Korea’s True Security Challenges (Essay)

Korea’s True Security Challenges

 July 20, 2017

Emanuel Pastreich


Decay of the media and of the decision-making process

The Korean peninsula faces a daunting array of security problems that will require tremendous efforts over the long term to overcome.  But the most serious security risk of all is the complete inability of the Korean people to understand what the real threats are that they face. The media, the entertainment industry and a vast culture of denial has combined forces to distract and misdirect the Korean people away from the real dangers of this age.

Koreans are told over and over by their newspapers and TV news that the greatest risk is of a nuclear missile being launched from North Korea which will destroy Seoul. In fact, North Korea’s military posture is entirely defensive and there is no chance that they would launch a missile at South Korea except as a response to an attack.

By contrast, Koreans are all but unaware of the collapse of the ecosystem in Northeast Asia, the death of the seas (and the fish that they depend on for food) as a result of warming waters, the spread of deserts and shortage of water which threaten to engulf the Korean Peninsula in an enormous desert stretching into central Asia. They have not even started planning for the rising oceans, a massive infrastructure project that will leave Korea with no budget to pay for fighter planes, tanks or other outdated military equipment.

 As opposed to the highly unlikely attacks from North Korea that are hyped in the privatized media, the threats to the environment are essentially 100% guaranteed.  So any consideration of the issue of security on the Korean Peninsula should start out by noting that most people in South Korea are fed a diet of fictions that makes it far more difficult for them to grasp what the dangers are. They are often convinced that North Korea is about to rain down nuclear weapons on them even though that it almost impossibility.

Nor is the death of the ecosystem the only threat that the Korean Peninsula faces.

The rising inequality in Korean, and East Asian, society is tearing the fabric of society apart and will lead to serious conflicts domestically and internationally in the next fifteen years. The media covers North Korea in a less objective manner because it is controlled by concentrated capital that makes tremendous profits from military defense systems. Sources for unbiased information about how the world works like newspapers and universities are so deeply linked to the stock market and the secret world of capital investments that they are incapable of articulating an alternative viewpoint.

Although Koreans are aware that the concentration of wealth, and the death of a public sector in Korean society over the last thirty years has led to greater inequality, they do not understand exactly how and they are not encouraged to think deeply about this crisis. Even extremely liberal groups do not offer opinions on the profound contradictions of a decadent industrialized society. They do not advocate that banks or telecommunications companies should be highly regulated public monopolies. But that assumption was common sense to liberals and conservatives in the 1950s.

The death of sources of information independent from the stock market and foreign investment banks, the death of local community groups that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people through regular meetings, cooperative efforts and mutual aid has left many Koreans exposed and profoundly lonely. We can see this fact evident in the high suicide rate for both youth and the elderly.

Life has been taken over by a ruthless consumption- driven culture that holds up as the definition of “happiness” the immediate satisfaction of the individual through the eating, drinking or watching of things that give a short-term thrill. Even politics has been reduced to a popularity show with little interest in the details of policy, or long-term developments and overwhelming fascination with the latest statement on the social media.

Such an environment makes it impossible for citizens to even comprehend what “security” is about and the politicians have become babysitters who tell citizens what they want to hear. As the old saying goes, “the people do not want leaders, they want magicians.”

The careful analysis of social, environmental and economic factors that are destabilizing Northeast Asia has been replaced by sensationalism. The rise of the video game culture has played a role in this grotesque transformation of the public sphere. Many Koreans (and Japanese), including adults, spend their time playing video games that glorify ruthless military conflict and make it appear as if shooting guns and blowing people up is not only good fun, but solves all problems. This gaming culture makes so effort to explain how security has become a more complex problem, nor to draw attention to social inequity or the collapse of the ecosystem.  Video games suggest that it is split-second response that is critical for security. That myth is critical to the military industrial complex.

So the best business is pumping up the stock value of military contractors through articles that suggest that a new nuclear submarine, or THAAD anti-missile system will protect Korea even though there is no evidence that this is the case. The profits from building submarines or anti-missile systems are staggering  but there is no scientific evidence that they do anything but increase the risk of conflict. Sadly, Korea is being pulled in the direction of the United States economic system, a criminal state  in which a large percentage of wealth is siphoned off in the interests of “defense” to pay for useless weapons systems that make the rich richer. The media is happy to play its profitable role. IN fact, because the media in general offers so little of any use to ordinary citizens, this spinning of fantasies may be their only profitable role.


The environment as the security threat of the century

Although pictures of North Korean missiles are constantly figured on the front pages of Korean newspapers, missile attacks from North Korea have not killed anyone and are unlikely to kill anyone. But air pollution from unregulated Korean factories, and Chinese factories, has been killing many thousands of Koreans every year and doing great damage to the health of young children. The situation is getting much worse, but the media only treats the matter in the most indirect manner. No lists of cases of cancer by location and correlations between air quality and the reduction of inspectors, or the easing of regulations. In fact, Korea is implementing the same plot used in the United States of using the word “deregulation” to name “decriminalization” thereby making it seem as if regulations that keep people from being created are being eliminated when in fact laws to make immoral actions illegal are being undone.

Although the new Moon Jaein government has made a few steps towards ending the dangerous use of coal power plants and closing down the outdated Gori nuclear power station, the government has not taken the first steps to strictly regulate emissions from factories or to eliminate automobiles that run on petroleum in spite of the many deaths produced. The power of the super rich who make so much money off of private automobiles have thrown their wealth into making sure that the ridiculously expensive highway system and infrastructure policies that give citizens no choice but to drive automobiles stay in place regardless of the risks.

How is security described in South Korea today?

So what are the main security threats that Koreans hear about every day in the media? 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, eventually it will have missiles that can deliver explosives, and eventually nuclear weapons.

But there is no science behind this hyped up technology. Anyone who sat down with an expert on arms proliferation, or who read any of the writings of people who actually know how and why nations build weapons, and how to get them to stop, will tell you that North Korea has no incentive to attack South Korea and that it only engages in tests of weapons in response to unnecessarily military drills by the United States together with parts of Japan and the Republic of Korea.

There is no imminent danger, but sensationalism, manipulation of emotions and the pursuit of expensive weapons contracts that serve as a means of transferring the wealth of the people into the pockets of the super rich have created an extremely dangerous situation.

Thirty years ago, the United States military also engaged in many cynical acts of violence as militaries are inclined to do since ancient times. But back then we had many highly-educated experts in diplomacy and in the military who understood what security really means and who used the scientific method to assess the viability of new weapons. There are few such people in the US military today. There is no expertise required and no effort made to think comprehensively about what it takes to create peace. Rather generals and ambassadors increasingly see the sales of weapons systems as their primary mission. They look down on comprehensive efforts to create lasting peace as obstacles to their chances to obtain lucrative consulting work with weapons firms after their retirement.

It does not take much effort to uncover the true intentions of North Korea to defend itself and its interest in signing peace treaties with the United States, and ultimately with South Korea and Japan, to end at last the Korean War. The position has been put down in writing and the Agreed Framework for the denuclearization of North Korea was proceeding smoothly until 2001 when the newly elected fringe government of George W. Bush pushed aside all the military experts and insisted that the United States could not hold up its side of the bargain. The bankrupt media in the United States, Korea and Japan has repeated over and over the myth that it was North Korea that broke the agreement, even as anyone using Google can readily confirm that this was not the case.

So science and strategy went out the window for politicians in South Korea, the United States and Japan, rather they embraced totemic symbols like THAAD without any concern for whether it worked. The only approach was an emotional appeals to the non-expert population, holding up a picture of a devious North Korea which was the source of all problems in the world.

Of course this dishonest discourse does not mean that North Korea is an open or a just society. North Korea is highly repressive and offensive in its policies and how it treats its citizens. But sadly this aspect of North Korea is quite similar to other American allies like Saudi Arabia, and increasingly the prison industrial complex of private prisons in the United States, and the move to build a DMZ by the Trump administration between the United States and Mexico suggests that the United States is not an alternative to North Korean oppression, but rather a variation on the same model.

There is much opposition to a peace treaty with North Korea, in spite of the obvious benefits to the United States, South Korea and Japan and the primary opposition comes from the United States (with some support from the military industrial complex in Japan). The fear is that those billions of dollars in military contracts could be lost and the United States could lose its political and economic influence in East Asia if such a peace treaty were signed.

In the narrow sense, this reasoning is accurate. The United States has actively de-industrialized over the last thirty years, sending all its factories abroad and losing the ability to manufacture, or to provide meaningful jobs to citizens. The result is that the United States economy is dominated by investment banks who make their profits off of global conflicts and are happy to stir up trouble to bring in profits. Investment banks could care less about workers and make greater profits by privatizing education and sending jobs overseas.

The only part of the manufacturing industry left in the United States is the production of tanks, guns and aircraft for the military.

Sadly, the liberal politicians who claim to care about workers and to embrace a peaceful role for the United States find themselves defending the military industrial complex because it is one of the few industries that offers jobs to their local populations. For this structural reason, not related at all to whether Americans are “good” or “bad,” even the so-called “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders is entirely incapable of advocating for a peace economy and speaks of North Korea as a terrible threat. The intellectual authority and cultural authority that the United States has in Korea and Japan means that the bankrupt argument for a North Korean missile threat remains very popular domestically.

The jewel in the crown of military waste and the piper leading the march of politicians and corporate interests away from the scientific method and form engagement with intellectuals in the policy of the United States (and also Korea and Japan) is  missile defense. When missile defense was introduced by the Reagan administration in the 1980s it was meant as a Trojan horse, a policy that would allow a small number of firms to make great profits from a system that simply does not work.

This establishment of missile defense was directly linked to the exploitation of anti-intellectual tendencies in American society.  Those intellectuals who suggested, logically and scientifically, that the only way to control the dangerous spread of nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia was through negotiated disarmament treaties were dismissed as “soft” or “eggheads” who did not understand tough security issues. In fact, the only way to respond to the proliferation of missiles is through mutually binding treaties like those negotiated by the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce the number of nuclear and conventional weapons in Europe.

But although such international agreements, like the Agreed Framework with North Korea of 1995, are the only way to reduce tensions and increase security, such efforts would give power to intellectuals and specialists and could result in the possibility that those armed with truth could say no to powerful firms.

To make sure that never happened, the promoters of missile defense paid off experts and launched elaborate campaigns in the media and in the United States congress to convince people that missile defense was the only option. As American intellectuals became more passive and as the discourse on policy became limited to the interests of a narrow group of investment funds, missile defense emerged triumphant.

But missile defense does not work. At best, THAAD and its brothers and sisters can shoot down a small percentage of incoming missiles, and even that is doubtful as the tests of THAAD are no longer conducted by objective third parties.

China and Russia are developing new missiles that literally cannot be stopped and of course dummy missiles and exploding debris can be used to trick missile defense systems.

More importantly, missile defense systems, as opposed to nonproliferation treaties, are hostile in nature and are perceived as aggressive. Although they may not stop so many incoming missiles, they are very effective at setting off an arms race. At present Northeast Asia is doing extremely well. Neither Japan nor Korea have deployed nuclear weapons of their own and China maintains less than three hundred nuclear weapons.

But if missile defense is used without concern for its implications, or the United States starts deploying aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines on a regular basis, that could change very quickly.

If China feels truly threatened, it can go from under 300 nuclear weapons to over 10,000 in a short time. Japan is already considering declaring its intentions to develop nuclear weapons and if a competition with China breaks out, Japan could itself have 6000 nuclear weapons in a short period of time. The Abe administration would obviously see that as a political victory.

The rest would be just a chain reaction. South Korea is already seriously discussing nuclear weapons development and deployment. The reason given is North Korea, but no one really believes that. South Korea could also develop 3000 or more nuclear weapons if it wanted to. And then what? Taiwan? Vietnam, Indonesia? Turkey? This massive proliferation of nuclear weapons is the real danger and it would make the potential for nuclear warfare far greater. The North Korean tiny nuclear program does not pose that sort of threat at this point.

There are other weapons systems being sold for an imagined Korean War and we must recognize that there are many of the same danger signs now that we saw before in Europe before World War One.  The Trump Administration has been promoting secret diplomacy right and left. It is far wiser policy for Korea and Japan to stay away from those sticky deals.After all, it was secret diplomacy that paved the way to the First World War.

And then there is the Trump administration’s dangerous march towards military confrontation with Iran and Turkey over Qatar, or with Russia and Iran over Syria. Saudi Arabia, with encouragement from the United States, demanded that Qatar essentially give up its political and economic independence and end its relations with Turkey and Iran. Such a move seems eerily like the demands made by Austria, with encouragement from Germany, that Serbia surrender its independence back 1914. The events of a century ago led to the First World War. We should not underestimate the risks of current developments.

The China Threat

But North Korea is not sufficient to justify the big military budgets no matter how much fiction you write at think tanks. For the big missile systems, aircraft carriers and other outdated technologies, you need China as the justification. China must be presented as the perceived threat, but not the direct threat for the simple reason  that so many firms want to make money from cheap Chinese labor but at the same time want the profits from weapons systems. To overtly postulate China as an enemy would cut into profits and end the globalization scheme.

Conflict with China is possible, especially if you have the United States and Japan governed by amateurs who hope to get rich from military adventurism. Again, the parallels with Europe at the time of World War I are substantial. And China is not always a transparent player in international relations.  But compared with the United States and its relentless pursuit of war overseas, China, for all its arrogance, seems reliable. In any case, China is far more open to the outside worlds than it has been in hundreds of years and is attracting people from around the world.

Moreover, China’s investment in the manufacture of solar panels, wind power turbines, electric batteries and a vast array of related devices poses a real threat to the United States which Washington D.C. is in deep denial about. It is this civilizational and geopolitical shift that is the greatest element of instability for the Korean Peninsula, especially as so very few Koreans understand the process.

China was the largest and most sophisticated economy in the world until the middle of the 19th century. It systematically employed effective irrigation systems and organized labor to create an unprecedented level of production which could not be matched by the relatively ineffective agriculture of Europe, or Europe’s primitive approach to governance, and low level of education.

But all that changed when the British made full use of coal as a source of energy which went far beyond anything that China had and suddenly introduced a new means of manufacture and transportation that the Chinese only barely understood. By the 1870s, China had fallen hopelessly behind and would eventually become a semi-colonial holding of the European powers.

But the battle over energy was just getting started. In the early twentieth century, the United States moved quickly to create new infrastructure, including the automobile, which took full advantage of an even more effective and concentrated source of energy: petroleum. The United States embraced this new economy early on and that institutional flexibility had much to do with America’s rise to globalism. By the 1950s, the United States had effectively pushed the British out of their global position.

But now China is reentering that brutal game, taking advantage of the breakthroughs in solar and wind power that make a fossil fuel free economy a real possibility. Climate change and many other terrible burdens that result from the use of petroleum for fuel, are weighing the United States down. Foreign wars, or the relentless search for fossil fuels via destructive means like fracking, suggest that the United States is up against a wall.

If China captures the technology and the manufacturing scale for solar and wind power, and embraces efficiency and conservation, it may end up with a dominance in the global economy equivalent to that which Britain gained after defeating China in the Opium Wars. Korea is in the middle, and is heavily tied to Middle Eastern and American oil money. Whether it goes with this emerging renewable economy, or sticks to the sinking petroleum economy may well seal its fate for the next hundred years.

It is true that if Korea stands alone in Asia and has no close relations with powers elsewhere in the world, that China may use its economic power to pressure Korea to accept unfavorable agreements, as has happened in the past. But China does not display any explicitly military ambitions for the Korean Peninsula and  is open to a grand bargain with the United States if it is treated as an equal.

But American actions over the last decade are calculated to raise tensions. The United States, along with Japan and or Korea, have engaged in military exercises along the borders of China in the South China Seas or along the coast of North Korea.  The United States has refused to consider cutting back on these wasteful and environmentally harmful military exercises that merely raise tensions.

It is an open secret that although China puts up with these military exercises, the United States would never tolerate China conducting such military exercises off the coast of California or of Hawaii. But although militarism started as a disease in the United States, China has started to be infected in some parts of the economy with militarism as well.

The constant threats of encirclement from the United States and Japan have not only encouraged China to expand its military, it has created a little “military industrial complex” within China that is unprecedented.  Although China does not have the expansionist tradition, or the imperialist tradition that has destroyed the United States, nonetheless, there is a risk that China will also be infected, drawn into the sordid temptations of wealth and power that the decaying American Empire-offer China—just as the Americans were tempted by the British Empire’s allure.

If there is a threat, it is more likely to be a decaying American empire that drags Korea into unanticipated conflicts (such as with Iran) or a new Japanese empire that makes friends with right-wing Koreans. A few years ago, I would not have taken the threat of Japanese militarism all that seriously. But I have witnessed a growing passivity in Japanese intellectuals that suggests there is a risk that the military could take over the economy at a later date.

Korea is flying blind in this moment of crisis because it cannot articulate its own security policy. Korean research institutes on diplomacy and security are overly dependent on American research and Korean experts value the names of Harvard, Brookings and CSIS even now after those institutions have collapsed into the worst forms of corrupt alliances with the military industrial complex. For this reason, the only alternative voices concerning Korea’s future come from leftist groups that lack the broad appeal with the population necessary to impact policy, and lack the expertise in security issues to present their suggestions in a manner that can be absorbed by the government.

In the process by which the military budget is prepared in Korea, or in Japan, there is no demanding that massive funds must be spent on adaptation to climate change, or on energy independence. It is assumed that these issues are not “security concerns” and that they do not compete with the budget for military spending. Yet energy independence is far more important for Korean security than is missile defense, or a fighter planes. If there were a conflict and shipping of oil stopped, Korea would be brought to its knees in a short period of time. In fact, if there was no petroleum available for a long period of time, North Korea would be at a distinct advantage as its people are used to hardship and can function without fossil fuels.


The existential threat of climate change

Any objective assessment of the threat of climate change to the Korean peninsula over the next thirty years would reveal that the danger is so great, and the cost of adaptation to, and mitigation of, so enormous, that Korea has no choice but to sign agreements to categorical cuts in conventional and non-conventional weapons across the board so that it can find the budget for the rapid and complete transformation of its economy to a 100% renewable one with no dependency fossil fuels within the next ten years. The elements in Korean society who fight against such efforts to redefine security and invest in a sustainable economic system are guilty of the most vile criminal actions against future generations of Koreans. Yet there are many who are seduced by oil money, by the automotive market and other powerful players into supporting dishonest plans for Korea’ s security.

Koreans have experienced the yellow dust blown over from the spreading deserts in China, turning their skies grey and causing respiratory diseases. But the flow of dust from the deserts is just starting. Moreover, the deserts of Northern China will spread to Beijing, and then to Pyongyang and on to Seoul, over the next thirty years. Although Koreans are lost in a consumption-driven culture that blinds them to real threats, they will be facing a battle for survival in the future.

The air in South Korea is full of micro-particles given off by factories and coal-powered power plants in Korea and China that should not be there. If plans had been made the region could already be essentially sustainable, but all planning has been dominated by short term profits. The result goes beyond poisonous air. We see dropping water tables, failed aquafers, the spread of arid land throughout China and North Korea. We are also seeing a significant drop in rainfall in South Korea as well.

In addition, water supplies in China and Korea have been poisoned by unregulated development and it will take decades before the water can be used again. Bureaucrats in Korea and China have assumed that somehow through “free trade” they can make up for lost agricultural land and poisoned water by buying grains and vegetables from abroad. But climate change suggests that this plan is a false dream. The United States, Russia, Australia, Argentina and other exporters of food will suffer from terrible droughts in the future and will no longer be able to provide food for Northeast Asia. The problem of who will feed China will dominate security discussions in the years ahead, especially as Chinese consume more meat (which requires more water).

Ironically, the spread of deserts will be accompanied by the rise in sea levels around the world which will flood many cities like Busan and Incheon and require massive infrastructure investment. This damage may come sooner than later. Yet Korea has no concrete plans for responding to this immense crisis over the long term and many Koreans have only the vaguest idea what climate change means.

There is an even larger threat from the oceans than rising sea levels. The rising temperatures of the oceans, combined with increasing acidity poses the very real through that we will witness over the next twenty years the extinction of many species of fish that Koreans have come to rely upon and the end of a major source of protein for Koreans. Tuna, mackerel, shrimp and salmon may only be available from factory farms and impact on the Earth of the death of coral reefs and the acidified oceans is unknown, but unlikely to be positive.

What do we do now?

Trying to discuss the real security threats in Korea within the current discourse on security practiced in those irresponsible think tanks and university programs in “security studies” is like trying to talk about quantum physics with medieval clerks lost in the myths  of alchemy. Most experts define security in such a myopic and narrow manner that it seems as if the only solution to our complex problems is to purchase a weapons system from a military supplier.

But the most serious security threats can only be addressed if we include the entire population in an effort to transform our culture and our economy, and if we make a long-term (30-50 years) investment in the infrastructure required. Moreover, such long-term investments to cover the cost of solar panels for all homes will bring stability to our economy and move us away from the dangerous casino approach to economics resulting from speculation in stocks and bonds. .

Korea faces a unique challenge in responding to this problem because its population is aging so rapidly. Many older Koreans have impaired judgement and are unable to understand that the industrial policies of steel manufacturing, petrochemical refineries and the automotive sector are not the source of Korea’s economic salvation, but rather the path to death and destruction. They seem to be completely unaware of the impact that industrialization based on naphtha cracking and iron refinement has done tremendous damage to our precious environment. They see highways as a sign of progress, not as the destruction of precious farmland.

It is too late to avoid the terrible suffering that will result when we can no longer ignore the fact that the petroleum-based system for agriculture and transportation that we have relied on to sustain such a large population in such a state of luxury is destroying the ecosystem we need for our survival. But it is possible to start making concrete plans and advocating for an approach to security that is focused on real security threats, and not imagined attacks from North Korea.

The first step is for us to gather up within ourselves the bravery and the imagination to argue, every minute and every hour, for an alternative economy and for a new definition of security. That bravery will come when we define the intellectual not as a professional who is awarded a salary for publishing papers or filing patents, but rather as someone who must play a leadership role in society.

Part of the process of addressing security issues accurately has a  spiritual component. Koreans must learn to control their desires and to be mindful and centered, content with the small but profound pleasures of everyday life. We must find enough depth in reading books, or talking with friends and family that we are not attracted by waste and indulgence. We are rather disgusted by the destruction of the environment and the needless consumption of nature. We must be aware, from the youngest age, of how every piece of wood we hold was cut down in Indonesia, Malaysia or Russia, and does great damage to our sacred Earth if not properly managed. We must have our eyes open at every moment as to the impact of every single action on the ecosystem, and its implications for our children, our grandchildren, and those to come for seven generations.



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