South Korea Doesn’t Have a Clue What To Do About the North

Seoul needs to formulate a concrete strategy on its troublesome neighbor or risk being permanently sidelined.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 10:  South Korea's new President Moon Jae-In arrives at the National Cemetery on May 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Moon Jae-in of Democratic Party, was elected as the new president of South Korea in the election held on May 9, 2017.  (Photo by Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 10: South Korea's new President Moon Jae-In arrives at the National Cemetery on May 10, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. Moon Jae-in of Democratic Party, was elected as the new president of South Korea in the election held on May 9, 2017. (Photo by Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images)

As the world held its breath watching the Asia-Pacific these past few weeks, parsing statements from Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing, one voice was conspicuously missing from the fray — Seoul’s. One might be tempted to think that will now change. This Wednesday, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared in his inaugural speech that he would do his utmost to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis and to bring peace to the region.

South Korea’s election campaign, however, made evident that neither Moon’s Minjoo Party nor its rivals have a clear strategic vision for how Seoul can manage a belligerent neighbor to the north and a looming great-power rivalry at its doorsteps. Moon has called for South Korea to take charge in shaping the future of the Korean Peninsula — but that’s impossible until Seoul actually has a sense of what that future should be.

While the North Korean nuclear crisis was front and center in the South Korean presidential election, the policy debates that took place were largely short on substance. Instead of presenting innovative or concrete ideas to the South Korean people, the candidates engaged in the same old myopic arguments about which previous administration was to blame for the current situation. Conservative candidates accused the past liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun of providing North Korea with the funds to advance its nuclear weapons program through years of engagement. Meanwhile, liberal candidates faulted the last two conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye for failing to stop the rapid expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

Moon’s position on the North was a natural focus of attacks by rival candidates during the election cycle. When pressed on how he would solve the nuclear crisis, Moon simply stated that he would reach out to his American, Chinese, and North Korean counterparts and that he would seek economic integration, and then reunification, with North Korea in the future — uncontroversial goals that all South Korean administrations have championed in the past.

Moon’s statements revealed very little about the specific policies he would pursue and didn’t convince his domestic and foreign audiences that he has a distinct, let alone winning, grand strategy in mind. But his opponents from rival parties did not fare much better. Rather than push Moon to further define his North Korea policy, they fixated instead on anti-communist shibboleths: Was Moon willing to call the North Korean regime South Korea’s greatest threat? Did Moon, during his days as chief of staff to the Roh administration, seek then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s opinion on how South Korea should vote on a U.N. resolution in 2007 that condemned North Korea’s human rights record?

South Korea can’t solve the North Korean nuclear crisis alone, nor is it likely to be the key player that initially brings Pyongyang to the negotiating table. China, as North Korea’s principal patron, has the most immediate leverage to wield on this front. But as the primary stakeholder in any scenario, good or bad, Seoul can either be pushed around by others or choose to take charge of its own future.

Despite the lack of vision from its politicians, South Korea has the right geopolitical conditions to play a leading role on the peninsula. As a middle power that will never be a strategic rival to Beijing or Washington, with deep trade and cultural ties to China and a strong alliance and shared values with the United States, South Korea can become a force for change that is acceptable to major foreign powers and the Korean people alike. But that will require a clear grand strategy that has yet to materialize.

If Moon wants to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, he will have to quickly advance a framework for the future of the Korean Peninsula that reassures everyone — from the Korean people to the leaders in Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing — that any future steps will not jeopardize their fundamental interests. Moon needs to address Washington’s anxieties that the left-leaning turn in government will not come at the expense of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and to disabuse Beijing of its notion that South Korea is simply acting as part of an American scheme to contain China. At home, he needs to reassure the public that South Korea’s fate will ultimately rest in the Korean people’s hands and send a clear message to Pyongyang that the only future for the Kim regime is for it to denuclearize.

These will not be easy tasks, to say the least. But the only way forward is to confront the challenge head-on by presenting a grand strategic vision that clearly defines how Seoul will navigate and set boundaries with its neighbors in various scenarios. For instance, under what specific conditions will Seoul engage directly with Pyongyang, and what will this engagement look like? In the extreme case of North Korea’s collapse or war on the peninsula, what roles does Seoul seek for Washington and Beijing to play? Which countries’ troops will be allowed where? And how will Korea, once unified, structure its relationships with the United States and China? There is nothing stopping Moon from developing, and announcing, answers to these questions.

If the Moon administration can find answers to these extremely difficult but essential questions, and win support from its American, Chinese, and other regional counterparts, the Korean Peninsula will be in a much better place. If it sticks to political rhetoric instead of concrete ideas, however, Seoul will find itself a bystander as greater powers determine its fate.

Photo Credit: Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images

Patricia M. Kim is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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