Tag Archives: war

Paris on the Peninsula

31 Aug

The girl at the end of the table was smoking mojito-flavored cigarettes. “Bohem Cigar Mojito” was the name. The dual fans on the porch were blowing in her direction, whisking the smoke away and off into the Gangnam night, so I never got a chance to see what the smell was like.

There were four of them, girls, university friends who rarely cross paths these days. After the wedding of one of their close friends, we’d come here, to this cafe. Each one of them was interesting. The girl at the far end, smoking the mojito cigs, was a part-time model, with an intelligent and mysterious air about her. She looked exactly like one of my old professors. I considered telling her this, but then thought better of it when I remembered the professor was Japanese. Comparisons such as that are a minefield in this country.

The girl at the other end of the table, to my left, was a tattooist. She kicked her shoes off toward the end of the evening and revealed the wings she had tattooed on her feet. I could only think of the Greek god from the FTD florist signs back in the States (Hermes, perhaps). The girl in the middle, on the far side of the table, talked energetically, asked probing questions, and burned through nearly a whole pack of cigarettes. Perhaps it was all the coffee. Her claim to fame was that she once slept with a Japanese film star. They were all artists by training and temperament. They looked and acted the part.

The talk amongst the three girls and my girlfriend was difficult to follow at best. My brain was fried from the heat and the acidic caffeine of too many americanos that day. From this rooftop patio, I could see across across much of Gangnam. The red glow of the giant Kumkang sign reflected off of every shiny surface around. Looking to the right, northward, you could look over Sinsa. The HanSkin building had nearly every light on, making it look like a cheese grater with a lightbulb inside. Beyond it was the blinking red light of the radio tower array that stands just southeast of N Seoul Tower on Namsan.

For some reason, I imagined anti-aircraft fire puncturing the warm, glowing night over this part of town. That seems slightly ridiculous, but not because there’s no threat to the city. Rather, it’s ridiculous because the North Korean air force would never establish air superiority over the South. No, the likely explosions would not be from tracers arcing into the dark, but rather from rockets or shells falling to earth.

My mind looked to war because Seoul itself has often reminded me of a different place: Paris. Not the eternal Paris, though, the Paris of love, lights, pleasure, and ease, but pre-Great War Paris. A poor comparison, you might say, but consider a few general points. First, Seoul is a flourishing metropolis. There is great wealth spread among the elites, the benefits of which trickle down to the lower rungs, especially in infrastructure. There is a great awareness of and interest in the international scene; Korea senses that there is an important role to play, though it may not have clear and realistic vision of what that is. Korean culture is an export in and of itself, seen as sophisticated around Asia. These things do indeed resemble Belle Époque France. Still, one may argue that such traits could also have applied to other European cities at the time as well.

But the Paris comparison is just when considering that which looms over the horizon. Fin de siècle Paris had a great, foreboding sense of the end of its flourishing. The 19th century seemed to be bringing material prosperity and high culture to an apotheosis, yet the Parisians felt only malaise at this prospect. Korea does not feel that now, but there are signs that this Miracle on the Han River is failing in its greatest moment. There is a growing gap between the rich and poor, with many who teeter in the middle slipping to the lower rungs, while elites see their income rise sharply. The economy is heavily dependent on exports and will suffer in a second, deeper worldwide recession. With that, the already tight Korean job market will be even more severely pinched. The promise of affluence and a better future will be delayed further, especially for younger Koreans.

But the greatest salience is in the threat that lies over the DMZ. North Korea is the Imperial Germany to Seoul’s Paris. Both were threats faced once before, with unsatisfactory results and a permanent imprint on the national psyche. South Korea must inevitably reckon with this violent neighbor again, hopefully without bloodshed. Yet the structure of the world order seems to preclude any sort of boldly proactive approach. Orders are important: Europe saw relative peace when the Congress of Vienna consensus discouraged permanent alliances and attempted to localize conflicts. Similarly, our world sees security as intimately connected to markets — the benefits of trade discourage violent cataclysms that disturb the order. Yet this order works on the assumption that the actors are rational. I think we can all agree that North Korea is not rational. Imperial Germany was not either. Its culture saw war as a romantic way to transcend soul-stifling bourgeois values.

An order which less and less resembles reality will lead to misconceptions, confusion, and, given the chance, cataclysm. Something must be done to prevent a war, nay, a catastrophe, on this peninsula, but there is a fear of doing anything, for an equally great fear of the consequences. There is a lurking sense that the current age of constant growth and ever-increasing plenty cannot be sustained, but we cannot imagine how to replace the system that we already have or tame its destructive potential. So nothing is done. And the order entropies more quickly, leaving us in even more of a predicament, fearing even more the consequences of failure.

I left the girls to their conversation about cute guys and stood at the railing. I looked at the rooftop gardens, the countless cafes restaurants packed with couples, the slick skyscrapers, and the older buildings grimy with pollution. When Seoul fights its own Battle of the Marne, I wondered, will I be here? Will I look down to the street and see the soldiers on leave kissing their mini-skirted, high-heeled girlfriends goodbye, then piling into Hi Seoul taxis that speed them to the front somewhere near Pocheon? Will this neon city of ceaseless diversion see its lights going out, not to be relit again in my lifetime?

When I sat down again, I didn’t share my thoughts. The girls would not understand this, not because they are girls, but because they are Korean. They are always optimistic, in spite of the challenges their young lives face. They don’t think of failure or unraveling orders or anything of the sort. They think of life and how they are living it. I realized my Paris reference was right, but of the wrong era. If one day distant artillery fire does silhouette Kyobo Tower, they will repose here and watch the show, like Rick, Ilsa, and Sam of a different Paris, with each cigarette and americano echoing Sam: “This ought to take the sting out of bein’ occupied.”


Thoughts of War

26 Apr

If North Korea was going to strike a blow against its neighbor, there might be no better time than now.  Kim Jong Il is in failing health and what would be a better symbol than to attack on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War?  The sinking of the Cheonan might have been a test by North Korea of both the South Korean military’s preparedness as well as the martial inclinations of the South Koreans.   I, for one, will be glad that I will be out of the country on June 25, the sixtieth anniversary day.  Thinking about all of Seoul fleeing south as artillery, bombs, and perhaps (no, probably) chemical weapons crash down into this urban conglomeration is a chilling thought.  Many older Koreans remember the war; I’m sure that repeating it again, with even more disastrous consequences, is something that they hope never happens.

A war in Korea would seem to most like a terrible distraction from our current military efforts abroad, a conflict we cannot afford in terms of both blood and treasure.  Why is our military here? many ask.  The Koreans are not poor peasants any more, they are a successful, prosperous nation.  Can’t they protect themselves?

I think that to look at Korea is a good way to measure our current efforts other places in the world.  America’s role in Korea has not been one of calculated strategy or politics, nor stemmed from an shared past or affinity in ideas.  It has resembled more of making the best of a bad situation from the very beginning.  Our occupation and protection of Korea was our first major experience in facing a limited war with few recourses for a solution.  Certainly the Indian Wars, the Moro Rebellion, and forays by the Marines into Central America during the 1910-1920s were examples of limited wars, but none had the same sort of dire implications for the international order like the Korean crisis did.

Many who looked at Korea back then could have pointed to the negative aspects of the country to justify abandoning it, much in the same way that many advocate abandoning Afghanistan now.  Korea was poor, rural, perhaps even feudal.  It had no great inclination toward commerce or industry; its mindset was traditional and Confucian.  The Hermit Kingdom was happy to do things as it saw fit, without regard for others expectations.  A noble attribute indeed, but one which did little to convince others of its worthiness to deserve an investment of precious lives, resources, and political capital.

Yet if one looks at Korea today, it is easy to see the positive attributes that Koreans possess that made the country successful: an immense capacity for hard work, beyond the comprehension of most Westerners; a focus on success within the framework of society instead of reorganizing everything through violent revolution; an obligation to one’s family, friends, and, to a lesser extent, nation, in one’s efforts to succeed; an appreciation of material progress, something strange for a Buddhist land.  These attributes seem obvious now but perhaps were discounted as irrelevant sixty years ago.

The conundrums of Afghanistan are similar to Korea.  Not that the countries are similar in many ways.  Korea is small and dense, with fertile land and a sea on three sides, while Afghanistan is much larger and disconnected, with a much more varied and harsh environment.   Koreans shares a culture, language, and race with virtually no exceptions, while Afghanis are a much larger patchwork.  Korean culture emphasizes devotion to society, authority, and one’s place in serving them; Afghanistan is much more independent and tribal in its loyalties.  The two are hardly comparable.  But the point is that our experience in Afghanistan may be understood within the context of our own in Korea.  We entered neither by choice and found ourselves questioning our intentions and strategy.  Just as we are confounded by corrupt Afghani officials, so too was the U.S. Army dismayed at Korean police who executed dissidents during the war.  And just as the Taliban flee to safety in Pakistani tribal areas, so too did North Korean and Chinese units retreat beyond the Yalu to rest and refit.  Korea was an ugly war with little glory and a hardly acceptable end, and the same might be said for Afghanistan.  Yet we know from Korea that some good may come of it all.

This is not to say that we will succeed in Afghanistan, nor that we will fail.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of how we understand what limited information we possess.  Just as we could not have expected that certain aspects of Korea would have turned into strengths rather than weaknesses, to say that Afghanistan is doomed because of such-and-such a trait is to expect too much of our own foresight.

Yet if there is one thing that we should apply to Afghanistan from our experience in Korea, it is that if a troubled, torn country is to have any hope of becoming a peaceful, successful participant in the world, it must be guarded for an extended period of time and require a long investment of national will and resources.  America is still in Korea and, although its land forces are dwarfed in numbers by the North Korean army, its naval, air, and even nuclear power provides a serious deterrent to those north of the DMZ.  To leave would mean disaster for Korea.  The last time we thought it was safe and left, in 1948, we found ourselves returning two years later to repulse an invasion at great cost to both soldiers and civilians alike.  But leaving is precisely what we are doing in Afghanistan.  President Obama has said that we are leaving Afghanistan beginning in 2011.  We will create conditions suitable for our withdrawal and then never return.

But we do not get to choose the situation.  We do not choose history, it chooses us.  Just as we could not avoid being drawn into a conflict in Korea without compromising our own national security, dependent on the strategy of containment, we cannot expect that we will remain out of Afghanistan so long as there is a threat from Islamic extremism.  Korea was a pawn in the hands of greater powers, for better or worse, just as Afghanistan is enmeshed between Iran and Pakistan.  If we leave Afghanistan, we will go back, only when the situation gets bloody and desperate.  This is not to say that staying in Afghanistan is a good thing or will even accomplish a successful end.  But we must understand that simply leaving for good is not an option.

Korea is a strange place to me and I confess to not understanding and judging it harshly many times.  But when I look past the idiosyncrasies to the heart of the people, I see something worth protecting.  They are hard workers, patriots, entrepreneurs, and family people, imbued with a positive attitude about their own future.  That is what we should be asking ourselves about Afghanistan.  Are Afghanis worth protecting?  Can they be good people and contribute something worthwhile to this world?  If so, then I think we all know what we must do.