that North Korea tumbles into oblivion before his own domestic and international support fades or China establishes itself irrevocably as the guarantor and economic benefactor of the North Korean regime’s sustained survival.

The cornerstone of Lee’s North Korea strategy is his eponymous “MB doctrine” (using the initials of his name). With window-dressing meant to distract the large and suspicious liberal left component of South Korea’s electorate, the doctrine is essentially one of institutionalized hostility toward Pyongyang.

As reported by the Guardian, a WikiLeaked cable characterized Lee’s North Korea policy:

President Lee is determined not to give in to North Korean pressure. Our Blue House contacts have told us on several occasions that President Lee remained quite comfortable with his North Korea policy and that he is prepared leave the inter-Korean relations frozen until the end of his term in office, if necessary. It is also our assessment that Lee’s more conservative advisors and supporters see the current standoff as a genuine opportunity to push and further weaken the North, even if this might involve considerable brinkmanship. Also favoring the Lee Administration’s stance is the the Korean public, which is calm to the point of apathy about the inter-Korean situation. [1]

On one level, the MB line is simply a conservative reaction against the liberal “Sunshine” policy of Lee’s predecessors.

However, South Korea’s growing economic clout and international stature as an emergent world power symbolized by Seoul’s triumphant hosting of the Group of 20 summit in November – and the geostrategic ambitions of its president – have given a new significance and impetus to Lee’s North Korea policy.

It appears that Lee’s dream involves unifying the entire peninsula and its population of 75 million under the banner of the democratic, capitalist South in alliance with the United States, replacing Japan as the primary US security and economic partner, and confronting China with the prospect of a major pro-Western power on its doorstep while reaching out to the sizable Korean minority in China’s northeastern provinces.

Whether Lee has reasonable expectations of realizing this ambition during his term or in subsequent Grand National Party presidencies is open to question.

The conventional view is that reunification at this point in the North’s wayward economic development would place an unacceptable burden on the South. On the other hand, Lee has in the past shopped the idea that North Korean minerals and cheap labor could completely fund reunification.

Certainly the prospect of doubling his government’s territory and going down in history as the leader who presided over the historic reunification of the sundered peninsula and put Korea on the path toward becoming one of the world’s top half-dozen economic powers would be attractive to politicians with a lot less drive and ambition than Lee.

Even if it is just a politically opportune pipedream in the near term, the reunification endgame is central to Lee’s vision of South Korea as an emerging global power and justifies a geopolitical alignment away from China and toward the United States.

Lee’s desire to make reunification on South Korean terms the default condition of North Asian geopolitics toppled a row of strategically placed dominoes.

The United States had to be wooed to support Seoul’s position, rejecting the six-party talks and also direct negotiations with Pyongyang.

The delicate task of sidelining the talks – and China – from a leading position in Korean security had to be accomplished without breaching relations with Beijing, a major economic partner.

And – a work in progress – Japan has to be shouldered aside.

America’s strained relationship with Japan and its new ruling party – the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) – provided South Korea with its opportunity.

The US defense establishment was on the outs with the DPJ over the contentious issue of relocating a naval air station off Okinawa.

While an increasingly palsied Japan dithered, Lee’s Grand National Party offered the United States the services of a vigorous and enthusiastic strategic ally in North Asia – an ally eager to sustain a significant frontline role for America in the Asian security equation.

In an April 2010 interview with the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt, Lee described his envisioned US-South Korea relationship as transcending regional issues to global cooperation:

Last year when I had my announcement for a summit meeting in Washington, DC, we announced what we called [a] “Future Vision of the Alliance” between Korea and the United States. If you look at this document, it stipulates that not only will the United States and Korea work toward the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, but also they’ll work toward bringing stability to Northeast Asia and beyond, and that the United States and Korea will work together to really tackle global issues that we both think are very important.

So as you can see, the alliance now has gone into the phase where we, of course, will talk about security issues, but also we will work to expand and strengthen mutual economic cooperation but also work together to resolve global issues like climate change, stopping the spread of nuclear materials, eradicating terrorism, poverty and so forth. So you can see that [the] relationship between Korea and the United States has become much more comprehensive and holistic. [2]

Efforts of previous administrations to wean the South Korea’s military away from US leadership were reversed and US operational control of the country’s forces in wartime was extended to 2015.

The Lee government also took the shameful step of gutting a commission investigating the killings of Korean civilians by US forces – and the presence of US observers at some of the widespread executions of Korean leftists by South Korean operatives – during the chaos of the Korean War in order to demonstrate the government’s determination to ingratiate itself with the US military. [3]

Another factor in South Korea’s favor was Washington’s disenchantment with the six-party denuclearization process, which yielded much inconvenience and embarrassment but little progress.

As summed up in Secretary of Defense Gates’ pithy phrase, “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,” the Obama administration declared its conviction that North Korea would never denuclearize willingly.

Engagement with North Korea through the six-party talks was subordinated to the Barack Obama administration’s pursuit of a non-proliferation grand bargain enforced through international treaties and organizations that would establish non-proliferation as a genuine global norm, with the pesky North Korean problem to be solved somewhere down the road.

As WikiLeaks revealed – and as was reported with excessive credulity by the press – South Korean diplomats worked assiduously to convince the United States that, not only was North Korea on its last legs, China had resigned itself to the collapse of the regime and reunification.

Therefore, it would be foolish for the United States to engage with North Korea or turn to China for mediation when the ripe fruit of North Korean regime change was about to drop into its lap.

The United States appears to have had enough information to be skeptical of South Korea’s claims.

However, with North Korea wedded to a policy of nuclear brinksmanship as the only way to attract US attention, the Obama administration didn’t have a lot of options.

As far as the United States was concerned, South Korea had a lead role in North Korean affairs. The US military also welcomed a more proactive role in South Korea.

In addition to wargaming defense against North Korean attack, the US command in South Korea – the Republic of Korea, or ROK – announced it was also working up options for pacifying the North in case of regime collapse-and cited some rather dubious precedents to reassure the public everything would come off well.

The Korea Times reported:

South Korea and the United States have executed “realistic” training exercises to respond to various types of internal instability in North Korea, the top US military general said Thursday.

Such drills were held during the latest Ulchi Freedom Guardian computerized simulation exercise from Aug. 16 to 26, said Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

[W]e take lessons learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan that we think apply here in the ROK and exercise those also,” he said. “So one of the things that we have learned out of Iraq and Afghanistan is that you can be fighting and attacking at one area and defending at another area.”

The main mission is to stabilize and protect the population in the area, he said, adding both militaries are designing such exercises to ensure that they “are able to not only to defend, not only able to attack and kill, but also able to provide humanitarian assistance” to help ensure security and stability for everyone in the region.

Sharp said North Korea stabilization operations are to be conducted by both governments. [4]

North Korea, which yearned for negotiations with the United States, and China, which yearned to have a major say in North Korea’s destiny through the six-party talks, viewed joint US/South Korean disengagement with considerable displeasure.

North Korean decision-making is a riddle wrapped within an enigma, but it is likely that Pyongyang decided that military provocation was the best if only way to demonstrate the shortcomings of America’s South Korea-first policy and refocus the attention of an indifferent United States on North Korean matters.

On March 26, the South Korean ASW frigate Cheonan was sunk off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. The working assumption, supported by the findings of an international commission put together by South Korea, is that a North Korean minisub was responsible.

Lee decided to respond in a manner suitable to South Korea’s new stature, as the president of an aggrieved world power, not the controlling authority of the southern half of a divided nation.

He spoke before the Asian Security Summit and exhorted responsible, joint efforts on security; he solicited and received the explicit support of the United States; with US support he succeeded in having the issue taken up by the United Nations.

He did not coordinate with China or give any solicitude to the six-party talks.

North Korea may have miscalculated in assuming that the United States would respond to an outrage like the Cheonan by resuming its engagement with Pyongyang.

But South Korea and the United States seriously miscalculated if they assumed that China would be eager enough to burnish its responsible stakeholder credentials in the West by joining the public condemnation of North Korea.

The most significant event in North Asian relations in 2010 was probably China’s refusal to support any meaningful sanction of Pyongyang over the Cheonan issue at the United Nations.

It was the first overt indication that China would resist a re-ordering of Korean peninsula affairs by South Korea and the US without Chinese participation.

It was also a clear signal that China had decided that the intangible psychic benefits of shoehorning itself into America’s definition of what a “responsible stakeholder” should be in Korean affairs carried negligible practical advantages and, indeed, brought with it serious strategic liabilities.

In the face of Chinese and Russian resistance, the UN process yielded a meaningless president’s letter instead of a Security Council resolution.

United States President Barack Obama tried to put a good face on things and score some political points against China by accusing it of “willful blindness” and conducting a series of high-profile joint naval exercises around the Korean coast.

The Chinese, for their part, displayed a complete unwillingness to back down, excoriating the US for actions that China deemed provocative and “heightened tensions on the peninsula”.

Just in case somebody hadn’t received the message, China’s President Hu Jintao received a visit from Kim Jung-il in Changchun in August, signaling to the world that China stood behind the Kim dynasty and the approaching succession of Kim Jung-eun.

As the price of this handshake, Kim publicly avowed North Korea’s desire to return to the six-party talks – something earnestly desired by China but perhaps not at the top of Kim Jung-il’s wish list, and certainly abhorrent to Seoul and Washington.

With Beijing and Pyongyang close to being on the same page, China adopted the posture that what was wrong in North Asia was not Kim Jung-il; it was misguided Western attempts to deal with him by ostracizing his regime instead of talking with it.

Even when Pyongyang engaged in overt provocation – shelling Yeonpyeong Island and killing four on November 23 – China


refused to condemn North Korea and blandly called for a resumption of the six-party talks.

The Yeonpyeong shelling, even more than the Cheonan sinking, revealed the core weakness of South Korea’s reunification strategy.

Perhaps, pictures of the destruction on Yeonpyeong were meant to turn the thoughts of South Koreans to what an artillery barrage directed against Seoul – Yeonpyeong times several thousand – might inflict.

Chinese media took note that the Seoul stock index wobbled during the week after the attack, and implied that government direction had been necessary to get local purchasers to step in and buy stocks that nervous foreign investors were dumping, and prevent an embarrassing market slide.

United States and South Korean experts went to considerable lengths to explain that the 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces could not “flatten” Seoul and, in the event that North Korea tried to attack the capital, there would be a window of only a few minutes before US cruise missiles and South Korean and US aircraft wiped out the North’s positions. [5]

But even a lake of fire, if not a sea of fire, would be bad for business and it appears that reigniting the Korean War – even though it is likely we’d win this time – is not on Lee’s agenda.

In the wake of the attack, all the South Korean government could do was leak stories of fighter sorties that almost happened, vow that “next time” serious reprisals would ensue, and sack the defense minister for rather mysterious malfeasance in failing to stop the artillery barrage.

The United States gave full diplomatic and moral support to South Korea. Militarily, it was another matter.

The Lee government apparently wanted to impress North Korea with its ability to retaliate unilaterally in the case of future provocations.

The United States was probably not interested in surrendering its input on when and how World War III will begin, but hedged politely.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on December 8: “Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, said after meeting his South Korean counterpart that South Korea as a “sovereign nation” had “every right to protect its people in order to effectively carry out its responsibility.” [6]

South Korean security analysis displayed its characteristic “this glass is not half empty, it is well on its way to complete fullness” attitude to this development:

Neither General Han nor Mullen went into detail on changes in the rules of engagement, but Han said South Korea and the US had “agreed to strongly respond to North Korea’s additional provocations.” They would, he said, be “refining” plans “for the alliance to resolutely respond to further North Korean aggression.”
South Korean analysts believe the two came to a definite understanding.

“They have more freedom in the choice of weapons,” says Kim Tae-woo, a vice president of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “It is an historical change” – the first, he says, “since the Korean War.”

Kim, a member of South Korea’s presidential commission for defense reform, says, “the green light was given even though Mullen did not say so openly”.

It remains to be seen if this stance will turn into a boon for the South’s North Korea policy.

The truth appears to be that Seoul will talk big about confronting the North, but is unwilling to take the risk of a serious military action.

Lee seems to have backed himself into a corner. He has chilled relations with North Korea and aligned himself with the United States; but his antagonist is protected against economic sanctions by its Chinese patron and is apparently too much trouble to attack.

He would probably prefer to see the North Korean situation fester while hoping for a game-changer like the death of Kim Jung-il and a regime-ending succession struggle, but the North Koreans may be unwilling to give him the luxury of waiting.

Absent a quick crisis, he has to assume that, by pushing North Korea into China’s arms, he has accelerated the process that creates the most anxiety for him: economic integration between North Korea and China that will extend the life and fundamental economic and military viability of the regime.

In the aftermath of the shelling, Lee devoted a certain effort to pushing back against any Chinese effort that threatened to internationalize the Korean issue and dilute South Korean control.
A hasty trip by Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo urging a return to the six-party talks was greeted by a leak condemning Dai’s transgressions “against diplomatic protocol”, his “inappropriate” behavior, “tedious” speechifying” and his visit “a series of incomprehensible blunders from start to finish”, according to Chosun Ilbo. [7]

Subsequently, Lee embarked on a belated charm offensive.

He touted the prospects of consensual reunification and, in a belated come-to-Deng Xiaoping moment, rather unconvincingly expressed hope that North Korea should “open its doors for economic growth as Beijing has done. I hope China will actively encourage the North to choose the same route that it has taken.” [8]

Absent South Korea’s willingness to put the fate of the Korean Peninsula in the hands of the six-party talks, China is likely to heed Lee’s request only to the extent that it pursues economic opportunities in North Korea to the exclusion of South Korea.

Pyongyang has presumably noted that Lee’s approval ratings, which reached a high of over 60% after hosting the prestigious Group of 20 summit, fell to 45% after the Yeonpyeong shelling and the government’s tepid response. [9]

The North Koreans may succumb to the temptation to push his approvals down another few notches with another provocation and see if he really pushes back or finally turns to the Chinese to mediate.

Or, for that matter, if the United States decides to abandon its hands-off policy and restart the denuclearization negotiation and food and energy aid circus desperately desired by Pyongyang.

The Chinese will be happy to keep a lid on things as they are and hope that, despite the growing public anger in South Korea at the North and China that increases support for conservative policies, Lee or a successor South Korean regime will eventually abandon the hardline policies as untenable and engage in rapprochement with Beijing and Pyongyang.

Lee finds himself in a similar boat with Japan’s Premier Naoto Kan, whose popularity plummeted into the 20s after he faced some unpleasant choices in a tense encounter with China.

After an awkward beginning under prime minister Hatoyama, Naoto Kan turned the foreign relations portfolio to pro-American DPJ leaders Seiji Maehara and Katsuya Okada.

Okada and Maehara energetically backed the US alliance and provided welcome support to the US initiative to affront Beijing and provide comfort to Vietnam and other nations going up against Beijing on the sovereignty of various islands and rocks by supporting “freedom of navigation” in the South China Seas. They also lined up with South Korea on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, with considerable public support.

When Maehara decided to burnish his China-hawk credentials (and shift Japanese foreign policy closer to the United States) by choosing to prosecute under Japanese law the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler for ramming two Japanese coast guard vessels off the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, the Chinese government briskly escalated. It issued categorical demands from its diplomats and leading government officials for the release of captain, crew, and ship; arrested four Japanese in reprisal; and instituted a go-slow on rare earth imports.

As in the case of the Cheonan, Japan enjoyed enthusiastic support from the world media and somewhat more nuanced support from the United States. (In an interesting coincidence, the US had signaled to Japan its disinterest in involving itself in Senkaku/Diaoyutai matters just before Maehara brought them to a head by announcing his intention of trying the captain).

Kan caved nevertheless and returned the captain, enduring widespread domestic opprobrium. Kan attempted to recoup his position with stern rhetoric and public consideration of the weighty matter of abandoning Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Japanese opinion is beginning to support the abandonment of the peacetime constitution and a return to overseas operations for the Japanese military.

However, China and South Korea, with long memories of Japanese aggression and self-interested desires in restraining Japan’s regional influence, are early and vociferous objectors.

As an analyst told the LA Times: “South Korea gets concerned over anything involving Japan increasing certain types of military capabilities or the erosion of legal constraints,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert for the think tank International Crisis Group. “That makes them very uneasy, much faster than it does the US.” [10]

Japan’s halting efforts to push the envelope under the current constitution by proposing humanitarian-style military operations outside its borders have not been welcomed.

South Korea took public and vociferous umbrage to a cautious if muddleheaded suggestion by Prime Minister Kan that Japan might, in the case of the collapse of North Korea, send military aircraft to evacuate the Japanese abductees held there.

When Admiral Mullen proposed tripartite joint military operations between the US, South Korea and Japan – which would have made for an extremely satisfying demonstration of united resolve to keep China accountable – Japan cautiously declined. [11]

Behind the scenes, the United States – despite its frequently voiced desire for increased Japanese burden-sharing – is also apparently less than enthusiastic.

Japanese military assertiveness will trigger a regional arms race or, at the very least, make it more difficult for the US to hammer China on the issue of its defense expenditures; independent Japanese regional security actions will also diminish US prestige – and justification for the US presence in Asia – as an alternative to Japanese militarism.

Overall, Japan looks to be an also-ran in the North Asia security sweepstakes.

Japan’s security relationship with the US is hindered by the divisive issue of the relocation of the US naval air station at Futenma in Okinawa. The US defense establishment has insisted that the base stay on Okinawa despite widespread local opposition, creating a near-insurmountable problem for the DPJ.

Despite the efforts of younger Japanese politician to declare that time, remorse, and democracy have severed Japan’s link to its military past, Japan still cannot emerge as a welcome, flexible security actor in the region.

If push comes to shove, the US might acquiesce to South Korean insistence that it restrain Japan militarily and give predominant weight to the ROK security relationship instead.

After all, Japan is staggering through its second slow-growth decade with a greying population, while Seoul can dangle the potential carrot of a dominant US presence in a reunified Korea before Washington’s strategists.

China, for its part, could gain an opportunity to play divide-and-conquer with Japan and South Korea. Both countries have significant business relationships with Beijing, and business support for not making waves with China.

In South Korea, a certain portion of the electorate is still open to a conciliatory policy with China and North Korea despite the outrages and slights of the last year. In Japan, China has a ready ally in the faction of Ichiro Ozawa – which forms almost half of the DPJ’s strength – and the accommodationist, pro-business forces of the LDP.

Apparently China feels that, with its patience, its now overt policy of resistance to US demands, its economic clout, and its geopolitical leverage it can endure tension, tolerate escalation, and advance its policies better than its rivals in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington.

PETER LEE edits China Hand.


1. US embassy cables: Trying to crack the North Korea nut, Guardian, Nov 29, 2010.

2. Fred Hiatt interviews South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Apr 12, 2010.

3. U.S. escapes blame in Korean death probe, The Times Leader, Jul 11, 2010.

4. S. Korea, US develop N. Korea stabilization operations, Korea Times, Sep 9, 2010.

5. Can North Korea Really “Flatten” Seoul? Popular Mechanics, Nov 24, 2010.

6. US, South Korea eye shift in rules of engagement on North Korea, The Christian Science Monitor, Dec 8, 2010.

7. Chinese in Series of Diplomatic Gaffes in Seoul, Chosun Ilbo, Dec 16, 2010.

8. SKorea says reunification with North not long off, Yahoo!, Dec 10, 2010.

9. S Korea vows retaliation against future attack, RTE, Nov 29, 2010.

10. North Korea shelling stirs up Japan-South Korea tensions, LA Times, Dec 15, 2010.

11. Ibid.




Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.