No more naivety

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No more naivety


Lee Sang-ryeol
*The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Economic conditions following the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago were terrifying and extremely painful. Unemployment levels these days are bad, but cannot be compared to then. Following a year of restructuring and layoffs, over 1.8 million people were without jobs by February 1999. Those who managed to stay on the payroll went to work every day in fear of getting the axe.

The too-big-to-fail ethos didn’t survive that crisis. The tradition of sustaining large companies in fear of the repercussions on society if they went bust broke down. Big corporate names — Hanbo, Sammi, Jinro, Kia, and New Core — went under. Chaebol and began to learn the cost of reckless borrowing. The financial sector paid a heavy price, but nevertheless finally stabilized.

The Korean Peninsula this year is on a path toward peace through the momentum of summits between the two Koreas and Pyongyang and Washington. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may receive the highest level of economic rewards and security for his hereditary dictatorship if he gives up his cherished nuclear weapons.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons by claiming threats from the United States and South Korea, although they were true dangers in the first place. It argues it can sit down with the leader of the world’s strongest nation because it has completed a nuclear weapons program. Such an argument even has persuaded some people in the South. Kim, who until few months ago acted like a ruthless dictator, is now seen as an adventurous risk-taker.



But that argument has a serious fallacy. The thaw on the Korean Peninsula began after Pyongyang offered to dismantle nuclear weapons — not after it completed its nuclear program. The long-held belief that North Korea will never quit and surrender its weapons program is beginning to be shaken. The North Korean people suffered greatly for the regime’s nuclear ambition and people in the South have lived in fear of war. Complete denuclearization this time must be seen through thoroughly, regardless of how long it takes.

We must never let down our guard. Governments both liberal and conservative have been naïve about North Korea in the past. They doubted that Pyongyang could complete its nuclear and missile programs this fast. They underestimated North Korea’s engineering as well as the resilience of its economy.

The United States was equally misjudging. The administration of President Barack Obama brushed off North Korea with its so-called strategic patience strategy. But eight years of indifference gave North Korea the time to master its weapons program. United Nations sanctions led by the United States did not curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Washington only felt some urgency when it learned that North Korea had advanced intercontinental ballistic missile technology that could hit U.S. territory.

Beijing’s wishy-washy attitude also played a part. China advocated for North Korea’s weapons program as deterrence against U.S. threats and claimed that the regime could scrap nuclear weapons if South Korea and the U.S. stop joint military exercises. Beijing vetoed strong UN Security Council actions. It opposed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system and retaliated against South Korea with economic retaliations for going against its warning. Beijing could have influenced Pyongyang’s weapons program if it had shown the same eagerness to stop the Thaad deployment. To Beijing, North Korean nuclear weapons were simply not a direct threat.

U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his role in convincing Pyongyang to come to the table. Their self-congratulatory and indulgent words are discomforting. At the end of the day, the global powers only have their own interests in mind. We must keep our eyes wide open because we can no longer afford to be naïve.
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