Dr. Tina J. Park is an expert on North Korea and Canadian-Korean relations. She is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
Tensions have remained high on the Korean peninsula during President Donald Trump’s first trip to Asia, with North Korea and trade relations at the top of his agenda. Efforts to constrain North Korea’s ambitions have been a bipartisan failure for successive U.S. administrations, but it has worsened in the recent past, as marked by Pyongyang’s rapid advancements in its intercontinental-ballistic missile (ICBM), nuclear, and cyber capabilities, as well as the belligerent rhetoric on full display from both sides. While expectations remain low in terms of Trump’s actual ability to resolve the North Korean crisis, all eyes are on his every move and tweet, especially in Seoul, just miles away from Pyongyang.
While the Blue House has been urging the public that “it is in Korean tradition to be courteous to the visiting guest,” anti-Trump sentiments and public demonstrations were widespread on the streets of Seoul for his Tuesday visit, despite extensive security measures and thousands of police forces on the ground. Yet there are others on the streets of Seoul who are out to demonstrate that there is a greater need than ever before to strengthen the alliance between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea, which has been in place for nearly seven decades.
Since the division of the Korean peninsula at the end of the Second World War, the United States spent billions of dollars in aid to help rebuild South Korea’s economy. Much of the U.S. aid was directed towards military spending to defend the South against the North, but the rest was dedicated towards reconstruction and rebuilding, and even helped to finance some of President Park Chung Hee’s early Five-Year Plans, which were instrumental in South Korea’s rapid industrialization. Under the shadow of the Cold War, economic growth was seen as an important safeguard against the spread of communism, and in a remarkably short span of time, the South Korean economy grew at an exponential rate and subsequently became an important partner for the United States. But beyond trade, the relationship is also an alliance forged in blood: South Korean soldiers fought side-by-side with U.S. forces in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But today, that alliance is under a great deal of stress. Under the facade of cordiality and long-standing partnership, Seoul is increasingly becoming frustrated by the lack of coherent American strategy on North Korea and their fundamental inability to take the driver’s seat in shaping inter-Korean relations.
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To be sure, such feeling of uneasiness has to do with Trump’s relative lack of experience in diplomacy and statecraft. For many South Koreans, Trump is seen to be directly responsible for the latest escalation of crisis with Pyongyang, and many feel that Trump’s “tough talk” is meant to sell more American weapons to South Korea with little regard for stability on the Korean peninsula. Trump has been a vocal advocate of ending the era of “strategic patience” and using the full range of American capabilities to deal with the “Rocket Man” on a “suicidal mission”—even though he adopted a much more conciliatory tone in his latest visit to Seoul.
But a more fundamental question lies with the limits of American military might as a guarantor for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Last week, the U.S. sent bombers and aircraft carriers towards the Korean peninsula. During Trump’s visit to Seoul, a joint military drill was conducted between the U.S. Marines and the R.O.K. Forces in the northwestern part of South Korea. While Trump argued that progress is being made on the North Korean file, it is really only a matter of time until Pyongyang decides to test another missile, and Pyongyang continues to argue that these joint military threats pose serious threats to its own survival.
Like many things in life, timing is very important in diplomacy. Just last week, Beijing and Seoul ended their dispute over Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), an anti-missile defence system that has been a thorny issue affecting their bilateral trade and South Korea’s tourism industry. In a remarkable turn of events, South Korea has announced that it would not consider additional deployment of THAAD and would seek to balance its relationship between the U.S. and China, as well as other allies like the European Union. Juggling between empires—one in ascendance, the other in decline—is a common feature of Korean history. Considering that China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner—about $235 billion USD is generated by two-way trade—there are very practical reasons for Seoul to deepen its political relationship with Beijing.
Personal relationships also matter. There are growing signs of difference in approach between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In. Repeatedly, Moon has made it clear that Seoul is not interested in any military options, emphasizing that no war could be waged on the Korean peninsula without the consent of the South Korean government. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also repeatedly emphasized that diplomacy is the only way to resolve the North Korean crisis.
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Despite being accused of “appeasement” by Trump on Twitter, South Korea now has a president who is not willing to blindly follow the orders from Washington. Moon, a former human-rights lawyer by training and an offspring of Korean War refugees, believes firmly in engagement and dialogue with the North. He has also made it abundantly clear that Seoul is not interested in any form of trilateral military alliance that involves Japan—an idea that Washington has contemplated since the 1960s—in light of history of Japanese aggression and war crimes against Koreans, a bad memory that both Koreas share. For obvious reasons, too, Beijing opposes any enlargement of American military capabilities in the region.
On the surface, these differences between Washington and Seoul may seem trivial. After all, the military alliance remains strong. There are concerns about the R.O.K.-U.S. free trade agreement, but the volume of trade is too significant for the United States to casually give up. South Korea also just assumed over 90 per cent of the costs involved in Camp Humphreys, America’s biggest overseas military base. The actual likelihood of military confrontation on the Korean peninsula remains low, in light of the small size of the Korean peninsula, powerful neighbours, and tremendous human and financial consequences of any attack.
Yet the differences matter because they relate to the question of what is really at stake. The problem is not just about disagreements between Trump and Moon, but conflicting visions about how best to guarantee peace and stability on the Korean peninsula in the 21st century. Far from sleepwalking into a war, the current crisis stems from a lack of clarity and unity; there are fundamental questions to be answered in terms of the role of the United States as a champion of the liberal democratic order and Washington’s ability to balance its domestic priorities against its “exceptional” role on the world stage. As President Abraham Lincoln once said, “a house divided cannot stand,” and now, perhaps more than ever before, politics of division and internal chaos undermine the strength of the United States. Coupled with lack of a long-term strategy, that raises serious doubts on its ability to shoulder the burden of costs in the affairs of its allies, even an important one like South Korea.
And dealing with Pyongyang is not getting any easier. The regime’s cyber warfare capabilities, in addition to its ties to China, Russia, Iran, Syria and non-state terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, make it a formidable enemy, with real power to disrupt our everyday lives. From hacking banks to selling malware to purchasing bitcoins, Pyongyang has mastered the art of survival in the face of toughest-ever sanctions, as these cyber operations generate billions of dollars for the regime. Chemical and biological weapons, meanwhile, are making their way from Pyongyang to the Middle East, arming terror groups at a rate far faster than the delivery of humanitarian aid from the UN agencies. North Korean embassies around the world are selling missiles and other illicit arms, while the regime continues to engage in human trafficking. North Korea’s gross violation of fundamental human rights, including crimes against humanity committed against its own people, shock our conscience and threaten our own values of human equality and dignity.
It is abundantly clear that nothing will stop North Korea from becoming a nuclear power, regardless of verbal condemnations, UN security council resolutions, and comprehensive sanctions. While Washington refuses to accept that nuclear North Korea will soon be a reality, the true challenge ahead is finding a long-term solution centred around containment and deterrence, rather than a hostile ad-hoc approach, options that frankly only gift the Kim regime more time. The Korean people, who are still living through the remnants of the Cold War every day, are vehemently opposed to another war. To change the rules of the game, and the quagmire across the 38th parallel, the need for a genuine peace treaty is greater than ever before. And ultimately, a long-term solution for the Korean peninsula must be found between Seoul and Pyongyang, however challenging that may be.
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