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Title Time for South Korea to Focus on Denuclearization, not on a Feud with Japan Date 2019.07.19

Byong-Chul Lee

Attach IFES Forum No 19-07-19.docx
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea 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 government, as if he were a devout missionary over the matter of denuclearization, the centerpiece of his agenda to confront a possible nuclear war in the peninsula. Should inter-Korean relations improve even better than now, Seoul and Pyongyang could soon find a path forward on denuclearization. Through a few summit meetings between Moon and Kim, the expectations of South Koreans are high.

It’s the same sentiment that U.S. president Donald Trump expressed whenever he met with Mr. Kim in Singapore, Hanoi (Vietnam), and Panmunjom at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone of South Korea, respectively. Relying on the entirely mutual good intentions instead of matching the mutual military buildup, Trump and Kim both were able to avoid a military escalation by negotiating a set of political agreement and promises that have to date kept the communist regime’s military escalation under control. Trump is right to be proud.

In truth, since Trump took office in 2017, the Kim regime has suspended nuclear tests, released detained American citizens and sent back to the United States the remains of some American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War. Moon quickly praised Trump as “the peacemaker of the Korean Peninsula,” although critics were busy calling the DMZ greeting “an overhyped photo opportunity” by the ill-considered president who would emphasize the unusually cozy relations with the young dictator. Given mutual hostile relations of almost seven decades, it is no exaggeration that Trump’s rendezvous with Kim at the DMZ opened a new chapter in the history of bilateral relations.

Yet to say that the denuclearization of North Korea is right on the doorstep is not correct. North Korea is still keeping its nuclear weapons and fissile materials, about which the Trump administration does not seem much concerned. 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.’ North Korea, which carried out a series of nuclear tests, has thrown South Korea into an absolute tizzy while pinpointing its nuclear weapons by medium-range ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, at least toward the territory of South Korea.

We now live in the long shadow of a nuclear nightmare--the disastrous ‘Waiting for Godot’ scenario shaped by the nuclear-armed pariah state that harbors a decades-long goal of occupying South Korea militarily. North Korea seems determined to use whatever means is available to decisively damage South Korea on national security strategy, which must be reprehensible behavior to the despair of the North Korea-friendly Moon government’s approach to achieving a nuclear-free peninsula.

Most recently, we have witnessed dramatic changes more quickly than at any other time in the history of U.S.-North Korea relations. Like everything, however, denuclearization also has a beginning, middle, and end. The denuclearization path has long been left in an unchartered state of neglect—like driving along the highway with no clear destination. With rising anxiety, the previous U.S. administrations have watched the unpredictable North Korean regime develop nuclear capabilities, in hopes that the broken regime may surrender to the water-tight global sanctions.

In a strict sense, that was a strategic misjudgment. A combination of wishful thinking and poor policies, such as the ‘strategic patience’ under the Obama administration, has eventually helped the Kim regime bolster its nuclear power. Since taking office in 2011, Kim Jong-un has continued to develop North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to attack the mainland of the United States. The nuclear cheater’s inexorable pursuit of nuclear weapons reaffirmed the belief that fundamental reforms and openness in the rigidly totalitarian system were impossible. The increasing fear will soon turn into an unavoidable reality, a kind of fateful turning point that we have no choice but to accept, whereas there will be the current, closely related to the nuclear balancing led by the dyed-in-the-wool right wing of South Korea, approval of which has steadily maintained in public opinion polls around 70 percent.

Though there was the freshest remark from Kim that he is willing to make the denuclearization of Yongbyon nuclear site happen in return for the removal of nearly all sanctions, the political events that the idiosyncratic leaders performed are not going to bring denuclearization to the whole peninsula, essentially because their perspective is mutually exclusive. For example, the Yongbyon denuclearization must be a key sweetener of the Pyongyang Declaration in 2018, but the Trump administration’s final, fully verifiable denuclearization (FFVD) is by nature a long shot of disallowing a quantum leap in its process, albeit it is not an illusion.

Everyone knows that negotiations between the United States and North Korea are the only way to form a reliable agreement and settle the complicated issues discussed in Singapore, instead of the two countries’ taking off the gloves outside the negotiation room. It takes two to tango, unless each wants a dance that does not require a partner. To make it worse, yet, the relations between South Korea and Japan are in tatters.

It remains to be seen whether the United States will be able to play its role as a major force for good in the standoff between South Korea and Japan. Unfortunately, there is little sign of that happening. The odds would be much lower than one can expect, in particular if the U.S. continues to be a reluctant mediator. But President Trump’s action can be meant not only for the good of the trilateral relationship among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo, but for an absolute necessity for his giant leap for the mankind: the denuclearization of North Korea.

*Dr. Byong-Chul LEE is assistant professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University in Seoul, South Korea.