In the past few months, North Korea has turned into the world’s most volatile powder keg: It could blow any moment, and as such, the world’s eyes are trained closely on the hermit nation.
Due to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, South Korea has reached an agreement with the US to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system on South Korean soil.
However, the Chinese government reacted badly, imposing a ban on, and instigating a boycott of, South Korean goods, which has caused a strong backlash among the South Korean public.
Further, the impeachment of former South Korean president Park Geun-hye following a corruption scandal and the leaking of state secrets has destabilized the political situation in South Korea.
To deter Pyongyang from carrying out a sixth nuclear test, in addition to demanding that China exerts pressure on its ally, Washington has dispatched a naval task force to South Korean waters and is amassing forces in the region.
The White House has also repeatedly said that it is prepared to use military force against North Korea.
Anxious not to appear weak, Pyongyang responded by launching a campaign of deterrence through its media and military. In a sign of the degree of hostility between the two Koreas, the North last month staged a massive live-fire drill off its coast with 300 heavy artillery guns to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of its army.
However, the world might be at a turning point. Following the election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week, the nation has undergone a transition of political power, with the Democratic Party now firmly installed in the Blue House.
With public opinion behind him, Moon is seeking to turn the political situation on the Korean Peninsula on its head.
Moon’s administration will seek to substantially improve relations between the two Koreas by reviving the “Sunshine Policy” of direct engagement with North Korea that was pursued by former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Kim and Roh visited Pyongyang and held meetings with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Through his efforts to warm relations with Pyongyang, Kim Dae-jung successfully reduced the tension on the peninsula and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite this, South Korean media regularly mocks Kim Dae-jung, saying that he used US$500 million to “buy” his award; a dig at him giving the North a US$500 million “gift” in exchange for being allowed to visit Pyongyang and hold a summit with Kim Jong-il.
Moon served as Roh’s chief of staff, accompanying him on his visit to North Korea and meeting with Kim Jong-il.
During Roh’s presidency, Moon promoted the Kaesong joint industrial region and encouraged South Korean businesses to establish branches and invest there.
In 2002, the US discovered that North Korea had been secretly developing nuclear weapons in violation of international treaties.
After several unsuccessful attempts by then-US president George W. Bush to persuade then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to rein in its ally, Bush in February 2003 issued an ultimatum to Jiang: “If we can’t reach a diplomatic solution, then I’ll have to consider launching a military strike.”
Was this simply bluff and bluster from the Bush administration?
Roh quickly dispatched his minister of foreign affairs to Washington to declare South Korea’s opposition to any military action against North Korea.
Additionally, to head off a US attack on Beijing’s ally, Jiang in August that year initiated six-party talks between China, the US, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas in an attempt to use dialogue with Pyongyang to resolve the denuclearization problem.
The background is helpful to understanding the direction that Moon’s new government will take: His biggest challenge will be to persuade US President Donald Trump to abandon military action against Pyongyang to avoid retaliation from the North.
The fear is that in such a situation, Pyongyang could use the several thousand heavy artillery pieces positioned north of the 38th parallel and long-range rockets to destroy South Korea’s capital, Seoul, which could cause the deaths of several million South Koreans.
Given the threat, the Moon administration will stress the importance of restarting the six-party talks or some other similar international meeting, and using peace talks and dialogue to resolve the issue of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Such a position would be supported by North Korea, China and Russia, and leave the US isolated and on the back foot.
The Trump administration has declared that it has given up on former US president Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” due to years of endless dialogue and discussion having been used by Pyongyang as a delaying tactic to stave off a possible attack. Given this, it is possible that the US and South Korea will begin to gradually drift apart.
During South Korea’s presidential election campaign, Moon said that he was opposed to the deployment of the THAAD system on South Korean soil.
However, following a negative reaction from the public, Moon retracted his statement and said that due to the important nature of the decision, the matter would have to be decided by the next administration.
Although THAAD’s deployment is already under way, Trump has asked South Korea to contribute US$1 billion toward its cost.
This goes back on a promise Obama made to the South Korean government, and has caused a backlash against the US within the Moon administration and among ordinary South Koreans.
In the weeks and months ahead, if the situation on the Korean Peninsula changes, it is not impossible for the Moon administration to request that the US removes THAAD as a way of extending an olive branch to Pyongyang and pleasing Beijing.
When South Korea pursued the “Sunshine Policy,” not only has the relationship between the two Koreas changed significantly, but South Korea has also formed closer ties with China, improving bilateral trade with its neighbor, which turned China into South Korea’s most important trading partner.
The Moon administration will certainly seek to improve relations with Beijing.
However, with South Korean businesses and the public still reeling from having recently been on the receiving end of a Chinese government ban and a public boycott of all things South Korean, the question must be asked: Do South Koreans still harbor any illusions about China?
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
Translated by Edward Jones
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