The East Asia dilemmaLee Byong-chul
The author is an assistant professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University in Seoul.
East Asia now appears quite dangerous in terms of the well-known security dilemma theory, which states that in an anarchic international system, mistrust between potential adversaries may lead each side to wrongly perceive “defensive measures” as “offensive threats.’” A lack of mutual trust can lead each side to overact, as if it uses a big sword to kill a mosquito, eventually sparking a spiral of tension.
Given the longstanding animosity between Korea and Japan, it is natural that the sensitivity in Japan to all changes in Korea’s national security policy should pose great challenges for political leaders in Japan. A recently reconciliatory atmosphere among the two Koreas and the United States over denuclearization has marginalized Japan, politically weakening the role of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For the hawkish leader who wants to keep the peninsula the status quo for the long haul and to return to the militarism of the 1930s, any reconciliation in inter-Korean relations means the inconvenient truth.
While Abe believes that with the massive stockpiles of plutonium in Japan, Japanese nuclear scientists and engineers could easily develop nuclear weapons, President Moon Jae-in apparently believes that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will likely abandon his nuclear arsenals.
The human rights lawyer-turned-liberal president acts, according to some critics of the Moon administration, as if he were a devout missionary over the issue of denuclearization. Should inter-Korean relations improve even better than now, Seoul and Pyongyang could find a path toward denuclearization. Through summit meetings between Moon and Kim, the expectations of Koreans are high.
U.S. President Donald Trump expressed such expectations whenever he met with Kim in Singapore, Hanoi and Panmunjom. Relying on the entirely mutual good intentions — instead of matching the mutual military buildup — Trump and Kim both could avoid a military escalation by negotiating a set of political agreements to keep Pyongyang’s military escalation under control.
In truth, since Trump took office in 2017, the Kim regime has suspended nuclear tests, released detained American citizens and sent back the remains of a few American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War to the United States.
Moon quickly praised Trump as “the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula,” although critics were busy calling the DMZ meeting “an overhyped photo opportunity.” Given the deep-rooted hostilities of the past, it is no exaggeration that Trump’s rendezvous with Kim at the DMZ opened a new chapter in the history of bilateral relations.
However, considering the North’s nuclear threat — more real and imminent than ever — you can hardly jump to the conclusion that the denuclearization of North Korea is right on one’s doorstep. The recalcitrant regime is still keeping its nuclear weapons and materials.
While the United States has no intention of endorsing North Korea as a nuclear power, there seems to be a high possibility that North Korea may be categorized as “Pakistan of Northeast Asia.” Through a series of nuclear tests, it has thrown South Korea into an absolute tizzy while aiming its medium-range ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at South Korea to begin with.
Most recently, we have witnessed dramatic changes in U.S.-North Korea relations. Like everything, however, denuclearization is a long and complicated process. The path toward denuclearization has been unchartered — like driving along the highway with no milestones.
With its rising anxiety, the previous U.S. administrations have watched the unpredictable regime develop nuclear capabilities — in hopes that the regime may surrender to the water-tight international sanctions.
That was a strategic misjudgment. A combination of wishful thinking and poor policies — such as the ‘strategic patience’ under the Obama administration — has helped the Kim regime bolster its nuclear development. Since taking office in 2011, Kim has continued to develop the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to attack the U.S. mainland.
The nuclear cheater’s inexorable pursuit of nuclear weapons only reaffirmed the belief that fundamental reforms and openness in the rigid totalitarian system were impossible.
The deepening fear will soon turn into a reality — a fateful turning point when we have no choice but to accept — whereas our conservatives will increasingly demand a “nuclear balancing,” which has steadily gained support — as high as 70 percent — from the public.
To make matters worse, the South Korea-Japan relations are in tatters. Diplomacy takes two to tango. Abe’s hawkish worldview will exacerbate the atmosphere of distrust between Seoul and Tokyo.
If Japan is determined to worsen its relations with Korea, Seoul will most likely take its corresponding measures against Japan. South Korea may be less cooperative with Japan on sharing military information unless the United States gets involved in its allies’ growing dispute.
It remains to be seen whether the United States will be able to play the role of a mediator for good in the standoff between Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that happening. The odds would be much lower than one can expect — if the U.S. continues to be a reluctant mediator. Otherwise — if Trump is really willing to step in to help his allies make friends with one another again — it could help solve the gigantic dilemma facing humankind: the denuclearization of North Korea.