Is Korea Heading Toward a Political Crossroads?

Photograph Source: Pedro Cambra – CC BY 2.0

South Koreans go to the polls on March 9 to elect a new president, who will assume office two months later. At a time when U.S.-North Korean relations are at an impasse, and the Biden administration is building an aggressive anti-China alliance, much may rest on the outcome.

The two candidates, who are currently running neck-and-neck in opinion polls, present a stark contrast. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party advocates South Korea taking the lead on inter-Korean relations, in contrast to President Moon Jae-in’s unwillingness to adopt any measure that would elicit Washington’s disapproval. “In succeeding the Moon Jae-in administration, the Lee Jae-myung government should act as a more independent and active mediator and problem solver,” Lee announced late last year. [1] That will come as a welcome change in direction if it comes to fruition.

Lee is also disinclined to accede to U.S. demands to join the anti-China campaign, questioning why South Korea should be forced to choose between China, its leading trading partner, and the U.S., with whom it has a military alliance. “I think the situation is coming where we can make decisions independently, putting our national interests first. Any thinking that we have to choose between the two is a very disgraceful approach,” Lee argues. [2]

If Lee is serious about changing course, he will be steering into strong headwinds. South Korea is such a politically polarized society that Lee cannot count on broad-based domestic support. Furthermore, his party will need to win a substantial majority in the National Assembly for Lee to adopt a more independent policy. In addition, the nation’s security and military establishments are hardly likely to countenance a change in the relationship with Washington. The United States, for its part, has an arsenal of economic and diplomatic weapons at its disposal to keep a wayward nation in line. Only time will tell if Lee has the inclination and determination to try and overcome such obstacles.

Lee’s conservative opponent, Yoon Seok-youl of the inaptly-named People Power Party, takes a hardline position on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – the official name for North Korea), including talking about the option of launching a preemptive strike. [3] Yoon also prioritizes the military alliance with the United States and favors joining Washington’s “global coalition” confronting China. [4] “The U.S. is our ally,” Yoon asserts, “while China is a partner. And a partnership is based on mutual respect. China is North Korea’s key ally. Isn’t North Korea our main enemy? We cannot make an alliance with a country that is allied with our main enemy.” [5]

It is no mystery which candidate the Biden administration would prefer to deal with. Yoon’s stated policies align perfectly with those of Washington.

President Moon Jae-in missed opportunities to improve inter-Korean relations by continually deferring to the United States. In regard to reducing U.S.-DPRK tensions, Moon advocates an end-of-war declaration. Combat in the Korean War came to a halt in 1953 with an armistice agreement, so technically speaking, a state of war still exists. Moon regards that unfinished business as a destabilizing situation that can be resolved by all parties signing an end-of-war declaration to “mark a pivotal point of departure,” which would lead to “irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”  [6]

South Korean officials have been engaged in talks with their counterparts in the United States, China, and North Korea on the subject of a peace declaration for some time now. Moon believes “in principle” that “everybody agrees to the declaration,” although he noted that the DPRK needs to see the U.S. withdraw its hostile policy. [7] In other words, no party has explicitly rejected the proposal outright, although South Korea has yet to come to an agreement with the United States on its wording.

According to Moon, “If North Korea takes certain measures, the end-of-war declaration would be a political statement that would announce that the longstanding hostile relations between Pyongyang and Washington had ended.” [8] Note that action is required from only one side, while no change in behavior is asked of the United States.

Moon has also stated that an end-of-war declaration would be “the starting point to discuss the peace treaty.” [9]However, a peace treaty is a nonstarter in the current U.S. political environment, as it would require approval by a two-thirds majority in the Senate and ratification by President Biden.

The protracted wrangling over the declaration’s wording suggests that American officials have taken note of Yoon’s strong showing in the South Korean opinion polls and concluded that they need only drag their feet until getting a partner more to their liking. At the very least, it indicates that the Biden administration is intensely focused on wordsmithing to ensure that nothing in the final draft of a peace declaration could be misconstrued to suggest that anything should change.

Too much can be made of the claim that a technical state of war is automatically destabilizing. Failure to sign a peace treaty is not a unique historical phenomenon. In a more recent example, the Soviet Union and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II. However, a peace declaration was agreed to in 1956 as an interim measure. Technically, then, Russia and Japan remain in a state of war yet are hardly likely to engage in combat. Talks are currently underway regarding a peace treaty. [10]

Conversely, there is nothing inherently transformative in being officially at peace with a hostile party. Cuba and Venezuela, for example, are formally at peace with the United States yet are subjected to unrelenting sanctions, economic blockade, and destabilization campaigns aimed at regime change.

The risk in placing so much emphasis on an end-of-war declaration alone is that Moon may inadvertently be reinforcing the already entrenched U.S. view that it need not offer North Korea anything substantive in exchange for denuclearization.

It is difficult to imagine what mechanism could metamorphose a piece of paper acknowledging that combat ended in 1953 into Moon’s envisioned “era of complete peace.” Moreover, U.S. hostility toward the DPRK is driven by regional geopolitical objectives, which a peace declaration cannot alter.

As a purely symbolic measure, a peace declaration is not worthless, but it would need to be accompanied by a change in U.S. attitude to hold any value. Otherwise, a symbol at variance with action is drained of any meaning. Indeed, what significance would such a symbol have as the United States continues to wage siege warfare against North Korea in the form of sanctions designed to impose economic ruin, hardship, and hunger?

Asia specialist Tim Beal believes the number one problem with an end-of-war declaration is “that the U.S. is still waging war – sanctions, military exercises, practicing invasion, and so forth. And it gives no indication of actually wanting to stop any of these.” [11]

The sustained effort that Moon has invested in promoting a peace declaration may have been better spent on advocating real change as a path to peace. However, it must be noted how so much of the Washington elite recoils at the prospect of granting North Korea even a symbolic diplomatic crumb. There is a deeply ingrained belief that the only acceptable formula for negotiations is for the DPRK to surrender everything while getting nothing in return. Perhaps Moon’s devotion to a peace declaration is based partly on the realization that the United States is unwilling to offer North Korea anything meaningful in exchange for denuclearization, so more cannot be expected.

While South Korean officials have discussed the subject of a peace declaration with their counterparts in the north, the impetus and enthusiasm for the proposal essentially come from the former side. Indeed, Moon’s narrow focus on a peace declaration resolutely ignores what North Koreans say they need.

The DPRK is under siege, and consequently, its officials are looking for something more concrete from the United States. They certainly have not minced words on the subject. Kim Myong Gil, North Korea’s chief negotiator during talks with Trump administration officials, was quite direct: “If the U.S. believes that it can lure us to the table with secondary issues, such as an end-of-war declaration – which can instantly end up as garbage depending on the political situation – and the establishment of a liaison office, instead of presenting fundamental solutions to withdraw its hostile policy against North Korea, which interferes with our right to survival and development, there will never be any hope for a solution.” [12]

Last September, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song reiterated that position when he termed an end-of-war declaration premature. “Nothing will change as long as the political circumstances around the DPRK remain unchanged and the U.S. hostile policy is not shifted, although the termination of the war is declared hundreds of times.” Ri added, “We have already clarified our official stand that the declaration of the termination of the war is not a ‘present’ and it can become a mere scrap of paper in a moment upon changes in situations.” [13]

Biden administration officials repeatedly announce that the U.S. has no hostile intent toward the DPRK while showering that nation with invective and strangling it economically. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price says that “specific proposals” have been made to North Korea. [14] Although nothing is publicly known about the nature of the proposals, the lack of response from the North Koreans would seem to reveal that the U.S. is sticking to its customary approach of offering diplomatic trinkets in exchange for demanding unilateral disarmament.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying advocates a more viable approach to resuming talks. “We believe under the current circumstances, the key to breaking the stalemate and restarting dialogue is taking seriously the DPRK’s legitimate concerns. The U.S. should avoid repeating empty slogans, but rather show its sincerity by presenting an appealing plan for dialogue. It is imperative to invoke the rollback terms of the Security Council’s DPRK-related resolutions as soon as possible and make necessary adjustments to relevant sanctions, especially those relating to provisions on the humanitarian and livelihood aspects.” [15]

In October, China and Russia submitted a draft resolution at the United Nations to drop economic sanctions that target North Korea’s population, in recognition of the nation’s continued adherence to its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests. [16] Chinese U.N. envoy Wang Qun explained, “Obviously, the crux of the deadlock in the DPRK-U.S. dialogue is that the denuclearization measures taken by the DPRK have not received due attention and the legitimate and reasonable concerns of the DPRK have not been properly addressed.” [17] Predictably, the U.S. side reacted with outrage, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield instead called upon U.N. member states to “ramp up the implementation of the sanctions.” [18]

Rather than signal a softer attitude, on December 10, the Biden administration piled on more sanctions, targeting several individuals and North Korea’s animation firm SEK Studio. Also sanctioned was a Chinese animation company for doing business with SEK Studio. [19] According to Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, the Biden administration “is sending a very strong message to North Korea and the rest of the world that the U.S. government is going to really not leave any stone unturned and make sure that the North Koreans don’t get even a single cent of profit by trading with the outside world.” [20]

The Biden administration followed that action by naming Philip Goldberg as ambassador to South Korea. His selection appears to indicate that Washington remains wedded to the punishment approach. During the Obama administration, Goldberg served as coordinator for implementing sanctions on North Korea. That position led him to travel abroad and meet with foreign political and banking officials to eliminate trade and financial operations with North Korea. Philosophically, he aligns well with an aggressive foreign policy. As ambassador to Bolivia, he was expelled from the country for meeting with the right-wing opposition. [21] In his nomination hearing for ambassador to Colombia at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2019, Goldberg promised to support the U.S. campaign to overthrow the government of Venezuela: “If confirmed, I will work with Colombia on efforts to restore democracy to Venezuela.” He added that “the United States government has made clear that all options remain on the table while it continues to engage on all diplomatic and economic fronts to support Interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaido and the Venezuelan people’s pursuit of freedom.” [22] The new ambassador is not a man who can be expected to challenge conventional thinking regarding the DPRK.

The DPRK has evidently concluded that the United States is unwilling to abandon its hostile policy and has recently stepped up weapons testing. Its demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and a self-imposed moratorium on long-range ballistic missile testing yielded no corresponding measure from the United States, aside from a temporary reduction in the size of military exercises that rehearse the bombing and invasion of the DPRK and infiltration of commando teams to assassinate North Korean officials.

Meanwhile, the South Korean military is accelerating technological upgrades and has seen its budget increase by an average of 7.4 percent each year of the Moon administration. [23] The United States, for its part, is expanding its military presence in the Asia-Pacific, and regularly launches intercontinental ballistic missiles, most recently on two occasions last year. [24]

The North Koreans feel compelled to modernize their military capability in response to U.S. and South Korean arms advancements. As a result, an arms race is underway, in which the targeted side’s efforts are deemed illegitimate. DPRK leader Kim Jong Un emphasizes that “recourse to arms against the fellow countrymen must not be repeated on this land.” He adds, “We are not talking about a war with someone,” but “are building up war deterrent…to prevent the war itself and to safeguard the sovereignty of our state.” [25] And that is the crux of U.S. concern. A small targeted nation able to defend itself sets a bad precedent and limits options.

Western media and officials habitually characterize each North Korean missile test as a “threat” or “provocation,” uniquely so, in that other nations performing similar tests prompt no condemnation. India, like North Korea, is a non-member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and its launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on October 27 last year was greeted by silence. [26] No doubt, the Times of India’s description of the launch as “a stern signal to China” came as a welcome development in Washington. [27] The two other nuclear powers that are non-NPT members are Israel and Pakistan, both of which have ballistic missile programs that are deemed of no concern by U.S. officials and media. [28]

There is a double standard at play. Only North Korea is forbidden by the United Nations from testing and is punished by economic sanctions so crushing as to amount to a war on the entire population. Even military tests that are not prohibited, such as the recent cruise missile and hypersonic missile launches, are denounced. Using inflammatory language, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield recently described North Korea’s tests as “attacks” and promised to “continue to ramp up the pressure on the North Koreans.” [29] U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres rebuked the DPRK for its recent launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, charging that it not only violated U.N. sanctions but also “the DPRK’s announced moratorium.” [30] That was an outright falsehood, as North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on testing applies only to long-range ballistic missiles.

Why is North Korea singled out for punishment? According to Thomas-Greenfield, it is because that nation is “a serious threat to our peace and security and to the globe.” [31] That language is echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called the DPRK “a source of danger and obviously a threat to us and our partners.” [32] That American officials can make such pronouncements without being met by derision is a tribute to the efficacy of U.S. propaganda. Since the Korean War came to a halt nearly seven decades ago, the DPRK has been at peace. Yet, in the decades that followed the Second World War, the United States has bombed and invaded numerous countries, undermined and toppled foreign governments, spread its military bases across the globe to threaten other nations, and performed drone strike murders of thousands of civilians. And the U.S. is currently trying to stoke war fever against Russia. Yet, the common perception in the West turns reality on its head.

Regardless of whether or not a peaceful end to the Korean War is declared, the United States has broader plans for South Korea. The Biden administration’s central foreign policy objective is to build alliances with Asian nations to ensure U.S. domination over China.

South Korea’s geographical location places it on the frontline of the Biden administration’s fanatical anti-China project, and the Koreans are assigned the role of “force multiplier” in that effort. The South Koreans are not regarded as having a choice in the matter. Koreans are expected to support the U.S. confrontation with China and any military adventure in the Asia-Pacific that the U.S. may choose to undertake. According to an American military official, the Republic of Korea (ROK) will act as “a net provider of security not just on the peninsula but across the region.” [33]

Last May, Biden and Moon issued a joint statement, which pledged that “the U.S.-ROK alliance will play an increasingly global role” and claimed that the two nations’ relationship “extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula.” Moon also promised to align his country’s policy with “the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.” [34]

In December, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met in Seoul with his South Korean counterpart, Suh Wook. Austin announced that “we discussed ways to broaden our alliance’s focus to address issues of regional concern.” Using the familiar code words for anti-China hostility, Austin stated that “we emphasize our shared commitment to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.” In addition, Austin reported that he and Suh “agreed to explore ways to expand and enhance regional security cooperation and capacity building.” [35]

If an end-of-war declaration is made the vehicle for bringing peace to the peninsula, the main roadblock, as Korea specialist Simone Chun sees it, is U.S. containment policy and the practice of “pressuring allies for U.S. strategic interests.” Under the Moon administration, “South Korea’s security policy has been subordinated to the United States” and “South Korea does not have strategic insight to properly respond to the U.S. policy of containment with respect to China.” Chun proposes supplementing an end-of-war declaration with a revival of the Sunshine Policy as offering a potentially more promising path to reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. [36] The Sunshine Policy, launched during the presidential term of Kim Dae-jung and continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun, redirected inter-Korean relations from confrontation to cooperation. However, since Roh’s term ended in 2008, no subsequent South Korean president has followed suit. In Chun’s proposal, South Korea does not need to play a passive role and defer to U.S. intransigence. Instead, it can initiate its own program.

It cannot be overlooked that South Korean progressives and U.S. imperialism have divergent goals. Their class and national interests are at opposite poles. If positive change comes, it will be driven by Koreans. As Tim Beal points out, “Peace undercuts the rationale for U.S. forward position in East Asia. It undercuts the rationale for all those bases, the bases in South Korea, the bases in Japan, and so forth. And it undercuts the rationale for their utilization of [South Korean] military power.” The problem is “that peace in Korea would hamper the containment of China. That’s how they look at it.” [37]

A lot may ride on the next presidential election in South Korea. A conservative victory would automatically give the Biden administration everything it wants. Yoon has explicitly stated his intention to ally closely with U.S. militarism. A win by Lee Jae-myung offers more hope.

Lee promises to chart a more independent path than Moon. It remains to be seen if he can follow through, given the certainty of fierce opposition by Washington. Progressives in South Korea face a twofold struggle in the months ahead: pressing their government to improve inter-Korean relations and blocking being dragooned into the U.S. anti-China military machine. At the heart of both issues is resistance to U.S. encroachment upon South Korean sovereignty. It will not be an easy struggle, but it is a necessary one.

Notes.

[1] Thomas Maresca, “South Korea Presidential Hopeful Seeks Closer Ties with Pyongyang,” UPI, November 25, 2021.

[2] Kang Seung-woo, “’Choosing Between US, China is Disgraceful,’ Ruling  Party’s Presidential Candidate Says,” Korea Times, December 30, 2021.

[3] Jung Da-min, “Controversy Rises Over Yoon’s Preemptive Strike Remarks,” Korea Times, January 13, 2022.

[4] Lee Haye-ah, “Yoon Says Firm S. Korea-U.S. Alliance Ever More Important,” Yonhap, November 12, 2021.

[5] Lee Ji-yoon, “Yoon Seok-youl Hints at Possibility of Ditching Inter-Korean Military Agreement,” Korea Herald, November 18, 2021.

[6] https://english1.president.go.kr/BriefingSpeeches/Speeches/1068

[7] https://www.pm.gov.au/media/press-conference-canberra-act-32

[8] “South Korea’s Moon Optimistic About End to Korean War,” BBC News, October 12, 2018.

[9] Lee Ji-yoon, “Moon Holds Rare Inflight News Briefing,” Korea Herald, September 24, 2021.

[10] “Future Russia-Japan Peace Treaty Must Reflect Outlook for Cooperation – Lavrov,” TASS, January 14, 2022.

[11] “A Geopolitical Perspective of Biden’s North Korea Policy,” JNC TV, January 2, 2022.

[12] Jeong Je-hyug, “NK Kim Myong-gil, “Beigun Conveyed Wish to Meet for Talks in December. Willing to Sit with the U.S.,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, November 15, 2019.

[13] “Press Statement of Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song,” KCNA, September 24, 2021.

[14] Chaewon Chung, “US Made ‘Specific Proposals’ to the DPRK in Latest Attempt to Engage Regime,” NK News, October 14, 23021.

[15] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on September 30, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, September 30, 2021.

[16] Chad O’Carroll, “China and Russia Submit Proposal to Ease UN Sanctions on North Korea: Sources,” NK News, October 30, 2021.

Michelle Nichols, “China, Russia Revive Push to Lift U.N. Sanctions on North Korea,” Reuters, November 1, 2021.

[17] “Invoking Rollback Terms of DPRK-related Resolutions at Early Date Effective to Break Deadlock: Chinese Envoy,” Xinhua, September 25, 2021.

[18] https://usun.usmission.gov/remarks-by-ambassador-linda-thomas-greenfield%e2%80%afat-the-un-security-council-stakeout-on-the-dprk/

[19] https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0526

[20] Chad O’Carroll, “US to Impose New Sanctions Against North Korea for First Time Under Biden,” NK News, December 10, 2021.

[21] “Bolivian Leader Doesn’t Regret Expelling U.S. Ambassador,” CNN, April 22, 2009.

[22] https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nominations-062019

[23] Lami Kim, “A Hawkish Dove? President Moon Jae-in and South Korea’s Military Buildup,” War on the Rocks, September 15, 2021.

Sang-Min Kim, “South Korea Boosts Military,” Arms Control Association, September 21.

Hiroshi Minegishi, “South Korea Beefs Up Military Muscle to Counter Threat from North,” Nikkei Asia, September 14, 2021.

[24] “Minuteman III Test Launch Demonstrates Safe, Reliable Deterrent,” United States Air Force (Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs), February 24, 2021.

“Minuteman III Test Launch Showcases Readiness of U.S. Nuclear Force’s Safe, Effective Deterrent,” United States Air Force (Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs), August 11, 2021.

[25] “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Commemorative Speech at Defence Development Exhibition,” KCNA, October 12, 2021.

[26] Kelsey Davenport, “India Tests Missile Capable of Reaching China,” Arms Control Association, December 2021.

[27] Rajat Pandit, “In Stern Signal to China, India Tests 5,000-km Range Agni-V”, Times of India, October 28, 2021.

[28] https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/08/israel-ballistic-missile-programme

https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/pakistan/

[29] “Transcript: ‘Capehart’ with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations,” Washington Post Live, January 18, 2022.

[30] “DPR Korea, UN Chief Condemns Missile Launch as ‘Clear Violation,’ UN News, February 1, 2022.

[31] “Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a Press Conference on the March Program of Work and the U.S. Presidency of the UN Security Council,” United States Mission to the United Nations, March 1, 2021.

[32] Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung, “Blinken Urges China to Convince North Korea to Denuclearize,” Associated Press, March 18, 2021.

[33] Jeff Seldin, “US, South Korea Updating War Plans for North Korea,” Voice of America, December 1, 2021.

[34] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/

[35] https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2859519/secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-and-south-korean-defense-minister-suh-w/

[36] “A Geopolitical Perspective of Biden’s North Korea Policy,” JNC TV, January 2, 2022.

[37] “A Geopolitical Perspective of Biden’s North Korea Policy,” JNC TV, January 2, 2022.

Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute associate and on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific. His website is https://gregoryelich.org  Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich.