Peace through dialogue

Nuclear threat: South Koreans watching TV news file footage of a North Korean missile launch on Thursday. As a new president, one of Yoon’s foreign policy aims is the denuclearisation of North Korea. — AP

“WHEN the Qing army is surrounding the fortress, how come you are trying to kill one another within?”

The king is scolding his courtiers in exasperation as they call for punishing opponents in their argument over whether to make peace with the enemy and save their country or fight to the end and die gloriously. At a moment when their fate hangs by a thread, the court is divided between pacifists and militants. This is a scene from The Fortress, the critically and commercially acclaimed 2017 South Korean movie by Hwang Dong-hyuk, director of the hit Netflix TV series Squid Game.

Based on a bestselling novel by Kim Hoon, The Fortress recalls how the court of King Injo of Korea’s Joseon era coped with an invasion by the army of Emperor Hong Taiji of China’s Qing Dynasty in 1636. Qing, the rising power, demands that Joseon becomes a tributary but Joseon resists. Eventually, though, King Injo walks out of the fortress and surrenders, kowtowing before Hong Taiji.

The movie portrays the scene aesthetically, and the king performs the humiliating ceremony with his dignity not entirely lost. But it remains one of the most disgraceful moments in Korean history – an oft-cited example of ideological wrangling and incompetent leadership during a national crisis.

Partisan conflict and division of opinion in front of an enemy undermines morale in battle. But internal finger-pointing and throwing blame before an ally also can be unproductive.

With Yoon Suk-yeol sworn in as South Korea’s new president on May 10 amid deepening regional and global security concerns, his foreign policy draws keen attention.

Yoon’s national security and foreign policy team stands for an upgraded alliance with the United States, a hawkish stance on North Korea, mending ties with Japan, reducing dependence on China as a trade partner, and the potential denuclearisation of North Korea.

Across all these policy goals, Yoon has declared he will be different from his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. In a contribution to Foreign Affairs (a magazine published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank) in February as an opposition presidential candidate, Yoon categorically criticised and negated Moon’s foreign policy measures.

In the article, entitled “South Korea needs to step up”, Yoon insisted that Moon’s foreign policy was “guided by a parochial and shortsighted conception of national interests”, “tailored mostly to improving relations with North Korea”, “making dialogue with the North an end itself” and “undercutting South Korea’s sovereign right with overly accommodating gestures meant to placate China”.

He said that, amid mounting US-China tensions, the Moon administration’s “strategic ambiguity” and “timidity” has made the South Korea-US alliance drift and Seoul’s role in the global community shrink. He pointed out that Moon’s unclear attitude created the impression that South Korea was tilting toward China and away from its longtime ally, the United States.

I would say that these accusations are partly true and partly untrue. The geopolitical circumstances of South Korea today are far too complex to maintain crystal clarity and unmitigated boldness in all matters, even if one remains committed to principles. In other words, the matrix of interests is much more complicated than imagined – let’s say, than the situation faced by King Injo and his courtiers in the 17th century. Moreover, the matrix itself keeps moving, at a dizzying pace at times.

On another note, Yoon could have distinguished his campaign rhetoric for the home audience from his discussion of policy vision for international readership as a would-be-president of a country.

Yoon predicted that South Korea under his leadership will rise to the challenge of becoming a “global pivotal state” which advances freedom, peace and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation. He noted that South Korea can become a vibrant, innovative and attractive country, “but only if” its government exercises creative thinking and makes clear choices.

Unfortunately, the international environment is not so favourable for the new president, let alone the extreme political polarisation at home.

While the world is focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prolonged war in Ukraine, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been accelerating his nuclear threats, conducting 15 missile launches this year alone. Wary of the escalating tensions in North-East Asia, Washington will likely pressure for trilateral military cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Yoon has opened the possibilities of joining the US-led, anti-China groups in the Indo-Pacific region beyond improving relations with Japan. He also calls for extended deterrence as well as an additional deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense battery. These moves may seem necessary to neutralise North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities that are nearing completion; but they will be possible only at a price.

More importantly, few Koreans will want an arms race – much less a nuclear one – in the region, pitting China-North Korea-Russia against the United States-South Korea-Japan. This is one reason why President Yoon is advised to use his upcoming summit with US President Joe Biden in Seoul on May 21 as momentum to restart dialogue with Kim Jong-un. President Biden should know that previous US president Barack Obama’s administration’s “strategic patience” effectively allowed Pyongyang to advance its missile and nuclear technology.

It will be the first test of President Yoon’s diplomatic acumen, not to mention the validity of his vision for peace. Peace through dialogue on the Korean Peninsula and in North-East Asia, and ultimate denuclearisation, will benefit all stakeholders. North Korea’s dire economic condition since the 1990s combined with a looming health crisis may provide the opportunity. – The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald.

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