The pivot of 2018

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The pivot of 2018

The year 1962 was a transitional point for Koreas on both sides of the border. South Korea kicked off its first five-year economic development plan. North Korea formally adopted its military-first policy. The national goals of the two Koreas diverged from that year. The military regime in South Korea endeavored to prove the legitimacy of its coup d’etat by combating postwar poverty, while the dictatorship of the proletariat in North Korea focused on an arms buildup to achieve forced unification without the help of China and the Soviet Union.

The directions differed, but both were bold and eager to take up the challenge. South Korea — with little resources to drive growth — chose to concentrate whatever there was on select chaebol entities, which ended up in unbalanced prosperity. North Korea took the sacrifices and pains of the greater masses for granted to militarize the entire population, leave the country in the hands of military generals, and modernize arms.

The year 2018 could be another turning point. The roots are the same. North Korea, which shifted away from conventional arms to secure asymmetric capabilities by developing nuclear weapons and missiles, could achieve its goal by as early as next year and become the sixth member in the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states. It won’t own just a few nuclear warheads, but a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of flying across the Pacific with nuclear bombs.

South Korea is paying the price for its dramatic rags-to-riches transformation led by strongman Park Chung Hee. The economy that was one of the poorest with a per capita income of $87 has become the world’s 11th largest, commanding a gross domestic product of $1.4 trillion. Unlike the first two liberal presidents — Kim Dae-jung, who was mostly engrossed with rebuilding a country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and idealist Roh Moo-hyun — the government under the third liberal President Moon Jae-in is more confident and sophisticated. Moon, enjoying unprecedented popularity with an approval rating hovering above 80 percent, could be even bolder in pushing his signature liberal policies.

Moon and his left-leaning team are right to want to change the outdated economic legacy of Park Chung Hee. The side effects of a growth model entirely evolving around conglomerates and export companies worsened after the military regime period ended as it coincided with the roaring waves of globalization and neoliberalism.

The riches went to the upper income bracket, who did not share their gains with the majority. As a result, real incomes decreased and inequalities deepened. Large companies became greedier and predatory, while the labor market became unstable, swamped with an underprivileged non-salaried workforce.

In the meantime, our society rapidly aged as young couples shunned marriage and having children due to job and income insecurity, accelerating the demographic crisis in the country. Young people are lethargic, losing hope of finding a decent job for a better future.

The work is immense. But the new government at the helm looks clumsy and overeager in navigating its daunting challenges. It cannot expect to solve the problems that built up over half a century in the next five years. Moon is no Alexander the Great.

These structural problems must be addressed and dealt with incrementally. Moon’s government is not a revolutionary regime. It came to power faster than it expected due to the impeachment and removal of a corrupt president. But Moon was elected through democracy. He must not gamble with his hard-won power by railroading through a radical agenda.

Instead, he must demonstrate strong determination towards North Korea. This is no time for the country’s foreign minister to leisurely speak of room for dialogue. North Korea won’t back away from its nuclear ambition when it has become capable of fitting warheads onto missiles to become a global threat. Yet our government remains hopelessly naive, adhering to dialogue.

There is not much time left. Washington has just two options in hand — a preemptive strike or a peace treaty. Both spell catastrophe for South Korea. If the United States strikes North Korean weapons facilities, North Korea is bound to retaliate and attack the South. Even if the clash does not lead to full-scale war, serious casualties are inevitable. Everything South Korea worked so hard to achieve could go down the drain in a matter of seconds.

South Korea does not have a place in talks between two nuclear weapons states. We could end up in a pitiful state like Taiwan. China conducted a nuclear test in 1964. It fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1971 and was successful in 1980. In 1979, the U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The missile fired by North Korea on Tuesday morning flew over Japan. It may not be coincidental that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was behind the landmark normalization of ties between Washington and Beijing, advised a pullout of U.S. forces from South Korea to solve the North Korean nuclear conundrum.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 30, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Hoon-beom
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