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Focusing on Korea's true security challenges before, and after, the South-North summit

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By Emanuel Pastreich

At last, even the mainstream media is starting to admit that a North-South summit, followed by a miraculous U.S.-DPRK summit, will not transform the world overnight. Neither President Moon nor President Trump is capable of parting the waters like Moses, or of raising the dead like Jesus.

They can make powerful symbolic actions which, if preceded by, and followed up with, long-term systematic efforts by government, industry and civil society could be transformative.

But without a broad mandate to support the preparation for integration and its implementation, there is a risk that a perception of incompleteness will overshadow the light of hope and progress.

For my part, I have not been invited to a single meeting of citizens to discuss engagement with North Korea. If fact, have not even heard of any such an effort in my neighborhood. I fear that we are expecting miracles from politicians.

The strategy behind these summit meetings cannot be one of slow progress. We have gone too far in the rhetoric of confrontation and the literal preparations for war, this time. Unlike previous South-North summits, we cannot afford to focus only on the reopening the Gumgang Mountain Tourist Park, or meetings of separated families.

Nor can the summits focus on only the entirely unrealistic demand for unilateral denuclearization of North Korea ― which we all know will never happen outside of a large comprehensive deal. The current Trump administration is incapable of negotiating and implementing such a deal because it has stripped government of all experts.

The summits must indicate, symbolically and substantively, a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and, in order to make that work, a transformation of relations between the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

The tensions between the U.S. and China, and between the U.S. and Russia, not to mention Japanese disagreements with China, can be a reason to say that such a grand bargain would be a pipe dream.

Yet, one could argue also that precisely because we face the possibility of world war, this is a rare moment when otherwise bored and detached bureaucrats and politicians may be forced to take transformative actions they otherwise would not consider.

The crux of the problem on the Korean Peninsula is security. And this time we must stop trying to put off war, conflict or friction for weeks or months and rather focus all effort on establishing long-term security. This move would signify a change in the meaning of the word "security" that is akin to the transformation of states, like ice to water, or water to steam. Although the nature of security, like H2O, remains the same, its configuration will be profoundly altered.

So, what are the security issues for the Korean Peninsula, and for Northeast Asia? If you look at the newspapers, the overwhelming focus is on denuclearizing North Korea, and insisting that North Korea do so unconditionally as a precondition for future normalization of relations.

But let us be honest with ourselves for a moment. The Trump administration has swung from suggestions of eating a hamburger with Kim Jung-un, to threatening a preemptive nuclear strike, to arguing for the strictest sanctions in history, to suddenly agreeing to a Trump-Kim summit without any clear commitment to any meaningful dialog with North Korea.

The first step towards real security means starting a serious debate on the topic that is transparent, independent of special interests pushing particular weapons systems, and that involves citizens directly. If we have an honest dialog among ourselves about what security means, that will allow us to reach a meaningful consensus that is not dictated from above.

Yet the discussion on security on the Korean Peninsula is drifting further and further away from reality, especially because the U.S. refuses to recognize North Korea as a nation with nuclear weapons, even though it clearly is.

It is far more important to establish what are shared security concerns between North Korea and South Korea, and other nations in the region, as the basis for an agreement. That would be a strong base for future progress, rather than insisting that North Korea give up all nuclear weapons and related technology while insisting that the U.S. is entirely entitled, in violation of the Non-proliferation Treaty that it signed, to invest a trillion dollars in next-generation nuclear weapons. Such a demand of North Korea does nothing to find common ground and will fail.

The collapse of the ecosystem is one common security concern. The water is scarce on the Korean Peninsula. Lack of water reached crisis levels last summer and, in light of the high temperatures and low precipitation so far in 2018, we are on track to beat that disaster this year.

Deserts are creeping across Asia, and across the world, and the cost of food is likely to soar over the next five years. These are profound security issues that are shared with North Korea.

What should be South Korea's Strategy?

To put it bluntly, we must go back to the drawing board and rethink our definition of security, emphasizing environmental security, human security and economic security as we prepare for the summit meetings. To dismiss such central security concerns is to forget the whole purpose of the meetings.

In an odd way, we must take President Donald Trump's words "the end of 'strategic patience' " literally.

The hawks around Trump suggest this phrase means that only military force or crippling sanctions can get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.

However, that is not the only, nor even the primary, sense of the expression "the end of 'strategic patience.' "

The more accurate interpretation of an end of "strategic patience" is that the assumption during the Obama Administration that it could just leave North Korea alone and let it build nuclear weapons and prepare to defend itself against what it saw as an increasingly hostile environment, was a profound mistake for the United States which must be replaced by substantive dialog, not military action.

Strategic patience meant no significant dialog, and no fundamental proposals for a security order in East Asia that would include the Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.

Responding through economic sanctions or military action will never be successful, as we know from the humanitarian crises that the U.S. has created throughout the Middle East.

Rather South Korea should think big and open up a serious initiative in this summit meeting that will let it rewrite the rules for every aspect of security for Northeast Asia, and to bring in thoughtful, brave and wise people so that this can be a moment of great historical import, like the drafting of the Magna Carta, and not be a media circus.

Moreover, the dangers of this historical moment as so great that such a big-picture approach is not at all unrealistic, but rather may be the only strategy that can work.


The greatest cancer when it comes to the security of the Korean Peninsula is the malignant anti-intellectualism that is propagated through a decaying media. The death of reliable sources of information that are independent from the stock market and from foreign investment banks, the withering away of local community groups that gave meaning to the lives of ordinary people through cooperative efforts and mutual aid, has left many Koreans exposed to unreliable information and feeling profoundly alone.

This state is evident from the high suicide rate for both youth and the elderly. It is evident from the number of Koreans who try to lose themselves in video games or superficial dramas, rather than engaging in serious discussions.

The brave pursuit of truth, which is the requirement for meaningful policy, has been replaced by a ruthless consumption- driven culture that holds up as the definition of "happiness" immediate satisfaction through the eating, drinking or watching of things that provide a short-term thrill.

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. 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 debate on security. Many Koreans, including adults, spend their time playing video games that glorify ruthless military conflict and make it appear as if shooting guns not only good fun, but solves all problems. This gaming culture makes it impossible to explain the complexity of security today as we face climate change, massive integration driven by AI, and the collapse of nation states.Video games suggest that it is a split-second response that is critical for security rather than a long-term strategy. That myth is far more dangerous than nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Climate change and poisoning the environment

As opposed to the highly unlikely attacks from North Korea that are hyped in the media, the threats of climate change and industrial pollution are 100 percent guaranteed. Newspapers never compare the temperature for the day over the last 50 years. If they did, we would have some sense of how dangerous the situation is.

Nor do we learn how many people die each year from diseases related to industrial pollution. In fact most Koreans have no idea how much worse domestic emissions of toxic substances have become over the last 10 years. Instead of analysis, micro-particles in the air are treated in the media as something unavoidable, like snow or rain.

The gutting of government in Korea, and the deregulation of corporations, means that factories voluntarily report how much they pollute the air and water. The voluntary reports are often doctored and there is no way for the government to inspect and to punish polluters. The government has lost the authority to demand that industry stop poisoning citizens. All we are offered is fancy cancer centers at major hospitals where desperate loved ones pour fortunes into treating victims, but they can do nothing to change environmental policy.

Any objective assessment of the threat of climate change to the Korean peninsula over the next 30 years would reveal that the danger is so great, and the cost of adaptation to, and mitigation of, climate change so enormous, that Korea has no choice but to sign agreements with its neighbors for deep cuts in conventional weapons across the board so that it can put together a budget required for the rapid and complete transformation of its economy to a 100 percent renewable one.

The elements in Korean society that fight against such efforts to redefine security in environmental terms, and those who do not want to invest in a sustainable economic system for fear of losing short-term profits, are committing a crime against future generations.

The spread of deserts is just starting. The deserts of northern China are heading towards Beijing, and then they will move on to Pyongyang and on to Seoul. Already semi-arid regions across the peninsula are spreading. No tanks, or missile defense systems, or smartphones can do anything to stop that march and we will ultimately face a battle for our lives.

Sadly, it is common sense for businessmen and government officials that somehow through "free trade" Korea can make up for the agricultural land lost to highways and apartment buildings, the rich soil washed away by the rains after being left exposed, by simply buying grains and vegetables from abroad.

But the trends in climate change suggest that this plan is a false dream. The U.S., Russia, Australia, Argentina and other exporters of grains and vegetables will suffer increasingly from terrible droughts and may no longer be able to provide food for Northeast Asia. The costs of imported food will skyrocket and food itself will become the security issue of this century. China will use its immense wealth to secure food and Korea may find itself backed against a wall.

Korea will be forced, whether it likes it or not, to return to an economy focused on agriculture, and no doubt in the future many will regret that so much priceless soil was lost to mindless housing developments. The approach to agriculture this time will need to be organic. Organic farming is not a boutique branding effort for an upper-middle class market, but rather required because petroleum-based agriculture, and fertilizer, are so destructive to the environment and humans will have to live on the Korean peninsula for hundreds and thousands of years into the future.

The spread of deserts is accompanied by a rise in sea levels around the world that will flood cities like Busan and Incheon and will require massive infrastructure investment. This damage will come sooner than later. Yet Korea has no long-term plans for responding to the threat to food supplies, or the response to rising seas. Many Koreans do not even understand that rising sea levels and desertification are major threats.

There is another threat from the oceans besides rising sea levels. The rising temperatures of the oceans, combined with increasing acidity, poses the very real risk that we will witness in the next 20 years the depletion, or even extinction, of many species of fish that Koreans assume will be here forever. That will also contribute to the food crisis on the peninsula.

Wealth disparity

The rising inequality in Korea is tearing apart the fabric of society and it will lead to serious political conflicts domestically and internationally. The destruction of family-owned businesses, the declining quality of the jobs available to young people and the increasing power of investment banks and other speculative financial organizations over economic planning is remaking society in a negative sense.

Although Koreans are aware of the concentration of wealth, and of the death of a public sector, they never learn the details of what is happening from the media, or from each other, and they are discouraged by the culture itself from thinking deeply about anything.

In fact, if you do not start out with enough money to go to a good school, you will never learn about how the world works from the information to which you are exposed.

Interestingly, even progressive groups do not offer incisive analysis concerning the profound contradictions generated by this decadent commodity-driven culture.

No one is advocating that investment banks, or telecommunications companies, should be highly regulated public monopolies. Yet back in the 1960s or 1970s (which people think of as a more conservative time in Korea) that assumption was common sense.

Addiction to oil

Much of the security debate in the Korean press, and in think tanks, takes for granted that expensive tanks, fighter planes, submarines and other weapons systems are the best way to defend Korea. Yet, if there was no fuel, no petroleum, all of those pricy weapons would be useless.

I am not being facetious in the slightest. The radical dependency of Korea on imported oil, as is a tremendous security liability. Not only is it a liability because so many weapons depend on oil (rather than using solar or wind power), but also because many urban Koreans simply could not survive if the flow of oil was disrupted.

If a war broke out that resulted in an end of the shipment of petroleum and gas to South Korea, the situation would be far more serious than it was during the Korean War. With the high consumption lives we live today, you can be sure that people would be freezing to death in their apartments in days, and starving in weeks. North Koreans, who have not been so spoilt, would quickly realize that they were at a distinct advantage.

South Korea would do well to look at the frugality, the modesty and the efficiency shown by its northern neighbor when conducting its own security planning. South Koreans often hold up a satellite image of the Korean peninsula at night with pride. The picture shows the south lit up like a Christmas tree, in contrast to a dark North Korea. This photo suggests, they say, just how much Korea has developed and just how far behind the north is. But it is more accurate to state that South Korea has embraced tremendous waste and consumption, lighting itself up at night entirely unnecessarily. Unnecessary electricity use should be strictly regulated and the massive implementation of solar and wind power should be required by law for reasons of national security.

New weapons

Could it be that nature of military conflict will be so transformed by emerging technologies that most of our weapons systems will cease to play a meaningful role? Will fighter planes, aircraft carriers, tanks and artillery cease to be the effective weapons of the future? Although I do not pretend to have the answer, it is astonishing just how seldom this question is even posed.

The exponential rate of technological development means that weapons that can kill tens of thousands, or more, are quickly becoming cheaper and thus accessible to small groups, or even to individuals. The response to this unprecedented threat will require collaboration and trust, and imagination. However, it is not clear that future conflicts will be between nation states. Nation states are rapidly fragmenting. They retain their authority, but they are controlled by global networks of finance and governance. The combination of the advancement in the capacity of new weapons and the fragmentation of the governments meant to control them will be a tremendous threat in the years ahead.

Three important transformations taking place in weapons are:

1. The emergence of drones and robots.

2. The increasing sophistication of cyber warfare and propagandistic news services.

3. The emergence of 3D printing and other means of transmitting objects through non-conventional means.

The conventional military is made up of tanks, fighter planes, missiles and battleships and aircraft carriers, all of which are extremely expensive and vulnerable to these new weapons.

In the case of drones and robots, we are in the stone age of this new technology and we should expect it to transform our world over the next decade. Drones will lead the charge into this new dystopia, although we should not underestimate the potential power of robots. Drones will get far smaller and more deadly quickly, and they will be increasingly self-guided. It would be fair to say that although the trends and technologies are known, the ultimate implications remains unclear.

But let us imagine the next generation of drones, perhaps forming a swarm of 10,000 or that include everything from missiles armed with massive explosives to small drones less than a centimeter long armed and ready to blow up when they reach a critical element in their target.
This swarm could move in on an aircraft carrier loaded with fighter planes that cost a total of $8 billion to build and reduce it to junk in a few hours.

Robots, or autonomous killing machines, will operate in the future without a human within the loop when they engage in lethal attacks. How dangerous they will be, or how we can effectively ban, or limit, their manufacture is a critical question we have not started to discuss.

is unlikely that those designing these killing machines will program in their masterpieces a version of Asimov's ethical Laws of Robotics.

Cyber warfare will pose tremendous challenges to all remote and electronic systems and it may even drive us back to conventional manual technologies that cannot be hacked. Future cyber weapons will make it possible to take over all the enemy's weapons (including nuclear weapons) if they are linked up electronically.

Moreover, cyber warfare is being exploited by factions within the military, or other non-state actors, rather than nation states. That is the reason for the current confusion which poses the risk of massive conflicts between complex networks of likeminded groups around the world. The basic assumptions about state- to -state conflicts that have underpinned national security policy in East Asia are no longer valid.

3D printing is such a new technology that we do not fully understand its military applications, but already it has been identified as a game-changer in industry. 3D printing offers the potential to create objects ― devices, weapons, machinery ― simply by virtue of the digital description that is fed to a 3D printer.

3D printing is an extension of CNC routing, milling, extruding, and cutting technology that has existed for almost two decades on the factory floor. A 3D printer can sit on a desk, and can create any dimensional object by building it up out of tiny droplets of thermoplastic resin.
Already, people have uploaded patterns for making untraceable guns by this means. In the future it could be that if you place a 3D printer somewhere, you can make anything you want using the internet.

Arms control

The jewel in the crown of military waste, and the pied piper leading politicians and corporate interests away from the scientific method, and away from engagement with intellectuals in the formulation of policy in U.S. (and in Korea and in Japan) is missile defense.

When missile defense was introduced during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, it was meant as a Trojan horse, as a policy that would allow a few firms to make great profits selling a hyped-up system that cannot not do what they promised it could do.

At a deeper level, the promotion of missile defense was a bid to exploit anti-intellectual tendencies in American society. There were intellectuals in the military and in diplomacy, who suggested, logically and scientifically, that the only way to control the dangerous spread of nuclear weapons was through negotiated disarmament treaties. They were correct, but they were not good for sales. They were dismissed as "soft" or as "eggheads" who did not understand tough security issues.

In fact, mutually binding treaties like those negotiated by the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce the number of nuclear and conventional weapons in Europe are the only way to respond to the proliferation of missiles.

Although such international agreements, like the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1995, are the only scientific way to reduce tensions and to increase security, such efforts give too much authority to intellectuals, and that, arms manufactures feared, could create groups who, armed with the truth, would say no to weapons systems.

That was the beauty of overpriced weapons systems like missile defense and other forms of automation. They eliminated experts from the process for formulating policy and running systems and increased profits. Nothing could be more irritating to arms manufacturers than informed experts who can negotiate arms limitations treaties. The U.S. military once had many highly educated experts in diplomacy and technology who understood security and history and employed the scientific method to assess the viability of new weapons. Today, generals and ambassadors see the sales of weapons systems as their primary mission and look forward to lucrative consulting work with defense firms after retirement.

But missile defense does not work effectively. At best, THAAD and its brothers and sisters, can shoot down but a small percentage of incoming missiles. Moreover, because missile defense systems, and other weapons systems, are no longer tested by objective third parties in the U.S., their reliability is doubtful.

And, although missile defense systems may not stop incoming missiles, they are effective at setting off arms races.

This massive proliferation of nuclear weapons is the real danger and it would make the potential for nuclear warfare far greater. North Korea's tiny nuclear program does not pose that sort of threat. But there are serious threats out there.

At present, neither Japan nor Korea has built or deployed nuclear weapons and China maintains less than 300 nuclear weapons. But, if China feels truly threatened, it can go from under 300 nuclear weapons to over 10,000 in a short time.

The rest would be just a chain reaction. Japan could have 6,000 nuclear weapons and South Korea would follow. And then what? Taiwan? Vietnam, Indonesia? If Japan or South Korea makes the mistake of developing nuclear weapons, it will set off a dangerous chain reaction that will make the entire region far less safe.

Korea's strategy at the North-South Summit

Much of the discussion about strategy surrounding the upcoming North-South summit focuses on somehow getting the North to accept the impossible demands of the U.S., and to somehow put off a confrontation for a few more months.

But Korea must have a larger strategy and this summit can only be a small part of that strategy. The core of the strategy must be taking control of the debate on security domestically and internationally and playing the leading role in the debate on security. That will mean distancing Korea from the so-called experts in Washington D.C. whose salaries depend on the generosity of arms manufacturers.

The North-South summit should be seized upon as an opportunity to rethink security in East Asia and appeal to the rationality, not the emotions, of citizens' as we plan for a dangerous future. Sadly, many Korean politicians and diplomats have devoted their attention to trying to please other countries rather than articulating a distinct Korean perspective that might win others over at home and abroad.

The Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai once made an observation that is most apposite here.

Sorai noted, "There are two ways to play chess. One way is to master the rules of chess perfectly so that one can respond to any situation. The other way to play chess is to make up the rules by which chess is played."

When Koreans think about security, the military and the future of the Korean Peninsula, they have adopted the former strategy.

Koreans strive to master the rules that they have been taught by others and always to stick to them.

But there are great historic moments when, by contrast, it is not only useful, but also imperative to alter the very rules of the game. This moment is such a time.


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