Climate change is the most overwhelming security threat to the Korean Peninsula and responding to it properly will not only take up the military budget spent on missiles and aircraft, but will also require a radical rethinking of the entire nature of society and of the economy. It is shocking how few Koreans are thinking about this topic. The yellow dust from the spreading deserts of China and the micro-particles given off by factories have received some attention, but the long-term drop in the water tables, the spread of arid land, starting in the North, but increasingly in the South as well. Rising sea levels will devastate the coasts of Korea and perhaps sooner than Koreans have anticipated. There are, in any case, no plans for how Korea will respond.
And then there is the matter of the death of the oceans. The possibility of rising acidity and rising temperatures in the oceans greatly reducing the populations of the fish that Koreans depend on does not seem to have even entered into the calculations done by Koreans about their security.
A related security issue in South Korea is its radical dependency on imported agricultural products. Through a series of short-sighted free trade agreements, Koreans have bought into the dangerous fiction that it is fine to import food from around the world and to pave over one’s precious soil at home to build highways and apartment buildings. But any objective consideration of Korean security that goes out for 3-60 years will show that this assumption is a dangerous fiction.
Climate change makes this fact painfully true. Nations like the United States and Australia which produce much of the grains that Korea imports are subject to spreading deserts and the rate of change will increase significantly in the future. That means that the United States might not be able to export any foodstuffs to Korea in the not-too-distant-future. The result would be a disaster as Korea has purposely undermined agriculture in pursuit of trade agreements on the assumption that advantages in narrow fields like electronics are sufficient to support an economy. But it is entirely possible to encounter wide-spread hunger in Northeast Asia in the future as a result of rapid climate change globally.
Another security challenge that is all but completely overlooked is Korean dependency on imported oil and natural gas. If there is a military conflict, the first thing to stop will be shipments of oil and gas. As Koreans have seen mechanization as an unmitigated blessing for the last 50 years, it would be a painful shock to learn that now just about everything will shut down if there is no oil.
It is absolutely critical for Korean security that it stop importing all fossil fuels as soon as possible and run a national program to establish solar power and wind power every single place it can be used. That will require massive public funding, mandatory use of solar and wind and the end of the paid journalists and experts who constantly underestimate the potential of renewable energy to supply our needs. Such a program cannot be run, however, without an equally radical effort to reduce consumption, increase efficiency and insulation and move away from the worst of the consumer culture that has so damaged this country.
In a sense the first step is spiritual. Koreans must learn to control themselves, to avoid waste and indulgence and to find meaning in profound things, not in seductive sensations of the here and now. It might not make much sense to speak of spirituality as the key to security these days, but in a very real sense, we must start there.
Finally, the rapidly increasing gap in assets between the haves and the have-nots in Korea, and around the world, is a security threat which is the most fundamental because the breakdown of a common discourse on policy and the national interest makes it impossible to respond to dangers like climate change.
The monopolization of finance by a tiny handful of people means that the gaps in assets will become ridiculously large in the next five years. Ultimately, perhaps not that long from now, we will face serious movements for revolutionary change that will have sympathetic followers and will plunge many societies into chaos.
The risk posed by allowing such discrepancies to emerge must be treated as a security threat in itself and steps taken to make sure that finance is carefully regulated and that there remains a healthy and independent local economy wherein ordinary citizens can save money and benefit from their own production. We need to create extensive cooperative banks and other organizations that bind together communities as economic unities and make it impossible for the superrich to manipulate the economy.
But we are far away from such a state now. If anything else, we are seeing the emergence of radical class behavior in which those with a certain level of assets treat others, even of equivalent education with barely concealed contempt. These splits will fuel conflicts within nations, and between nations over the years to come and should be moved to the forefront as we consider security issues.
Trying to treat current security threats to Korea within the current discourse on security is like trying to discuss quantum physics with medieval clerks obsessed with Christian eschatology. Most experts on security and military affairs define security in such a myopic manner that it seems often that the only purpose is to suggest a solution to our problems that can be purchased from a military contractor. But many of the most serious problems can only be addressed by including the entire population and making a broad long-term investment. Moreover, such long-term investments, say loans for 20-50 years to cover the cost of solar panels for all homes, will bring new stability to our economy.
Korea faces a unique challenge in that it has such a rapidly aging population as well whose judgment is often impaired. The traditional military scenarios trotted out by the media are easy for them to digest. The complex and unprecedented threat of climate change is beyond their understanding. Many older Koreans speak to me with great pride about Korea’s rapid industrialization without a shadow of doubt. They seem to be completely unaware of the impact that such industrialization, the shift to an economy based on naphtha cracking and iron refineries, has had on our climate.
At the same time, the younger generation has been seduced by images of war from video games like Sudden Attack into believing that war is something that is exciting and which can be controlled. Such a narrative of war as redemption keeps us further away from understanding its economic underpinnings and further away from real solutions.
Emanuel Pastreich = firstname.lastname@example.org
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