Sunday, November 28, 2010
Korea: The Fate of a Cold War Vestige
[Update: Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, Seoul, South Korea, has a singularly lucid view of the recent cross-border shelling: North Korea is peculiar (we knew that) and this is how it asks for money. South Korea must not overreact and provoke a hugely destructive military conflict when all it has to do is part with a little bit of money.]
Over the course of the Cold War, the two superpowers—USA and USSR—built up an inventory of unresolved conflicts, which they, by tacit agreement, placed in deep freeze for the duration of their combined existence. In some cases, ethnically homogeneous entities were split up across artificial political boundaries, while in other cases disparate ethnic groups were held together by force within a single artificial political unit. Once the USSR collapsed, the multi-ethnic entities—Georgia, Moldova and Czechoslovakia—did their best to break apart, while the partitioned ones did their best to try to reunify. While some of these frozen conflicts—most notably Germany—needed both superpowers to remain refrigerated, one particular example—Korea—remained well-preserved even after the the collapse of the USSR, with the North providing its own, self-sufficient source of refrigeration.
For now, the US military continues to maintain over a thousand foreign military bases around the world, including South Korea. Most of these serve no real purpose. Even while it was still opposing the Soviets, the US military morphed into a sort of grand extortion scheme: the American intelligence community exaggerated global threats, and the military spent copious public funds pretending to counter them. To this day the military remains Washington's single most powerful political lobby (Israel is a distant second) and thanks to its efforts America spends more on defense than most of the other nations of the world combined. But what it gets for all this money is in fact quite meager. There are just two things that the US military can do well: it can shoot civilians and blow things up with wild abandon (as it has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan); it can also hold a proud and purposeful pose while doing nothing (as in South Korea and many other countries around the world). There is not a single country that is sufficiently defenseless, defunct and impoverished—not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not even Somalia—so that the mighty US military can successfully conquer and control it. (Perhaps Haiti—but only just after a major earthquake.)
It is something of a law of history that sooner or later all empires must collapse. It is also something of a law of group psychology that people always underestimate the probability of large and sudden changes, and so are they are always taken by surprise when they occur. Nobody was more surprised by the collapse of the USSR than the professional sovietologists. As Reinventing Collapse explains in detail, the collapse of the United States of America is already a given. Only the timing of its collapse remains uncertain, because it can be triggered by any number of relatively minor, unexpected events. Inevitably, the US will be forced to repatriate its troops and to liquidate its overseas military bases, in order to concentrate its efforts on attempting to rein in the forces of chaos on its own territory. We can only hope that the unwinding and scrapping of the US military empire will proceed in a controlled manner. There are few countries in the world that have more of a reason to think forward to that day and to plan accordingly than South Korea, and so it is quite appropriate that Korean is the second language, after English, in which Reinventing Collapse has been published.
The collapse of the American empire is certain to be accompanied by a long cascade of global crises. International trade and finance are sure to be disrupted. Countries around the world will be subjected to an experience similar to what countries in the former Soviet sphere went through after the USSR collapsed. They are sure to experience economic dislocation, numerous bankruptcies, mass unemployment and impoverishment, political crises, and many lives will be cut short as a result. Some countries did better than others in adjusting to the new circumstances, and can offer useful lessons. For instance, when Cuba was cut off from the Soviet oil supply, it pioneered the use of organic urban agriculture, and it did succeed in feeding its population without the use of fossil fuel inputs. North Korea is generally not seen as a success story, but it too may be able to offer a few useful lessons on surviving superpower collapses. Moreover, it does have a population accustomed to extreme hardship, and that, in the new circumstances, may itself turn out to be an asset.
Over the course of my life I have known many Koreans, both in the US and in Russia. (There is one particular North Korean student of nuclear engineering I remember: a very serious and sober young man living quietly in a fraternity of hard-drinking Russian engineering students. "Our little Chernobyl" we called him.) From what I have been able to piece together based on what I've been able to observe, Koreans are quite patriotic, very resourceful, detest foreign meddling in their affairs, and are exactly like everyone else in wanting a peaceful and prosperous existence for themselves. It may very well be that Korea's 21st century will make up for the horrors of the 20th, while most of the former USA devolves into a collection of lawless, ungovernable, sparsely populated territories that, gradually or abruptly, fade from the world scene. But such a positive result for Korea is by no means automatic. Fierce beasts are at their most dangerous right after they have been fatally wounded, and it is hard to predict what sort of damage a fatally wounded America might cause in its agony. Korea will have to reinvent America's collapse to its own advantage. Being a foreigner, and not wishing to meddle in Korean affairs, all I can say is, think ahead, plan ahead, and may you have the best luck possible!