Getting to win-win with the NorthPark Geun-hye has taken the plunge. As I write, during a tense weekend on the peninsula, she has other things on her mind. But now that this has all blown over, she can resume her normal schedule as president. As of Aug. 25, she entered the second half of her five-year term.
And now, on Sept. 2, she is heading west across the Yellow Sea. After much pondering, and despite reported (but also denied) pressure from Washington, Park deemed it polite to accept her friend President Xi Jinping’s invitation to attend China’s celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II - a very long war for China.
For South Korea, this occasion is contentious in two ways. As when Russia marked its own 1945 anniversary in May, it will include a large military parade. We are surely by no means yet anywhere near a point where ROK troops could or should march alongside the PLA, given the latter’s leading role in the second capture of Seoul in 1950 during the 1950-53 Korean War.
President Park may not even wish to appear to endorse this display of firepower by watching the PLA’s serried ranks goose-stepping and its tanks and jets rumbling and roaring past. Most other Asian and world leaders have opted not to go to Beijing at all. Those so far known to be attending at the highest level are a very small band: Russia, Mongolia, Egypt and four countries in Central Asia. Among them, only the Czech Republic is a U.S. treaty ally like South Korea.
Never mind. Park Geun-hye made the right decision, whatever the United States may feel. Beyond any bilateral pulls, there are special reasons for South Korea’s leader to go to Beijing at this time.
These were put rather well recently, albeit by someone whom Park Geun-hye is not much in the habit of listening to. Moon Jae-in is after all leader of the opposition, and the opposition’s job is to oppose. But there are many ways to do that, some subtler than others.
In South Korea, the opposition often interprets its task literally, even physically. Aren’t we all sick of those unparliamentary scenes of shoving and fisticuffs in the National Assembly? In the Internet era, such images - readily available, just search - do Korea’s brand no favors.
So one welcomes more sophistication in the art of opposing. Especially when the opposition is not purely negative, but constructive, designed to nudge the government onto a better path.
For sure, at one level, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) leader was being a rather naughty boy. With Park caught on the horns of a dilemma,
Moon enjoyed her discomfort and was trying to put her on the spot. Yet what he said was interesting and cogent: arguing from economics as much as politics, and multilateralism more than bilateralism. Here are Moon’s words, as reported in this newspaper:
“We can grow our economy by escaping the isolated island [we are on] by expanding business opportunities to North Korea and the continent. We must take the initiative in diplomacy rather than being dragged by others. To this end, I ask President Park to attend the Victory Day celebration in China.”
Those remarks touch a lot of bases and tick many boxes. His starting point is the economy. The island metaphor does beg questions. Being a small half-peninsula has been no obstacle to forging business ties right around the planet.
In no sense is South Korea “isolated.” Least of all from its big neighbor China, with whom its bilateral trade is now double that with the United States.
What Moon is really talking about is North Korea. To be cut off from the other half of your peninsula is indeed weird geography, as well as tragic history. He seems to be saying that the road to Pyongyang goes via Beijing. That, too, is strange map-reading: Why not go in a straight line northward from Seoul? Far quicker, and no need to leave Korea. But we’ll let this pass.
As often, Moon called for the May 24 sanctions to be lifted. They have gained Seoul nothing, but only made the North more dependent on China. It’s difficult to disagree. He also revived a theme from his 2012 presidential run: the need to build an inter-Korean economic community.
Now where have we heard that before recently? An unlikely quarter. Moon and the NPAD are hardly the chaebols’ best friends. For its part, the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) rarely consorts with the political left. These scarcely seem natural political allies, in any context.
Yet on one issue - how to untangle North Korea’s noxious knots - Moon Jae-in and the FKI are singing from the very same hymn-sheet. As the Korea JoongAng Daily reported in July, the big business lobby group has rethought its guidelines on inter-Korean economic cooperation for the first time since 1995. With “mutual profit” as its watchword, the FKI advocates as follows:
? Harmony and progress in dialogue between the two governments
? Economic exchanges that help both sides
? North Korea-led economic development in the North
? An industrial structure that combines the strengths of the industries in both countries
? Gaining the backing and participation of neighboring countries, with the goal of establishing a Northeast Asian economic bloc.
Would Moon Jae-in disagree with any of that? I see no reason why he should.
True, the FKI’s bold ideas appear light years away from the status quo - even before the latest border tensions - or the Park Geun-hye government’s policy.
I mean not the trustpolitik that she promised, but what she has delivered, which is sadly little.
What a paradox! On North Korea, big business agrees with the left-leaning opposition rather than its fellow conservatives in government. As for the ruling party, the Saenuri is caught in the middle. Its chairman - and presidential contender? - Kim Moo-sung termed Moon’s demand to lift sanctions “inappropriate” in the context of the recent land mine provocation. Yet in the past, he has been among those calling for an easing of hard-line policies toward Pyongyang.
Of course, need I add, I feel deeply for the two young sergeants who - like many of my own countrymen in this endless Afghan war - have had their legs blown off and their lives thereby shattered. North Korea’s provocations are cowardly and intolerable.
However, was resuming cross-border propaganda broadcasts really the wisest way to respond? - inviting as it did precisely the sort of further escalation by the North that we saw.
In pondering Nordpolitik, we surely must take the longer view. So many have died, so many more have been wounded, down the years. If we seek only vengeance or short-term tit-for-tat, the cycle will be never-ending. South Korea’s leaders need to think bigger than that.
Now, inter-Korean relations are sailing full steam astern and tensions are rising. That is no route to progress. The need is urgent not just to react to immediate provocations, but to kill their basis by exploring new methodologies and fresh avenues - forward, not backward.
So I am glad President Park is off to Beijing. No doubt she and Xi will discuss how to handle North Korea. Moreover, there is just a chance she might meet Kim Jong-un there. Obviously, he is invited too, although we are told he is unlikely to come. Then again, he was expected in Moscow in May but in the end didn’t show up. So perhaps the Young Marshal will surprise us again this time. He certainly ought to, if he is even halfway smart.
North Korea’s chilly patch with China can’t go on forever. In a speech to veterans in July, Kim paid tribute to Chinese help in the Korean War. Such a fulsome reference, rare of late, was seen as a long overdue olive branch. Coming to Beijing would be a still stronger gesture.
True, we can’t rely on the mercurial Kim Jong-un. But Moon Jae-in is right. A major middle power, South Korea can and should conduct its own diplomacy. And this must begin at home.
It is past time to start taking North Korea in hand. Frankly, Kim is floundering, pressing all the buttons, but with no clear game plan. If he has a compass at all, it’s hard to tell which way he is steering or where he thinks he is going.
Neither Korea wants to see the North wholly dependent on China, so there is common ground for a start.
Also, Kim Jong-un’s brief exploratory flirtation with Japan has predictably hit the buffers. Kim was never likely to come fully clean on the abduction issue, when even a partial confession (remarkable enough) caused his late father Kim Jong-il such trouble.
The North’s recent eccentric time zone change was mainly meant to give the finger to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That leaves Russia: Much hyped, but where’s the beef?
In sum, despite the drums of war that it has tirelessly and tiresomely thumped, in truth North Korea needs the South like never before. Therein lies a huge opportunity - if only President Park is bold enough to see through the smokescreens and seize it.
The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the U.K.
by Aidan Foster-Carter