Seoul is finally taking chargeKudos to President Park Geun-hye for her foreign policy skills in handling both friends and allies alike. Her track record in this arena has even overshadowed her initial, poor personnel administration.
For example, it really seems that we finally have a president who is willing to look Pyongyang straight in the eye without blinking - an attribute appropriate to the relative strength of South Korea over its northern sibling.
When the North threatened to close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Park took the initiative and pulled South Korean companies out of the park. And most recently, when Pyongyang suggested resuming six-party talks after being pressured by Beijing, Seoul has made it clear that it is no longer interested in being played like a yo-yo - after months of particularly bellicose threats - if denuclearization is off the agenda.
So change is very much happening, with South Korea more willing to set the agenda rather than meekly responding to North Korean threats and initiatives.
This past week, the University of Southern California held a three-day Global Conference in Seoul. It was attended by some of the leading authorities on Asia Pacific affairs. During the conference, a number of old friends asked me whether there is any chance that the two Koreas can ever reconcile.
I told them - from what I can surmise (which is all one can hope to do in the case of North Korea) - that nothing substantial is likely to happen until Pyongyang faces an unexpected big trauma.
The first type of big trauma would be domestic, within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For example, there could be some kind of putsch or coup d’etat that would likely keep the DPRK government in place but cause a shake up or replacement of the ruling oligarchy. While conceivable, this does not seem to be likely. Even much less likely would be some kind of populace revolt, given the effective, multigenerational propaganda of the masses.
The second type of big trauma would be external - almost certainly involving China. According to my recent conversation with the Peterson Institute for International Economics Director, Marcus Noland, there are only six or seven people in the Chinese politburo responsible for managing North Korea relations.
As long as the current status quo remains steady, North Korean affairs are not likely to loom into significance with the rest of the Chinese rulers.
On the other hand, should Pyongyang get way out of hand, beyond bravado propaganda - in other words, actually do something that is dangerously idiotic or contrary to Chinese interests, then North Korean relations’ responsibilities will zoom beyond the professional interests of the few bureaucrats.
Accordingly, China would have no choice but to revise its strategy and lean hard on North Korea. Last week, we saw a limited example of this happening when Pyongyang’s perceived Number Two, Vice Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, visited Beijing and was compelled by the Chinese to reopen talks with Seoul.
But without some kind of big trauma, we are likely to witness continued geopolitical stagnation on the Korean Peninsula. With big trauma, however, real movement may be possible - including an eventual, comprehensive peace treaty that is signed by both Korean governments that may eventually lead to some long-term peaceful reunification of the peninsula.
What kind of South-North peaceful co-existence may be practically possible and subject to conjecture and debate? In my opinion, none of these reunification scenarios are remotely plausible without big trauma first taking place.
This is why I commend the new South Korean president’s handling of the North. She is refusing to conduct business as usual, which effectively would have meant kicking the can yet further down the road.
She is proving to be confrontational yet flexible, holding Pyongyang to its past promises and agreements. In other words, we finally have someone in the Blue House with real cojones - unlike her male predecessors.
Only by controlling the two-state agenda, and not by simply responding to North Korea, will South Korea be able to achieve its proper destiny. While it may not be the ROK’s short or medium-term intent to bring down the Pyongyang government, in the long-term the DPRK’s demise is virtually inevitable.
Given that a “soft landing” is in the best interests of everyone other than a few thousand people who make up the North Korean oligarchy, the better Seoul’s management of the situation is, the less chance of a tragic implosion.
While it would be foolish to expect Seoul to be able to create a big trauma for North Korea, South Korea could create the environment for such an event to happen while preparing as best as possible for that kind of sudden development.
Perhaps that is expecting too much of Korea’s new president. But she has already proven herself more capable in this department than all of the old boys combined. For once and at last, I’m becoming cautiously optimistic about whether Korean reunification may even be possible.
*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a sales development consulting group, and senior commercial adviser to the law offices of the International Practice Group.
by Tom Coyner