How to Stop the Next Korean War

For the first time in decades, a real war on the Korean Peninsula is possible.

For the first time in decades, a new war on the Korean peninsula appears to be a distinct probability. Not only does North Korea's regime seem determined to escalate its provocations, but the air has also changed in South Korea, where society is in an unusually bellicose mood nowadays. After North Korean artillery stunned the world by shelling the island of Yeonpyeong last month, killing four and wounding 20, South Korean generals are talking unusually tough. For example, Gen. Han Min-koo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently promised that in case of another North Korean attack, his forces "will completely crush the enemy."

This talk is what the Seoul street wants to hear. In a recent poll, 80 percent of South Koreans said they would support a military retaliation in the event of a fresh North Korean attack. Only six months ago, when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, merely 30 percent favored a military option.

Alas, this shift is not good news, for the hard truth is that restraint is the only option for South Korea. At best, military retaliation would merely be harmful. At worst, it will lead to disaster.

In the past, the South Korean public and government have demonstrated almost inhuman patience every time they faced a North Korean provocation -- and they have had to face such provocations regularly. Over the last few decades, North Korean agents bombed one civilian airliner and hijacked another, assaulted the presidential palace, blew up the half of the cabinet of ministers, and arranged at least two assassination attempts against South Korean presidents -- not counting numerous kidnappings, commandos raids (with an occasional slaughter of civilians), and the sinking of boats. How did South Korea react to all these acts? In the same, time-tested way: by doing nothing.

This unusual restraint reflects the grim reality of the South Korean situation. Half the country's entire population, some 24 million people, live in the capital Seoul and its vicinity, well within the range of North Korean artillery. The country's infrastructure is highly developed and hence highly vulnerable. Since the late 1950s, war has simply not been an option, as Seoul's frustrated strategists assumed that a retaliatory strike would lead to war -- or else prove useless. This assumption was probably correct.

North Korea watchers often describe its provocative actions as either irrational or driven by succession politics. This time, Kim Jong Il's drive to install his son as his heir does seem involved, but on balance Pyongyang's recent attacks are rational acts -- essentially diplomatic demarches, albeit undertaken in somewhat unusual form.

In the late 1990s, under the "sunshine policy," South Korea began providing the North with unconditional aid, but in 2008 the newly elected right-wing administration dramatically reduced the amount. After the second nuclear test in May 2009, the United States halted its aid programs, switching to a policy of "strategic patience" -- in other words, ignoring North Korea. None of this drove the North to economic collapse, as many U.S. policymakers hoped, but it did achieve one thing: It made Pyongyang highly dependent on Beijing's financial and diplomatic largesse.

This was not a development North Korean leaders welcomed, mind you -- they despise and distrust China (suspicions likely only confirmed by the recent WikiLeaks disclosures). The North Korean regime would like to revive its old strategy of having two or three competing sponsors who can be easily played against one another. So, Pyongyang decided to teach Seoul and Washington a lesson, to show that North Korea is too troublesome to be simply ignored. To the Americans, this message was delivered when Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was shown a new state-of-the-art plant producing enriched uranium. For the South, the same message was delivered by artillery shells.

North Korean strategists wanted to demonstrate that they can hit a South Korean government -- even a hawkish one like that of current President Lee Myung-bak -- hard. While Kim Jong Il's regime revels in its international isolation, it knows that such military incidents are bad for the South, whose lifeblood is global trade. Potential business partners blanche at newspaper headlines about "Korea on the brink of war": Economic performance is the single most important thing the average South Korean voter cares about. South Koreans do not like living in a constant state of siege. Even if the current government remains stubborn, North Korean planners figure, chances are that economic troubles and a general sense of unease will contribute to Lee's eventual defeat at the polls.

The ongoing succession adds another wrinkle. Kim Jong Un, the world's youngest four-star general, wants to show his toughness -- much like his father did when he began preparing to take over in the 1970s and 80s. We shouldn't overestimate the succession process's importance, however: Pyongyang would do something along this line anyway -- and since the South Korean government is not giving in, another attack is likely to follow soon, in the next few months.

South Koreans expect that this time their government will retaliate, and it seems that military leaders -- especially after Lee's recent shakeup of the top ranks -- share this mood. It's an understandable reaction, no doubt. But it is also dangerous and counterproductive.

To start with, even if a massive South Korean counterstrike were successful, it would exercise no impact on Pyongyang's political behavior. For instance, with its impressive technological superiority, the South Korean military could probably sink half the North Korean navy in about an hour. In most places, that sort of defeat would have serious political consequences -- but not in North Korea.

The lives of the common soldiers and sailors are of no political significance there. The tiny North Korean elite has demonstrated that it is ready to sacrifice as many of the common people as necessary to stay in control (during the famine of the late 1990s, as many as 1 million people perished, with no discernable political repercussions for the government). The death of a few hundred soldiers will be seen as a sorry but fully acceptable price -- and will not even deter Pyongyang from planning a new round of provocations.

Some argue that such a military disaster would damage the regime, which has staked its reputation on Kim Jong Il's "military first" doctrine. But Kim's regime controls the media so completely that even the most humiliating defeat would be presented as a great victory, a spectacular triumph of North Korean arms. Only a handful of generals will know the truth, and these generals understand that they would have no future without the current regime, so they are unlikely to protest.

So, nothing can be gained from a massive retaliatory strike. But much can be lost. It may be true that neither side wants war, but there is a danger that a South Korean counterstrike would be seen as excessive in Pyongyang. The North may choose to retaliate, perhaps even targeting Seoul this time -- and some 300 long-range guns, located near the capital, can kill thousands in a couple of hours. One cannot be sure whether such an exchange could be stopped in time, and chances for a showdown to escalate into a full-blown war are real, if relatively small. Needless to say, a 21st century war on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences, not only for Korea, but for a world economy that is still emerging from recession.

Yes, it's far more likely the entire affair will be limited to a tit-for-tat exchange of strikes. Yet even that would help Pyongyang achieve its major goal. One can easily imagine how, even in the event of a limited engagement, major newspapers worldwide will run headlines screaming "War in Korea!" That will scare investors and deliver a heavy blow to the southern economy -- exactly what Pyongyang hopes to achieve.

Nor should we be misled by the current bellicosity of the Seoul street. If events take such a turn, the very same people who now loudly demand retaliation will start blaming the government for their economic woes and sense of physical insecurity. Whether Lee and his team will survive this challenge is an open but, frankly, not really important question. What is important is that even a carefully circumscribed crisis will show Pyongyang that its blackmail strategy works.

Does this mean that South Korea should just turn the other cheek? Of course, not, but the possible retaliation should be immediate and small in scale (frankly, of largely symbolic nature). For decades, South Koreans were capable of reacting to truly outrageous acts with remarkable restraint, and this is one of the reasons they now live in a society whose affluence, freedom, and sophistication is the envy of Asia. If they abandon this wise tradition in the coming months, they will pay a heavy price -- as will we all.



The Third Wave of Russian De-Stalinization

Is the Kremlin finally coming to terms with its dark history?

"The Katyn crime was committed on direct order by Stalin and other Soviet leaders." This line, from a formal statement issued by the Russian parliament on Nov. 26, marks an important breakthrough. The execution in 1940 of about 22,000 Poles by the Soviet security police may be a well-recorded and broadly known historical fact, but it is the first time the Duma officially recognized that Stalin and his government were guilty of the massacre. And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has now chimed in as well, telling Polish media before a visit to Warsaw this month that "Stalin and his henchmen bear responsibility for this crime."

These two official statements are the most recent examples of a surprising shift by the Russian government: Under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin's stance on Stalinism was evasive at best, leading to a creeping restoration of Stalin's reputation in the early 2000s. But over the last year the Russian government has embarked on a new round of anti-Stalin rhetoric and initiatives, openly admitting some of the "forgotten" Soviet crimes revealed earlier under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

What seems to drive the current de-Stalinization campaign is first and foremost Russia's new rapprochement with the West, which is pushing Russia for some recognition of the crimes of Soviet totalitarianism. But this doesn't necessarily mean the foreign-policy shift will be accompanied by political liberalization at home; in some ways, the current political order inside Russia is not too dissimilar from that of the Stalinist regime. Russia, whether there's a Stalin cult or not, is still being ruled under the centuries-long tradition that gives its top leaders a monopoly on decision-making, enshrines the state's dominance over the society, and relies on state security police as the main instrument of governance.

Nevertheless, this new anti-Stalin campaign is real, and has been on the rise since late 2009, when on Oct. 30 -- the day Russians traditionally acknowledge the victims of Soviet repression -- Medvedev posted a videoblog condemning "Stalin's crimes" in no uncertain terms and lamenting scarce public knowledge about the terror that he referred to as "one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia."

Then, in February 2010, Putin invited his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk to visit Katyn in time for the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Speaking in Katyn on April 7, Putin said: "Repressions smashed down people regardless of their nationality, their beliefs, or their faith.... We can't change the past, but what we can do is to preserve or restore the truth and this would mean to restore historical justice."

Just three days later, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish officials were killed in a tragic plane crash on their way to a Katyn memorial ceremony. The Russian leadership showed deep sympathy to Poland and did its best to help the victims' families. Katyn, a Polish film about the massacre that had been basically barred from distribution in Russia was shown twice in a matter of one week, including on one of the two biggest state-controlled national channels. The Russian state archives posted archival documents on the massacre on its website. Later, in May and December, Russia handed over to Polish officials portions of the Katyn files from a military prosecutor's investigation; the investigation had been completed in 2004, but the handover was delayed under farfetched pretexts.

In May, the Kremlin quashed a plan by Moscow city authorities to adorn Moscow with Stalin's images in time for the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Medvedev explained why in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, in which he said that the "state assessment" of Stalin has been that he "committed many crimes against his people. And even though the country achieved success under his guidance, what was done against his own people cannot be forgiven."

This fall, an adapted version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was published at what was reported to be Putin's personal initiative, following his meeting with Solzhenitsyn's widow last year to discuss how best to teach her husband's four-volume epic about communist repression.

And just recently Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman of the president's council on human rights and civil society, announced that the council had picked de-Stalinization as one of its primary themes. Early next year council members expect to present to the president their suggestions for a government program aimed at ridding Russia of the Stalinist legacy. The program includes a legal and political assessment of Stalinism and commemoration of the victims of the totalitarian regime. They're even teaming up on the project with the Memorial Society, a veteran Russian NGO that researches Stalinism and commemorates its victims.

The current round of de-Stalinization has two historic precedents.

After Stalin's death in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev sought to undo the rule of terror that kept everyone, ordinary people and political elites alike, in permanent fear of being arrested and convicted of political crimes. His campaign was focused on condemning Stalin (some of his most hideous hangmen were prosecuted), denouncing the unlawful repression, and rehabilitating innocent victims. Though he didn't challenge the roots of communist totalitarianism, other members of the leadership grew concerned that his anti-Stalin zeal threatened to undermine the Soviet political system. Khrushchev was soon overthrown, and his anti-Stalin campaign was quickly wrapped up. The post-Khrushchev Soviet leadership stopped the condemnation of Stalin, but did not exonerate him either. Stalin's name was simply obliterated from official discourse. The precious few public contributions to the de-Stalinization campaign, whether in art, literature, or social thought, were shut up or driven underground.

The second de-Stalinization campaign was part of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika movement to restructure the Soviet state. As of the late 1980s, perestroika went far and wide; it engaged broad public constituencies and eventually led to the fall of communism and the collapse of the USSR. Under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who evolved into a passionate hater of the Communist Party, the political and historical discourse was dominated by anti-communist rhetoric; the condemnation of Stalin and other masterminds of the tyrannical communist regime was taken for granted. Post-Soviet Russia fully rejected the totalitarian system and formally adopted a Western model of governance with a full set of democratic institutions.

But the model didn't take hold. During his presidency, Putin effectively reintroduced and reconsolidated the traditional model of centralized, uncontested rule and essentially eviscerated public participation in politics and policy-making. The return of this unconstrained state power and the reliance on the domestic security agency as the pillar of the state, not straightforward pro-Stalin propaganda, is what brought Stalin once again to the fore in Putin's Russia -- this time, the image was of Stalin as the embodiment of the state at the height of its power, most importantly as the leader of the Soviet Union that defeated Nazi Germany. With Russia no longer a superpower Stalin comes in handy as a symbolic compensation for a country suffering from a lost-status syndrome. Under Putin, officialdom grew evasive and vague on the issue of Stalin's terror, and public discussions of Stalinist legacy were pushed to the margins.

But if anti-Stalinist discourse has been marginalized, it has not been suppressed. Unlike in the USSR, today's Russia has a broad realm of free expression. Gulag Archipelago and other literature, fiction and nonfiction, about Stalin's terror are easily available in bookstores and libraries; academic research is unconstrained. The environment under Putin may have become inauspicious for the likes of the Memorial Society, but Memorial as well as its numerous regional branches have continued their commemorative and research effort. Nongovernment media have published and broadcast a great number of materials, including year-long series about the gulag. Even state-controlled national TV channels have shown productions based on works by Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, and other chroniclers of the horrors of Stalin's repressions.

At the same time, there has also been no shortage of publications and television shows glorifying Stalin and his time; clearly, such projects were emboldened by the ambivalent official stance -- an ambivalence embodied by Putin himself.

On Oct. 30, 2007, Putin visited Butovo, the site of mass executions, where over 20,000 people were killed at the height of Stalin's terror in 1937 and 1938.

"Insanity," he said, visibly shaken. "It is incredible. Why [were they killed]? … We need to do everything so this tragedy would never be forgotten.… Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were exterminated, sent to labor camps, shot, tortured."

But less than two months later, Putin celebrated the 90th anniversary of the FSB, Russia's federal security service. Today's FSB officers and veterans are not at all shy to refer to themselves as chekisty, the heirs of CHeKa, the ruthless punitive force entrusted by the early Bolshevik state to exterminate class enemies. In a big-time celebration in the Kremlin hosted by Putin it would be, of course, fully out of place to remember the "tragedy that should never be forgotten" that Putin spoke about in his emotional speech at Butovo. And indeed he made no mention of the decades when the Soviet secret police was the very perpetrator of mass terror, such as the Butovo executions or the Katyn massacre. Nor did he recall the later decades when its successor, the KGB, persecuted dissidents and locked them in labor camps and psychiatric asylums -- the same years when Putin was a KGB officer himself.

What Putin chose to remember instead was what he described as "the heroic pages in the history of our special services." Today's FSB headquarters are still located in the same Lubyanka building where its Soviet predecessors used to be, and whose basements were the site of torture and executions.

The ambivalence at the top matches the split in public perceptions of Stalin. The Russian people at large seem reasonably aware of Stalin's terror and its scope; a plurality of Russians correctly estimate the number of innocent victims to be in the millions. In a 2007 poll, when asked to assess the events of the years 1937 to 1938, 72 percent of Russians described them as "political crimes that can't be justified." In common discourse, the word "37" implies an unlawful and brutal persecution.

Still, a significant minority of Russians admire Stalin. About one-third tend to think of him as a "wise leader who led the USSR to great power and prosperity." In a poll conducted earlier this year, 32 percent of Russians polled agreed with the assessment of Stalin as a criminal, but roughly half refused to characterize him this way.

Why the enduring nostalgia, or at least sympathy, for a man who is arguably one of history's greatest monsters? The perception of Stalin has a great deal more to do with the nature of the Russian state than with the actual tyrant. He is seen as the epitome of state power, a symbol rather than a historical figure. And for lack of new, post-Communist symbols of the Russian statehood, Stalin is still important to Russian leaders, even if they may occasionally condemn him for the repressions of the past.

Both prior de-Stalinization efforts were addressed to the nation at large, aimed to shake up the people and mobilize them through a reformist discourse. Both signaled major political shifts. The current government's de-Stalinization campaign unfolds in a radically freer environment. Today's leadership does not seek to impose a "correct" way of thinking: Anti-Stalin discourse is not forced underground, and one is equally free to profess pro-Stalin views. And the official de-Stalinization rhetoric and moves do not seek to stir or mobilize the nation. Rather, they may be seen as part of a more pragmatic foreign policy and a new rapprochement with the West, which implies some degree of conformity with the Western view of the Soviet totalitarian system and its policies at home and abroad.

Whatever drives the current de-Stalinization campaign, however, official recognition of Stalin's crimes is undoubtedly a positive move. It facilitates the effort of those public organizations and activists, Memorial and others, which have for years pursued the de-Stalinization cause. It may shape the minds of those, especially Russia's young people, who don't have strong feelings one way or the other. Indeed, polls indicate that indifference to Stalin has significantly grown in recent years.

But the current government interest in de-Stalinization is not enough. As top Russian leaders kneel in Katyn to remember those killed by Stalin's regime or as they call him a criminal, they are still anxious not to undermine Stalin's symbolic function and, for that matter, their own monopoly on power. Nor would they want de-Stalinization to compromise the state security organs, which enjoy absolute impunity in Russia and have been the main source of top-level government officials over the years of Putin's tenure. Even Medvedev (though he, unlike Putin, does not have a direct personal background in the KGB) dutifully greeted the FSB on its special holiday on Dec. 20, both in 2008 and 2009. And he looks sure to do it again this year.

For Russia to truly break free of Stalin's legacy, unleash public energies, and drive growth, development, and modernization, it will need more than recognition of Stalin's crimes. True de-Stalinization will require nothing less than the rejection of Russia's traditional concept of the state, an end of state security's historical and political immunity, and a reinvention of Russian nationhood. So far, that is not part of the program.