ICAS Special Contribution


The Trojan Horse:
Pyongyang's Successful Propaganda Campaign to Win the Hearts of South Koreans and Undermine the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Dennis P. Halpin

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Dennis P. Halpin

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission from the author to ICAS.
This paper was presented to the 20th Annual Conference of the Council on U.S.-Korea Security Studies, October 7, 2005, The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave., NE,Washington, DC. sjk]

The Trojan Horse:
Pyongyang's Successful Propaganda Campaign to Win the Hearts of South Koreans and Undermine the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Dennis P. Halpin
Professional Staff, House International Relations Committee

This paper reflects my own views and not necessarily, except where explicitly stated, the views of Chairman Hyde or the Committee on International Relations.

The ancient Greeks, as we all know well, faced a great deal of frustration after ten years of stalemate in their prolonged attempt to conquer the prosperous but well protected citadel of Troy. There was no way to penetrate the vast walls and reach the treasure house that lay within. Massive barriers also prevented the seizure of the ultimate prize of the fair Helen, whose face had launched a thousand ships. Checkmated by conventional means, the Greeks resorted to wile and to a psychological siren song which lulled the Trojans into a dreamy sleep. They also appealed to that universal human weakness of wanting to get something for nothing, of seeking serenity without sacrifice.

Signaling that they had given up the battle, the Greeks left the glittering gift of a Trojan horse at the gates of the city and apparently sailed away. However, unknown to the unsuspecting Trojans, an army of invaders was soon conveyed into their midst in the horse's hollow belly. While Troy slept, the conquerors emerged from their hiding place and Troy was no more.

Perhaps the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, enraptured by the legend of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the entire ancient world, has watched an old Hollywood movie on the conquest of Troy? Perhaps he has even read a bit of Homer, although this seems less likely. In any event, Pyongyang has launched a seemingly successful campaign of undermining the Republic of Korea from within which would win the admiration of the ancient Greeks. Using the siren song of inter-Korean reconciliation, this DPRK propaganda offensive threatens those economic and political advances which have made South Korea the envy of the world. While an older generation, like Cassandra wailing at the gates of Troy, warns of dire consequences, a younger generation eagerly celebrates a Pyrrhic victory of inter-Korean reconciliation and ethnic unity, including an expulsion of the foreigners. Sadly, if this path is followed, it will only lead to the demise of that prosperous and dynamic South Korea which is the only life memory of these naive youth. North Korean economic policy is more akin to the Killing Fields of Pol Pot or Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which led to the suffering and death of so many fellow Asians, than it is to the glittering lights of Seoul or of the new Shanghai.

The United States, distracted elsewhere in the world, has largely left unanswered key propaganda points scored against the United States and the alliance by Pyongyang, aided and abetted by sympathetic elements in the South. Chairman Hyde raised some of these concerns in an October 6th letter to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes. The Chairman wrote:

"The subject of anti-Americanism in South Korea was again brought to my attention by the attempt of a violent crowd on September 11th, a date specifically chosen for its historic significance, to topple the statue of General Douglas MacArthur in Incheon. Recent polling by the South Korean press is equally disturbing. The Chosun Ilbo reported, in August poll results, that 65.9 percent of South Korean youth responded that they "would take the side of North Korea" in the event of a war between North Korea and the United States. In September, the Joongang Ilbo reported that a poll commissioned for the newspaper's fortieth anniversary found that 54 percent of South Korean respondents now oppose the U.S. troop presence. Finally, the South Korean press has reported that American Olympic skater Apolo Anton Ohno, who will compete in an Olympic preliminary event in Seoul from October 7th to 9th, has received death threats due to a controversial decision by Olympic judges in his favor during the Salt Lake City Olympics.

I wrote to your predecessor, Under Secretary of State Beers, on January 29, 2003, that I was concerned by the closure of the three American Cultural Centers located outside of Seoul during the 1990s. This budget decision has greatly diminished our efforts to reach the hearts and minds of the skeptical youth in a nation that is a major ally and where we deploy large numbers of U.S. troops. This downsizing of public diplomacy efforts in South Korea has occurred concurrently with a vigorous and effective propaganda campaign by Pyongyang to reach out to South Korean society, to distort our shared history, and to promote hostility toward the United States and the alliance." We cannot afford to lose Korea due to inattention and lack of resources, especially given the fifty years of blood and treasure we have already expended there. With the President and Secretary Rice scheduled to visit Pusan in November for the APEC Summit, public diplomacy efforts in South Korea should be a priority."

Chairman Hyde was equally concerned over propaganda points scored by Pyongyang in the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing on September 19th. At a hearing conducted yesterday by the International Relations Committee on the Six-Party Talks and the North Korean Nuclear Issue, Chairman Hyde stated:

" I am also concerned that the Joint Statement specifically raises a key Pyongyang propaganda point directly aimed at the South Korean public. This is the clear reference to supposed U.S. hostile intent. The statement says, "The United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK (North Korea) with nuclear or conventional weapons." Yet where, in any portion of this statement, is there a reference to Pyongyang's half-century of unswerving hostile intent directed at the Republic of Korea? This hostility is clearly demonstrated by the forward deployment of North Korean conventional forces and artillery near the DMZ, designed to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire." There is no mention of this present threat at all, notwithstanding the fact that its existence is the cornerstone of our 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Republic of Korea."

The Chairman added: "This clearly demonstrates that we cannot afford to cede any propaganda points to Pyongyang at this critical juncture. The future of our very alliance is at stake as we compete for the hearts and minds of South Korea's people. "

There have been a number of press reports in Newsweek and elsewhere that the American negotiating team at the recent round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing compromised on a number of critical points to accommodate not only Beijing, but also Seoul. This was demonstrated by inclusion of language at the last minute in the Joint Statement raising again the issue of possible provision of light water reactors. There seems to be a Seoul-Beijing-Pyongyang nexus forming as the power broker in the multilateral negotiations. Seoul seems to accommodate Pyongyang as a means to move reconciliation forward and then expects Washington to accommodate in turn as a means of maintaining the appearance of a unified alliance.

A rising China, meanwhile, conducts the orchestra that plays the music for the Six-Party Talks. The music forms a melody which seems a siren song calling for preservation of a buffer state on the northern half of the Korean peninsula as the priority. China, after all, once went to war over this very issue. South Korean society, which seeks to put off the grim day of economic reckoning which will come with unification, seems to eagerly play its instrument to the Chinese beat. Some South Koreans note that bilateral trade with Beijing has surpassed that with Washington and look to a rising China and a declining America. South Korea, as I noted to a number of Chinese professors recently in Nanjing, seems a ripe apple hanging from a weak stem in a swaying wind, ready to fall into the lap of China. South Koreans face an hour of reckoning. Do they retain an alliance with the Great Power far across the ocean or return to their traditional vassal state relationship with the Middle Kingdom, a relationship which endured for centuries before being interrupted by Japanese expansionism? And is the pull toward China inevitably linked to the dream of inter-Korean reconciliation and eventual unification?

There is, of course, an obvious connection between efforts at inter-Korean reconciliation, since the launching of the sunshine policy of former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, and a growing disregard for the importance of the alliance by an increasing portion of the South Korean public. The above polling statistics make it clear that "Yankee, Go Home" is no longer a chant confined only to North Korea. Certain key events in the emergence of anti-American, pro-North Korean thinking, including the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, the coming to political maturity of the 386 generation, and the tragic death in an accident, caused by a USFK vehicle, of two school girls in 2002, have all been discussed at length elsewhere by myself and others. What is somewhat new is the skill with which Pyongyang makes use of events like these to further erode the U.S.-ROK relationship.

Many in Washington, myself included, wonder at the lengths that South Korean society appears willing to go in pursuit of reconciliation, no matter what the apparent cost. For example, people here are somewhat amazed at the willingness of South Korea, both following the 2000 Summit and in a more recent proposal, to turn over convicted North Korean agents without receiving one single South Korean abductee or Prisoner-of-War in return. While humanitarian gestures are always appreciated, the American people would not tolerate for five minutes news of the forced detention of a Prisoner-of-War from a past conflict. Yet the detention of hundreds of South Korean POWs as slave laborers in North Korean coal mines for half a century raises barely a whimper in Seoul. Is the price of reconciliation to be paid by the continued enslavement of old soldiers who were just doing their duty for the Republic of Korea?

What diplomatic advantages have come to Seoul in the quest for Korean reconciliation? Former President Kim Dae Jung once indicated in Berlin that his sunshine policy of reconciliation was based on the German model of Willy Brandt. Brandt's policy of detente with East Germany, however, included as a key point the exchange of diplomatic missions in the two German capitals. The Joint Statement issued in Beijing speaks of normalization between Pyongyang and Washington and Pyongyang and Tokyo, but where is there any mention of steps toward normalization between Pyongyang and Seoul? Could it be that the basic tenet of the Korean Workers Party , which holds that Pyongyang is the only legitimate government and voice of the Korean people and that the southern government is nothing more than a puppet regime set up to serve foreign occupiers, precludes such formal recognition and diplomatic exchange?

South Korea may, in fact, have lost some prestige in the diplomatic world as a result of an unconditional pursuit of reconciliation with the North. This seemed the case last year in Geneva where I was present during the debate over the EU-sponsored resolution on North Korean human rights issues. Seoul's abstention drew critical comments from members of a number of delegations. The new alarm in Seoul over the possibility that the vigorous efforts of the UN rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Professor Muntarbhorn of Thailand, may lead to a debate and possible resolution on North Korean human rights abuses during the current UN General Assembly is a cause for further skepticism in the world community. For some opinion leaders in South Korea to suggest that one of their fellow citizens should be a candidate to become the next UN Secretary General at a time that Seoul declines to make any meaningful comments on human rights abuses occurring on its own peninsula to its own people seems to some a contradiction.

Inter-Korean economic exchanges have also not gone particularly well. Reports of corrupt practices in inter-Korean economic projects, most recently involving an investigation of Hyundai Asan, do not give the American Congress much faith that future U.S. tax-dollar money committed to such projects will be money well spent. A Congress focused on the energy needs of its own citizens on the Gulf Coast, devastated by two hurricanes, does not have much inclination to vote energy assistance for North Korea, especially with reports of corruption filling the Seoul newspapers on a daily basis.

Is the price of Inter-Korean reconciliation also to be paid by rejecting the United States and its symbols? Does pleasing Pyongyang require the labeling of General Douglas MacArthur, twice liberator of South Korea, as a "war criminal" and the tearing down of his statue? How many statues of Kim Il Sung, whose forces MacArthur vanquished at Incheon and who was only saved from extinction by Chinese intervention, dot the northern half of the Korean peninsula?

Chairman Hyde also addressed the issue of MacArthur, his old commander from the liberation of the Philippines in World War II, in a recent letter:

"We, in the Congress, however, are disturbed to read reports of a number of activists who have gathered around General MacArthur's statue above Inchon Harbor in the past several months, most recently on September 11th, and have engaged in violent attempts to tear down the statue. This movement to topple the MacArthur statue is reportedly gaining momentum around the anniversary date of the Inchon landing. According to U.S. press reports, "young radical leftists have led assaults on the 15-foot-tall statue." A complaint filed with the quasi-governmental Republic of Korea National Human Rights Commission, which is reviewing the statue controversy, condemns MacArthur as "a war criminal who massacred numerous civilians."

Needless to say, the Congress of the United States and the American people would never subscribe to such a description of a hero who led the Allied forces which liberated the Republic of Korea twice, first from the yoke of Japanese colonialism sixty years ago this summer and, secondly, through the brilliant execution of the Incheon landing fifty-five years ago this month. Our critical bilateral alliance was forged in the crucible of Inchon."

Who are the forces who would rewrite Korean history to deny the facts presented from the Archives opened by former Russian President Yeltsin regarding Kim Il Sung's decision to deliberately attack South Korea in June 1950, and to paint General MacArthur as a "war criminal?" A key facilitator of Pyongyang's ideological goals in South Korea is Chunkyojo, the National Teachers' Union, one of the NGOs advocating the toppling of the MacArthur statue. The young people throwing rocks and demanding that MacArthur's statue must go were taught their history in classrooms manned by these political zealots. The South Korean Ministry of Education has lost control of its curriculum in schools where USFK soldiers are identified as murderers while Kim Il Sung is glorified as the Marshall who single-handedly liberated Korea from Japanese colonialism. We all know that textbooks in Asia have been a source of much debate and grief, but the damage caused by distorted teaching of history is not confined to any one country. South Korea also has a textbook issue which needs to be addressed if the alliance with the United States is to be preserved. Governments have a right and responsibility to ensure that the curriculum presented to young people does not contain glaring distortions of history. And it is not, as some suggest, an issue of free speech. Try, for example, to teach KKK tenets in any Virginia school claiming that it is a matter of free speech.

While Americans have largely ignored developments on the Korean peninsula to their peril, including the behind-the-scenes workings of North Korean propaganda efforts in the South, the South Korean public has been enchanted by a siren song of romantic ethnic reconciliation. In the process, they have been encouraged to turn their backs on an old friend. The United States has sought to accommodate these nationalistic stirrings, seeking to move USFK headquarters out of Yongsan in Seoul, trying to lessen the American footprint on the southern portion of the peninsula, and taking a more accommodating stance on the North Korean nuclear issue. South Korea has also tried to show support and good will, both by the controversial decision to dispatch the third largest contingent of allied forces to Iraq and in generous assistance with Hurricane Katrina.

I fear, however, it may prove in both cases to be too little and too late. Sometimes viewing inter-Korean dialogue and the effect it has had on the alliance, I feel as if I am back at an Irish wake in the Chicago of my youth. The body, the alliance, is laid out in the front of the room for all to view. The United States, like some old uncle, is snoring in a corner of the room. The conservatives in South Korea kneel, like a group of grieving relatives, praying fervently for the deceased. The rest of the South Korean public stands in the back of the room, listening to the nasty whispers of some disaffected relative, North Korea, who insists that the deceased was nothing but a bum and a drunk anyway. All that remains is for the family to take a final view of the body before the undertaker then seals the coffin.

I hope that I am wrong. And perhaps it is presumptuous of me as a foreigner to make such candid comments on the situation regarding Korea. After all, as a Minister in the South Korean government once famously advised Chairman Hyde, "You are only allies, but the North Koreans are our brothers." Well, that is true. But I would wish to remind the Minister that the first two brothers on earth were Cain and Abel. In the end, Cain killed his brother. Thank you.

This page last updated 10/21/2005 jdb

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