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Intelligence professor and former Army linguist Dr. Michael Lammbrau suggests U.S. let Seoul lead on North Korea

Dr. Michael Lammbrau discussed South Korean attitudes and strategy in connection with American policy towards the North at The Institute of World Politics (IWP) on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Dr. Lammbrau, an Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University, brought to the lecture insights gained through extensive immersion in Korean culture and politics as a U.S. Army linguist, American representative at the Arirang Institute, and expert contributor to Korean media outlets on culture and inter-Korean relations.

Dr. Lammbrau argued that while the United States often leads the way on inter-Korean policy, it may be healthier to allow South Koreans to take the reins. The Western media and populace tend to have a short attention span on North Korea, his OSINT research of Google Trends and media keywords indicates, while unification has been a consistently important part of the Korean public discourse.

This is a predictable outcome of Korean nationalism and ideals, but there is also sound geopolitical reasoning for the dynamic. Dr. Lammbrau explained South Korea’s position by way of a useful expression: “when two whales fight, the shrimp get crushed.” Caught between a massively industrial China and a Japan that has cornered the market on high tech, the stagnant South Korean economy has been flagging, especially since the global recession in 2008. North Korea represents a huge opportunity for businesses to access a mass market in need of not only basic goods and services, but also cultural goods and infrastructure, as well as a source of cheap labor. Dr. Lammbrau’s claim is in keeping with those of past IWP events on the North Korean energy sector.

Meanwhile, a consistent and predictable obstacle for this vision, Dr. Lammbrau notes, has been Pyongyang’s saber-rattling. That behavior has scuttled many economic partnerships with the South and induced a closer military alliance with the United States—an alliance that often sparks Chinese economic retribution, as in the case of boycotts responding to Seoul’s deployment of an American THAAD missile defense system.

The key to this puzzle lies with the Korean people themselves. North Koreans tend to disparage Chinese culture yet eagerly consume what cultural products (such as a recent cinematic historical drama) they can obtain from the South, and both North and South Koreans have historically suffered at the hands of Chinese and Japanese imperialism. The United States is the new player, and it is not preposterous, Dr. Lammbrau claims, to imagine Pyongyang seeking future coverage by an American security guarantee against its traditional foes.

South Koreans, especially the young, present an example of positive change for the region. Led by young people furious at line-cutting by former President Park and her associates, citizens pressed their democratic government for accountability over the corruption—and succeeded. The Candlelight Revolution that led to President Park Geun-hye’s ouster—and the election of Moon Jae-in—was not anti-American, as some suggest. Rather, Dr. Lammbrau posited, it demonstrated South Koreans’ desire for opportunity and fairness, an inclination that will continue into regional policy. The United States can and should assist them in this endeavor by letting Seoul power lead.

The way to play that role, however, is somewhat murkier. IWP’s President, Dr. John Lenczowski, has written about the need for Cold War-style political warfare to counter North Korean aggression, Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz has discussed the general lack of good strategies, and Dr. Matthew Daniels has written a sobering reminder of the root problem of inter-Korean diplomacy–Pyongyang’s horrific human rights record.