Daily Archives: 19 October 2006

Differing Perceptions of the Threat of NK in the US and SK

Balbina Hwang, who was recently interviewed on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, has a long essay at the Heritage Foundation entitled The U.S.-Korea Alliance on the Rocks: Shaken, Not Stirred, which nicely encapsulates the different perceptions the two testy allies have of the threat posed by North Korea.

Most Americans tend to attribute the strategic dissonance in the alliance to the dissipation of the “North Korean threat” altogether in South Korea. They cite the Sunshine Policy, the emergence of a younger generation with no first-hand experience of the Korean War, and a government in Seoul seemingly limitless in its willingness to accommo­date the Pyongyang regime, including the omission of the official label “enemy” from its national Defense White Paper and even the refusal to dis­cuss human rights abuses.

But as many South Koreans (both young and old) are quick to point out, they do feel threatened by the North, only the threat has metamorphosed into a completely different kind of peril than that perceived by Americans. Today, the majority of South Koreans no longer view North Korea as an invincible, evil enemy intent on conquering the South. Rather, the greatest threat posed by the North is the instability of the regime which could lead to a collapse (whether through implosion or explosion), thereby devastating the South’s eco­nomic, political, and social systems. What explains South Korea’s sudden shift to fearing the North’s weakness rather than that regime’s strengths?

The Sunshine Policy and the ensuing historic summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000 marks the proximate symbol of a profound shift on the Korean peninsula, but the true causes are more complex and lie in the previous decade. They include the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of China in the early 1990s, as well as the devastating floods and famines of 1994–1995 that produced shocking pictures of starving, skele­tal North Korean children. These images “human­ized” a traditional enemy and caused South Koreans to feel a connection to what they see as poor, starving, and weak brethren, who at best are victims of a bad regime and at worst are misguided, but certainly have neither the capability nor intent to truly harm their Southern relatives. Most impor­tantly, they were viewed as fellow Koreans.

The significance of this psychological mind-shift cannot and should not be underestimated. After all, who can blame South Koreans both young and old? They are tired of being the last remaining victims of the Cold War, and they too want to reap the “peace dividend” that the rest of the world enjoyed. South Koreans now want the freedom to not fear that their very way of life is in constant danger, a life that is built on prosperity, material well-being, physical comfort, and freedom.

The problem is that for the United States and many others in the region (including Japan and Australia), North Korea largely remains an unchanged Cold War threat based on its continued pursuit of a military-first policy despite mass star­vation and a failed economy; its pursuit of nuclear weapons, missile proliferation, and illicit activities including counterfeiting; its record of state-spon­sored terrorism; its continued hostile stance toward the South and other countries in the region; and even its continued brutality toward its own people through widespread human rights violations.

For the United States, the source of the threat lies in the strength of the North Korean regime, while for South Korea, the threat now lies in the regime’s fundamental weakness and its potential for collapse. Given this vastly different assessment, the diver­gence in policy prescriptions is predictable. Seoul wants to mitigate the potential for greater instabili­ty by engaging the Pyongyang regime in the hope of coaxing it gradually toward positive regime trans­formation. Washington, in contrast, views engage­ment efforts as part of the problem if it contributes to augmenting the regime’s existing strengths rather than seeking ways to further weaken it.

via The Marmot’s Hole

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The Saudi Global Counterrevolution

The cross-fertilization of ideas between Wahhabism and other brands of Islamic fundamentalism began in the 1960s as part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy of strengthening Islamic identity as a bulwark against secular Arab nationalism.

Thus bonds that had been forged to stop Nasser and the other Arab nationalists could be mobilized to thwart Khomeini. Far from lacking religious legitimacy, Saudi Arabia in fact had impressive ideational and organizational resources at its disposal. To counter Shia fundamentalism, the House of Saud could mobilize Sunni fundamentalism. In fact, the Saudi regime saw an opportunity in containing Shia resurgence to turn the sharp edge of the rising religious extremism inside the kingdom—which manifested itself not only in the seizure of the Grand Mosque but in the growing number of Saudi youth trekking to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviets—away from the ruling regime and toward defending Sunni power.

The implications of the Saudi-Iranian—or Sunni-Shia—divide for Muslim-world politics became clear in 1982, when the Alawi regime of Hafez al-Asad in Syria crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama, killings tens of thousands. Iran had built an alliance with Syria around the two countries’ opposition to Saddam’s regime in Iraq. Sunnis such as the Muslim Brothers often reviled Alawis as beyond the pale of Islam and therefore not fit to rule Muslims. This belief only gave greater intensity to their rebellion against the Asad regime. Khomeini’s refusal to support the Muslim Brotherhood during the Hama uprising earned him the Brotherhood’s lasting contempt and showed that despite his eagerness to pose as a pan-Islamic leader, relations between Shia and Sunni fundamentalists were breaking down along familiar sectarian lines. When it came to choosing between a nominal Shia ally such as Asad and the militantly Sunni Brotherhood, Khomeini had not hesitated to stick with the former.

As rising oil prices poured untold billions into Saudi coffers from 1974 on, the kingdom began to subsidize various Islamic causes through charities and funds such as the Islamic World League (Rabita al-Alam al-Islami). This was a facet of the Saudis’ growing confidence and claim to leadership of the Islamic world. A portion of the money went to propagating Wahhabism. Once upon a time, Wahhabi tribesmen had invaded Arabian cities to spread their faith. Now that work became the task of financial institutions funded by the Saudi state and Wahhabi ulama. Thousands of aspiring preachers, Islamic scholars, and activists from Nigeria to Indonesia went to Saudi Arabia to study, and many more joined Saudi-funded think tanks and research institutions.

Muslim Brotherhood activists were joined by Jamaat-e Islami thinkers and leaders from South Asia as well as many more Islamic activists from Africa and Southeast Asia. Saudi Arabia did not just sponsor Islamic activism but facilitated its ideological growth. Many of those who studied and worked in Saudi Arabia then spread throughout the Muslim world to teach and work at Saudi-funded universities, schools, mosques, and research institutions. Today ambitious ventures such as the International Islamic Universities in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, are staffed by men who were trained in the kingdom. These de facto ambassadors for the Saudi viewpoint, influenced by the harsh simplicities of Wahhabi theology and fmancially dependent on Saudi patronage, work not only to entrench conservative attitudes in communities from Kano, Nigeria, to Jakarta, Indonesia, but also to defend Saudi Arabia’s interests and legitimacy….

Governments from Nigeria to Bahrain, Indonesia, and Malaysia sought to drive wedges between Sunnism and Shiism, casting the former as “true” Islam—and the incumbent government as its defender—while branding the latter as obscurantist extremism. In 1998 the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha accused the Muslim Brotherhood leader Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zak Zaki of being a Shia just before he went on trial for antigovernment activism. In the 1990s the government of Bahrain repeatedly dismissed calls for political reform by labeling them as Shia plots. In Malaysia in the 1980s, the government routinely arrested Islamic activists on the pretext that they were Shias, thus avoiding the appearance of clamping down on Islamic activism while projecting an image as Sunnism’s champion against subversive activities.

In India and Pakistan, Sunni ulama confronted the Khomeini challenge head-on, branding his vitriol against the House of Saud as a species of fitna (sedition) wielded against the Muslim community. The Saudi rulers, conversely, were routinely painted as Sunnism’s greatest defenders and the symbols of its resistance to Shia attempts at “usurpation” in a historical context stretching all the way back to the early Shia rebellions against the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The Shia-Sunni struggles for the soul of Islam that had punctuated Islamic history were thus reenacted in the late twentieth century, with the Saudi princes in the caliphs’ role.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 154-157

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