The guidebooks still call Korea ‘the land of the morning calm’. I’d not expected that. I knew that, once, the country had been calm – and archaic, involuted and corrupt – and had been easy prey to Japan in 1910. But the Japanese had imposed their language, expropriated landlords, set up industries, and, with an efficiency and determination unmatched by any of the other colonial powers, given the place their own 20th-century shape. I knew that after they’d gone, the inattention of the USA and the USSR and the UN’s weakness had together allowed an invasion from the Communist North which had since divided the country. I knew that the Americans had subsequently made the South – the Republic of Korea, ‘the Rock’ – a front-line state. And I knew that in part for that reason, it had since been subject to tight and occasionally violent regimes which in the name of ‘freedom’ – but, in fact, on a Japanese model it couldn’t acknowledge and by means that would be the envy of many a Western socialist – had generated an economic growth unrivalled anywhere outside Japan itself. I’d also just been convinced by R.W. Johnson’s account of the downing of the Korean 747 in 1983. I’d not expected calm.

On the early-morning radio, an American Forces announcer was yelling that ‘today, Vera hits the Rock,’ and in case any soldier should think her a reason for lying in, played what even for Meat Loaf was a raucous track. Across Seoul, rain was sheeting, tiles were lifting, and the first traffic was scarcely visible in walls of spray. Vera was the storm the plane from Hong Kong had flown round the evening before. And when I’d finished my breakfast kimchi, white cabbage marinated in vinegar and brine and boiled up with red chillies, I knew: the morning calm of Korea must always have been short-lived.

I also suspected – even though the kimchi had given me awarenesses I never knew I had – that I was unprepared for what I had to do. It’s one thing to read about the politics of a place in Cambridge. It’s quite another, as I’d discovered before, to go and see, and find one’s neat schemes unravelled. And anyway, the writing on the Rock is writing on two different places connected only by some common proper names. One of these places is that bland landscape of incipient civility that’s so often conjured up by American political scientists wherever they are, and by those, in this case Koreans, who’ve politely learnt to think and write like them. Only the proper names pick this out as Korea. The other place is the one that’s been described by those who haven’t also had to live there: a Korea, as in Johnson’s book, that’s been run for thirty years by dictatorial soldiers and the KCIA.

In the absence, in Cambridge, of any firmer foundation, I’d decided to follow the simple rule: conspiracy theories are too simple; complexity is particularity; and particular conspiracy theories are often true. It seemed to serve. Before the paper I had come to read, the translator said it was nicely sensitive. After it, and with evident nostalgia, a man from Defence said that three years ago, I’d never have been allowed in to give it. And the media carried it. It seemed that I had got the balance right. In fact, this turned out not to be the case.

There has, it is true, been an orthodox line in Washington and Seoul: Kim Il-Sung’s invasion from the north in 1950 may have been his own idea, but Pyongyang was and is backed by Moscow, Moscow is expansive, the attack could recur, and the South must be prepared. In other words, there is a need for a garrison state. The ‘Great Leader’ in the north has sometimes seemed to support this way of thinking. His combination of Marxism, Confucianism and old-fashioned peasant defiance – he calls it chuch’e – is an unsteady thing. (And it’s not clear that any doctrine can entirely explain a man who had a ping-pong ball that had accidentally hit him in a Pyongyang park put under glass for the citizens to admire.) On 8 October 1983, for instance, Kim proposed joint talks with Seoul and the United States. On the ninth, his agents tried to blow up Chun Doo-hwan, the President of South Korea, in Rangoon. It was an eccentric way of exerting pressure, and not out of character. In fact, the Russians ceased to give Kim much support after the Sixties, and do so now only to match the Chinese; the Chinese, anxious to maintain good relations with the Americans and Japan, do so only to counter the Russians; Kim’s economy is failing; and neither Moscow nor Peking is entranced by his appointing his son to succeed him in what will then be the first Communist dynasty. He is, if anything, an embarrassment.

There’s a suggestion that pragmatists may now have more power in Pyongyang. This summer, the North proposed talks on the reduction of troops, the ending of military exercises with foreign powers, and a stricter observance of some of the provisions of the 1953 armistice – a sane enough agenda, on the face of it. But for reasons which no one could satisfactorily explain to me, the South has rejected the suggestion. And it keeps up its political theatre.

The Demilitarised Zone is the centre of the stage. There, one is shown a tiny single-track railway tunnel through which, it’s Said, Kim intended to invade on the 30th anniversary of his power in 1975. One’s also taken down into another tunnel, one of two which have been discovered since, and with suspicious insistence instructed to believe that because the drill marks run from north to south and the drainage the other way, they are also obviously Kim’s. The rumour, however, is that these newer tunnels were drilled by the South. I certainly saw the force of the North Koreans’ reported reply to the accusation of an intent to come through them: that the South, and the Americans – and, the implication is, the Great Leader too – must have been off their heads to think that an effective assault could be mounted through passages that are two metres by two under one of the most closely patrolled frontiers there is. The diagrams drawn by the South of how the invasion might proceed are, even to an entirely untactical eye, ludicrous.

The Americans who man the UN’s Military Affairs Commission at the DMZ connive in the show. Military policemen stand facing the red terror in raunchy rows, automatic rifles on one hip, expensive self-focusing Minoltas on the other. There was no violation to snap on the day I paid my visit. Just one bedraggled North Korean guard – Vera had been politically indifferent – to whom we were asked not to wave, or shake a fist, in case he should be able to present a picture of gestures of solidarity from Western workers. It was all as preposterous as the loudspeakers broadcasting from a model village on the other side, the pink and yellow skyscrapers rising above the rice, quite uninhabited, encouraging one to defect to the visible paradise. (A black sergeant did, but nothing’s been heard of him since.) Adult conversations do no doubt take place – but in private. For the public, there is only charade.

At first sight, Seoul seems to need this theatre. Chun came to power in 1980 in a palace coup, backed by the military. He’d been a director of the KCIA. So had his present prime minister. And he was one of the first heads of state to be invited to meet Reagan in 1981. He has taken advantage of Washington’s doctrine of ‘horizontal escalation’: the Reagan Administration’s determination to arm in order to be able, if need be, to fight the Russians in three places at once, anywhere in the world, and especially in North-East Asia, where the USSR is most vulnerable. More particularly, he’s taken advantage of America’s increased desperation to sell arms: as soon as Washington agreed to relax the deferment of first payments on military loans from seven years to ten, and to accept subsequent repayments over twenty years rather than five, Seoul ordered 120 new combat aircraft, including 36 sophisticated F16s, the latest air-to-surface missiles, and various other items.

Yet Chun has also announced elections for 1988, under a new and more reasonable electoral law. He says he intends to be the first South Korean president to step down of his own accord. He seems to be pursuing what the Japanese, for themselves, have called sekei bunri: a policy of keeping economic, political and military interests apart – or at least as far apart as possible. (This no doubt explains why there were prominent pictures of Chun being received at the Elysée. The French take much the same line.) It’s internationally more awkward now than it was ten, or even five, or three years ago to be seen to be an authoritarian state. Under the Nixon Doctrine of what Kissinger called ‘multipolarity’ – devolving more responsibility to friendly ‘middle powers’ – international security had become elided with these powers’ national security and that, more or less, with repression. But the Shah’s Iran and other such regimes have collapsed. Only Pinochet and Zia remain – and Botha’s South Africa. (South Korea is still, but now unpublicly, one of the latter’s more reliable trading partners.) For this reason, and because it has only ever been a de facto state – it was not a signatory to the armistice which created it – South Korea needs to become respectable. (It certainly can’t again afford anything like the loss of its airliner three summers ago.) Mrs Thatcher praising Chun for his liberties was an unanticipated gift. Being allowed to host the 1988 Olympics is a precious triumph.

Chun is also being pressed by the chaebol, the large conglomerates – Daewoon, Hyundai, Korean Air, Samsung and others – to release them from the tight control to which they have hitherto (and hitherto to their benefit) been subject. As their existing comparative advantage slips a little, they want a greater freedom of action – in China, in the USSR, which has failed to woo Japan into helping to develop Siberia, perhaps even, eventually, in North Korea too. Not least, they wish to be free of US restrictions on the sale to third parties of the arms they themselves make. Finally, Chun may not unreasonably expect that when Reagan goes, also in 1988, his Blue House will have to deal with a White House which, by conviction, with pressure from Tokyo, and as a result of changes in the USSR itself, may wish to revive detente and spend less on arms.

It is a delicate business. Not all the cups and saucers, as one sympathetic Korean said to me, may move together. As others quietly said, the military may make a pre-emptive coup. But if Chun can shame them into submission – the alternative for 1988 could be the breaking of Korean heads in front of the world’s assembled television cameras – and if they can be consoled by all their new equipment, and by Caspar Weinberger’s decision to upgrade the country from ‘a zone of significant’ to ‘a zone of vital interest’ to the United States, he may, just, succeed.

The grander end of unification, of course, is a long way off. So, too, is the departure of the Americans. South Korea is the United States’ last hold on the East Asian mainland. And the country’s enormous foreign debt, half its annual GDP, is largely owed to American banks. The waitresses in the Heavy Metal Bar may have to continue to put up with the working-class kids from Detroit and New Jersey, leaping and shouting to Meat Loaf and Springsteen in rituals of reassurance; the painted ladies, offering ‘Korean massage’ to the enormous GIs, may have to continue to put in an exceptionally hard evening’s work – I was tempted to see whether they charged by the kilo, and discounted for age; the politicians may have to continue to live with the geopolitical fantasies of the country which created them. But the firm industrial base, the economic prospect of following Japan into China and South-East Asia, and not least – although, stupidly, I’d been least prepared for it – the national sense of irony, suggest that this privately very civilised place may by the end of the decade become politically more civil too.

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