Toward responsible liberalism
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.
I was wrapping up a lecture on North Korea’s economy and denuclearization in front of a crowd of Korean immigrants in Japan last year. A person in the audience suddenly stood up and asked, “Why should we sanction North Korea’s nuclear development when the weapons are there to protect us from the United States?”
I doubt if any South Koreans would share such a sentiment, because this “pro-North Korean liberal” — someone who blindly trusts any words from Pyongyang — ignored the fact that North Korea often threatened South Korea with military force, not to mention confusing the United States with imperial states from the past.
After another lecture I gave at a university in Seoul, a professor approached me and asked, “Can’t we live in peace with nuclear state North Korea while engaging in inter-Korean economic cooperation? Why do we have to ruin the peace mode through sanctions and pressure?” Frustrated, I replied, “We cannot rule out the possibility that Pyongyang may change its mind someday to use its nuclear weapons when faced with an emergency. National security is all about preparing for this kind of worst-case scenario.” I call people like this professor a “naïve liberal” — someone who thinks South Korea should financially pay for peace to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. The irony is that people in this category would not react so idly if their own families were at risk. They are irresponsible liberals who are trying to pass down a crumbling economy and a North Korean nuclear threat to our future generation.
Then there’s the school of “original liberals” — those who contend we should separate the nuclear issue from economic cooperation — suggesting that Washington take care of the former task while Seoul handles the latter. Here’s why this is a non-starter. For one, there’s practically zero possibility that the United States would agree to becoming the bad cop and allow South Korea to become the good cop. Second, economic cooperation could undermine the effectiveness of sanctions. If foreign currency flows into North Korea as a result of economic engagement and improves the North Korean economy, we would lose our sole source of pressure for denuclearization.
There’s also a low chance Pyongyang would accept the Moon Jae-in administration’s offer of economic cooperation. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently ordered his underlings to cope with damage from a recent flood on their own without any assistance from abroad. Fears of a possible coronavirus spread could be one reason, but a bigger reason is Kim’s concerns that foreign assistance could be viewed by his people as contradictory to his “self-reliance frontal breakthrough” mantra. Kim refuses to “cooperate” with South Korea unless he is sure that it would significantly intensify his bargaining power in talks with
The original liberals are stuck in the past, thinking a two-track system can still work. It can’t. Former South Korean administrations should have proactively engaged North Korea on the economic front before the regime completed its nuclear development program. Unfortunately, past governments missed their chance, fancifully thinking North Korea would crumble.
Only a true liberal ponders deeply about North Korea’s denuclearization. Only a responsible liberal clarifies that without denuclearization, peace and prosperity can never be achieved. President Moon checks neither of these boxes. In his Aug. 15 Independence Day address, Moon made no mention of denuclearization and blathered on about peace, prosperity and cooperation with North Korea. Does he really believe South Korea’s conventional weapons can strike a “balance of fear” with North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Does he believe he can convince Kim Jong-un into changing North Korea’s course through economic engagement? A conventional weapon with nuclear deterrence cannot be developed within the next decade. It will take at least 20 years for the North Korean economy to change into a market-based system and establish ties with foreign countries until Pyongyang loses interest in using nuclear weapons. Until then, Seoul must live in terror.
It is time for true and responsible liberals to take the lead. Seoul could suggest Pyongyang sign a broad agreement on denuclearization and dismantle its nuclear weapons step-by-step. Even South Korea’s reasonable conservatives would agree to rewarding each denuclearization progress with an easing of sanctions, establishment of a peace regime and helping North Korea’s economic development. Fine-tuning any discrepancies with Washington will be a lot easier if South Korea puts forth a plan backed by both sides of the political spectrum and the general public.
Isn’t denuclearization on the liberals’ agenda? Can peace arrive on the peninsula without denuclearization? How does the administration’s economic engagement with Pyongyang help denuclearization? A liberal who cannot provide compelling answers for each of these questions must keep their hands off the liberal government’s policy decisions. Policies based on weak arguments will only spell trouble for the future of the Korean Peninsula.
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