[Column] The window of opportunity that will open after the US election

Posted on : 2020-11-06 16:49 KST Modified on : 2020-11-06 16:49 KST
It’s time for Koreans to take charge of their own fate instead of relying on foreign powers

Two summers ago, I had the chance to meet former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in New York. The 95-year-old man offered his thoughts on North Korea-US dialogue, which was viewed with widespread optimism at the time.

Kissinger asked why I thought the denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea would succeed and cautioned against jumping to any conclusions. The important thing, he said, is the will of the Korean people. Instead of counting on Trump, he said, South Korea ought to firm up its own resolve to make peace.

After North Korea-US dialogue broke down in the Hanoi summit in 2019, I found myself painfully reflecting on Kissinger’s remarks.

Two perspectives explain why South Koreans have been held back for so long from preparing a mid- and long-term survival strategy for the state. The first perspective regards alliances as sacrosanct.

According to that perspective, we can only seek security in the bosom of the US and cannot contemplate any other options. This alliance perspective argues that simultaneously relying on the US for our national security and on China for the economy no longer works and that we’ve reached a geopolitical moment at which we must definitely declare ourselves to be on the side of the US.

The second perspective places absolute value on the Korean nation. The US, which is undeniably a foreign power, is bound to leave our shores eventually. Those who hold this position argue, therefore, that this is the moment of unification, when South and North Korea ought to band together, as one people, to drive out the foreign powers that have unjustly meddled in our destiny.

It’s a bad habit to insist that Korea has to choose either the alliance or the nation. It’s rather like telling children whose parents are going through a divorce that they have to choose between Mom or Dad. The presumption is that we’re extremely weak creatures.

Strangely enough, this bias is even worse among elite experts than among ordinary people. While these two arguments might initially appear contradictory, one thing they have in common is that they both compel a choice.

That’s the mentality of a weak state hemmed in by great powers. Since Korea’s modern history is marked by trials and tribulations, a victim mentality has taken root deep in the Korean psyche. Absolute valorization of either the alliance or the nation begins with the desire for security.

But that has an unexpected downside. It has produced people with a shriveled self-respect, people who take for granted their frailty and servility, trembling with fear and unable to forge their own destiny or discover new reserves of strength. My term for such people is “periphery fundamentalists.”

The state of Israel, with a population of 7 million, is surrounded by 300 million Muslims, but there’s not a single American soldier in its territory. Nevertheless, Israelis have survived and enjoy freedom of action.

Singapore, a city-state of 7 million that borders on big countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, enjoys undeniable autonomy and readily criticizes both the US and China.

In terms of national security, the 23 million people living in Taiwan are certainly worse off than Korea. Taiwan isn’t free to import weapons; it’s not even recognized as a state. Nevertheless, Taiwan has had the courage to work out a flexible survival strategy.

What about Sweden, with a population of 10 million, and Finland, which is even smaller, who are confronted with the threat of Russia? Compared to such countries — so tiny one can imagine a vigorous gust of wind sending them aloft — South Korea is a large, even a huge, country.

But South Korea is also a country that trembles at the thought of a single American soldier being sent home. South Korea has forfeited a considerable share of its sovereignty: it has neither wartime operational control over its own troops, nor is it a signatory to the armistice that ended the Korean War.

South Korea is basically treated as a country defeated in war or guilty of war crimes, and a considerable number of “periphery fundamentalists” take that as a given. Since the Korean Peninsula issue is undeniably a matter of our survival, it’s ridiculous to cast ourselves as “mediators,” waiting around for progress in negotiations between the US and North Korea. Such a position would be impossible unless we still regarded ourselves as a “weak country.”

Is it so hard for a dynamic state that expresses a powerful drive for survival to be built upon a spirit of freedom? Why haven’t we been able to develop the survival strategy of a mid-size country playing a leadership role around the Korean Peninsula as our long-term vision?

The chaos seen in the US presidential election isn’t merely a problem with elections but rather a crisis with democracy itself. For the time being, the US will have trouble executing any kind of policy toward North Korea. There’s little reason to expect North Korea’s denuclearization or easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the short term.

But that very vacuum offers a golden opportunity for South Korea to become a key country that calls the shots on Korean Peninsula affairs. Korea has enjoyed such glory in the past, such as when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung taught US President Bill Clinton how to launch the “Perry Process.”

Surely the question of who ends up being the US president is not as important as the country we’re resolved to become, and our efforts toward that end.

Kim Jong-dae
Kim Jong-dae

By Kim Jong-dae , visiting professor at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

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

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