Kwang W. Kim, Korea country representative for the Asia Foundation
The future of the Korean Peninsula in the 21st century is likely to be linked to events unfolding in North Korea, according to professor Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University. The North continues to be an existential threat to South Korea (and vice versa). Nearly 70 years of calm, and generations without memories of the war (or even links with the wartime generation), have largely numbed the collective consciousness about North Korea in the South. Public opinion polls today show that the majority of South Koreans oppose unification or supporting the North with aid or trade, a trend that has been increasing in the past 10 years. But wishing that the security risks for the peninsula will go away, or betting that the status quo will continue forever is a risky gamble. The war in Ukraine has reminded us that full-scale national wars are not only possible in the 21st century, but increasingly real with the rise of authoritarian leaders (with Russia, China, and North Korea in South Korea’s neighborhood). Preparing for a future where both Koreas are more integrated -- whether by peaceful means, pressure, or by a crisis -- is a key choice facing South Korea today.
It’s understandable how many people feel that we are “stuck” in terms of what to do with North Korea, as neither diplomacy nor pressure resulted in any meaningful breakthroughs in the past. North Korea’s reputation as “the land of lousy policy options” is well earned. To South Korea, the scope for constructive action is even more limited, by depending on external players such as the US and China, as well as difficulties in advancing inter-Korean cooperation without progress in denuclearization. Domestically, whether South Korea will gather enough consensus for any meaningful preparation for the opening of North Korea is an open question.
But military preparation is not the only area of readiness for South Korea. There are important areas of preparation in social and economic domains. To start, embracing a new economic growth and social model to become a more just society, as mentioned earlier in this series, will be a better basis to engage with North Korea in the future. Second, the nearly 34,000 North Korean refugees who are living in South Korea are a microcosm of how South Korea can engage with North Korea in the future. Rooting for their success, getting to know them personally, and empowering them with entrepreneurial success are a few ways to start. How we treat these refugees -- as well as other vulnerable groups -- is important, as their success or failure will be watched closely by their family and relatives back home. This will be an important test for South Korea as a preparation of how it will relate to the North in the future. How will South Korea manage relationships with great powers while pursuing creative foreign policy?
In recent years, South Korea’s relationship with the great powers has been a balancing act, swinging closer to the US or China, depending on the party in power. As treaty allies, South Korea will need to depend on the US for its security and increasingly economic relationships, while closely watching for opportunities to engage China, or at least not antagonize its giant neighbor. While Seoul’s foreign policy priorities are likely to continue to prioritize the US and China (plus Japan), the most creative diplomatic opportunities are likely to be outside these domains, such as Australia, Southeast Asia, and India. The good news is that some Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus countries are looking for Korea (and Japan) for regional leadership given its soft power and its status as a relatively neutral middle-power. This is especially true in non-political areas, such as trade, finance, technological innovation, investments, international aid cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. However, despite many public and policy announcements, many ASEAN countries are still waiting to see what a more active South Korean role in the region would look like. Whether South Korea will choose to make the most of this window of opportunity of receptivity in Southeast Asia and India, the home of more than two billion people, remain to be seen.
The Joseon era in the 19th century fell after a long period of complacency around its internal divisions and bubbling external threats. While South Korea is no longer the isolated and weak country it once was, something in its history is echoing uncomfortably today, as it heads toward a demographic cliff and a pessimism among many of its young and the old. There is still time to choose a more hopeful and resilient future: a society that seeks innovative sources of growth rather than nourishing an anti-growth mindset, a society that shares its prosperity rather more than protecting existing interests, one that prepares for North Korea, and with a more proactive and creative foreign policy. How South Korea chooses to respond these key questions will determine whether the “paradox on the Han River” will be finally solved, thus ensuring the next generation’s right to a future.
By Kwang W. Kim (firstname.lastname@example.org) This is the third article in a three-part series. Kwang W. Kim is the Korea country representative for the Asia Foundation. Previously, he was the Latin America lead for sustainable business advisory at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp. He has taught at Georgetown University, Ewha Womans University and Hanyang University.
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asia Foundation or that of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com