[Interview] Seoul’s hardline response “plays right into North Korea’s hands”

Posted on : 2016-02-22 18:15 KST Modified on : 2016-02-22 18:15 KST
Columbia professor argues that Seoul stands to lose by shutting Kaesong Complex, deploying THAAD

Charles Armstrong is Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University in New York and author of many books and articles on the history and politics of Northeast Asia. He recently did an email interview with the Hankyoreh‘s Washington correspondent about the Park Geun-hye administrations unification and foreign policies at the three-year mark of its time in power.

찰스 암스트롱 미국 컬럼비아대 교수(역사학)
찰스 암스트롱 미국 컬럼비아대 교수(역사학)

Hankyoreh (Hani): President Park Geun-hye recently shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex and decided to deploy THAAD missile defense in response to North Korea’s nuclear test and long-range rocket launch. In addition, she implied in a recent address to parliament that if North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons, South Korea will keep pushing it until the regime collapses. What do you think about Park’s hard-line response to North Korea’s recent actions? 

Charles Armstrong (Armstrong): The hardline reaction will not deter North Korea from its nuclear and missile program. In fact it plays right into North Korea’s hands: military moves by South Korea and the US only prove “hostile intent” from Pyongyang’s point of view, and helps justify North Korea’s adherence to nuclear weapons and missile development. Closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex will do very little harm to the North Korean economy, which can simply divert resources toward further cooperation with China. In the end, South Korea will lose more by closing Kaesong because it will lose its last economic links with the North and push the North farther into China’s embrace. As for North Korea‘s collapse, if it has not collapsed after more than 60 years of sanctions and military pressure, I see no reason for the regime to collapse now when the North Korean economy is doing relatively better than in past years and the Kim Jong Un regime seems confident in its nuclear and conventional military deterrence.


Hani: China is objecting strongly to South Korea and the US’s plan for the THAAD deploying on the Korean peninsula. The rifts between the US and China, China and South Korea appear to be widening. Some South Koreans are concerned that the THAAD might spur an arms race in Northeast Asia. What kind of impact do you think this will have on Northeast Asia‘s peace and stability? Do you think it may cause a security dilemma in this region? 

Armstrong: THAAD reflects a potentially dangerous escalation of the security situation in Northeast Asia. China and Russia both object to stationing THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, and encourage closer security ties between North Korea and China. THAAD has already created a rift between South Korea and China, which of course is exactly what North Korea wants. 

Hani: As you know, the ’Pivot to Asia’ policy of the Obama administration has two sides, one is cooperation with China and the other is blocking China’s rise. One of the most prominent characteristics of Pivot to Asia is military cooperation among three countries, US. Japan, South Korea. Could you tell me what is the problem of trilateral military cooperation? 

Armstrong: If the ‘Pivot to Asia’ was not directed against China, we should see security cooperation between the US and China. But in Northeast Asia, the US, South Korea and Japan are deepening their military alliance, and although North Korea is the main justification, Beijing sees this as directed against China. The US is also very concerned about Chinese territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas. With US-Russia relations also at a very low point, we seem indeed to have a “new Cold War” emerging: the US, Japan and South Korea against China, North Korea and Russia. 

Hani: Can you talk a bit more about possible problems with the US-led Missile defense system.

Armstrong: It seems to me that THAAD is not the best way to deter a North Korean attack on the South. South Korea is much more vulnerable to artillery and land forces, and the limited deterrence capacity of missile defense is offset by the potential danger of alienating China and encouraging a Northeast Asian arms race. 

Hani: After three years in power, inter-Korean relations have only gotten worse under Park. Also, Obama administration has reiterated ‘strategic patience’ toward North Korea. What do you think about this? What has made two administrations push the ineffective policies?

Armstrong: The Park administration’s “Trustpolitik” initiative had some early promise and was certainly an improvement over the previous administration’s approach to North Korea. Unfortunately this policy was never fully implemented for a variety of reasons, including North Korea’s lack of action on improving ties with the South. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” basically avoided engagement with North Korea altogether, and in the meantime North Korea continued to develop its nuclear and missile technology. “Strategic patience” has basically meant ignoring North Korea and seemingly to hope the problem would go away by itself. Obviously this has not happened and the situation has only gotten worse. A coordinated, strategic policy of engagement by South Korea and the US might have prevented the situation we have now.  

Hani: South Korea is compared to a shrimp between two whales (US and China). On the side of South Korea, what position it should take between U.S and China?

Armstrong: South Korea is in a difficult situation. Ironically, many people in the US and South Korea thought the latest North Korean actions would cause China to abandon North Korea, but in fact South Korea has been the biggest loser, because China-South Korean relations have deteriorated while North Korea continues to rely on China. South Korea is an ally and partner of the US but also heavily dependent on economic ties with China, so must try to balance between China and the US.  

Hani: how do you suggest addressing the North Korean nuclear issue?

Armstrong: The North Korean nuclear issue must not be seen not in isolation but as part of a broader, historical problem of hostility and tension on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia. North Korea should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but this problem should be dealt with as part of a larger security agreement for the region. Our ultimate goal should be a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a formal end to the Korean War, and cooperative relations among all the countries of Northeast Asia. This was the vision of the September 2005 Six-Party Talk Joint Statement, which still offers the best comprehensive solution to the problem we now face.

By Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent

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


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