Democracy and freedom in East Asia have had a difficult time lately.
The democratically elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, was photographed embracing one of the world’s worst despots, Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea. Chairman Kim had his brother assassinated with a biological weapon of mass destruction, executed his uncle with an anti-aircraft machine gun, and holds an estimated 120,000 political prisoners in a North Korean gulag. President Moon equated their hastily arranged second summit on May 26 as “an ordinary event between friends.”
Burkina Faso dropped its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, one of East Asia’s most democratic states according to Freedom House, and opened diplomatic relations with China. China last year paved the way for this century’s Mao-in-the-making, autocratic President Xi Jinping, to be made president for life and is housing an estimated 100,000 people in political re-education camps in its northwest province. Taiwan claimed China used “serial acts of suppression” and “dollar diplomacy” to lure two diplomatic partners away from the democratic island in the past month. Meanwhile, China has been ramping up its military presence and activity in the Taiwan Strait for a forceful unification with the island if necessary.
President Donald Trump of the United States decided to look into overriding his own Commerce Department and set in motion a plan to get the Chinese telecom giant ZTE up and running at full capacity. ZTE had been punished for breaking sanctions and sharing US technology with the authoritarian governments of Iran and North Korea. The technology sold to Iran was originally described as “a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications.” The Commerce Department banned ZTE from access to US technology components for seven years, which could have destroyed the firm. President Trump decided to renegotiate the punishment after a call from President Xi -- the Chinese state is part owner of ZTE.
This trend of capitulation to authoritarian states is worrisome. Access to the Chinese economy is seen as paramount for economic growth by both the United States and South Korea, so much so that the increasingly authoritarian behavior of President Xi and his government is seemingly ignored. The belief that economic development will assuage Kim Jong-un’s despotic ways appears so ingrained in President Moon and the West that the implausibility of such a rosy scenario seems hardly considered.
The recent rash of obsequious behavior by both Presidents Moon and Trump is all the more concerning when one considers the discord among these two democratic allies. President Moon’s team announced President Trump had agreed to a summit with Kim Jong-un before the White House had time to coordinate a message, essentially backing Trump into a corner. Later, the Moon team would announce the June 12 summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim is “a 99.9 percent done deal,” only to have Trump cancel the summit two days later. All the while, the respective governments have been tussling over trade negotiations and tariff impositions by the Trump administration.
Coordination has been so bad that Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, head of the largest and wealthiest democracy in East Asia, met with Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin to reaffirm Russia’s commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea. Putin, who illegally annexed Crimea and is waging a war on behalf of Syria’s authoritarian despot, President Bashar Assad, was recently re-elected as president, which will make him the longest serving Russian president since Joseph Stalin. Like China, Russia is accused by the National Endowment for Democracy of undermining democracy across the globe. Nevertheless, it appears Prime Minister Abe is pushing to solve territorial issues with Russia, while hoping Russia may be a partner in curbing North Korea’s volatile behavior in the future.
The two brightest points of leadership come from an unlikely source: the United States Congress. In a direct challenge to President Trump, some in Congress are suggesting the institution put forth legislation to prevent ZTE from operating in the US. More so, this institution, so mired in partisan politics and partisan rancor, voted unanimously to pass the Taiwan Travel Act earlier this year. The Taiwan Travel Act encourages high-level US government officials to travel to Taiwan to show support for the island’s democratic regime. Even though President Trump signed the bill in March, officials of the Trump administration were conspicuously absent for the inaugural Taiwan-US Defense Business Forum held on May 10 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The event was part of the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, held annually in the US since 2002, and was the first Conference event ever to be held in Taiwan.
South Korea-North Korea relations and Taiwan-China relations are just two facets of a more complex situation. The clash of democratic and authoritarian values is being played out in East Asia right now, and the world is watching. There is much anticipation regarding the potential summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim. The “leader of the free world” will be meeting the head of North Korea’s race-based, nationalist regime to talk denuclearization. Still, denuclearization of Korea is simply one part of the looming troubles.
South Korea’s President Moon has been talking of denuclearization followed by political confederation with the North, and many speculate that Korea’s eventual unification will be reminiscent of German unification circa 1989. However, if our democratic leaders are not more careful and more coordinated, Korea, and in the longer term Taiwan, may experience unification more akin to German unification circa 1939. At that time, a race-based nationalist regime under the leadership of Adolf Hitler broke its promises to the unsuspecting, democratic leaders of Europe and invaded Czechoslovakia on the pretense of aiding the German peoples. Our democratically elected leaders must not allow that period of history to repeat.
Talking with the authoritarian leaders of East Asia is all well and good, but our democratic leaders should not be embracing them, literally or metaphorically, until their authoritarian tendencies are curbed. A united front is a stronger front indeed, and the freedom and democracy enjoyed by many in East Asia deserves protection.
Sean O’Malley is director and associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.