Losing Your Alliance: Risking an American Withdrawal from South Korea
There is an understandable tendency to look at South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, as a kind of hesitant mother, watching nervously from her front door as her ordinarily level-headed teenage daughter (America) is being led away for a date (summit diplomacy) by a clearly unpleasant and poorly intentioned older boy (North Korea). Helpless to stop them, the mother is stuck watching-in from the fringes, hoping that it all ends before her daughter gets too damaged by the whole experience.
As onlookers we might rightly sympathise, but how long should that concern last after we notice the mother encouraging her daughter to apply more make-up before each date, to hike-up her skirts and show more leg, to wear lower-cut tops, and when that all fails filling up her daughter’s purse with condoms when she isn’t looking. The daughter, now walking away into the night — arm in arm with her new boyfriend — hears her mom shout a reminder (loud enough for the boy to hear) to “do whatever it takes to keep him happy, and coming back for more”. How long after seeing this should we hold our judgement, watching the mother sell-out her closest relationship for the brief adrenaline of a vicarious, and ill fated, love affair?
How long before the daughter becomes resentful of her mother’s willingness to take liberties with her, and risks on her behalf, and moves out permanently? Never to return!
In 2012, when Moon Jae-in was confident of winning the presidency — and so no longer in need of grand political gestures — he publically committed himself to achieving a North-South confederation before his term was finished. He wasn’t pandering so much as expressing his deepest convictions, and indeed lifelong hope. This was not the first time Moon had made this explicit pledge, just the first time during the campaign.
As a young advisor Moon had watched former presidents from his side of politics talk this way (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun), and yet leave office without anything to show for it. This perceived lack of urgency is something Moon has been conscious of avoiding. And no better way of doing this, and of signalling your intent to Pyongyang than by appointing Im Jong-seok as Chief of Staff. Im comes from the same stock as those people who protested against authoritarian rule in the 1980’s (the 386 Generation), but was always considerably more upfront about –and willing to act upon — his belief that North Korea was the more legitimate of the two countries. While leading an explicitly pro-North group, Im campaigned for reunification under Kim Il-sung — effectively hoping for the destruction of his own republic.
During this period, Im Jong-seok was in direct contact with the regime in Pyongyang, and eventually served time in prison for this. Yet when elected to the National Assembly, and despite the end of authoritarian rule in the South, Im still had a near single-minded focus on furthering North Korea friendly policies. One such success was the enforcement of royalties upon the use of North Korean media in South Korea. So now every time a network chooses to air images or films of Northern origin (even propaganda), they have to pay a copyright charge directly to Kim Jong-un, all thanks to the second most powerful political appointee in South Korea.
An isolated case? No! The new Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-cheol, has publically championed a diplomatic approach even more chummy and forgiving than Moon Jae-in has dared, has begun pushing for an exemption to sanctions, and has even spoken about reunification being the solution to the nuclear crisis, not just as a downstream benefit. Other key positions have been filled — without shame — by people with similar pro-Northern resumes, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) is no longer enforcing its own security laws regarding North Korean agents, school textbooks have been edited favourably (removing mention of military incursions), the word “free” was removed from the constitution in regard to the nature of a future reunified peninsula (reversed only after public outrage), and the conservative media has been censored in its criticisms of the current policy direction through an abuse of libel laws.
The day after the Hanoi Summit collapsed, Moon Jae-in was already calling for deeper inter-Korean economic cooperation; in other words permission to violate international sanctions and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Rather than question how serious Kim Jong-un actually is following his paltry diplomatic offer, Moon immediately launched back into the role of match-maker. This despite Kim Jong-un in his speech to the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly belittling the South Korean President as a “nosy mediator” rather than “the one who protects the nation’s interest”.
This is North Korea giving their patron the hurry-along — as with the recently announced test of a “tactical guided weapon”. The whole discussion defies logic: if North Korea were serious about wanting sanctions relief to walk hand-in-hand with denuclearisation, then they never would have developed the weapons in the first place. The sanctions only exist — and became steadily more imposing — due to the presence of the nuclear program, and now we are asked to believe that North Korea will give it all up in order to wind things back down to zero. All that pain and sacrifice for nothing. Besides, does anyone — no matter how critical of America’s role in the world — think for a moment that Washington are a flight risk here? That they might turn delinquent and back out of their bargain if North Korea verifiably relinquishes their weapons first. It is unlikely that even the regime in Pyongyang has this concern.
There is a not-too-subtle game being played out. As Moon Jae-in has his sights on the North, Kim Jong-un has his on the South. Fresh from trying to coax Donald Trump back into the fold, and playing the role of messenger between the two parties, Moon is now talking up the need for another inter-Korean summit (this would be the fourth of his presidency): “Now is the time to begin the preparations in earnest for an inter-Korean summit”…“I hope the two Koreas will be able to sit down together, regardless of venue and form, and hold detailed and substantive talks on how to achieve further progress that goes beyond the previous two summits between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”
Lost in this is an understanding of American interests, and the fragility of alliances. Who knows where it may lie, but at some point there will be an end to Washington’s patience and commitment. Unreciprocated in Seoul, the American desire for denuclearisation as a precondition for improved relations is eventually going to force a decision. South Korea can behave the way they are, and gamble on the well-meaning intentions of Kim Jong-un, only because their alliance with, and the presence of, American troops remains as a failsafe to a second Korean war.
But with their goals noticeably diverging, and with the Moon Jae-in administration’s outreach to Pyongyang done so with the intention of bypassing weapons talks and alleviating sanctions pressure regardless, how long before Washington comes to see Seoul as part of the problem here? That, if only implicitly, Kim Jong-un’s bellicosity and obstinance is being encouraged by every meeting, every statement, and every policy from South Korea. The only real incentive at the moment for Pyongyang is to dig their heels in, to ride out the pressure, and have South Korea hand-deliver the reunification that they’ve always wanted. Donald Trump’s impulsiveness contributed to it of course, but the sight of the U.S. Marine Corps undertaking its annual Korean-American exercises in Hawaii and not South Korea should — but likely won’t — terrify Moon Jae-in and his administration.
Or to put it differently: soon the daughter grows tired of her dangerous boyfriend, the infatuation wears off, and she stops answering his phone calls. Increasingly irate, he stakes-out her house, and shouts abuse whenever the opportunity arises. Through this, the girl’s mother seems to be primarily concerned with reconciling the relationship; excusing the boy’s behaviour and even blaming her daughter for leading him on and being a tease. Eventually her mother’s manipulation and duplicity become too much to bear, and so the daughter packs her bags and moves out.
Alone in the house for the first time, the mother answers the door late at night and finds the young man standing on the porch. Drunk and aggressive, he says that with her daughter out of the way the mother can now get what she’s always wanted — they can finally be together. With nothing between her and this dangerous young man, her attitude changes instantly. The flirtatious predisposition is gone — all she feels now is vulnerability and fear. In a panic she tries to slam the door shut, but the young man already has his foot in the way; he steps forward contemptuously and pushes her aside….