[Column] The end of dialogue and engagement on the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2023-08-20 10:21 KST Modified on : 2023-08-20 10:21 KST
The Yoon administration’s obsequiousness to the US and Japan have swept aside policies of dialogue and engagement
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers his National Liberation Day address at Ewha Womans University in Seoul on Aug. 15. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers his National Liberation Day address at Ewha Womans University in Seoul on Aug. 15. (presidential office pool photo)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s commemorative address for Korea’s National Liberation Day on Aug. 15 sounded the death knell for five decades of inter-Korean dialogue and the policy of engagement that the international community has pursued on the Korean Peninsula since the 1990s. That will be formalized during the summit between Korea, the US and Japan that will be held at the presidential retreat of Camp David on Friday.

After affirming the principles of independent and peaceful unification and great national unity as one people in the July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué, South and North Korea fundamentally pursued dialogue and exchange despite repeated episodes of conflict and confrontation.

After Pyongyang was left isolated by the collapse of the communist bloc in the early 1990s, the international community took up a policy of engagement, attempting to arrange for North Korea to establish diplomatic relations with the US and Japan while blocking its development of nuclear weapons. But these policies of dialogue and engagement are being completely swept aside by the Yoon administration’s policy of total subservience to the US and Japan amid Russia’s war against Ukraine and the intensifying rivalry between the US and China.

Yoon’s commemorative speech on National Liberation Day should stand as a warning.

When previous presidents have delivered speeches on the day that marks Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, they’ve assessed the Korean people’s efforts to achieve independence and autonomous rule and, in that context, have expressed their hope for the peaceful reunification of the Korean people. For previous presidents, the speech served as a major opportunity to disclose their plans for dialogue and exchange with North Korea.

But Yoon devoted his commemorative speech to political attacks and praise for the role of Japan. When he said in the speech that “the forces of communist totalitarianism have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists,” he was venturing into territory never trodden even by former dictators Park Chung-hee or Chun Doo-hwan.

Yoon may as well have been saying that anyone who talks about democratization, human rights, and progressive causes are “forces of communist totalitarianism.”

Also significant was Yoon’s remark that “the seven rear bases provided to the United Nations Command (UNC) by the government of Japan serve as the greatest deterrent which keeps the North from invading the South.” That remark makes clear that he regards Japan as a partner for military cooperation. The Korean president also said his upcoming summit with the US and Japan would “set a new milestone in trilateral cooperation.”

On that point, he’s right. The trilateral summit at Camp David, which is supposed to become a regular occurrence, is a pivotal element in the Indo-Pacific strategy, which represents the US’ strategy for confronting China. That strategy no longer requires the policy of engagement on the Korean Peninsula.

US engagement with North Korea — by which I mean its attempts to engage in dialogue and form diplomatic relations with Pyongyang despite their adversarial relationship — formed against the backdrop of the US-led unipolar order following the collapse of the communist bloc. That was a time when Russia could no longer compete with the US and when China was a critical component of the US-led global economic system.

Amid North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the US coaxed it to join the US-led unipolar order. With the help of China and Russia, the US both made overtures to North Korea and imposed sanctions on it.

But the situation that confronts the US today is that its unipolar system is being threatened by China’s rise and Russia’s adventurism. The US has taken the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to refurbish NATO and has forged the Indo-Pacific strategy, which seeks to build a collective defense network comparable to NATO in the Asia-Pacific region.

The overarching framework of that strategy is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) between the US, Japan, Australia and India, while its two wings are the AUKUS security partnership formed by the US, the UK and Australia in September 2021 and the trilateral arrangement between South Korea, the US and Japan, which will soon be reinforced.

Following World War II, the US operated a “hub and spokes system” in the Asia-Pacific that was oriented around the US (the hub) and separate alliances with various countries in the region (the spokes). The historical conflicts that divided those various countries prevented the establishment of a NATO-style collective defense network.

But the US has been working on a trilateral alliance system with Korea and Japan since the 1970s. Since the Obama administration, when the US’ strategic competition with China heated up, the US has been overtly pushing Korea and Japan to resolve their historical disputes and to cooperate on a military level, beginning with the sharing of military information.

The Yoon administration’s generous concessions to Japan have put the trilateral alliance system with the US and Japan back on track.

North Korea has also lost interest in dialogue and diplomatic relations with the US and Japan. Both Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and its desperate efforts to make up with the US and Japan were motivated by its isolated position, lacking the support it had once received from China and the Soviet Union.

But now North Korea has formed close bilateral relations with both China and Russia in their confrontation with the US. In the middle of its war against Ukraine, Russia sent Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to North Korea as a special envoy on July 27, which North Korea celebrates as “Victory Day” in the Korean War.

The China-Russia front needs North Korea more than ever before. And North Korea is no longer alone, since it can satisfy its economic and security needs with the help of China and Russia as they seek to build a bloc of their own through such measures as expanding the BRICS group.

As it happens, North Korea and Japan’s frustrated attempts to establish diplomatic relations over the past 30 years are dispassionately examined in a recently translated book by Haruki Wada, an emeritus professor at Tokyo University. Wada’s book explores the failure and dissolution of the international community’s policy of engagement on the Korean Peninsula during that time frame.

Wada admits feeling despair about the failure of the forces that had sought to build a “house of peace” in Northeast Asia by normalizing relations with North Korea. But he also notes that “despair is as vain as hope,” quoting Lu Xun, and observes that “hope can be seen from the pit of despair.”

“Cooperating with Japan in a confrontation with your fellow countrymen in North Korea is the wrong course for South Korea,” Wada said in an interview with the Hankyoreh.

The Yoon administration’s headlong plunge into great power conflict, like a moth to the flame, will likely be the pit of our despair.

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

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