A Basic Point on the Korea Situation

There is at least one simple reason why dealing with the North is so difficult.

The response of many to the attacks on South Korean territory by the North will be to ask “why doesn’t somebody do something about the North?” where “somebody” is usually the Chinese or the Americans.  Certainly acts like the shelling of Yeonpyeong or the sinking of a South Korean ship earlier this year are outrageous.

The problem in all of these events is that there are no good options.  No doubt the deaths in question (two are reported dead as a result of the attack at the moment) creates an understandable desire for justice, but the question becomes:  what would such justice cost?  If the South decides that “enough is enough” and launches a major military strike, how many more will die?  Would those deaths be worth the drive for justice?

Moreover, and this is the main point I wish to make, I would argue that a fundamental reason that there is a basic impasse regarding the North  (and why the Chinese continue to prop up the regime) is that no one, not the South, not the Chinese, wants to deal with the massive humanitarian crisis and refugee problem that would result from a collapsed North.  To be somewhat redundant for explanatory purposes, I think that this point is key to understanding Chinese behavior:  it is less that are actively supporting the North out of some positive affirmation of said regime as much as they know that should the North collapse that that the would be a massive wave of refugees from the North that would seek solace in China.  Given the choice between having the current problematic regime on their border or a failed state in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis on their border they opt for the former.  It is an understandable preference.

It should be noted that the South has a similar problem:  even if a resumption of military engagement with the North led to “victory” for the South, the bottom line would be that the South would then be responsible for absorbing and rebuilding the North.  While on the one hand there are many in the South that would like for reunification to eventually take place, on the other there is an enormous cost to be affiliated with such an outcome—especially if it came in the context of war or the spontaneous collapse of the North.

FILED UNDER: Asia, World Politics,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree with everything you wrote in that post, Steven, as far as it goes.  The problems on the Korean Peninsula are an example of a wicked problem.  There is no clear, optimal, workable solution.  The best that may be achieved is to arrive at a process under which the parties may interact.
    However, things have changed enormously on the Korean Peninsula and in the world over the period of the last 60 years and it’s not altogether clear, at least not to me, that our military presence in South Korea continues to have a positive role.  I think it may just be allowing the principles to avoid making moves in the direction of the process suggested above.

  2. So many questions... says:

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    My question at this point is whether the South actually wants reunification. I’m sure separated families would prefer reunification and a certain level of nationalistic pride makes reunification preferable, but I wonder what percentage of the South Korean population actually wants to rejoin with the North. Anyone have any numbers on this?
    Like the article notes, this would be a massive humanitarian crisis. It would appear (to me, at least) to dwarf the issues with East-West Germany reunification. If the regime suddenly collapsed, would we even be assured that the North and the South would rejoin, or is it possible we would just see two separate countries form?

  3. 11B40 says:

    Since the recent government-mandated analog to digital TV signal conversion, I been getting and watching some of the South Korean KBS broadcasts.  My analogy is the relationship between the Koreas is like when your best pal is in love with an evil woman.  There will be pain.
    Overall, I agree with the assessment that the sinking of the Choenan and these artillery attacks are primarily related to the intended ascendency of Kim the Third.  Kim the Second was involved in some of the North’s terrorist activities prior to his ascendency back when.
    Even after the sinking of the Choenan, the South, perhaps in response to President Obama’s tepid reactions, made efforts to re-instate its humanitarian giftings.  Bad move.  Share some pain.

  4. ponce says:

    Should countries only fight evil when it’s cost effective?
    Somehow I think the N. Korea problem is just going to get worse and worse.

  5. Seems to me there is one problem with North Korea, and his name is Kim Jong Il.

  6. ponce says:

    Kim Jong Un, the Bristol Palin of N. Korea, is supposed to be behind this attack.

  7. Should countries only fight evil when it’s cost effective?

    One has to consider the costs (and I don’t mean just in dollars) of pursuing a policy that making fighting evil its central tenet.

    Seems to me there is one problem with North Korea, and his name is Kim Jong Il

    It is, unfortunately, more complicated than that.  Even if you could beam Kim, his son and all of his family into the Phantom Zone, there would still be massive and complex problems that would afford no easy solutions.

  8. DC Loser says:

    North Korea is simply a feudal state with the Kim family at the top.  But there are a lot of people in the armed forces and security apparatus that benefit from the current setup and are very loyal to the regime in terms of preserving the status quo.  The South Koreans don’t want to upset the status quo and have their economy disrupted by problems with North Korea, and they are not keen on absorbing the North Koreans in a collapse scenario.  Same for the Chinese.  Everyone involved who live in the neighborhood wants thing to stay the way they are.

  9. Perhaps, but vaporizing the Kim clan, or beaming them into the Phantom Zone, would make it clear these acts of belligerence not be ignored or rewarded.
    I hate to bring up Hitler, but what does “Never Again” really mean if we don’t learn the lessons of appeasement?

  10. @Charles:
    Because, of course, once we remove dictators from power that fixes everything, right?  I would like it be so, but alas, it is not.
    And as two nearly decade-long wars ought to show us:  one involved things never go as planned and it isn’t easy to accomplish even noble goals.
    There is also the pesky problem that a conflict might actually made a bad situation worse.
    And if we are going to apply “never again” as sufficient justification for war with the North, what do you propose we do with any number of regimes/situations in Africa?

  11. I don’t think I promised a utopia, and I have no doubt that things may get much worse before they get much better once North Korea is not allowed to do the barbarous things they keep doing over and over and over.   Sorry if I left you with that impression.  But at what point is enough enough?
    As to the regimes in Africa, I’m not sure that some, if not many, of the regime problems can’t be addressed with a firmer hand, though it is clear most of the world refuses to make the hard decisions necessary to deal with them effectively.  I would question whether we have an ally in Africa with the status that South Korea has vis-a-vis past and current commitments.  I’m certainly not arguing that we have to right the world’s wrongs,  in fact, far from it.  I think you might be mistaking me for a progressive as someone who feels it is their personal duty to right each of the world’s wrongs.  But I digress.
    I believe the question is rather whether we have strategic interests in South Korea per se, and in how we work with and defend our allies.  I will readily agree that we are taking on too much responsibility for South Korea and it is unfortunate for them that they get to be at the point of the spear with a lunatic member of their extended family, but neither we nor they get to choose, now do we? 
    I guess I’m opposed to doing nothing or next to nothing for fear the perhaps lunatic bully might become more belligerent.  All sorts of quotations from The Lord of The Rings and The Wire spring to mind, but I’ll spare everyone my analogies.  Oh, and where exactly has “never again” actually been used to anything — anything at all?  Just more pablum to make us feel good about ourselves than an actual pricinple we are going to live up to, I guess.

  12. I guess I’m opposed to doing nothing or next to nothing for fear the perhaps lunatic bully might become more belligerent

    This is not, per se, what I talking about (although I suppose it is part of the overall equation).  I am saying that you seem to be utterly ignoring the difficulties associated with simply removing the leadership of the DPRK.   There is a humanitarian cost to such actions and the people who will bear the burnt of those costs will be the people in the North you wish to help.
    I am not unsympathetic to the plight if those persons, btw, I just am not sanguine about the abilities to fix the situation.
    Another point is that our allies in this case, those in the South, are not that enthusiastic about a military confrontation with the North.
    And, BTW, you are the one who brought up “never again” (which was a reference to the holocaust/genocide), not me.

  13. Max Lybbert says:

    At this point China has two options: Kim or humanitarian crisis.  It appears the solution, then, is to change those options into somebody other than Kim or humanitarian crisis.
    We treat North Korea as it were a puppet state of China.  But we don’t treat China as if North Korea were a Chinese puppet state.  Maybe it’s time to do so.  Instead of having the US, South Korea and China suspend shipments to North Korea, it may be time to review China’s Most Favored Nation trading status.
    Well, it would be a viable option if China’s willingness to buy US Treasuries wasn’t necessary for the US government’s “have your cake and eat it too” deficit spending policy.

  14. anjin-san says:

    > Because, of course, once we remove dictators from power that fixes everything, right?
    Come on Steven. A couple of magic pony nukes delivered to show our mettle and all will be well.  It will be just like Iraq. Fast, easy, cheap and with no unintended consequences.  Fox News is in favor of it, it must be a good thing.

  15. PJ says:

    “I hate to bring up Hitler, but what does “Never Again” really mean if we don’t learn the lessons of appeasement?” – It’s so easy crying about appeasing the North Koreans when you’re not living in Seoul.