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Tributary State of Mind

Michael Lammbrau
by Yvonne Kim
20 April 2017

By Michael Lammbrau, Assistant Professor, Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences at Mercyhurst University

April 20, 2017 - I have heard the tired argument time and again, if only the U.S. were gone there would be peace on the peninsula. If only the great powers of China, Russia, Japan, and the US would let the Korean peninsula be, then the two Koreas would find peace. They would find peace through dialogue and cooperation; through a recognition of mutual benefit, shared interest, a truly win-win possibility if ever one existed.

But my time in Korea has revealed a new reality to me. My time in Korea has taught me of the old view of the world, one that dates back to ancient Greece and the Peloponesion Wars, the Melian dialogue that still holds true today on the Korean peninsula. “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” Or in Korean, “When the whales fight, the shrimp get crushed.” Korea is a land of “Gaps” and “Euls”; everyone wanting to be a “Gap”, everyone pretending not to be a “Eul”.

I have come to know it through the Korean obsession for social status, the desire to be a “Gap”. It is a quality I greatly admire; everybody dressed to their best when they go out; everybody polite, courteous, and orderly (for a major city) on the subway. I didn’t really understand it at first but I loved this order, this balance, this harmony, this stability of Seoul. And who would think that North Korea is just a stone’s throw away, constantly threatening to turn the city into a “sea of fire.” I would laugh when family and friends from the US would call and ask if everything was ok. OK? Well yeah, the United States and its media seems more worked up over North Korea than the everyday Seoul man or woman.

But there is something I cannot wrap my head around. If North Koreans, like the South, share this same culture of hierarchical order, balance and harmony, then why the constant provocations? Why then do they continue to destabilize the region? North Korea itself, boasts one of the most hierarchical, class based, caste systems in the world. Where party membership is hereditary and class status is determined by birth. The Songbun system classifies its citizens into 52 something social statuses. And that is it; that is your station in life.

As many Korean experts know, Korean society’s order is based, in large part, on its respect for authority, for hierarchy absolute. Knowing one’s place in the hierarchy and acting accordingly is the key to creating harmony, balance, and stability for society. “GapEul”, as it is referred, clearly delineates the superior and subordinate in all relationships. In every relationship this is clearly defined and acted out accordingly.

So this leaves two possibilities for understanding North Korea’s behavior. North Korea lacks respect for its place in the international order. This refusal to accept its place destabilizes the international order. Either North Korea, as the tributary state to China, is doing the will of the Chinese older brother by carrying out missile launches and nuclear tests which probe and test the defense systems of America and her allies; or North Korea actually believes it is the “Gap” of the international order. Or is it that the older brother can no longer protect the younger brother from the consequences of his actions? If North Korea believes it is superior on the world stage, and as “GapEul” culture dictates, there can be no dialogue, no discussion, and no cooperation because once the superior gives an order, the subordinate follows.

This is perhaps why negotiations and talks never work with North Korea. Negotiations? Cooperation? Dialogue? This is the language of the weak. The weak suffer what they must. The Melian dialogue tells us that the strong do what they will. When will North Korea’s pursuit of power satiate? When it dominates the world? North Korea’s inability to grasp its position in the world order, or its unwillingness to accept the rightful order, explains the lack of respect for the international system that we inhabit. The international system defends the rule of law and decency of everyday citizens. When will this provocation end? After the next set of nuclear and missile tests or not until they unify the peninsula under the Juche flag? Must they first take revenge on the Japanese and the United States? It appears the world is no longer willing to tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea.

China is now amassing more than 100,000 troops along the northern border of North Korea. The United States has now rerouted its U.S. navy strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, towards the Korean peninsula. North Korea has been emboldened by the past 20 years of dialogue, negotiations, and the wishful thinking of Western policymakers. The time for North Korea to play the role of a “Gap” seems to be coming to an end. North Korea would be wise to follow its own cultural norms for the stability and harmony of the international order, and accept its place in the international order as an “Eul”.