The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts, especially long term, to overcome. The primary problem is not the threats themselves, however, but rather the complete inability of Koreans to conceive of those threats, or to respond to them in any meaningful manner.
The problem is true for those of both progressive and conservative political orientations. There is a very little concept of how serious a security challenge the collapse of the ecosystem or the rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is becoming. In fact, even extremely liberal groups do not offer any opinions on the problems of industrialized society or the privatization of banks — issues that would have been taken quite seriously by even conservatives back in the 1950s.
A consumption- driven culture has taken over Korea for the last twenty years, a culture in which the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill is held up as an ideal. The media in Korea is today run for profit and faithfully generates fantastic myths about what “security” means that have more to do with video games than reality.
Pumped up threats from North Korea are pushed by the media in order to build support for the purchase of expensive weapons systems that make enormous profits for military contractors in the US and Korea, often linked to the commercial media. The result of this mess is that most citizens are incapable of conceiving of long-term threats and have been seduced into thinking that the primary concern is that North Korea will suddenly launch a missile and Korea and the United States will have to respond within seconds to determine the safety of the country. That scenario has a very low probability but the other threats are far more devastating and are almost guaranteed.
Missile attacks from North Korea have not killed anyone in recent years but air pollution which has been killing thousands annually and the distribution of diseases, and the increase over time, is not reported in the commercial media at all. The government cannot even take the first steps to strictly regulate emissions from factories and eliminate automobiles that run on petroleum in spite of the many deaths, let alone replace the outdated highway system with a cheaper and safer public transit system.
So what are the main security threats that Koreans hear about every day? First and foremost is the threat of nuclear attacks on Korea and on the United States from North Korea using ballistic missiles. Although North Korea probably does not have the capability yet, and has absolutely no incentive to attack South Korea, or the United States, at all, this threat is repeated as if it was an imminent danger. In fact, North Korea’s military posture is entirely defensive and it would be easy to come to an agreement to limit launches of missiles if all sides would agree to a treaty.
Then there is the myth that missile defense, as represented by the outdated technology of THAAD, will somehow keep Korea safe from attack. The new missile systems of China and Russia cannot be blocked by so-called missile defense. There is much doubt that even at its best missile defense offers any real security against incoming missiles. There are technical reasons why THAAD is ineffective but it is most important to simply recognize that missile defense is most likely to merely encourage a military build-up in the entire region that will greatly increase the risk of war.
Then there are numerous programs for drones, submarines and fighter planes which have been sold to the Korean military at high prices over the last decade. The defense contractor lobbyist Linda Kim made a fortune peddling these programs during the Park Geun-hye administration. I am not a pacifist and I do believe that Korea needs a military of some sort, but I doubt that these weapons systems have much application to the possible scenarios for future conflict and that the main criterion in this corrupt age has been profit, not strategy.
Behind all of this glittering weaponry is the implied threat, played up in American think tanks, that China will be the future threat for South Korea. Although there is always a risk of conflict, it is clear that China was ready to create a much more open environment in East Asia 15 years ago.
It is certainly reasonable to consider that if Korea stands alone without any security agreements with other nations that China may pressure Korea in various ways, as it has in the past. But China displays no military ambitions for the Korean Peninsula and it assumes an essentially defensive position towards the expanding military presence of the United States.
The constant expansion of the United States into the region, cutting close to Chinese territory in military exercises that the United States would never tolerate near its own borders, has forced a shift towards militaristic thinking in China of late that is extremely dangerous. But it is not a result of traditional Chinese thinking.
However, the constant threats of encirclement from the United States and Japan have not only set China on a track towards expanding its military, it has sadly created a little “military industrial complex” in China itself which is feeding profits to a small number of people. There is a serious risk that China could ultimately be drawn into its own imperialistic efforts not so much because of its past as because it is drawn into the sordid temptations of wealth and power offered by the decaying American Empire— just as the Americans were tempted by the British Empire’s lure.
If there is a threat, it is more likely to be a decaying American empire dragging Korea into unanticipated conflicts or a new Japanese empire finding a ready audience with certain right-wing Koreans. A few years ago, I would not have taken the Japanese threat seriously, but although I have many close friends in Japan, I have seen a growing passivity in Japan that suggests there is a real risk of a future military take over if they think that they can get away with it. Already Japan has an extremely sophisticated military and can produce weapons of higher quality than the United States. Its expertise with robots also could also be significant. The fact that Japan is in demographic decline could, in fact, create a temptation for military conflict as a way to invigorate the culture and give a sense of purpose.
In any case, the real security problem is that Koreans have become so completely caught up in a consumer culture in which information is turned into entertainment and the deep embrace of consumption blinds them to the long-term significance of their actions that they cannot face the reality of the impending security crisis.
There are no independent organizations to evaluate whether the theories about security advanced by security research institutes are meaningful or objective. As the military budget is prepared, there is literally no one there saying that the funds need to be spent on adaptation to climate change, or on energy independence. Yet energy independence is far more important for Korean security at every level than is missile defense, or a fighter plane.
We are extremely limited by the influence of Christian millennialism on modern society and on the concept of security. Security planning assumes that there will be a single moment in which the future of the world will be determined in a single showdown. That nuclear missiles, missile defense, tanks, aircraft carriers and massive numbers of infantry will be pulled together in a moment.
But there is no reason to assume such a scenario. The obsession with such scenarios in security planning gives us piles of weapons which are of doubtful use and keeps us from investing in any of the real security issues that we face.
Climate change is the most overwhelming security threat to the Korean Peninsula and responding to it properly will not only take up the military budget spent on missiles and aircraft, but will also require a radical rethinking of the entire nature of society and of the economy. It is shocking how few Koreans are thinking about this topic. The yellow dust from the spreading deserts of China and the micro-particles given off by factories have received some attention, but the long-term drop in the water tables, the spread of arid land, starting in the North, but increasingly in the South as well. Rising sea levels will devastate the coasts of Korea and perhaps sooner than Koreans have anticipated. There are, in any case, no plans for how Korea will respond.
And then there is the matter of the death of the oceans. The possibility of rising acidity and rising temperatures in the oceans greatly reducing the populations of the fish that Koreans depend on does not seem to have even entered into the calculations done by Koreans about their security.
A related security issue in South Korea is its radical dependency on imported agricultural products. Through a series of short-sighted free trade agreements, Koreans have bought into the dangerous fiction that it is fine to import food from around the world and to pave over one’s precious soil at home to build highways and apartment buildings. But any objective consideration of Korean security that goes out for 3-60 years will show that this assumption is a dangerous fiction.
Climate change makes this fact painfully true. Nations like the United States and Australia which produce much of the grains that Korea imports are subject to spreading deserts and the rate of change will increase significantly in the future. That means that the United States might not be able to export any foodstuffs to Korea in the not-too-distant-future. The result would be a disaster as Korea has purposely undermined agriculture in pursuit of trade agreements on the assumption that advantages in narrow fields like electronics are sufficient to support an economy. But it is entirely possible to encounter wide-spread hunger in Northeast Asia in the future as a result of rapid climate change globally.
Another security challenge that is all but completely overlooked is Korean dependency on imported oil and natural gas. If there is a military conflict, the first thing to stop will be shipments of oil and gas. As Koreans have seen mechanization as an unmitigated blessing for the last 50 years, it would be a painful shock to learn that now just about everything will shut down if there is no oil.
It is absolutely critical for Korean security that it stop importing all fossil fuels as soon as possible and run a national program to establish solar power and wind power every single place it can be used. That will require massive public funding, mandatory use of solar and wind and the end of the paid journalists and experts who constantly underestimate the potential of renewable energy to supply our needs. Such a program cannot be run, however, without an equally radical effort to reduce consumption, increase efficiency and insulation and move away from the worst of the consumer culture that has so damaged this country.
In a sense the first step is spiritual. Koreans must learn to control themselves, to avoid waste and indulgence and to find meaning in profound things, not in seductive sensations of the here and now. It might not make much sense to speak of spirituality as the key to security these days, but in a very real sense, we must start there.
Finally, the rapidly increasing gap in assets between the haves and the have-nots in Korea, and around the world, is a security threat which is the most fundamental because the breakdown of a common discourse on policy and the national interest makes it impossible to respond to dangers like climate change.
The monopolization of finance by a tiny handful of people means that the gaps in assets will become ridiculously large in the next five years. Ultimately, perhaps not that long from now, we will face serious movements for revolutionary change that will have sympathetic followers and will plunge many societies into chaos.
The risk posed by allowing such discrepancies to emerge must be treated as a security threat in itself and steps taken to make sure that finance is carefully regulated and that there remains a healthy and independent local economy wherein ordinary citizens can save money and benefit from their own production. We need to create extensive cooperative banks and other organizations that bind together communities as economic unities and make it impossible for the superrich to manipulate the economy.
But we are far away from such a state now. If anything else, we are seeing the emergence of radical class behavior in which those with a certain level of assets treat others, even of equivalent education with barely concealed contempt. These splits will fuel conflicts within nations, and between nations over the years to come and should be moved to the forefront as we consider security issues.
Trying to treat current security threats to Korea within the current discourse on security is like trying to discuss quantum physics with medieval clerks obsessed with Christian eschatology. Most experts on security and military affairs define security in such a myopic manner that it seems often that the only purpose is to suggest a solution to our problems that can be purchased from a military contractor. But many of the most serious problems can only be addressed by including the entire population and making a broad long-term investment. Moreover, such long-term investments, say loans for 20-50 years to cover the cost of solar panels for all homes, will bring new stability to our economy.
Korea faces a unique challenge in that it has such a rapidly aging population as well whose judgment is often impaired. The traditional military scenarios trotted out by the media are easy for them to digest. The complex and unprecedented threat of climate change is beyond their understanding. Many older Koreans speak to me with great pride about Korea’s rapid industrialization without a shadow of doubt. They seem to be completely unaware of the impact that such industrialization, the shift to an economy based on naphtha cracking and iron refineries, has had on our climate.
At the same time, the younger generation has been seduced by images of war from video games like Sudden Attack into believing that war is something that is exciting and which can be controlled. Such a narrative of war as redemption keeps us further away from understanding its economic underpinnings and further away from real solutions.