Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
In South Korea, North Korean issues have always been, to a large extent, a matter of domestic political and ideological debate. This is overlooked by foreign observers, but it is vital for a proper understanding of what Seoul is doing when dealing with its dangerous neighbor.
The South Korean domestic sphere’s interest is rather unusual. In most countries, political parties seldom quarrel about questions of foreign policy, which are usually left to the care of professional diplomats.
But for South Korea, the North is somewhat special. It’s neither a fully separate country nor a peculiar region of the same nation. For the first half-century of the Republic of Korea’s history, North Korea loomed large as part of the domestic political and ideological debate, being seen as a viable alternative to the regime in Seoul.
This is not the case anymore, but the North Korean issue is still heavily politicized in the South. In practice, it means that each of the two major political camps, which have been dominant in South Korean politics for decades, have their own peculiar views on how Seoul should deal with Pyongyang.
These views are not set in stone – they change, but the speed of these changes is remarkably slow.
The North Korean issue is embedded in the local ideological debate, making an honest and frank discussion of North Korea policy often difficult or impossible.
Most politically active South Koreans associate themselves with either ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ political camps. Generally speaking though, the North Korean issue is by no means a central issue in South Korean politics — actually, it’s quite marginal.
However, if one subscribes to a certain attitude to social policy or a certain view of Korea’s past that’s propagated by one of the two camps, he or she almost by default also subscribes to a certain vision of North Korea as well.
Furthermore, one cannot escape the impression that such ideological prescriptions have become more rigid during the last decade or so. This is especially true when we are talking about the right — that is, the conservative camp.
From an outsider’s point of view, there are serious flaws in both fixed ideological packages. However, these prescriptions constitute an integral and inseparable, even if somewhat marginal, part of much broader ideological packages and hence are highly unlikely to change anytime soon.
Since the North Korean issue is so politicized, there is little if any hope of either side moderating its approach
This creates rather gloomy prospects for the future of Seoul’s policy toward North Korea. While U.S. policy toward Pyongyang has oscillated for the last 25 years between equally unproductive modes of ‘maximum pressure’ and ‘engagement,’ South Korean policy oscillates between the left’s attempts to revive the “Sunshine policy” of 1998-2008 and the right’s attempts to completely isolate and ignore North Korea — which is increasingly becoming the only acceptable conservative position.
If one wants to understand the positions of the South Korean left, one has to have a quick look at its history.
While the South Korean left is rather mixed in origin, a very prominent part of its leadership consists of former student activists during the late 1980s.
In the days of the fight against military dictatorship, these people combined Korean nationalism with a radical leftist ideology of the Leninist, or rather Stalinist, variety.
This naturally made them sympathetic towards North Korea, whose social and economic failures, as well as sheer poverty, were not widely known back then.
As time went on, the former admirers of Juche North Korea slowly changed their views. Needless to say, they don’t see North Korea as a model to emulate any more. They eventually came to accept the superiority of the market economy, gradually and reluctantly.
However, there’s still a deeply ingrained distrust of capitalism and a measure of skepticism toward the United States and the ROK-U.S. alliance (even though their anti-Americanism is clearly on a slow decline).
To put it simply, these people, who dominate the current administration, see North Korea as a misunderstood brother, a country whose ostensibly dangerous and bellicose behavior is very largely a result of its uneasy economic situation.
It’s an article of faith among the South Korean nationalist left that North Korea will change its ways if it’s properly treated, that is, not subjected to constant pressure from outside. Some of them sincerely believe that sufficiently kind treatment will even persuade North Korea to surrender its nuclear program – not now, perhaps, but at some point in a not-so-distant future.
The South Korean left understands that North Korea is a brutal dictatorship, but they are willing to overlook the human rights problems since these problems are, to an extent, the regrettable results of an extremely harsh international situation.
They also emphasize that the right to economic security and economic growth should take precedence over political and human rights, a view the present author subscribes to.
Interestingly though, few South Korean leftist theoreticians realize that the “food comes first, freedom comes second” argument was used frequently by their rightist enemies back in the 1960s, when many apologists for the-then authoritarian rule applied exactly the same reasoning to justify the actions of the South Korean military regime.
In practice, it means that the South Korean left is in favor of developing exchanges with North Korea. These exchanges are usually marketed to the public as ‘mutually beneficial,’ even though it’s quite clear that all these exchanges will be viable only as long as the South Korean taxpayer is willing to pay for them. We saw a lot of quietly subsidized cooperation in the days of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of the early 2000s.
Nonetheless, there would likely be some positive consequences if engagement policy is implemented — at least, this is what this author personally believes. Exchanges would lead to the improvement of the life of the average North Korean and probably promote revolutionary change in the country.
Such a model would also provide an opportunity to negotiate a partial freeze of the North Korean nuclear program. Contrary to what the ‘progressives’ say, North Korean leaders will never surrender their nuclear weapons, but this does not mean that a compromised solution cannot be reached.
Conservatives believe that nothing will work with Pyongyang, but if something is to work, it’s going to be pressure, pressure, and more pressure
The left’s approach may be based on wishful thinking and a bit of fantasy, but is likely to produce some results if implemented properly and consistently. The right, on the other hand, may have sound understanding of the situation, but their ideas would be dangerous to implement.
The right, aka ‘conservatives,’ has become significantly more unified and uniform in their approach to the North Korean issues in recent years.
In the past, there were some disagreements inside the conservative camp, but right now, pretty much all prominent conservative public figures insist that North Korea should be ignored and, whenever possible, isolated and subjected to maximum economic and political pressure from the outside.
Of course, it’s debatable to what extent the conservatives will follow this policy when in power again, but right now they seem to be remarkably single-minded in their support for ‘maximum pressure.’
It’s a commonly accepted view of the right that, no matter what, North Korea will not surrender its nuclear weapons (a correct assumption, as the present author has never been tired of repeating for the last couple of decades).
However, this belief coexists in their minds with the idea that consistent long-term pressure will produce some desirable changes in Pyongyang’s behavior. They profess that North Korea will not change, and also assert that, sooner or later, their leaders will bow to sufficiently strong pressure and will perhaps make some unspecified concessions.
In other words, conservatives believe that nothing will work with Pyongyang, but if something is to work, it’s going to be pressure, pressure, and more pressure.
Conservatives admittedly have a much more realistic and much less rose-tinted view of how North Korean society and state actually operate.
They do not expect that North Korea would change significantly if it’s treated well and, while paying obligatory lip service to the idea of eventual Korean unification, are not particularly enthusiastic about North and South fusing into one state in the foreseeable future.
Some on the right still dream about unification by absorption (admittedly, a quite possible scenario) under Seoul’s control, but most of them would prefer to deal with North Korea as a separate country. And if you think your neighbor is likely to remain your enemy for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to do whatever necessary to undermine their economy and reduce their potential, thus reducing the chances that they will be capable of inflicting any serious damage on you.
However, the policy of isolation that conservatives want to implement is likely to be rather counterproductive. It will keep the peninsula in a state of more or less constant tension with occasional eruptions of violent conflict. And given that such a policy makes certain that North Korean nuclear development will continue uninterrupted, such clashes might have truly disastrous consequences.
Therefore, one can expect that the return of the conservative forces to power – something which is bound to happen within the next five or, more likely, ten years – will mean the return to the policy we saw under the Lee Myung-bak and especially Park Geun-hye administrations.
Even if the Moon Jae-in administration or its immediate successor (likely to also be dominated by the ‘progressives’) negotiates some deals with the North Korean government, they are unlikely to survive the unavoidable regime change in Seoul.
Once in power, the conservatives will stop all subsidies for dealing with North Korea, and will most likely very quickly find excuses to stop any meaningful exchanges with their ever-threatening neighbor.
Needless to say, this policy is both dangerous and fruitless. But the belief in the North’s complete isolation is firmly entrenched nowadays among the right.
The North Korean issue is embedded in the local ideological debate, making an honest and frank discussion of North Korea policy often difficult or impossible
Both the South Korean ‘conservative’ and the ‘progressive’ camps have their problems when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
The conservatives have a remarkably clear picture of how North Korea actually functions, but somehow produces policy which would be fruitless and best and dangerous at worst if implemented.
The progressives, on the other hand, live in their own fantasy world, and yet somehow managed to work out a policy likely to produce modest but positive results.
However, since the North Korean issue is so politicized, there is little if any hope of either side moderating its approach. South Korea seems to be doomed to the same never-ending cycle of shallow confrontation and dangerous reconciliation.
Only some dramatic changes inside North Korea or on the world scene have the potential of changing things up.
Edited by James Fretwell
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News. In South Korea, North Korean issues have always been, to a large extent, a matter of domestic political and ideological debate. This is overlooked by foreign observers, but it is vital for a proper understanding of what Seoul is doing when dealing with its dangerous neighbor.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.