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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C

'We're facing a crisis if the new South Korean government acts without US approval'

South Korea’s leading presidential candidate advocates inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation, writes Dr Dong-Jin Kim.

THE GROWING TENSION between the US and North Korea has been widely reported by the media. There have been similar moments throughout the history of the Korean conflict. So, what would be different this time?

It is known that the US had contemplated using atomic bombs on North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). Faced by strong opposition from the European allies, who were worried about the expansion of war to Europe, the US shelved the plan and agreed to an armistice.

Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula

At the end of the Cold War, North and South Korean high-level negotiations produced agreements for non-aggression and reconciliation, and the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula (1991-1992). During this time the US withdrew their tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea.

However, the US Clinton administration soon discovered North Korea was developing a nuclear weapon, and considered bombing the North Korean facility. But the risk of North Korean retaliation directed at South Korea, a US ally, was too great.

North Korea also could not risk a war with the US at a time when they had lost almost all their former communist allies. In 1994, the US and North Korea agreed that North Korea would give up their nuclear ambition in return for aid.

South Korea’s Sunshine policy

With the introduction of the South Korean government’s Sunshine policy, the Korean peace process began to bear fruit by the early 2000s.

Socio-cultural and economic interactions between North and South Koreans raised hopes for a “soft-landing” with the North Korean dictatorship transforming into a democracy and market economy, rather than a “hard-landing”, such as the total collapse of North Korea which would cause significant regional instability or a resumption of war.

However, the peace process has suffered from multiple crises, the continuous nuclear and missile testing by North Korea, in particular.

The Six Party Talks (2003-2009) among China, Japan, Russia, the US, and North and South Korea concerning the denuclearisation of North Korea were suspended. The South Korean government decided to stop most of the inter-Korean exchange and cooperation projects in 2010. Despite the assertion by the Kim Jong-Un regime that nuclear weapons will guarantee regime security, the possession of nuclear weapons is actually causing increased insecurity for the North Korean regime.

All options are on the table

The present US administration is saying that there is not enough time to prevent the development of North Korean inter-continental ballistic missiles, with nuclear warheads, capable of reaching the US mainland.

President Trump and his officials claim that the US has enough power to resolve the North Korean issue unilaterally and all options are on the table. The US has begun the installation of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) System in South Korea as well as sending an aircraft carrier-led strike group and a nuclear submarine.

However, the priority of Washington’s North Korea policy so far seems to be toughening sanctions by putting pressure on China, rather than unilateral military action.

In the midst of the tensions between the US and North Korea, there will be a South Korean presidential election on May 9. The leading candidate, Moon Jae-In, has inferred that he should be able to say “No” to a US initiative, if it is against the national interest of South Korea.

Moon has been advocating the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and economic cooperation, which would not please a US administration trying to squeeze North Korea.

Trump puts less value on South Korean relations

Trump does not appear to place the same value on the US/South Korea alliance as his predecessors.

During his presidential campaign, he accused South Korea of being a security free-rider and said he would pull the US military out of the Korean peninsula unless South Korea pays the full cost of US troops in the country.

Would Trump be able to dismiss the security risk of South Korea when his administration considers all options on North Korea, particularly if the new South Korean government acts without the US approval? If then, the Korean peninsula may enter into an unprecedented danger.

Dr Dong-Jin Kim is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. His most recent publication is Building Relationships Across the Boundaries: The Peacebuilding Role of Civil Society in the Korean Peninsula (International Peacekeeping, April 2017).

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