[Column] Seoul’s outdated approach to N. Korea

Posted on : 2020-01-13 17:45 KST Modified on : 2020-01-13 17:45 KST
It’s time for S. Korea to stop relying on the US for progress in inter-Korean relations
An image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un providing on-site guidance at a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 7. (Yonhap News)
An image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un providing on-site guidance at a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 7. (Yonhap News)

How are we to understand North Korea’s “new path” and its aim of overcoming its current hurdles through a strategy of “self-reliance”? Many are reading between the lines to see a reference to the North’s current difficulties and profound concerns. Some experts have also been pointing out similarities to the “protracted war theory” espoused by Mao Zedong during the Sino-Japanese War.

In 1938, Mao wrote a pamphlet titled “On Protracted War.” This came at a time when Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing, and other major cities were falling one after another to the invading Japanese forces. While some were predicting certain defeat for China, others espoused an argument in favor of disregarding practical capabilities and focusing on achieving swift victory. Mao criticized both arguments, arguing instead for a theory of “protracted war”: the ultimate victory would be China’s, he claimed, if it worked to buy time to change the situation rather than rushing into battle. His was a three-stage theory that called for focusing on strategic defense to avoid fighting and sap the strength of an attacking adversary, shifting over to strategic antagonism once a balance of power was achieved, and pursuing a strategic counterattack once the conditions favored China’s side.

Similarly, Kim Jong-un appears to have settled on a strategy of responding defensively through “independent regeneration” when US sanctions and pressure are intense and then pursuing negotiations again once the conditions are in North Korea’s favor. Having determined that the conflict and negotiations with the US are going to be a long-term campaign, he is committing himself to an unswerving “protracted war” approach until such time as the US comes out with a new “method of calculation” that guarantees security and development for the North.

The content of a Jan. 11 statement attributed to Ministry of Foreign Affairs Advisor Kim Kye-gwan can be read along similar lines, with its insistence that “there will never be such negotiations as [those] in Vietnam, in which we proposed exchanging a core nuclear facility of the country for [lifting] some UN sanctions in a bid to lessen the sufferings of the peaceable people even a bit,” adding that the “reopening of dialogue between the DPRK and the US may be possible only under the condition of the latter’s absolute agreement on the issues raised by the former.”

With the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea coming up on Oct. 10 of this year and the US presidential election in November, North Korea is very likely to focus on raising tensions through a guerrilla-style approach, while tending to its economy and attempting to avoid destroying the chances of discussions outright in anticipation of new possibilities once US President Donald Trump is reelected.

Trump’s strategy is one of ambush tactics. He recently had Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, a strategist and one of the top figures in the Iranian army, assassinated in a surprise targeted drone strike. This was a risky gamble aimed at diverting attention from his impeachment proceedings and rallying supporters to benefit his chances of reelection. This has shifted the focus of US diplomacy away from North Korea, and amid predictions that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is now more likely to walk away from nuclear talks -- convinced that it would be riskier for Pyongyang to forfeit its nuclear capabilities -- Trump asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in to deliver a surprise “birthday message” to the North Korean leader. It’s an attempt to keep Pyongyang in line for now while Washington is focusing on the Iran situation.

Trump’s ambush campaigns may appear to turn things in his favor as they catch the other side off guard with their unpredictability -- but they are not good for establishing trust in the steady pursuit of long-term goals. The clash between two incompatible aims -- Trump's desire to look like a “strong president” and his refusal to assume responsibility for what happens outside the US -- is only accelerating the US’ decline in the international community.

S. Korea’s problematic strategy of focusing solely on US coordination

The problem has to do with South Korea’s strategy, which is not visible on the surface. Seoul has channeled most of its diplomatic focus into the “top-down” negotiation approach involving South Korean President Moon, Kim, and Trump in the hope that it can achieve progress in denuclearization by winning Trump over, but the results have failed to live up to expectations. The Moon administration has also faced blowback from its failure to commit badly needed resources to its diplomacy with neighbors such as China, Japan, and Russia. So focused has it been on coordination with the US that it has not been able to do all it can within the context of inter-Korean relations. It was painful to see North Korea’s response the day after the Blue House announced the delivery of Trump’s birthday message to Kim, with its insistence that it was “presumptuous for South Korea to meddle.”

The same day that Moon was giving a New Year’s address declaring his aim of actively pursuing progress in inter-Korean relations, US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said that matters involving inter-Korean relations “should be done in consultations with” the US -- suggesting that South Korea, a sovereign state, needs “permission” from the US to achieve such progress. This should be seen as a clear indication that no further breakthroughs can be achieved through a diplomatic approach that is bound to US “approval.”

The diplomatic counterparts’ strategies and the political lay of the land have both changed. It’s time for Seoul to stop mistakenly clinging to the old strategies and battle lines.

By Park Min-hee, head of the Unification Diplomacy team

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

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