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Dr. Song's Corner


Tale of Two Cities Part 2

July 06, 2018
By Dr. Jason Song


In recent years, North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and testing, coupled with holding American hostages, reminded the world that the Korean peninsula is still a political hot spot. North Korea is indeed a rogue nation with nuclear capabilities, and that is the primary source of instability in the region. Yet, while there have been war of words and many minor skirmishes along the DMZ, as well as exchanges of gunshots in open seas, the threat posed by the North is effectively neutralized by the presence of the US military in South Korea and Japan.

From the South’s perspective, having an eccentric and adversarial communist North Korea just minutes away from its capital Seoul has become a fact of life. Most South Koreans disregard North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric and erratic actions as mere “cry for wolf” than credible threats. Even when it comes to North’s nuclear testing and development, South Korea assumes that the North will never use nuclear weapons on the peninsula because doing so would lead to mutual destruction. In other words, South Koreans view the North’s development of nuclear missiles as a bargaining chip against the US than a weapon against the South.

South Korea's policy toward its northern counterpart can be categorized into two extreme stances: hardline versus “sunshine.” On one hand, ROK’s authoritarian regimes and political conservatives have taken hardline approaches, often reciprocating North’s verbal and military threats. On the other hand, political liberals and progressives have opted for the “sunshine” policy, derived from Aesop’s fable in which the traveler’s jacket is removed not by the howling wind but by warm sunshine. The sunshine policy included engaging in Red Cross talks, facilitating meetings among separated family members, providing humanitarian aid, starting joint economic ventures, and even forming combined sports teams to participate in international games. In the end, the success or failure of the two policies depends on who you talk to.  

While Kim Jong-Un’s recent shift in posture for dialogues should be welcomed by the South and the US--and perhaps the entire world--one must keep in mind that North Korea only shows interest in talks when its economy is in dire straits. Put differently, the US imposed sanction is the primary reason why the North wants to talk.

South Korea’s current administration--namely President Moon--wants to take credit for facilitating the North-South dialogue and North Korea-US summit, but it’s more likely that South Korea is seeking solutions to its own social, economic, and political challenges. For example, South Korea’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world. That translates into disappearance of few hundred thousand jobs in the education sector (tutoring, cram centers, child-care services, schools, teachers, book publishing, etc.). Plus, unemployment rate of college graduates is the highest ever in the nation’s history. Rising wages makes Korea unattractive to foreign manufacturers. Finally, the growing trade tension with the US, and the tenuous economic ties with China, is forcing South Korea to seek trade options in greater Asia and Europe, and that requires having railroad access through North Korea.

(Continued in Part 3)