Change has arrived to the Korean peninsula. With the United States (U.S.) pressuring North Korea by deploying aircraft carriers and other military units to the area, as well as China being uncharacteristically cooperative with the U.S., North Korea has been backed into a corner like never before. The days of the North and South reconciling over tours to Mt. Geumgang and partaking in amicable talks seem to be behind us, yet such a lenient approach is exactly the kind that President Moon Jae In prefers. Is this a wise policy choice in times of tumultuous political change, or would the new administration be better off continuing the hardline policies of the past?
▲ President Moon appointing his cabinet members. Provided by reuters.com
When President Trump launched a barrage of missiles at Syria without warning, the international political landscape was irrevocably transformed. For the first time in a decade, the U.S. became a force not to be trifled with. This shift in foreign policy has been most apparent in the way President Trump is dealing with North Korea. Focusing on intimidating North Korea with the prospect of indiscriminate bombardment, Trump’s ultimatum to the petulant nation stands in stark contrast with the way the previous administration handled issues on the Korean peninsula.
This abrupt shift in the balance of power is keenly felt. By securing China’s cooperation and working in tandem with the United Nations (UN) to impose sanctions on the country, the U.S. has essentially left North Korea no other recourse than surrender or war. The increased volatility of the region is perniciously affecting South Korea, fomenting anxiety among civilians and feeding into rumors of an outbreak of war. Politicians have reacted to this change by introducing a myriad of policies, ranging from those holding fast to an uncompromising stance to ones that harken back to the Sunshine Policy. In light of the change that has swept the Korean peninsula, which course of action should the government follow?
Traditional Politics in a Changing World
On one side of the policy spectrum lies the placement of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea. A vocal faction of politicians has long emphasized South Korea’s alliance with the U.S., using it to bolster the claim that South Korea should embrace the THAAD missiles provided by its closest ally. Additionally, some far-right congressmen argue that South Korea should pursue nuclear armament for preemptive purposes. Those that view this as gratuitous say that the government should consider forming a cooperative system with the U.S. through which it can access U.S. nuclear arsenal. In general, these politicians are averse to any magnanimous action that might be mistaken for pro-North sentiment.
“The fact that the U.S. and China are opting to play the role of the stringent enforcer puts a lot of pressure on South Korea to cooperate with them, at least in the short run,” Professor Lim Jaecheon (North Korean Studies) stated. “South Korea’s harsh policies are only effective when the U.S. and China back its play, so there is no better time to adopt such measures,” he stressed, which indicates that the tenuous international climate favors sanctioning the North as opposed to embracing it.
The most glaring weakness of such a mindset is that no significant progress was made during the past nine years when it drove foreign policy. The Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations’ decision to cut provisions to and ties with North Korea did not yield any noteworthy results. Furthermore, President Trump’s inexplicable demand that South Korea pay for the THAAD missiles reveals that he sees the agreement as a “real estate deal” rather than a pact motivated by genuine security concern, according to CNN analyst John Kirby. Such an assessment undermines credibility in the THAAD missiles as a reliable means of national defense.
Some offer a radically different take on foreign policy, proposing plans that approach the North as more of a potential partner than an enemy state. As such, instead of focusing on the strength of the state, such policies place greater emphasis on averting war and deescalating conflict. In addition to inciting war on the Korean peninsula, the missiles are ineffective and could sabotage the economy, according to liberal politician Sim Sang-jung. Proponents of this line of policy also show a greater willingness to engage North Korea in talks, and call for the rejuvenation of the Gaesung Industrial Complex, which used to be the primary means of interaction between North and South Korea.
However, such politicians often overlook the fact that North Korea is an enemy state first and foremost. Expecting the North to grant the government’s solicitations just because it decides to flood Pyongyang with monetary provisions is optimistic at best and tactless at worst, to paraphrase critics. The fact that previous administrations have implemented strong foreign policy measures could also work against such liberal policies. “Drastically changing the current foreign policy from antagonistic to favorable might be dangerous, since it could undermine the international effort to pressurize the North into nuclear disarmament,” Lim warned.
▲ The THAAD Missiles. Provided by ytn.co.kr
When the Facts Change…
It is and will remain difficult to provide a definitive answer for which foreign policy South Korea must adopt. Since the matter is closely tied up with national defense, taking a strident stand against North Korea is obviously indispensable. At the same time, being partial to antagonistic policies could obliterate any goodwill between the two parties, locking them in a vicious cycle of hostility. “It is largely unclear what position the Moon administration should strive toward,” Lim clarified. “By appointing supporters of the Sunshine policy as prominent members of his cabinet, President Moon seems to be heading in the liberal direction, but the harsh international attitude regarding the North indicates otherwise,” he added.
Only one thing is for certain at times of such crises; a balance must exist between the liberal and conservative positions. During the previous decade, when the U.S. tried to peacefully diffuse tensions with North Korea and China was more sympathetic toward its belligerent neighbor, it made sense for the South Korean administration to coerce the North into submission. Seeing how the U.S. and China have reversed their positions, South Korea’s coercive foreign policy toward its Northern brethren loses some justification. John Maynard Keynes’ often quoted saying “when the facts change, I change my mind,” has never rang truer.