Living in South Korea, I think it would be a bit odd if I didn’t comment about the historic event right now regarding North and South Korea. Honestly, I’m very optimistic about the first steps towards a friendlier relationship with North Korea; however, I really don’t know what that friendly relationship means for the country going forward. But whatever it is, it is still better than the North Korea a few months ago that was testing nuclear missiles and insulting its neighbors.
First off, I worry about John Bolton’s comment that they are going to use the Libya model to denuclearize North Korea. This model has been looked at negatively by the people in power in North Korea, especially since it eventually led to the ouster and death of Colonel Gaddafi. As friendly and as willing North Korea may seem to be with denuclearization now, I’m not sure how far those talks would go and what true denuclearization would lead to. Also, factory jobs and the military are the biggest way out of poverty for many North Koreans. If you don’t have a need for a military, you have millions of men potentially on a crisis to transition to other industries. North Korea needs to maintain a perpetual sense of threat in order to justify its bloated military. Also, without the west to fight against, why would North Koreans need Kim Jung Un to save and protect them? It’s a disconnect in the cult of the Kims’ dogma which I’m not sure if Kim Jung Un would survive politically.
So yeah, shake hands with Kim Jung Un, take photos, and make promises. But remember that the North also just decimated a mountain due to their nuclear tests and that Kim Jung Un has killed relatives in order to save his skin. Optimism with a grain of salt is in order.
A friendlier North Korea would do well for the South Korea. I don’t imagine open borders anytime soon, but as I mentioned in past posts, with South Korea relatively meager and stagnant GDP growth rate, a friendlier North could help companies in the South by opening its population to commerce. It would also ease tensions with China and prevent issues like the THAAD missile crisis from harming companies that do business in China and South Korea.
What annoys me, however, is the extremely partisan atmosphere in the country. Just last weekend, there were street protests from the hard right calling the president a traitor and accusing him of selling the country to North Korea. This is insanity. How does that even work? Last time I checked, South Korea is far richer than its northern neighbor. But the problem is the left can be just as toxic with their tribalism as well. I don’t lean on any Korean political parties nor do I subscribe to any particular Korean publication (which can be terribly partisan). I will read anything and I also read/listen to analysis from foreign publications and commentators. But the minute I say anything negative or express a bit of concern regarding the current president’s actions, I get accused as being brainwashed by the right. And sometimes this is my wife accusing me of partisanship!
What’s also annoying is Donald Trump taking credit for any headway into North Korea’s denuclearization. I could forgive him for taking some credit. Despite him name calling and trying to compare nuclear buttons with Kim Jung Un just a few months ago, he is still the leader of the United States and he did send Mike Pompeo to meet Kim Jung Un. I don’t know what they talked about and I suspect Trump only sent Pompeo to the North in order to boost his credibility as a Secretary of State nominee, but he still sent him there to presumably open a dialogue. But what’s annoying is Trump taking 100% of the credit to the current North and South Korean situation. What an annoying gnat! He just dismissed all the work of his allies in the South. What’s worse, I suspect if the talks don’t result in meaningful progress, he would gladly throw South Korea under the bus without even remembering President Moon Jae-In’s name.
As for President Moon Jae-In, he should really calm down with saying “Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” for his work in the inter-Korean talks. I know he’s just trying to be gracious, but Trump will take that graciousness and use it as a cudgel.
I wasn’t in the country during most of the Sunshine Policy of previous administrations, but this feels similar to that attempt to a more peaceful coexistence between the two countries. What’s mostly missing from that previous policy is the North acting in good faith. They were occasionally aggressive during the period and have failed to return much of the goodwill shown to them by the South. I certainly hope things will be better this time around. I personally don’t care so much about nuclear disarmament, especially since North Korea still has thousands of traditional weapons aimed and could destroy Seoul should it ever choose to (I live and work in one of the busiest parts of Seoul), but it would be a great first step at easing tensions in the region. However, I suspect that the song and dance following a true denuclearization, i.e. claims of not following agreements, accusations of hiding nuclear facilities, misleading inspectors, etc., would long be used by political actors to scare each other long after the last rocket has been decommissioned. I’m optimistic, but it will be a long time before people truly no longer see North Korea as a nuclear threat.