[Column] Right then, but wrong now

Posted on : 2021-10-26 18:02 KST Modified on : 2021-10-26 18:02 KST
We’ve entered an era where we must both compete and coexist with North Korea’s nuclear program
Gil Yun-hyung
Gil Yun-hyung
By Gil Yun-hyung, international news editor

In the autumn of 2013, I began a three-and-a-half-year stint as a Tokyo correspondent, during which time I met with quite a few officials from the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon).

There was actually quite a bit of overlap between my activities as a Tokyo correspondent for the Hankyoreh and those of the Korean members of Chongryon as they grappled with the great “Galapagos” of Japanese society.

I first got to know their faces from their rallies against hate demonstrations targeting Koreans. We shared cheery greetings at sponsor meetings for the Chosen Gakko (Korean schools) which the Koreans had managed to keep going despite a difficult environment. Eventually, we were sharing chummy jokes at press conferences to demand compensation to Korean victims of forced labor mobilization during World War II.

Chongryon published the Choson Sinbo newspaper, and I soon became a regular subscriber, curious as I was about the inner workings of the Korean Japanese community.

As fellow Koreans, there were many feelings that we shared. But sometime around the spring of 2014, I began to feel a kind of difference, one that was difficult to put into words.

In May 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to the Stockholm Agreement, taking a first step toward improving North Korea-Japan relations with a pledge to reopen an investigation with Tokyo into the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to the North.

I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I read the Choson Sinbo’s analysis in its July 2 issue that year. The author was Kim Ji-young, a deputy managing editor — and current editorial bureau chief — I had known fairly well.

“The old dynamics in Northeast Asia are shifting, and the stale order is being shaken,” he wrote, listing three main driving forces for this: “the rise of China, the fall of the US, and North Korea’s possession of nuclear capabilities.”

At that point in time, the idea of a nuclear North Korea still seemed bizarre and farfetched; I read that line with puzzlement. I believed that it still had a long way to go before it achieved nuclear armament — and that the issue would be resolved anyway through a “Sunshine Policy 2.0” once a progressive administration came back into power in the South.

In retrospect, I have to commend the astuteness of Kim Ji-young’s analysis in naming the three factors influencing major geopolitical changes for East Asia.

These days, North Korea’s possession of nuclear capabilities is increasingly seen as a given. After declaring the “completion of nuclear armament” with the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 missile in late November 2017, Kim Jong-un launched a peace offensive with his New Year’s address on Jan. 1 of the following year.

As I discuss in my book “New Cold War, War between South Korea and Japan,” which was published in July, I think the following may have been North Korea’s strategy at the time:

First, weaken US Forces Korea by getting its joint military exercises with South Korea suspended, all while possessing weaponized nuclear capabilities, with the understanding that denuclearization would happen in the long term. At the same time, demolish the Yongbyon nuclear facilities — the heart of the nuclear development program — while maintaining some of the unofficial uranium enrichment facilities. Additionally, appeal to lift key aspects of the UN Security Council sanctions imposed since 2016, enabling full-scale economic development.

Kim Jong-un seems to have concluded that if he could normalize relations with Washington under this framework through a declaration officially ending the Korean War, he would be able to remove various potential threats to himself and devote his energies to economic development, allowing the North to survive on its own.

I don’t know how many South Koreans would agree with this vision, but the US does not, and Japan has been resorting to desperate acts of sabotage.

After past attempts failed, what we are witnessing now is a grim arms race between South and North Korea. The North has been blasting the South for its “double standards,” while throwing curveballs of its own with submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tests; South Korean and Japanese military authorities have been unable to agree on whether there was one missile fired or two.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been making overtures toward peace with his proposal for an end-of-war declaration, yet he’s also been spending huge amounts of money on beefing up armaments with the test launch of an SLBM and the pursuit of nuclear-powered submarine and light aircraft carrier projects.

When South Korea launched its Nuri rocket on Thursday, the BBC and other foreign news outlets saw aspects of the inter-Korean arms race in it. From the standpoint of ballistic missile development, it’s quite a success to have sent a 1.5-ton dummy satellite 700 kilometers up into space.

In that sense, Moon’s words of encouragement to scientists were quite reminiscent of Kim Jong-un embracing ballistic missile developers as he watched the projectiles soaring skyward.

With the Sunshine Policy failing to yield results, we’ve entered an era of complicated choices — one in which we will need to compete and coexist with the North Korean nuclear program.

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

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