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Seoul rows against the US tide
By David Scofield

When it comes to North Korea and defusing its nuclear crisis, the United States is finding that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who wants to be friends with North Korea, is becoming increasingly obstructionist. US neo-conservatives want to play hard ball, very hard ball, with Pyongyang, and say South Korea is too soft. Who's side is Seoul on, anyhow? they ask.

Roh made clear just how soft - and infuriating to the US - his policy is when he addressed the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles on his way to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile. Roh, never one to mince words, stunned many in the audience of foreign-policy experts with his assertion that the central argument underpinning North Korea's nuclear-weapons program - that it is a necessary defense in the face of hostility and threat - is not entirely illogical. But it was a shocking, if frank, pronouncement, to be sure.

Neo-cons are arguing that the US needs to be a lot tougher with North Korea, assuming that all efforts to date in "six-party talks" are going nowhere fast. What is needed, they say, is to plan for economic sanctions or an embargo and at least to plan for military strikes, in hopes these moves will bring Pyongyang to its senses. Conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute Nicholas Eberstadt said in an interview with the Seoul Shinmin two weeks ago that "we've come to doubt whether South Korea is sincerely interested in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula".

Last Friday, US General Leon J Laporte, the current commander of US troops in Korea, responded in kind by reiterating that there was a very real threat of fissile-material proliferation from "cash-strapped" North Korea. But the restatement of the wider threat is an argument South Koreans have heard many times before, its resonance having faded among most of them in recent years.

The "Korean problem", many now believe, is for Koreans to solve.

Every declaration between North and South dating back to the 1972 Basic Agreement, the first joint communique between the two Koreas, has firmly and unequivocally defined the issue of national division as something to be resolved "independent" of foreign involvement.

Issues of wider security and potential regional instability are peripheral to most Koreans. South Korea is not a nation with a strong vision of the world beyond its frontiers. Yes, it's a major exporting power, and yes, the world beyond, most would at least partially agree, is vital to South Korea's prosperity and perhaps stability, but when matters turn to the North, another truth emerges. For most, the North Korea "threat" is so much detritus from a bygone era, a political machination by anachronistically conservative political forces.

Primarily, Korean identity is a product of ethnicity, a perceived homogeneity that binds the Korean nation. Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone believe their culture and ethnicity is sui generis , a unique product of 4,000 years of shared history. This historical connection, the "one blood, one nation" identity, has been a central tenet of political rhetoric in both Koreas for more than 50 years. But since division, political ideology exclusive to both North and South has been woven into the fabric of ethnic identity, and it is these competing political ideologies from which the past half-century of quasi-peace stems.

Political structures (hierarchies) in both Koreas have long espoused the ethnic singularity of Korea while positing their political ideology and political structure as the vessel that captures and protects true "Koreaness". Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first president, refused to sign the 1953 armistice, instead insisting on US support for a march on the North to vanquish the communists and unify the peninsula, a march which never came about. South Korea's third president, Park Chun Hee, the one most closely associated with unprecedented economic growth and development from 1961-79, articulated an ideology of "anti-communism" with implicit reference to the protection of ethnic Korea. The North's Marxist ideologues, he proclaimed, were anti-Confucian, and as such anti-Korean.

North Korea, for its part, portrays the southern half of the Korean Peninsula as a territory of supplicants, puppets of the American imperialists. Nam-Chosun, or South Korea, being little more than a proxy of the US, a nation bent on the destruction and subordination of all Korea.

Given the underlying ethnic homogeneity acknowledged throughout Korea, politically crafted identities designed to position one political ideology as the natural embodiment of ethnic Korea, while at the same time undermining the political legitimacy of the other, is to be expected. But policy successes in South Korea have led to a softening of the image and threat of the North among large swaths of South Korean society, prompting a radical rethink of the past 50 years of "political" division.

A recent online poll conducted in conjunction with one of South Korea's newest online news websites, the Frontier Times, indicates that about 20% of Koreans surveyed believe the South should ally with the North in the event of a US attack, with a further 30% not sure which side they should take. Of course, the specific phrasing of the question and the manner in which the poll was conducted can affect the efficacy; however, anecdotally, the numbers seem roughly consistent with what is felt on the ground in South Korea: most specifically, the undecided 30%.

So how does all this affect the growing nuclear crisis in North Korea and the credibility of the six-party talks? South Korea's "see no evil" policy toward North Korea makes any attempt at regional coercion and pressure incomplete as the South continues to let it be known that punishment is not a component of the engagement package. Finding a regional solution to an issue Roh's administration perceives as intrinsically bilateral is unlikely. The six parties are North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US. The next round has not been scheduled since North Korea protested that South Korea's secret nuclear experiments in the past must be thoroughly investigated, but it is well known that Kim Jong-il was hoping for a John Kerry presidential win in the United States, and was postponing the talks until after the elections, convinced that the atmosphere would be more convivial and flexible with a Democrat in the White House.

The danger to South Korea, of course, remains since North Korea has not encouraged a similar identity shift and mitigated the political threat as has South Korea. Indeed, the evidence suggests that Pyongyang has not taken any steps to remove or reduce 50 years of political perpetuated identity ideology that underpins the system - the politically posited socially enforced belief that North Korea holds the obvious position of Korean national leadership. This was always the danger of former president Kim Dae-jung's, now Roh's, policy. When reciprocity was abandoned and unilateralism was formed into the cornerstone of the engagement process, the impetus and motivation for North Korea to take steps in tandem with the South to remove the threat perception of the other was negated.

Today, North Korea still depicts South Korea as a puppet controlled by US imperialists. It still define itslef as the true protector and maintainer of the Korean nation. Indeed, the South Korean formula of reconciliation espoused by Kim Dae-jung and actively encouraged by Roh calls for a co-federal structure and reconciliation that is strikingly similar to North Korea's 1980 proposal for a Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo since it calls for, among other things, a removal of the National Security Law, the withdrawal of US troops, and unification free of "foreign interference".

Still, whether South Korea's policy choices are reasoned and rational from a foreign perspective is perhaps less pertinent now. South Korea has chosen the road they wish to travel, and this needs to be more fully acknowledged by the US. Indeed, President George W Bush's words of understanding in response to Roh's insistence on a "dialogue only" approach to the North Korean nuclear issue indicates that the present administration in Washington has come to "understand" South Korea's unwavering approach, though unlike South Korea the US will keep options on the table to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

Indeed, critics of Roh's approach within South Korea feel that just focusing on the nuclear issue is not enough as, according to Kim Tae-woo, a policy expert at South Korea's Institute for Defense Analysis, "If we solve the nuclear problems by confining the agenda only to nuclear issues, than what next? Will we just tolerate the North Korean human-rights problem, missiles and chemical weapons and biological weapons? It begs the question, is it now incumbent on the US and the region to accept that the nuclear program, like other nefarious traits of the North Korea regime, may best be managed within a framework comprising those countries with security concerns and policy priorities that reach beyond the Korean peninsula; is the North Korean threat best tackled independent of South Korea?"

David Scofield, former lecturer at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, is currently conducting post-graduate research at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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Nov 24, 2004
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