[Column] Korea’s progressives need to put forth foreign policy answers of their own

Posted on : 2023-09-25 17:03 KST Modified on : 2023-09-25 17:03 KST
As the Yoon administration’s foreign policy induces concern, progressives should persuade the public with their own, much more competitive foreign policy
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo heads into a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on Sept. 23 on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Hangzhou Asian Games. (courtesy of the office of the prime minister)
South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo heads into a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China on Sept. 23 on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Hangzhou Asian Games. (courtesy of the office of the prime minister)

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is making painstaking efforts to present himself as a president adept at diplomacy. In addition to taking the first step toward building a “quasi-alliance” among South Korea, the US, and Japan by letting Japan off the hook for past historical issues and cozying up with the country, Yoon has been raising his profile as a “fighter for freedom” at NATO and Group of Seven summits as well as the UN General Assembly.

Why is Yoon putting foreign policy before everything else? First of all, it is to distract public opinion from the reality that his government lacks the ability to resolve the economic crisis it is facing. The more the problems of poor exports, declining industrial competitiveness, insufficient tax revenue, and worsening public livelihood intensify, the more Yoon has been concentrating his efforts on portraying himself as a decisive president with diplomatic prowess.

It is also evident that Yoon wants to brand the opposition and progressives “pro-North Korea, pro-China, and anti-Japan communist totalitarian forces” by linking diplomatic security with history and ideological warfare.

At the same time, Yoon is trying to make as if bolstering relations among South Korea, the US and Japan has led to China putting more effort into its ties with South Korea. Following Yoon’s meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou on Saturday. Seoul is attempting to elicit Xi’s visit to South Korea through a South Korea-China-Japan summit.

Naturally, Yoon’s policy line is eliciting strong objections. On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 19 Pyongyang Declaration, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in remarked that “the time has come to set aside the concocted myth that conservative administrations do a better job on national security and the economy,” slamming the Yoon administration’s “outmoded and confrontational Cold War ideology.”

By unilaterally insisting on prioritizing relations among South Korea, the US and Japan without persuading the public, the Yoon administration’s foreign policy placed the Korean Peninsula on the front lines of military conflict between the US and China. The appointment of a far-right figure as the nominee for South Korean defense minister has made the situation even more precarious.

But in order to debunk the “concocted myth that conservative administrations do a better job on national security and the economy,” progressives should deeply analyze the fast-changing international order and come up with convincing foreign policy solutions, especially regarding the North Korean nuclear problem and China.

In September 2018, the leaders of the two Koreas held a summit in Pyongyang, and Moon gave a speech in front of roughly 150,000 Pyongyang residents, making history. But five years later, North Korea is not only refusing dialogue with South Korea but also threatening to attack the South with tactical nuclear weapons, speeding up its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, signaling closening ties between Pyongyang and Moscow as well as a deal to trade weapons and military technology between the two countries.

North Korea’s transformation began much earlier than the Yoon administration’s efforts to draw South Korea closer to the US and Japan. Over the last 30 years, North Korea envisioned resolving its economic and security problems by using its nuclear development to elicit a game-changing negotiation with the US, and inter-Korean and North Korea-US summit diplomacy between 2018 and 2019 seemed to turn that vision into reality.

However, after the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended without a deal, North Korea determined that reaching a deal with the US would be impossible and revealed its extreme distrust and anger regarding South Korea’s ability to play the role of mediator. As a result, the country set off down the path of accelerating its nuclear threat even more.

While Pyongyang continued its threats of using tactical nukes and carrying out military drills aimed at Seoul, the Democratic Party failed to take a proper stance. The party should closely retrace the summit diplomacy process with North Korea from 2018 to 2019 and reflect on why it failed, proposing alternatives after accepting the reality that solving the North Korean nuclear problem within the existing framework has become difficult.

As Kim’s recent visit to Russia demonstrates, the North Korean nuclear crisis is growing even more serious and dangerous because it is being linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the possibility of China’s forced occupation of Taiwan.

Chung-Ang University professor Baek Seung-wook, who has studied China and the global system, suggests in his book “Connected Crises” that the effect that the crisis of neoliberalism, the ensuing chaos in the international order, and changes in China’s socialism has on the Korean Peninsula should be minutely studied and responded to. He argues that since Xi’s ascent to power, there have been attempts to smooth over the accumulated inconsistencies of strict authoritarianism, and the reunification of Taiwan with China has become a task that must be completed to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” destabilizing the order in East Asia. If such shifts in China are not properly perceived, “balanced diplomacy” will merely end up as an excess of willpower.

Progressives need to come up with answers to how China can be persuaded and pressured to deter threats of North Korean nuclear weapons, how South Korea can join forces or disengage with other nations in order to create an equitable order in East Asia that maintains peace in the region without excluding China, and what kind of position should be taken regarding those who face persecution in China.

If the Yoon administration’s foreign policy induces concern, progressives should persuade the public with their own, much more competitive foreign policy. Only efforts toward reform can bring about hope and a breakthrough in this darkest hour of politics.

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

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