Can Korea leverage virus fight into leadership?
Seminar broadcast online discusses future after Covid-19
As the world looks at South Korea’s coronavirus success story, local scholars and pundits are wondering if the nation can leverage it internationally to raise its profile.
One such opportunity in the post-Covid-19 era could be making progress in the North Korea nuclear issue, according to thought leaders brought together last Friday in a so-called webinar — an online seminar — on life after the coronavirus crisis jointly hosted by the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies and the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Arduous March was the worst period in North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. Floods, droughts and famine led to the deaths of millions of people.
Such an economic blow, Kim continued, will leave Pyongyang little room to maneuver in the post-Covid-19 era.
“North Korea can choose from three different options: negotiation, provocation or holding out,” Kim said. “But it would be difficult for the North to hold out for a long period, which is why it would try to weigh between negotiation and provocation.”
In case Pyongyang decides to engage with Seoul, Kim said South Korea could try to bring the North into the so-called fourth industrial revolution.
“South Korean companies who are based overseas can’t return to the South even if they want to due to [South Korea's] tough regulations and high costs,” said Kim. “If inter-Korean ties improve, these companies can reshore to North Korea,” he said.
Noting South Korea’s “improved image” on the international stage due to its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kim pointed out that Seoul can use its increased global clout by directing the future of the Korean Peninsula with more confidence and persuading other countries to side with its decisions on issues pertaining to North Korea.
Yoon Young-kwan, professor emeritus in political science and international relations at Seoul National University and a former South Korean foreign minister, echoed Kim’s emphasis on inter-Korean cooperation, saying Seoul should use its soft power to engage in humanitarian medical projects with Pyongyang and convince the outside world it's a good thing to do.
“The more the outer world is going through a Spring and Autumn Period,” said Yoon, referring to the highly tumultuous time in Chinese history from 770 to 476 B.C., “I think the Korean Peninsula should do its best to try to think of cooperative projects that the two Koreas can engage in. One project that could get going now is cooperation in health and medical treatment. It has all the justification it needs, and I think if we use our leadership [in the international community], we can push the project through.”
Yoon particularly underscored that Seoul must persuade Washington to approach Pyongyang from “a more realistic and practical” standpoint, hinting that the United States needs to exercise some flexibility in its North Korea denuclearization policy.
At a time when the tug-of-war between the United States and China is intensifying, Yoon said that it’s important for South Korea to maintain its rock-solid alliance with Washington while maintaining friendly ties with Beijing because choosing either side will bring about more losses than gains.
“Seoul must convince both sides each time an issue pops up like it did in the past for Thaad [the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system] and AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank],” said Yoon. The former foreign minister advised Seoul not to depend too much on either country, saying doing so may lead to economic sanctions if it ends up on the wrong side of China or the United States.
Not every speaker at the forum backed an increased level in inter-Korean cooperation.
Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean second vice minister of foreign affairs and trade, who’s currently the dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University in Seoul, said rather than engaging with Pyongyang, Seoul must set its “strategic priorities” straight and react intelligently to changes in the world.
“At a time when numerous variables are in play, like the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the deepening strategic competition between the United States and China,” said Kim, “and because we’re currently in a situation where it’s difficult for stability on the Korean Peninsula to last, I think South Korea should set its strategic priorities straight and prepare to keenly react to [future] situations instead of pursuing South-North cooperation from a rosy point of view.”
The former second vice foreign minister stressed that if Seoul tries to seek cooperation with Pyongyang, it may make the North Korea nuclear issue harder to resolve.
If South Korea “places emphasis on South-North [relations], then the United States won’t set the North Korea nuclear issue as a top priority, and in consequence, the North may try to make a strategic provocation in order to flaunt [its military hardware] to the United States, which will make circumstances even more difficult.”
Choi Byung-il, a professor at Ewha Womans University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, cast doubt on prospects of the global economy returning to its pre-Covid-19 state even after the world develops a vaccine for the coronavirus, saying two of the global economy’s most critical pillars — connectivity and mobility — have been “shaken” to their core.
Upon witnessing major disruptions of the global supply chain during the pandemic, Choi said countries will try to persuade their companies doing business in China to return home, but that the companies will refuse to do so because they generally enjoy more favorable business conditions there.
One way for the companies to return home would be if there was a strong public outcry urging them to do so, given that businesses are highly sensitive about their brand reputations, said Choi.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [email@example.com]