Apr 3, 2013

Korea's New President and the North Korean Issue by Tom Coyner

This week South Korea has a new beginning, with a new president who promises change - she is the nation’s first female head of government - while providing continuity as a member of the same party of the outgoing president. But as the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.”

That is to say, in spite of contemporary events’ cosmetics, the fundamentals remain remarkably constant. I was reminded of this fact during my monitoring of an email roundtable. Last week I sent out an essay by American columnist and part-time politician Patrick Buchanan. Like a number of U.S.-based scribes who pretend to understand a great deal more about Asia than they actually do, Buchanan wrote a rational, appealing piece that was based on a slim understanding of Korea.

Essentially, Buchanan asked why North Korea’s nuclear test should be an American crisis in 2013? His point was that given how strong South Korea has become both economically and militarily, why can’t America just go home and let the Koreans solve their own problems now that American forces have been here some 60 years? After all, the Cold War is long over and Kim Jong-un is South Korea’s problem - not America’s! His essentially isolationist pitch ended with a Lord Salisbury quote: “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”

I disagreed, pointing out that the recovery costs from a possible second Korean War - even just the post-war costs - would cost America much more than the costs of maintaining U.S. forces in Korea should the U.S. abrogate its diplomatic and moral obligations to stand clear of a second Korean war. (One may also consider a peaceful resolution towards unification but we will get to that theoretical point below.)

Shim Jae-hoon, the doyen of foreign correspondents in Seoul, entered this conversation by asking, “Why is North Korea so bent on developing nuclear weapons?” He pointed out that North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to entice the U.S. to replace the Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty. However, a peace treaty remains an end objective of the North Koreans. With a peace treaty, it would be difficult to rationalize maintaining large U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.

Shim reminded us that when Saigon fell, Kim Il Sung asked Beijing to back him in making a second attempt to militarily conquer the South. Mao turned him down, but the overall strategy remains the same with Pyongyang as it once was with Hanoi.

To be sure, it is unfair to compare today’s South Korean Army with the old South Vietnamese forces. Regardless, the communist strategies remain the same. In fact, when one considers the so-called failed state of the North operating in its parallel universe for the past 60 plus years, one can see through Pyongyang’s propaganda.

North Korea has very limited options for its ultimate survival. It knows it will be overwhelmed by South Korea’s development and will be eventually absorbed by Seoul through peaceful unification, as was the case of the two Germanys, but even more so.

North Korea holds just one card for its long-term survival: Coax the Americans out of Korea and then blackmail South Korea through its nuclear arms or, if necessary, try to capture South Korea by military means.

As farfetched as that may seem, when reality is viewed from north of the DMZ, that is the only option. The rest is a purposely confusing mishmash of window dressing and red herrings that may incidentally provide badly needed aid to prop up North Korea until it can put its master plan into action.

Returning to the opening adage of this essay, things in Korea have not changed since the founding of the South and the North. It sometimes takes old men, who were young men at the time of the Korean War, to remind the young of the underlying fundamentals.

And that brings me to my final point. There has been much handwringing about outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s “failed” North Korea policies. But given the above-reviewed realities, he has been much more realistic than his “Sunshine Policy” predecessors. After the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong island near the Northern Limit Line, Lee revised the orders of the day: If fired upon by North Korean forces, South Korean forces were ordered to return immediate fire, including using air power as necessary. From that moment, there has been peace.

So as President Park Geun-hye looks forward to the coming five years, she and the rest of the nation should also keep an eye on the past. Wishful thinking in itself is not a prudent perspective. Genuinely failed policies from the right could lead the South Koreans into developing their own nuclear arms and thereby initiate a major breakdown of nuclear non-proliferation in Northeast Asia and possibly around the world. Or, equally disastrous failed policies from the left could cause South Korea to fall into North Korea’s trap.

As the cliche goes, North Korea offers only a choice of bad options. In the end, the Korean War continues in its long armistice, waiting for one of the two Korean states to crumble.

Tom Coyner is Senior Advisor to IPG and President of Softlanding Korea. 
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