Korean peninsula: the plot thickens…

I have just published at www.ecfr.eu this comment on the consequences of Moon Jae-in’s (and also Donald Trump’s!) election.

The election of president Moon Jae-in in South Korea is almost as much a freak occurrence as Donald Trump’s was in the United States. Moon — a dovish former human rights activist who wants to reopen dialogue with the North and criticizes the deployment of anti-missile defence by the US on South Korean soil — has been elected at a time when North Korea’s behaviour could scarcely be more hawkish, and when the hawks are circling in Washington in response.

To understand Moon’s election in this unlikely context, one needs to pierce through the strategic language with which the Korean peninsula is usually explained, and look for other layers of history and politics.

It is difficult for outsiders to grasp how unreal the whole North Korean situation is to most South Koreans. As the military and authoritarian grasp over the South has waned and given way to a democracy and a society that cares more about Gangnam pop or the educational ladder than about the repressed North, the nuclear drama of the DPRK has become an abstract charade. Even when it comes to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) buffer between the two states, South Korean civil society is more interested in protecting the wildlife that has blossomed in the absence of human encroachment. And South Korean youth activists are more likely to go ballistic about incidents involving GIs stationed in South Korea than they are over North Korean missile tests.

Public corruption — once a fact of life in Korea — is now viewed as intolerable. Korean democracy has become more demanding, while staying just as conflictual. President Park was killed in 1979 by his KCIA chief. President Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death after his term (the sentence was later commuted). President Roh Tae-woo was sentenced to jail after the end of his term. The two Kims — Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung — escaped this fate, yet both had been to jail before their terms, and Kim Dae-jung was famously kidnapped from Japan. His three sons were jailed for corruption during his term. Liberal President Roh Moo-hyun escaped jail after his term by jumping from a cliff. President Lee Myun-bak apologized for the corruption of his family and escaped prosecution. And of course, President Park Geun-hye is now in jail after her resignation in March. Moon Jae-in has been lifted to power by revulsion at corruption and the chaebols who dominate public life.

In this sense South Korean democracy is one which justifies the old adage that “all politics is local”. Occasionally the veil is lifted on the reality of North Korean threats. Isolated acts of violence, or nuclear blackmail, stir South Korean public opinion (which recently went in favour of acquiring its own nukes — that would indeed be a strategic revolution in East Asia). And then the country returns to the business of the day — making cars, ships, computers, civilian nuclear plants and advanced weapon systems, and trouncing the chaebols or big companies that make them.

It is no surprise, therefore, that in spite of the tight strategic relationship that South Korea has with the United States, the two governments almost never see eye to eye on the North. Rather, attitudes in Seoul and Washington tend to be inversely correlated: when the US goes down the path of talks with Pyongyang (usually at China’s behest) Seoul worries aloud about letting the North get away with its sinister designs, and even calls for use of force. But any time US pre-emptive action against North Korea is hinted at, the South tends to swing towards softer rhetoric and a more diplomatic approach.

And with good reason. As US Senator Lindsey Graham rather cheekily tweeted recently, a US military strike on the North has no immediate consequence for the US itself — only for South Korea and Japan. Nuclear fall-out from a direct hit at a site such as the Yongbyon plutonium plant, or the suicidal but still devastating retaliation that the North could unleash for a few hours on its neighbours, may be unreal to the man on the street in Seoul. They are very much in the mind of strategists in Seoul and Tokyo.

In this sense, Donald Trump’s hard-nosed approach to North Korea is likely to have played a role in the election of a South Korean president who takes a softer view of Pyongyang and opposes US intervention. The fact that Trump, in the middle of the South Korean election, returned to his old line that the South should fork over a billion dollars for the US anti-missile defence now being installed, will only have exacerbated this effect.

One could argue that the close relationship between South Korean and US military and intelligence services will compensate for the political gaps, and this has indeed tended to be the case in recent history. But this time is different. The DPRK has successfully voided all policies designed to contain its nuclear and ballistic programme. US threats cannot be made good if its South Korean ally disagrees with the direction of policy. And South Korean engagement with the North is bound to fail if Moon Jae-in has to go it alone.

If Seoul and Washington do not find a common strategy, they will effectively surrender the course of events to Beijing and Pyongyang. In fact, given the reluctance of China to take risks on the Chinese peninsula, and its aversion to reunification, that gives Kim Jong-un a long interval in which to carry on under the protective mantle of nuclear blackmail.