Even after North Korea invaded the South in 1950, sparking the Korean War, followed by decades of tensions marked by skirmishes, missile tests, nuclear detonations, artillery attacks and the sinking of a navy vessel, the authorities in Seoul have often been less strident about the North Korean threat than their allies like Japan and the US, a response that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive.
Two phenomena could account for this reaction: cultural proximity — South Koreans often refer to North Koreans as “wayward cousins” involved in a family dispute — and the fact that South Korea would suffer the brunt of an attack by the North. As such, the leadership in Seoul has often gone to great lengths to avoid unnecessarily alienating Pyongyang.
In many ways, Taipei under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) appears to have reached similar conclusions with regards to China. Amid a growing sense of alarm among regional powers at an increasingly assertive Chinese military, one of the few countries that has downplayed the threat is Taiwan. There is no small irony in this, given that Taiwan, despite supposedly warming ties with Beijing, remains the primary, albeit not the only, target of China’s rapidly growing and modernizing military.
As with Seoul vis-a-vis North Korea, Taipei has emphasized the need for dialogue, while Ma, who never misses an opportunity to remind Taiwanese of their “Chinese heritage” and the “Chinese nation,” also seems to regard Chinese as “wayward cousins” in an unresolved family feud. Ma’s tendency to look at Chinese as a misled family member, rather than the “other,” could help explain what comes across as his failure to fully account for the magnitude of the Chinese threat, or at least shed some light on his often fuzzy definition of Taiwan and Taiwanese, as is often the case with the two Koreas.
Where the Ma administration departs from its South Korean counterpart, however, is that while Seoul emphasizes the need for dialogue with Pyongyang, it also continues to invest in its military and to prepare for worst-case scenarios; Ma, for his part, emphasizes the former, but is starving the latter. South Korea’s military budget for 2009 was about US$27 billion, or 2.8 percent of its GDP and nearly three times that of Taiwan, which, by some accounts, has set aside even less than the reported 2.5 percent of GDP for defense this year.
Furthermore, while South Korea has encouraged cultural and business exchanges as a means to foster reconciliation, successive administrations have never wavered in their efforts to make sure the armed forces are well trained and prepared to meet the challenge of an attack by the North. Even when the exercises were called “provocative” and risked angering Pyongyang and Beijing, South Korea did what it must to ensure preparedness and demonstrate a strong national will.
Conversely, Taipei’s policy under Ma — who could be said to have launched his own version of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” — has been to emphasize carrots with fewer and fewer sticks, to such an extent that Taiwan’s deterrent capability is now increasingly coming into question.
South Korea’s approach to conflict in the Korean Peninsula is to keep its options open: It does not, wisely, shut the door on dialogue, but it remains cognizant of the unpredictability of human behavior and the possibility of things taking a turn for the worse. Taiwan, which unlike South Korea is now facing a first-rate military, appears to be closing the door on preparedness and assuming that the currently friendly atmosphere will remain consistent, which is far from certain.