South Korea lost in the noiseIf Donald Trump’s objective was to bring the United States into the limelight on dealing with North Korea, then he has certainly achieved his goal. The former administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye all refused to engage with North Korea, and hence adopted hard-line policies, which deepened the sentiment of distrust and heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. Almost a decade has gone by and that was enough to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex along with other cultural interactions. By going along with Barack Obama’s strategic patience, rather than initiating a strategy of our own, South Korea has lost its stake in the matter. Recent missile provocations, for instance, were aimed at Japan, while H-bomb threats were made against the United States. Even the minister of unification admitted the probability of “bypassing Korea” once DPRK achieves its ICBM objectives.
It is high time we face the reality: South Korea is only a tip of an iceberg, not just for the major powers, but also for North Korea now. A growing number of people are endorsing the idea of a nuclear arms race based on the misguided preconception that South Korea is still a primary concern for Kim Jong-un. Even if South Korea somehow miraculously obtains nukes, it is highly probable based on realpolitik as well as numerous treaties that the United States would be the one standing behind the wheel. In response, China and Russia would strongly object and use this as an excuse to back out of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. Japan, an inevitably prioritized ally of the United States, would be displeased by this, so mulling over the possibility of a nuclear arms race is a waste of time.
Obama refused to resume diplomatic talks with North Korea if denuclearization was not on the agenda, and the Korean government, despite it not representing the United States, followed U.S. policy and has never actually tried alternative tactics to meet with the leader of the North. By now it is likely that Kim Jong-un understands the implications of regime change in democratic countries like the United States and South Korea: Power transitions can result in totally different policies. But as can be witnessed from President Moon Jae-in’s decision to go forward with the deployment of the Thaad missile shield, one thing remains the same: United States has leverage over South Korea militarily and economically, to say the least.
From this, one can infer that there is more of a need than ever for a grand strategy that establishes the basic guidelines or a unilateral direction to policies on North Korea. The Ministry of Unification needs to be more proactive than gleaning data and hosting unification promotion events. First off, it needs to be able to show its vision of future Korea clearly, but with the grave politicization of the issue at hand, the ministry has not been able to take that initial step. But more importantly, the greatest irony of the supposedly South Korean “conservatives” demanding North Korea to denuclearize when U.S. Forces Korea still have not retreated back to their homeland ought to be resolved. Only when an incremental decrease in U.S.-ROK military joint military exercises, in size and frequency, has been carried out, will the North cease its provocations and can South Korea call for gradual denuclearization.
*Student at Kyung Hee University majoring in international relations