Caught up in new Cold War, two Koreas must open up space for dialogue and reduce tensions

Posted on : 2023-07-27 11:09 KST Modified on : 2023-07-27 11:09 KST
The rising risk of an unintended clash represents a threat to the very existence of the two Koreas
A United Nations Security Council meeting is underway at UN headquarters in New York on July 13 to discuss North Korea’s launch of a solid-fuel ICBM. (Yonhap)
A United Nations Security Council meeting is underway at UN headquarters in New York on July 13 to discuss North Korea’s launch of a solid-fuel ICBM. (Yonhap)

“We’re going to experience a completely different world than the post-Cold War era.”

Many foreign affairs experts predicted that the world order would be reshaped like never before following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. They predicted that the era of the US as the one and only global hegemon would come to an end, that the US-China rivalry would intensify, and that we’d see the rise of blocs in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

A year and a half later, the new Cold War order has become the order of the day.

Despite the recent resumption of high-level exchanges, the US-China conflict, centered on the semiconductor supply chain, is ongoing.

In Asia, South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol administration has actively jumped on the bandwagon of the US and Japan-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China, sharpening the divide between South Korea, the US, and Japan on one side and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other.

In Europe, which is directly affected by the war in Ukraine, NATO has expanded its membership and invited South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand as observers.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are rising in the context of this new Cold War.

North Korea has continued to expand its nuclear and missile capabilities in response to international sanctions. In 2022 alone, North Korea launched more than 70 long- and short-range ballistic missiles, but no additional sanctions were imposed by the UN Security Council, as permanent members of the council failed to reach a consensus, a situation that reflects the ongoing stand-off between the US, China and Russia.

This is a very different story from the past, when the international community, including China and Russia, joined in sanctioning North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

The last time the UN Security Council sanctioned North Korea was in September 2017.

North Korea has taken advantage of the divide in the international community to strengthen its nuclear and missile capabilities.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, stated at the sixth plenary session of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in December 2022 that “the evident switch of the structure of international relations to the ‘new Cold War’ system and the accelerating current of multipolarization.”

After describing the onset of a “new Cold War” era, Kim Jong-un has since then been working to strengthen ties with China and Russia.

The Yoon administration has also put improving inter-Korean relations on the back burner. Instead, it focuses on US-centered values diplomacy of a “liberal democratic market economy” and pursues a hard-line approach to North Korea.

“The Ministry of Unification is not a North Korean support organization,” Yoon said recently. “Something’s got to change.” He thus signaled that the ministry would adopt a new strategy, one very different from the previous administrations, which were built around a framework of inter-Korean reconciliation, exchange and cooperation.

In particular, Yoon’s selection of hawkish Kim Young-ho as his nominee for minister of unification demonstrates that he is poised to raise the issue of human rights in North Korea in earnest. Kim views inter-Korean relations as hostile rather than cooperative and sees the Kim Jong-un regime as a target to be “overthrown.”

In political circles, it has been said that there’s close to zero likelihood that the Ministry of Unification will do anything to expand cooperation and exchanges with North Korea under Yoon.

To make matters worse, on July 12, North Korea launched a Hwasong-18, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of putting the entire United States within range.

Experts say we need to imagine and create spaces for inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation amidst the crisis, since the escalation of inter-Korean tensions into an impossible-to-manage situation and the rising risk of an unintended clash represent a threat to the very existence of the two Koreas.

“As diplomacy is carried out with two faces, even as [we] request of the US extended deterrence regarding the North Korean nuclear problem, we should persuade [the US] under the table so contact between North Korea and the US may take place,” commented Jeong Se-hyun, who formerly served as unification minister. “[South Korea] can take the lead in managing the situation on the Korean Peninsula by playing the role of mediator between the US and North Korea.”

Cheong Wook-sik, the director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute, also remarked, “It is important to create the conditions and environment for cooperation. Though leaders of both South Korea and North Korea are talking about the worsening security environment, room for dialogue should be made to manage the heightening crisis on the Korean Peninsula, such as by postponing the joint South Korea-US military exercises scheduled for August and proposing dialogue to North Korea.”

The Korean Peninsula came dangerously close to war as recently as 2017 and as long ago as 1994.

Amidst an unfavorable international environment, the South Korean government overcame tensions through diplomacy. Even the Kim Dae-jung administration escaped a crisis in 1998. In August of that year, North Korea’s underground nuclear facility in Kumchang was discovered, and the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons escalated with the launch of the Taepodong missile. But by persuading the US defense secretary at the time, William Perry, a hawk who even proposed bombing North Korea, the Kim administration created the “Perry Process,” which promised the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of North Korea-US relations if North Korea suspended its nuclear program. It was this process that formed the basis of the inter-Korean summit in 2000 and economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration also prevailed over the hostile mood within the George W. Bush administration, which dubbed North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” coming up with the framework for six-party talks for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem for the first time in August 2003.

Jeong, who served as unification minister at the time, said, “Having confirmed that the South Korean government could influence North Korea through its aid program, the US proposed five-party talks joined by South Korea along with Japan, North Korea, China and the US. But saying China would take the US’ side, North Korea argued for bilateral talks between itself and the US.”

Jeong went on, “So, during a closed meeting amongst chief delegates, we proposed the idea of six-party talks including Russia to North Korea. [. . .] Afterward, [South Korea] helped North Korea understand the US’ intentions and hidden contexts not easily identifiable by North Korea. Without the South Korean government, the joint statement of 2005 would not have come to pass.”

The six-party talks led to a joint statement on Sept. 19, 2005, through which North Korea promised to abandon all its nuclear weapons and nuclear plans, sign a Korean Peninsula peace treaty, and carry out phased denuclearization.

President Moon Jae-in also faced heightened military tensions with North Korea immediately after taking office. North Korea launched the Hwasong-12, a newly developed intermediate-range ballistic missile, even going so far as to conduct its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. Four UN Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea were passed in that year alone.

But in July 2017, Moon announced his vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula during his speech addressing the Körber Foundation in Germany, conveying his determination for dialogue to North Korea. Having opened the window for inter-Korean dialogue through the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Moon acted as a mediator when talks between North Korea and the US almost broke down due to conflict, keeping the fire of dialogue alive. Although North Korea and the US failed to reach a final agreement, the first North Korea-US summit in June 2018 and the second summit in February 2019, as well as the South Korea-North Korea-US summit in Panmunjom in June of that same year, were achieved through such twists and turns.

“An opportunity for change that bodes well for inter-Korean exchange may come again. The US presidential election is coming up, for one, and different variables, such as the possibility of US-China relations recovering, and the possibility of China carrying out diplomatic mediation regarding issues surrounding North Korean nuclear weapons, should be considered,” shared Chun Chae-sung, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University. “As much as the current administration is stressing principles regarding the North, civil society and experts should further advocate for diplomatic efforts promoting exchange.”

In other words, while room for inter-Korean dialogue is currently at a minimum, flexibility should always be maintained when it comes to ever-changing international relations, and room to respond to change should be prepared.

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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