On June 15, 2000, the leaders of South and North Korea met for the first time and discussed what then seemed like imminent reunification. Nineteen years on, the dream of a united Korea slips further and further away.
Worse, South Korea’s position between the North and the United States is becoming almost untenably precarious.
The U.S.-led ‘maximum pressure’ campaign now effectively forbids Koreans in the South from trading with those in the North, and Washington directly called major South Korean firms to warn them about this. This makes it impossible to revive the inter-Korean economic projects that were supposed to fuse the divided nation back together.
If talks to resolve the nuclear crisis fail this time, it will radicalize how South Koreans think of their relationship with the North and the United States.
The basic problem is encapsulated in a statement Senator Lindsey Graham attributed to President Trump at the height of the ‘fire and fury’ escalation of 2017: “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here [in the United States].”
Back then, the United States considered preventive military strikes against the North, even though that risked sacrificing its South Korean ally to a nuclear counterattack.
Graham approved the quote: “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”
It does not matter whether Trump really said it or meant it. This is Realpolitik: the statement simply captured the core of the live-or-die dilemma that South Korea is facing.
Seoul has been thinking for some years now on how to handle the North without depending on a country that could end up sacrificing the South.
Among conservatives, there have been more calls for emancipation from dependence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Then-conservative floor leader Won Yoo-chul expressed this metaphorically before the National Assembly in 2016: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains; we must be prepared and wear our own raincoat.”
The arguments are similar to those which France used to justify its own pursuit of nuclear weapons, in particular that “the United States would not risk New York or Detroit to save Hamburg or Lyons (sic).”
Most liberals, by contrast, continue to bet on reconciliation with the North. The basic idea is that it is possible to prevent nuclear war, first by ending hostilities and then by reunifying.
Washington should not force Seoul to choose between the U.S. and North Korea
The irony is that both of these seemingly emancipatory approaches still largely depend on Washington’s assent. If the South were to develop nuclear weapons, its open political and economic system would be highly vulnerable to the sort of pressure and sanctions that the Security Council has inflicted on the North.
Meanwhile, making peace between the Koreas does not by itself eliminate the possibility of U.S. military strikes on the North. There also needs to be normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
For a time, it seemed like South Korean President Moon Jae-in had solved the puzzle: he was advancing reconciliation with the North without alienating the United States.
On April 27, 2018, Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for replacing the Korean War Armistice Agreement with a proper peace agreement. Two months later, the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit followed, where Trump and Kim agreed to pursue “new relations” based on “peace and prosperity.”
And by September, Moon and Kim were agreeing to a major inter-Korean military agreement replete with confidence-building measures, stepping ever closer to peace.
The limits of this centrist strategy became evident when the Trump administration started telling Moon not to take any more reconciliatory steps until the North moves toward denuclearization. Pyongyang then signaled to Moon to stop cooperating with the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” that is strangling their country.
Forced to make a choice, Moon chose not to break ranks with Washington. Now Pyongyang has reduced contact to a minimum and even rebuked South Korea aid offers. Meanwhile, U.S.-North Korea talks are at the brink of collapse, perhaps bringing a return to the ‘fire and fury’-level tensions that threaten South Korean security.
There are plenty of ways Washington can ensure South Koreans continue to view the United States favorably
If South Koreans conclude that it is not possible to solve their country’s live-or-die dilemma by a centrist approach, they will consider more extreme solutions to defend their interests.
That number has, nevertheless, been decreasing quickly: in the five years prior, the average was closer to 80% support.
There are plenty of ways Washington can ensure South Koreans continue to view the United States favorably.
The most effective would be to conclude a deal that deescalates the nuclear crisis, so that South Koreans don’t have to worry so much about being first in the line of fire anymore.
Also, Washington should not force Seoul to choose between the U.S. and North Korea. Every interference in the inter-Korean reconciliation process is profoundly humiliating for Seoul, as it triggers mockery of the South as less-than-sovereign.
Letting everybody keep some dignity in the process will go a long way in reducing resentment-breeding radicalism.
Reconciliation would allow Koreans to finally leave the Cold War behind and start managing the next big challenge of their country: the rise of China. You can bet that they’ll be ringing the White House then.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Blue House