Pyongyang to observe next move by ‘stupid Yankees’

US lacks insight into North Korean politics and overestimates China’s role, says expert

Korea's National Liberation Day takes place on the 15th August. It's the only celebration that takes part across the whole Korean peninsula. Video: Peter Murtagh/Irish Times Video


As Koreans North and South marked their national day on Tuesday, they had much to mull over.

From Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, the official state news agency delivered a message that was uncharacteristically low-key. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, will observe what the “stupid Yankees” might do next before deciding whether to fire off missiles in the direction of Guam, it said.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in laid the emphasis, in his traditional national day speech, on diplomacy, talking through problems and, in a note clearly directed at others not named, said there would be no war on the Korean peninsula unless decided so by his government.

The Korean-American relationship is complex, as might be expected of one that is between two very unequal partners. And it appears the relatively new administration in Washington, one that promised a thrusting new start on many fronts, sweeping away the old-order tired elite, is stumbling its way to the realisation that diplomacy works better than shouting counter threats.

There are broadly three types of attitudes in South Korea towards the country’s relationship with the US, according to Irish-American John Delury, associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yousei University in Seoul.

Technological south

The US-South Korea relationship began in 1950 when communist North Korea invaded the South and would have over-run the country had not America intervened. Today, fully democratic South Korea is the fourth-largest economy in Asia with home-grown companies such as Samsung (mobile phones), Hyundai and Kia (cars) and LG (consumer electronics), exporting all over the world – a stark contrast to isolated North Korea where a dictatorial dynastic clique holds the country prisoner in a poverty-stricken Orwellian nightmare.

“Older Koreans feel deep gratitude towards the United States – for coming to the South’s defence in the 1950s and for sticking around and defending South Korea ever since,” says Delury.

“The middle-aged Koreans have a much more complicated attitude because of the former dictatorship [in the South] that only came to an end in 1987-1991, spearheaded by a student movement that was actually aided by the Americans.

“The younger people have a whole different attitude not the same as their parents. They are not embarrassed by the presence of American troops but it’s not that they feel a deep love for the US either.”

That sense of a broad understanding and acceptance of current relationships between Seoul and Washington has been tested by the conduct of US president Donald Trump, whose comments provoking a crisis that now seems to be abating, were widely seen here as both inflammatory and ignorant.

On top of what Trump said, some media commentary in the US added to a perception here that Koreans were expendable, that what was important in this crisis was to make sure the problem of North Korea stayed well away from the US.

On August 10th, when the threat of military confrontation was very much in the balance, one such commentator, the retired lieutenant general Thomas McInerney, Fox News military analyst, told the station’s Sean Hannity, a Trump supporter and adviser, said that if North Korea started a fight, the US would retaliate with nuclear weapons.

‘Casual and callous’ “

Am I right, or overstating the fact, that millions could potentially die here?” asked Hannity.

McInerney’s reply to that question did not go unnoticed here: “Yeah, but they’ll be mostly North Koreans.”

“When Americans talk like that, they do damage to an alliance they say they value,” says Delury. “When you hear talk in the US of keeping things over here [on the Korean peninsula], or having a war ‘over there’ in Korea, when hundreds of thousands of people will die but die ‘over there’, as opposed to in the States, it seems to South Koreans that they are just being disregarded in a casual and callous way.”

Delury argues the current administration in Washington understands neither the mindset in Pyongyang nor the regional dynamics, from the Korean point of view.

“They don’t know who they’re dealing with in North Korea and don’t know the really deep resentment between North Korea and China, ” he says of the Trump administration. “They should exploit that. It goes way back in [North Korea’s] history. North Korea, if you look at their history, the central theme of that history is survival and independence, and that includes independence from China, and they’re pretty adept at it. There is no great love between Pyongyang and Beijing. ”

But Washington’s strategy (supported strongly, perhaps even inspired by, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in recent newspaper articles) is to work through China.

“That’s where they’re going wrong. To get to the place they want with North Korea, they should do so directly, not through Beijing. The whole key is to do it mostly bilaterally. The third party is South Korea, not China,” he says.

In the meantime, Pyongyang is winning by doing very little, the Orwellian message to its own people – that they are under constant threat from the US and only the Dear Leader can save them – reinforced by the way Trump reacts.

“That is a victory right there for North Korea,” says Delury. “It’s one way that they can have some victory, some win, that we don’t see.”

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