S. Korean diplomacy expert says US "gaslights" S. Korea, calls for more autonomy

Posted on : 2021-04-01 17:06 KST Modified on : 2021-04-01 17:06 KST
Kim Joon-hyung's new book calls for a more equitable alliance between South Korea and the US
Korea National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor Kim Joon-hyung
Korea National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor Kim Joon-hyung

Reporters covering the office of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson received a lengthy and unexpected message Tuesday.

"The book in question was not written with any political aims. I shared my personal beliefs as an analysis as a scholar who has spent his life specializing in international politics and South Korea-US relations."

The reason had to do with an assessment of the South Korea-US alliance shared by Korea National Diplomatic Academy Chancellor Kim Joon-hyung, a government official with status equivalent to a vice minister, in his newly published "A New Reading of the History of South Korea-US Relations: The Alliance Paradox."

Kim's position in the book was that over the past 70 years, the South Korea-US alliance has turned into a "myth," while Seoul has become "addicted" to the alliance. Despite the inevitability of the situation in view of the Korean Peninsula's division and a difficult external environment, he likened the situation to "gaslighting" by an overpowering counterpart.

Predictably, the conservative media responded with a barrage of pieces on Tuesday and Wednesday about how "inappropriate" it was for a vice minister-level official at a government-affiliated research institution to share such a perception of the alliance.

Responding to the controversy in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh on Wednesday, Kim started off by saying he had "shared [his] concerns not as a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs policy lineup, but as a scholar who works at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy."

"I'd been planning this book for the past five years, and I ended up writing it because I found myself behind my desk a lot last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic," he explained.

He also stressed that he was "not the first to use the term 'gaslighting'" in connection with Seoul's foreign relations.

"In reference to the Moon Jae-in administration, Kim Keun-shik [a professor of political science at Kyung Nam University] said [in June 2020] that it was being 'gaslighted by [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un,'" he recalled.

"I thought that while you could certainly go after the Moon Jae-in administration's foreign policy, the analogy didn't seem appropriate there. For it to be 'gaslighting,' you need a good relationship between someone vulnerable and someone overpowering," he explained.

"Gaslighting is a situation where you exercise control over someone by using overwhelming power to take away their rational decision-making capabilities and sense of reality. I didn't see inter-Korean relations as an example of that," he added.

From there, Kim turned his attention to South Korea-US relations. He had the idea that if any party was "gaslighting" South Korea, it was not the North but the US — which enjoys a position of overwhelming power as the South's sole ally.

"It isn't accurate to call the North's stubbornness 'gaslighting,' but I thought it might be an effective way to describe the relationship between the South and the US," he said.

In the book, Kim forgoes "extreme calls for 'dismantling' the alliance" in favor of a call to "break free of the alliance 'addiction' and create the kind of South Korea-US alliance where we say what needs to be said."

"I don't think we should be too optimistic, like when [Park Geun-hye administration] Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se said South Korea was being 'courted' by both the US and China, but there's also no need to view things too pessimistically as South Korea being 'caught' between two superpowers," he said.

The lessons from the Perry Process

In the book, Kim cites the experience of the "Perry process" between 1998 and 2000 as an example of South Korea strengthening its alliance and maximally achieving its national interest by "saying what needed to be said."

In 1998, East Asia's political situation entered a deep chill after North Korea's Aug. 31 launch of the Taepodong-1, its first application of long-range ballistic missile technology.

Japan was infuriated over the projectile, which passed over its territorial airspace on its way to dropping into the western Pacific Ocean. It was the kind of security threat the US could not afford to ignore.

The Bill Clinton administration, which had been pursuing a more forward-thinking policy approach on North Korea, was forced into a full-scale reexamination and revision. In November 1998, Clinton appointed former Secretary of Defense William Perry as North Korea policy coordinator.

Perry was a typical hardliner, someone who had called for military measures against North Korea at the time of the first nuclear crisis in the spring of 1994. But the US plan for bombing North Korea failed to come to fruition — amid Pentagon predictions that even a limited precision strike against a particular region would result in 50,000 US military casualties and the deaths of 490,000 South Korean soldiers and over one million civilians within three months.

The memoir "Peacemaker" by former South Korean Minister of Unification Lim Dong-won, one of the architects of the Sunshine Policy, offers a glimpse at the intense diplomatic efforts Seoul made at the time to win the support of the "hardliner" Perry.

To win US support for policies of engagement with North Korea, Lim explained that "the motivations between North Korea's nuclear development and its development of intermediate- and long-range missiles lie in the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula" and that "the issue cannot be resolved by 'treating the symptoms' every time an individual problem comes up."

In the end, Perry completed a report in October 1999 that called for a short-term halt to missile launches by North Korea, with intermediate- and long-term measures to encourage a complete suspension of North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile development plans and the ultimate goal of ending the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula.

In an interim explanation of the report's content the previous March, Perry was quoted as telling then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that he had merely "stolen and plagiarized" the strategy outlined by Lim and reworded it more along US lines. This resulted in many talking about how Seoul was "in the driver's seat" when it came to Korean Peninsula issues.

"We don't need to be overly conscious of the US," Kim Joon-hyung said.

"The US is also a variable for us. We need to look at them as a means of achieving our interests. We can't afford to be too fearful or cowed by the US," he stressed.

He went on to say that as the US-China conflict has intensified, there has been "a move to fill the leadership gap as European countries like Germany and France have attempted to establish collective international leadership."

Kim's new book adopts this sort of critical stance as it reflects on 140 years of history between Korea and the US, from their Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation in 1882 to the collapse of a US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in 2019.

Another book that looks back critically from a similar perspective — this time at the US-Japan alliance — is "How Has the US Governed East Asia?", a 2013 book by former Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Information Bureau Director Ukeru Magosaki.

Magosaki similarly shares various examples of the US distorting Japanese politics to maximally serve its interests while arguing that Japan needs to pursue a more autonomous approach to foreign affairs. The book has since been translated into Korean by Sungkonghoe University professor Yang Ki-ho, with Sejong Institute Chairman Moon Chung-in's commentary.

Moon also shared his assessment of Kim's book, calling it a "rare masterwork" that he "strongly recommend[ed] reading."

Collectively referred to as the "Yonsei Political Science and International Studies Department lineup," Moon, Kim and Yang have all been vocal in their calls for a more autonomous approach to South Korea's foreign affairs. In this sense, the intellectual thread leading from Magosaki to Moon and on to Kim does not appear to be coincidental.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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