As we head into the new year, it’s time to talk about hopes and opportunities. But the mood is a little different because in the past year, we went through one of the most challenging years in a long time and its repercussions -- especially those related to former President Park Geun-hye and North Korea -- are likely to continue into the year ahead.
North Korea crisis
One of the toughest challenges will be tackling the North Korea nuclear and missile crisis, which has even stoked fears of war between the US and the North. Some, including President Moon Jae-in, aptly called the crisis the gravest one since the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Considering what happened in 2017, it will not be easy to take the weapons of mass destruction away from the rogue regime in Pyongyang.
In the year, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test and test-fired 20 ballistic missiles. It claimed the latest missile was an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland. The North proudly declared that it has now completed its “state nuclear force.”
The sense of crisis heightened so much that authorities in Hawaii and Japan conducted civil defense drills against possible nuclear attacks from the North.
Ironically, Donald Trump, the leader of South Korea’s most important ally, made the situation scarier by openly talking about the possibility of taking a military option against the regime of young dictator Kim Jong-un.
The warnings of military options and the harshest international sanctions against the Kim regime have failed to stop the North’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
As the North now demands it be recognized as a nuclear power and duly treated as one -- and the world does not intends to do so -- the year 2018 will be a crucial time for what direction the crisis goes: catastrophic clash, peaceful settlement or maintaining the status quo.
What’s important is that there should never be another war on the peninsula. That should not mean blind opposition to taking a military option against the North, thereby stripping the international community of key leverage.
There are options other than a direct military strike against the North Korean leadership or key facilities such as naval interdiction and blockade.
Any such action and other international pressure should be accompanied by efforts to bring the North to the negotiating table, for which the alliance with the US and Japan and cooperation from countries like China and Russia are essential.
But the latest developments surrounding our foreign policy dealings with key countries raise concerns. The Seoul government has yet to resolve the row with China over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. Both South Korea and the US failed to push Beijing to cut off oil supplies and other lifeline support to North Korea.
The Moon administration’s apparent withdrawal from the controversial 2015 deal on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women also raises uncertainty in relations with Japan.
Domestically, narrowing the ideological and political divide that continued to grow wider in the past year will be the most daunting challenge for the nation.
It is ironic that the democratic, orderly ouster of Park, the first president to be impeached, has resulted in widening the ideological and political divide between liberals who victoriously filled in the power vacuum and conservatives who feel they were robbed of their power.
The mutual distrust and antagonism are likely to reach their peak in the June 13 local elections, in which the ruling camp will try to consolidate its grip on power and the conservative opposition will make up for what they have lost from the fall of Park’s presidency and the consequent presidential election.
Local elections and third party
One small hope is that efforts to foster a strong third party will be successful. Having a third party that has a strong mandate and political clout in parliamentary business and other key political matters would certainly help reduce the ills stemming from the polarization of Korean politics by a conservative party based on support from the southeastern provinces and a liberal party whose home turf is the southwestern parts of the country.
Another hope is that we would be able to see a more mature leadership in President Moon, who enters the first full calendar year of his presidency.
His call for uprooting “long-accumulated vices” has some grounds, given the need to address wrongdoings perpetrated by Park and her associates.
But the carefully orchestrated campaign to punish and humiliate the Park government and the Lee Myung-bak administration targets too many people and cases, and some of them are obviously part of the liberal government’s political vendetta against the conservative governments.
There are many other challenges to tackle besides digging into past administrations, which draws backlash from conservatives and therefore leaves the nation more divisive and confrontational. Besides, there is a certain level of fatigue among the general public over the Moon administration’s obsession with the past.
It is hoped that in the coming year, Moon will be able to free himself from the past and set his eyes toward the future and pull the nation together. Then we may be able to expect 2018 to be better than 2017 at least.