[Column] Pride and prejudice, and the tragedy of the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2020-11-16 15:51 KST Modified on : 2020-11-16 15:51 KST
Is it pride or prejudice that prevents the US from achieving inter-Korean peace?

In the novel “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet, the main female character, asks Mr. Darcy if he regards pride as a flaw or a virtue. The sentence shows off the linguistic alchemy of author Jane Austen. In English, “pride” can mean either reasonable self-respect or unreasonable arrogance. Elizabeth’s question plays on that ambiguity.

Fitzwilliam Darcy, the main male character, is typically understood to be a wealthy man hampered by his pride, while Elizabeth is regarded as being prevented by her prejudice from recognizing Mr. Darcy’s love for her. But I tend to think that Austen was actually suggesting that all the characters have their own measure of pride and prejudice, and that the difference between self-esteem and arrogance, and betwee

n prejudice and love, can be as thin as a piece of paper.

Following the US presidential election, there’s been a fierce debate in South Korea over the “third term.” After the argument was made that the Biden administration will effectively be the third term of Barack Obama in terms of its North Korea policy, others have countered that Biden’s more likely to represent the third term of Bill Clinton. Some have even synthesized these two positions by arguing that Biden will start out as Obama and later revert to Clinton.

”Third term” theories solely focused on US without considering N. Korea

Considering that Biden’s explanation of his North Korean policy in his campaign platform was vague and that he hasn’t even started making his appointments, “third term” speculation is less factual analysis and more hopeful theorizing. My impression is that the whole debate is dripping with pride and prejudice. The question is whether that’s a flaw or a virtue.

All the “third term” theories are solely focused on the US administration. That’s prejudice, since they disregard the US’ counterparty, North Korea.

North Korea has already moved far beyond the Clinton era; it has even undergone qualitative change since the Obama era. North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power state, whether or not it’s recognized as such by the international community. All that’s left is some uncertainty about whether the North’s sixth nuclear test in 2017 involved nuclear fission or fusion.

North Korea’s test launch of a missile in 2017 also removed any doubts about the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. All that’s left is some uncertainty about whether or not the missile displayed in the North’s military parade in October is capable of carrying multiple warheads.

North Korea claims to have acquired enough military power to deter the US’ nuclear arsenal; now it’s focusing on making its economy strong enough to shrug off the UN’s economic sanctions.

Past policies and agreements have passed their expiration date. This forces the next US administration to craft a new policy that’s neither Obama or Clinton redux. Prejudice is certainly not a virtue.

While the Obama administration’s North Korean policy is often described as “strategic patience,” that’s something of a misnomer. Far from exercising patience with the North in its current form, the US actively sought to change the status quo with the goal of toppling its regime.

The pride of the Lee and Park administrations

That policy precisely reflected the pride of South Korean administrations led by former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. They had the arrogance to hope that the Kim Jong-il regime would soon collapse and that unification would come like a thief in the night. They repeatedly imposed the toughest economic sanctions in history and cranked up military pressure by talking about “sudden changes.” Lee and Park even hatched attempts to topple the North Korean regime from the inside.

Such arrogance provoked a fierce backlash from the North. During those years, the North carried out four nuclear tests and rapidly upgraded its missile capabilities. Such were the terrible consequences of the arrogance of Obama, Lee, and Park.

The prejudice of the Trump administration

Another example of prejudice is the argument that the Trump administration’s summits with North Korea failed to bring about the North’s denuclearization. The North’s nuclear development has continued both when summits were held and when they weren’t held. The North has frozen and disabled its nuclear activities in the past even without a summit.

The presence or absence of a summit isn’t an independent variable that determines the North’s nuclear activities. The question of whether policy decisions should be made using the bottom-up or top-down method isn’t an important variable either. A fixation on method is mere prejudice that distracts us from the essence of the problem.

Pride and prejudice on the Korean Peninsula end in tragedy. The pride that kicked off 2019 tragically concluded in retribution in 2020. During the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, the Trump administration arrogantly assumed that its “maximum pressure” would bring the North to its knees, and the US prejudicially assumed that the North’s request for the lifting of economic sanctions was evidence of its desperation.

That pride and prejudice came home to roost with the “monster missile” unveiled this past October. In apparent retaliation for the US’ rejection of its proposed closure of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and the Tongchang Village missile launch site, the North carried out two “important tests” at Tongchang Village in December 2019 and has continued to produce nuclear materials at Yongbyon. In a classic act of revenge, the North revealed the fruits of its efforts at the military parade on the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Austen’s novel ends on a hopeful, if unrealistic, note. After many twists and turns, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride and prejudice and get married. Why haven’t South Korea and the US managed to overcome their own pride and prejudice in regard to North Korea, end the hostile relationship, and build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula?

Suh Jae-jung
Suh Jae-jung

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University of Japan

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

Related stories

Most viewed articles