After the months of political turmoil and a leadership void, South Korea now has President Moon Jae-in. Due to the nature of the election – a by-election to fill up the vacancy as the after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in March – Moon and his Minjoo Party had little time to prepare themselves to take the wheel.
President Moon clearly stated in his inauguration speech that he is willing to visit Pyongyang to solve the North Korea issue, but relations that have been practically severed for close to a decade wouldn’t be recuperated easily. And there is an additional uncertainty on the U.S. side: President Trump.
It’s safe to say the new President faces serious challenges, so maybe it’s the time to listen to what the veterans have to say. The Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation (KCRC) approached three former ministers to find out what lessons their service in former administrations can teach the new government.
Park Jae-gyu, president of Kyungnam University, former Minister of Unification (1999-2001)
You were one of those who made the first inter-Korean summit possible in 2000 and devoted a lot of time to improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the unification issue. From your experience, both as a former minister and as an academic, what should the next ROK government make a priority?
Park Jae-gyu: The first and the foremost task is a normalization and restoration of inter-Korean relations. A long period of confrontation has deepened inter-Korean distrust. In order to foster trust, there has to be humanitarian aid in the private sector, exchanges in social and cultural sectors, and reunions of separated families. Establishing a channel for talks between the authorities is especially important and even sending a special envoy to the North should be considered.
Since the North Korea issue is an international one, even a small change in international relations can affect Korea a great deal. The next government should take note that the interests of the U.S. and China in the Korean peninsula are intertwined and this affects inter-Korean relations.
It seems that there is a big difference between the U.S.’s position and China’s regarding the North Korea issue. What sort of strategy is required to avoid conflict between inter-Korean relations and U.S.-ROK/PRC-ROK relations?
Park Jae-gyu: The U.S. seeks to induce North Korea to change by means of sanction and pressure, while China is prone to solve the issue diplomatically with dialogue and negotiation. It will take more time and efforts to narrow the gap between positions of the two. South Korea should try to emphasize its position, rather than having policy dictated by compromise between the U.S. and China. To deal with North Korea’s nuclear issue in cooperation with the U.S. and China is important, but the South should seek to resolve the nuclear issue by improving inter-Korean relations and building up inter-Korean cooperation.
“A long period of confrontation has deepened inter-Korean distrust”
That said, I believe it is critical to prepare points of contact via inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. It is never advisable to let the U.S. and China alone discuss the nuclear issue with the North with inter-Korean relations severed. North Korea also needs to declare a moratorium on its nuclear capabilities as a prerequisite for negotiation.
It’s been over a year since the Kaesong Industrial Complex was closed. How do you assess the government’s decision close the site last year and do you think it should be reopened?
Park Jae-gyu: It took a lot of effort from both the North and South to start the Kaesong Industrial Complex and it had gone on over a decade. It is regrettable that the complex was closed due to North Korea’s nuclear issue: it was a symbol of peace and unification and was begun under the understanding that inter-Korean economic cooperation could lay a groundwork for unification.
Even the North made a hard decision for the complex to pull out military units to the rear. I, then, assured the North that if the Kaesong Complex managed to complete its three-stage plan it will be a huge success as a Special Economic Zone in the way the Changwon Industrial Complex in the South was. I even invited them to Changwon. They would understand if they saw it themselves, I thought. The Kaesong Complex was built after this process of persuasion. It had been advancing for a decade, with increasing surplus, but its closure came up all of a sudden.
“The South should seek to resolve the nuclear issue by improving inter-Korean relations and building up inter-Korean cooperation”
Even before the stoppage of the Kaesong, there had been discussions of sanctions: unilateral ones by the U.S. and international ones by the UN. I, however, always emphasized that the Kaesong Complex and the Mt. Kumkang tourism are the projects of mutual agreement for the groundwork of peace and unification. I personally visited Washington to persuade U.S. officials as well as South Koreans.
Resuming the complex is closely related to the normalization of inter-Korean relations. I believe that the issue will be discussed while both governments try to restore inter-Korean relations and that Seoul has to endeavor to resume the complex and establish more industrial complexes in order to lead the North into opening up and reform.
Kim Tae-young, board president of Korean War Memorial Foundation, former Minister of Defense (2009-2010)
North Korea has been spurring its nuclear capability. Many wonder how far its nuclear capability reached, especially its Inter-continental Ballistic Missile development.
Kim Tae-young: According to South Korea’s National Defense White Book and research materials from SIPRI and RAND Corporation, the North appears to have at least 10 to 40 at maximum nuclear warheads. Since they have almost completed the miniaturization of warheads, they are assessed to be capable of attacking with relatively short-ranged missiles with a nuclear warhead at any time. Yet North Korea’s ICBM capability falls short of what they can do with shorter ranged missiles. Soon, however, they will be able to threaten the continental U.S.
During the time when the North only used liquid-fueled missiles, it was relatively easy for the South to detect and react to a launch because it took a long time to prepare the launch. But if the North manages to operate solid-fueled missiles it will be considerably harder to react. While it is far from being deployed for now, when the North finishes the development of SLBM, it could be able to hit the South in the back. The threat from the North will only increase as it seeks to diversify its nuclear capability.
“The best option Seoul has is to strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance”
What do you think is the most important step Seoul can take to protect the South?
Kim Tae-young: The Ministry of National Defense has a three-axis system: namely Kill Chain, Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) as a response to North Korea’s nuclear threat. But these are all in development, yet to be finished. I’d say it is inadequate.
I think the best option Seoul has is to strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance. The three-axis system is incomplete, so the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command should be maintained. I believe it is quite wrong to argue for the transition of wartime operation control. More of the budget, instead, should be directed into completing the three-axis system.
The ROK-U.S. alliance itself has become an issue, with Trump’s comments that he would let Seoul and Tokyo have nuclear capabilities, and his argument Seoul and Tokyo should pay the full cost of the U.S. military presence there.
Kim Tae-young: Redeploying a tactical nuclear weapon in Korea doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad idea if the ROK and U.S. governments establish a joint task force which controls the nuclear weapon.
However, it will never be easy for Seoul to develop its own nuclear capability: it’s not likely that the U.S. would let Seoul to do it and even if it does, the international community would try to curb it. It could harm the South Korean economy, which is dependent on international trade, if Seoul pushes for unilateral nuclear development.
The U.S.’s request for increasing the defense cost sharing, I think, is more about increasing the defense budget. I met a former Defense Minister of Japan recently and he said that until recently Japan spent less than one percent of its GDP on defense, but it now plans to increase its defense budget to 1-2 percent of its GDP. Japan is moving to increase its defense spending rather than its defense cost sharing with the U.S., related to the White House’s request that it expand its role in maintaining the U.S.-Japan alliance in East Asia, isn’t it? I expect Seoul will face a similar request soon.
“Redeploying a tactical nuclear weapon in Korea doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad idea”
Yoon Young-kwan, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (2003-2004)
The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea seems to be quite different from that of the Obama administration. How do you compare the former and current U.S. administrations?
Yoon Young-kwan: There are several lines of thought in the foreign policy of the U.S. One is a relatively liberal line which emphasizes international alliances and cooperation, like the Clinton administration. The Bush administration put emphasis on the diplomacy of power, a more hard-line policy where the U.S. made use of its military strength in order to achieve its foreign policy goals. But Trump is a maverick.
The Republicans and Democrats of the U.S. had the same premise – the country’s central role in the international community – while they had some disagreements on how to achieve policy goals. The Trump administration, on the other hand, says it will renounce its role in the international community and focus on its national interests, economic ones in particular. It’s very different from previous administrations.
“Trump is a maverick”
The U.S. seems to take the North Korea issue more seriously than ever, some suspect for domestic reasons.
Yoon Young-kwan: There could be two reasons why Mr. Trump is taking a firm stance against North Korea. One is to show that he’s different from Obama and the other is that he feels alarmed that North Korea is nearing the completion of its nuclear capability.
The Obama administration’s strategic patience was a policy that it would not talk to the North until it became serious about negotiation, which delivered practically nothing. Obama also had authority from Congress to sanction those who do business with the North, known as “secondary sanctions”.
“Trump will dare friction with China to solve the North Korea issue”
But it never exercised the authority after 2016: I guess the Obama administration thought it won’t be helpful to aggravate relations with China for the sake of the North Korea issue.
The Trump administration, in contrast, says that it won’t let U.S.-PRC relations worsen the North Korea issue and is sending signals to China that it will put more pressure on North Korea. Trump’s statement that the U.S. will act alone if China won’t cooperate seem to imply various options, including economic and military ones: it shows that Trump will dare cause friction with China to solve the North Korea issue.
There were wild rumors about a crisis in April. Some worried about an outbreak of a major war due to a pre-emptive strike from the U.S. Do you see any possibility of a military conflict on the peninsula?
Yoon Young-kwan: Of course we cannot exclude the possibility of war. In an escalating situation, one might interpret an opponent’s unintended action as an intentional offense and react. Then the opponent has to react and the situation may spiral out of control. There should be hot lines between the North and the U.S., not to mention an inter-Korean one. The lack of the hot lines itself is a major risk.
However, I think a preemptive strike is not feasible. It’s quite certain that the North would retaliate against the South if the U.S. carried out a preemptive strike, which could easily escalate into a full-blown war. The U.S. won’t risk the alliance to carry out a preemptive strike unilaterally: South Koreans don’t want another war on the peninsula.
“It is urgent that the new government establish cooperation with the Trump administration”
It is also not feasible in terms of military strategy. Unlike in 1994, nuclear facilities are scattered across North Korea, and the DPRK has purposefully dispersed nuclear materials and weapons. A uranium enrichment facility doesn’t take up much space so it could be hidden at any place. Finding it is far from easy.
Both in a political sense and a military sense, a preemptive strike would not be a good option. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has brought its strategic assets, like the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Nimitz, to put psychological pressure on the North.
The new government had to take over without a transition team and it looks like the U.S. has taken the initiative on the North Korea issue. Do you have any suggestions for the new government?
Yoon Young-kwan: It is urgent that the new government establish cooperation with the Trump administration. I would say building up a personal bond between the two leaders is important.
Above is a translated version of an article from National Reconciliation, the bi-monthly publication of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation (KCRC), a consultative body that consists of over 200 organizations including political parties, religious and civic groups.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House