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[Kim Myong-sik] Keeping North Korea at a controlled distance

Fifty days after the governing power changed in Seoul, the distance between the South and North on the Korean Peninsula clearly looks farther. New right-wing President Yoon Suk-yeol would bring to a close the reconciliatory course toward North Korea that the leftist administration of Moon Jae-in had taken for the past five years.

The successful launch of a space rocket from a south coast cape last week was like a bonfire to celebrate the new presidency. It convinced ordinary people here that we’re finally catching up with North Korea in the only area where the communist regime had an edge over the South. As there is virtually the same technology in rockets as there is in intercontinental ballistic missiles, the awe that South Koreans felt seeing the Nuri rocket blast off was somewhat dampened having seen incessant TV footage of North Korean missile tests in recent years.

The North is way ahead in nuclear arms, with its seventh nuclear test (since the first in 2006) expected to take place soon. The Washington-based Arms Control Association counts 40 to 50 North Korean nuclear bombs, which are the primary cause of the South Koreans’ security concerns. President Yoon should be directly involved in international efforts to denuclearize the North.

The new president and of the 51 million people of South Korea, however, will not lose sleep for fear of the mushroom cloud. They trust the United States and the Mutual Defense Treaty that they believe would protect them with the “nuclear umbrella.” If and when the treaty fails and Seoul sees its “supreme interests” are jeopardized by the North Korean nuclear threats, South Korea will have to leave the NPT as Article X allows. Yoon must be reminded of this possibility.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine offered an appropriate stimulus for the new administration of South Korea to review the nation’s security situation, recalling the atrocities of the unprovoked war on the peninsula 72 years ago, its heavy civilian casualties and hellish destruction. In his address on the June 25 Korean War anniversary, President Yoon declared that only power could protect peace.

The gap between the two parts of Korea has gotten bigger over the past decades. Bilateral relations changed from extreme volatility to subdued tension, depending on the southern leadership’s fluctuating strategies and ideological orientation. On the other hand, the Pyongyang rulers, from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and the present Kim Jong-un, have had only one goal, the conquest of the South.

Late in the 1960s, Kim Il-sung sent guerrilla platoons to Seoul and the provinces. One of them was a mission to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. After the attacks were aborted, Park and Kim took false steps of appeasement, which helped both regimes consolidate their dictatorships through constitutional revisions. Years passed with the North occasionally staging terror operations and sabotage and the two Koreas waited until the new millennium to hold the first South-North summit that led to a limited scale of economic exchanges.

Pyongyang used whatever profits it earned from the South for its nuclear arms program. As the successive conservative administrations in Seoul cut the channels of cooperation, the North accelerated development of its weapons of mass destruction. Wresting power from the ever-complacent right in 2017, Moon Jae-in hurried to make up for the lost time in improving ties with the North.

Three rounds of meetings between Moon and Kim Jong-un produced no outcome in halting Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. Moon still persevered to leave his trace in history with the ritual of declaring an end to the war, signed by the two Koreas, China and the US. All other parties showed little interest.

President Yoon’s first several weeks have been marked by words and acts to strengthen the alliance with the US. Major joint exercises with the US forces were resumed and preparations were made to reinforce the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense anti-missile system positioned in South Korea’s central area. US President Joe Biden, who was the first foreign leader to congratulate Yoon on his election, visited Seoul just 10 days after his inauguration, ahead of a stop in Tokyo, to demonstrate strong bilateral ties.

North Korean official mouthpieces used vicious expressions to denounce President Yoon’s uncompromising stand and Kim Jong-un himself spoke bitter words to describe the consequences that the South will face when it chose the course of hostilities and confrontation.

In the toughest action yet, President Yoon relieved all 27 first-grade officials at the National Intelligence Service of their duties prior to a review of the entire processes of recent inter-Korean dialogue. His office warned that thorough inspections will be made into what happened behind the scenes of the tete-a-tete between Moon and Kim Jong-un to see if there were any illegal, secret deals.

Inter-Korean relations are entering a glacial period with Seoul’s new Cabinet determined to correct what had gone wrong under Moon Jae-in’s tilt to the North. President Yoon may be able to exhibit some flexibility to seek a turnaround. History has instances of a thaw after an extended freeze, although a detente has always proved fragile here.

Roh Moo-hyun, the leftist leader from 2003-2008, once said that “the (Korean) nation supersedes alliance (with the US).” He made this dictum when he spurred reconciliation with the North. His protege Moon Jae-in held this political philosophy up his sleeve while he tried to get Washington closer to Pyongyang. Donald Trump found Kim Jong-un untrustworthy in their Hanoi one-on-one and was not quite confident of the leader of the other Korea.

North Korea test-fired seven missiles in a single day in a kind of greeting to Seoul’s new president, who fired eight anti-missile missiles in return. The high-performance F-35As, KF-16s and F-15Ks of the South Korean Air Force made impressive air and ground shows while the US Air Force’s strategic bombers and surveillance aircraft flew over here to display their combined war capabilities.

Kim Jong-un will continue missile and nuclear threats toward the South and the US, but he will eventually realize the futility of such costly efforts. With his failures, former President Moon thankfully taught his successor that dancing with the North produces nothing and that the best thing to do is mount pressure on the North toward denuclearization in cooperation with the international community.

President Yoon may well strengthen self-confidence and patience for his people and for himself while keeping Pyongyang at a well-measured distance. 


Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of the Korea Times. – Ed.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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