The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
President Lee Myung-bak was more devoted to the theme of North Korea than the economy in a meeting of the National Economic Council about seven years ago. The president claimed the North Korean regime’s insecurity had worsened due to hard-line sanctions and pressure from his administration. He believed he had succeeded in taming Pyongyang. In reality, North Korea was earning more foreign currency than ever through shipments of minerals to China.
If Lee had taken the time to check North Korea’s trade data, he could have saved himself some embarrassment. North Korean policies based on wishful thinking are commonplace under conservative administrations.
I was invited to a forum attended by a politician from the ruling party shortly after Moon Jae-in was elected president. I argued that sanctions have a better chance of drawing Pyongyang to the negotiating table for denuclearization because sanctions were working on the North Korean economy, which has become increasingly reliant on external trade. I stressed that Seoul should be more serious about sanctions to prevent a war. The politician disagreed. “Imposing sanctions on the same race cannot go along with the values of the progressive front,” he said. Although he was on the other side of the ideological axis, he too was blinkered. Thanks to so-called “values,” the liberal camp was chained to its own delusions about North Korea.
There can never be presumptions in history. Only lessons can be drawn. What would have happened if South Korea had pursued exchanges and cooperation with the North before it carried out its fourth nuclear test in 2016? I don’t mean showy ventures, but more involvement in North Korean market activities, inclusion of North Korea in international affairs and expansion of joint industrial parks beyond Kaesong. I put forward the same recommendations to a senior official in the past administration. He nodded and asked, “How can we persuade the conservative voters behind the government?” Politicians who use the division in the South over North Korean affairs for their gain stood in the way of improved inter-Korea ties.
As a result, the price of peace has risen. North Korea’s nuclear development became an international issue after Pyongyang brazenly pursued nuclear and missile programs. The issue became entangled with a hegemonic struggle between the United States and China because the latter was responsible for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. Seoul has to plead for Beijing’s help while relying on Washington for protection. It had to endure retaliation from Beijing over the installation of a U.S. anti-missile system and fret over President Donald Trump’s tweet offensives about striking North Korea or forcing Seoul to shoulder more defense costs.
War was avoided on the Korean Peninsula not because of the progressives’ values, but thanks to sensible actions. When North Korea resumed nuclear tests in 2016, the U.S.-led UN sanctions took effect, forcing China to also comply from March 2017. After a year of those sanctions, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered an olive branch early this year. What moved him was hardened and multiple sanctions on top of a real threat of a U.S. military strike. If our North Korea policy was led by “goodwill” toward the North, as argued by the progressive front, we could have found ourselves in the middle of a war.
The political front has once again become polarized due to scant progress in denuclearization talks. There is no way out if progressives stick to engagement-first policy and conservatives adhere to hard-line sanctions. Sanctions and economic cooperation are not values, just policy means. A state needs the right mix of fiscal and monetary policies to address economic problems; we need the same mix and balance in our North Korea policy.
Sanctions must stay intact to ensure denuclearization. But sanctions alone may not work. Washington is not currently considering any other alternatives. Frustrated by the stubbornness of Washington and Pyongyang, Seoul may be tempted to persuade Washington to see to its options through cooperation and diplomacy. But that can only test Washington’s patience.
Seoul can earn Washington’s trust only when it can convince it with strong reasoning. The mainstream in Washington doubts Kim’s genuineness about denuclearization. They are not aware of many changes in the North Korean economy. They still regard the country a reclusive and rigorously controlled socialist economy. We must explain why Kim is so eager to develop the economy and how inner changes can be leveraged to bring about a meaningful transition in North Korea. We must work with Washington to specify rewards Pyongyang can expect in tandem with concrete denuclearization progress.
There are people with expertise and experience in Seoul. But the progressives try to recruit people based on their ideological values instead of their expertise in diplomacy and security. One is not progressive simply because one believes that North Koreans are of the same race as us and economic cooperation matters most. Why do we need to be right or left to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 5, Page 35