The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] We should prepare for the worst-case scenario

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 05:20

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Watching the deplorable, childish skirmishes between our politicians these days, experts on the Korean Peninsula wonder if South Koreans are sufficiently aware of their precarious situation in the vortex of unparalleled international crises. If they were, our politicians would not indulge in such pathetic political scuffles, while the future of their country is nebulous at best.

In the late 19th century, our ancestors were neither good at reading international change nor at foreseeing what lay ahead of them, and consequently lost the sovereignty of their country. In order not to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes, we should immediately stop factional brawls over petty domestic issues or political scandals, and prepare for the perfect storm lurking in our future path instead.

Our immediate concern is the 2024 presidential election of the United States. Thomas C. Hubbard, former US ambassador to South Korea, recently wrote that it was still hard to tell who would win the 2024 US election, as Biden has age-risk and Trump legal-risk. He also pointed out that if Trump won, it would be challenging for South Korea in many respects.

Among other things, Trump would likely repeat his demand for an astronomical amount of money to pay for the US troops in South Korea, threatening to pull them out otherwise. The problem is that without the US troops, South Korea will be vulnerable to North Korea’s aggressions and pressures from China and Russia. Then, the fate of South Korea would be like a flickering candle amid strong, freezing North Winds.

Moreover, Trump’s dismissive attitude to overseas alliances and his “America First” policy will also directly endanger South Korea’s national security because there is no guarantee of American interference when and if a Second Korean War breaks out. If he wins, we should prepare for the upcoming tsunami of international crises that will surely hit South Korea hard.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, writes in his memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” that if Trump returns to the White House, he is likely to alter US foreign policy radically. Bolton predicts that Trump will give up Ukraine for Putin, abandon Taiwan in favor of Xi and reunite with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. If this is true, the three countries that will have to face imminent crises are Ukraine, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Bolton also predicts that Trump may pull the US from NATO and make a bad deal with Iran in order to prove his “superb” negotiation skills. Thus, Bolton writes in his book, “Indeed, it is a close contest between Putin and Xi Jinping, who would be happiest to see Trump back in office."

Some Korean opinion leaders suggest that we should stop or minimize cooperating with the Biden administration immediately and stand in line for Trump instead, as he is likely to win the upcoming election. In the eyes of the world, however, such an impetuous behavior would look opportunistic and end up being a diplomatic disaster. We should be faithful to the present administration of our ally until its last day. You never know who will win the election anyway. When and if Trump wins, then we can deal with his foreign policy. The important thing is how well prepared we are.

The threat of a nuclear-capable North Korea is another urgent concern of ours. The North Korean leader has recently declared that South Korea is his country’s “permanent enemy” and he has given up peaceful unification. It means that he is ready to unify the Peninsula by military power. Political analysts in the West are speculating about myriad possibilities, including the fall of the North Korean regime due to a military coup, a people’s revolt, or the adoption of the Chinese-style free market, in addition to starting war with the South.

Such predictions, however, are not viable. North Korea is a totalitarian society that resembles a pseudo-religious community and thus no such things can happen. Starting all-out war will not be feasible, either. Since there are US troops in South Korea, invading the South would be like declaring war against the US, too, which is likely to be disastrous for North Korea. Washington already made it clear that there will be regime change in the North if North Korea attacks the US.

North Korea’s proposed talk with Japan, too, worries us because it seems to intend to weaken the South Korea-Japan-US alliance. North Korea’s recent flirtation with Russia is also worrisome to South Korea. If Russia wins in Ukraine, it will embolden North Korea and China to do the same in East Asia. That is why we cannot say that the Ukraine War or the Taiwan crisis is irrelevant to South Korea. Indeed, experts have warned that there will be a domino effect if the Ukraine War ends wrongfully.

Therefore, Korean politicians should stop factional frays and prepare for the worst-case scenario. There is no time to waste. We may have to sail in uncharted seas full of hidden reefs without a lighthouse.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.