Elections and nukes
The author is a former foreign minister.
Truth is the first casualty in war. In Korea, presidential elections are a graveyard of truth, and they are wars that determine more than a political victory or defeat. In this election, it is an undeniable truth that South Korea exists under a North Korean nuclear threat. Despite Korea’s advancements in economics and culture, happiness suddenly feels strained.
Four years ago, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchanged threats, insisting that their nuclear buttons were bigger and more powerful. President Moon Jae-in appealed to them that a war should be avoided. When our leader confessed that “we are powerless” between North Korea and the United States, the people were broken with a feeling of helplessness.
North Korea pressures the U.S. by using its nuclear weapons, taking South Korea hostage and getting support from China. A series of tests of new weapons targeting South Korea is a part of its strategy. When you only have a hammer, you see nails everywhere. Unless the U.S. lifts sanctions, North Korea will eventually trigger an inter-Korean military clash or demonstrate its long-range nuclear missile capability.
But Washington rejected Pyongyang’s negotiation tactic based on its possession of nuclear arms and started “managing” the North Korean nuclear crisis instead of resolving it. In his UN speech in September, U.S. President Joe Biden expressed a willingness to “seek serious and sustained diplomacy to pursue the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” suggesting adherence to his earlier stance. While volatility in East Asia is increasing due to the U.S.-China conflict, South Korea is trapped inside the unstable tunnel of coexistence with endless North Korean nuclear threats.
History often repeats itself. When a new administration starts in South Korea next May, North Korea will attempt to rattle the situation on the Korean Peninsula to get concessions from Seoul and Washington. Many greater issues will fall into the black hole of a security crisis. Unless South Korea prepares to take the initiative in the nuclear issue, it will most likely face helplessness, similar to what it experienced four years ago.
The key to an ability to lead the situation is a right policy and public consensus. Though there are not many policy options for us — and the path to national unity is narrow — let’s run down the policy options.
First, a plan to first ease sanctions on North Korea and link it to denuclearization: The proposal aims to ease sanctions first, but ratchet up the level of sanctions if North Korea doesn’t carry out denuclearization. The plan seeks to improve inter-Korean relations and address the issue in the longer term by preventing a clash through negotiations. But critics contend all similar attempts failed in the past and that it will only help consolidate South Korea’s submission to North Korean nuclear threats as it is already a nuclear state.
Second, a proposal to keep in line with the U.S. policy of strategic management: The plan is based on the premise that North Korea will eventually give up nuclear weapons or collapse if the U.S. nuclear umbrella and sanctions on North Korea are maintained. Supporters say that Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation will add more pressure. They also want to redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and share nuclear arsenals if necessary. Critics say it will shut the door to nuclear negotiations and deepen South Korea’s reliance on the U.S. for security. As a collapse of North Korea is unlikely due to China’s backing, South Korea will continue to live as a hostage of the North-U.S. diplomatic deadlock, they contend.
Third, a plan to strengthen South Korea’s own nuclear capabilities: This plan seeks to maintain the U.S. nuclear umbrella while creating a basis of a nuclear weapons system starting with non-military grade nuclear materials. Supporters say it is possible to have a potential nuclear capability even under the alliance with the U.S., like the cases of Japan and Germany. They champion starting with fuel enrichment at nuclear reactors — allowed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty — for energy security. But critics wonder if South Korea really can handle the U.S. pressure over nuclear proliferation.
No matter what policy we choose, it will be useless without national unity. A new administration always talks about a bipartisan push for North Korea policy, but that has been nothing but a slogan. West Germany’s unification policy could succeed thanks to the political structure of a coalition cabinet. But that is far from our political system.
A realistic way for us is having an active presidential debate on the North Korean nuclear issue. A possibility of mutual acceptance of a policy should be found through a heated and constructive debate. Only after the people’s understanding on the issue is deepened can the government have room to push forward a bipartisan policy.
“Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” said Biden when he announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in July. South Korea cannot be compared to that country in terms of national power and geopolitical importance. And yet, Biden’s principle of a country deciding its own future is pertinent.
In the post-war era, a U.S. administration often overturns the previous administration’s foreign policy. The latest debate over the no-first-use policy of nuclear arms and the conflict on nuclear submarine sales are examples. That’s also why German and French leaders are saying Europe’s security must be protected by Europe.
South Korea is not a powerless country that suffers in a North-U.S. conflict. It just never bothers to unite its own people on the complicated nuclear issue. To effectively counter the North Korean threats, the upcoming presidential election must be used as a channel to unite the people.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.