Why Korea Matters

How Asia’s side of the “axis of evil” will reshape the East.
From the February 2003 Trumpet Print Edition

What makes a country “axis of evil” material? Being a Stalinist regime, led by an unpredictable dictator, that openly flaunts its nuclear capability, as North Korea has done over the past few months, could be considered a key qualification.

On the other hand, some argue that North Korea was lumped into this axis only because President Bush “wanted to produce a list of enemies that were not all Muslims, for fear of a clash of civilizations” (Asia Times, Jan. 3).

So how exactly is North Korea significant? Future developments will show that the current nuclear standoff between the U.S. and North Korea, and its results over the coming months, will play a major part in redefining the geopolitical landscape of the region.

U.S. Presence in Asia

Right now, one cannot consider how East Asia works without factoring in U.S. involvement in the region. Much of America’s presence in Asia had to do with the need to keep communism’s southern advances in check during the Cold War (this was the reason for U.S. presence in Japan in particular). With Korea, the U.S. and the ussr divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel after the Second World War. When the North invaded the South in 1950, the U.S. came to the South’s aid—not decisively winning the war, but helping to bring about a truce and then guarding the border to thwart the spread of communism.

But the Cold War is over, and the fears of communism’s potency, long gone. Yet 37,000 U.S. soldiers still stand guard on the South’s side of the border.

Many Asians wonder about the ongoing necessity of U.S. military presence in Asia. The two Koreas have been increasingly friendly to each other since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung launched his Sunshine Policy toward the North in 1998. Pulling out has seemed more and more logical—that is, until the recent nuclear brinkmanship of North Korea resulting in the U.S. becoming locked in a stalemate with the Communist dictatorship.

The Diplomatic Showdown

In December, North Korea restarted its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon. Pyongyang said it would not stop its nuclear program until Washington agreed to talks and promised it would not attack. Washington said it wouldn’t agree to talks until Pyongyang stopped its nuclear program.

President Bush constantly reinforced that this was a “diplomatic showdown … not a military showdown” (Reuters, Jan. 2). Already gearing up for war in Iraq, the U.S. won’t strike North Korea for two obvious reasons: First, despite its declarations to the contrary, America cannot fight a war on two fronts; secondly, the U.S. does not want to provoke an attack by Pyongyang on Seoul.

With a definitive economic upper hand, the U.S. planned to impose severe economic sanctions against North Korea—a country inhabited by 22 million already starving people, with much of its resources and money funnelled into its military, now the fifth largest in the world. But this tactic lacked support from two key Asian nations. China, North Korea’s main source of fuel and food, showed unwillingness to go along with sanctions. It sees its aid to North Korea as preventing the North’s collapse—an outcome which would lead to millions of impoverished refugees pouring across China’s northeastern borders and U.S. troops appearing right at its doorstep. And South Korea warned the U.S. that sanctions would not cause the North to cave in to U.S. pressure, but would backfire and harden the North’s stance.

In a similar situation, back in October, when Pyongyang allegedly admitted to operating a nuclear program, the U.S. and other nations responded by suspending oil shipments. “South Korea went along, but privately South Korean officials warned that such an act might provoke North Korea into restarting its Yongbyon plant. Their warnings proved accurate” (International Herald Tribune, Jan. 2). Not only did North Korea fire up its Yongbyon plant, it removed monitoring seals and cameras from the nuclear facilities there, expelled UN inspectors from the country and announced its withdrawal from the 1968 global nuclear arms treaty. On top of that, it proclaimed strong rhetoric about the situation—saying that the U.S.’s policy was leading the region to nuclear war; it said sanctions equalled a declaration of war. At East Asia’s request, Washington softened its stance and decided to talk with Pyongyang.

South_Korea—Distanced From U.S.

What has made this even more complicated for the U.S. has been South Korea’s reaction to having a nuclear neighbor. “Far from fearing war, some South Koreans believe they can benefit from North Korea’s nuclear weapons development if and when the two countries reunify their peninsula. … ‘I don’t oppose North Korea having nuclear weapons because ultimately the weapons will protect the whole Korean peninsula,’ said Joon Kim, a worker at a telecommunications company in Seoul. … ‘North Korea is not threatening us with its nuclear weapons program …’ said Kim Eun Suk, a teacher” (Associated Press, Dec. 30, 2002).

Since the Cold War mentality has largely subsided, “South Koreans perceive their neighbors as less of a threat, and more as their poor wayward brethren” (ibid.).

Political analyst Samuel P. Huntington, in his book The Clash of Civilizations, made the following observations after North Korea’s 1994 nuclear saber-rattling: “Many South Koreans saw a North Korean bomb as a Korean bomb, one which would never be used against other Koreans but could be used to defend Korean independence and interests …. [T]he combination of northern nuclear weapons and southern industrial prowess would enable a unified Korea to assume its appropriate role as a major actor on the East Asian scene.”

Differences between Washington and Seoul’s view of the situation led to what Huntington called a “panic gap” between the two capitals. That is, the further away from Seoul you were, the more panic there seemed to be about the North Korean nuclear threat.

But the gap between the U.S. and South Korea is more than just a “panic gap” this time around. South Korea, once America’s strongest ally in East Asia, is now a seat of extreme anti-American sentiment. Calls for the 37,000 troops to leave South Korea have been prevalent for a while, but they dramatically intensified after two 14-year-old Korean girls were crushed by a U.S. armored vehicle in June 2002. The emotion reached outrage when the men responsible were acquitted by an American panel in a military trial later in the year.

From students throwing firebombs at military bases to pop stars smashing models of an American tank on live television, anti-American demonstrations are thriving in Seoul. American soldiers in Seoul are constantly discriminated against, harassed, spat upon. South Korea has the “perception that its distant ally is heavy handed and insensitive, particularly with regard to North Korea” (New York Times, Dec. 8, 2002).

Tens of thousands participated in anti-U.S. rallies about U.S. policy toward the North—a New Year’s Eve demonstration in Seoul saw 22,000 enraged by an American policy they see as an “obstacle to reconciliation between the two Koreas” (Associated Press, Dec. 31, 2002).

On the whole, South Koreans—who have faded memories, if any at all, of the war of 1950-53—see the U.S. as more of a threat than the North.

Another testament to growing anti-U.S. views in South Korea was the presidential victory last December of Roh Moo Hyun, whose platform was fueled more by anti-American sentiment than the usual domestic issues. His policies include further engagement with North Korea—continuing in his predecessor’s Sunshine Policy—and greater autonomy from the U.S.

North Korea is well aware of Roh’s feelings. It carefully timed the playing of its trump card against the West—not only during Washington’s Iraqi quagmire, but just after the South elected a pro-North candidate. Flexing its nuclear muscles before the election might have shifted the votes toward a candidate with a more conservative stance toward Pyongyang.

Pyongyang welcomed Roh’s victory. Since the nuclear standoff began, it has clearly been trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul—something it has wanted for some time.

Although Seoul has rebuffed the idea of joining with the North diplomatically against the U.S.—and despite Roh trying to play down the rhetoric that elected him, de-emphasizing the diplomatic gap between Seoul and Washington—the fact that South Korea has not whole-heartedly sided with its once most-reliable ally is significant. This works to Seoul’s advantage as it shows itself a capable mediator in the situation.

Seoul Peacemaker

While siding neither with Washington nor Pyongyang, Seoul has shown its desire to be the proponent of a peaceful solution. This gives it greater leverage in limiting U.S. presence in the region, and it also draws it closer to its northern brethren—facilitating ultimate Korean unification.

From the beginning of the dispute, Seoul has advocated “dialogue and compromise” as the solution (Reuters, op. cit.). South Korea’s outgoing president added, “Pressure and isolation have never been successful with Communist countries—Cuba is one example. We will work closely with our allies to solve this problem and we will firmly oppose North Korea’s nuclear arms program, but no matter what, we will pursue a peaceful solution” (Daily Telegraph, London, Dec. 31, 2002).

In a pre-election speech, Roh said, “If the U.S. and North Korea start a war, we will stop it. … We must make sure that the North-U.S. dispute does not escalate into a war. Now the Republic of Korea must take a central role” (International Herald Tribune, Dec. 20, 2002).

As a mediator in the Washington-Pyongyang stalemate, Seoul has had its first opportunity to broach the nuclear subject with its northern neighbor, which is a significant step as the two countries work toward reunification.

The idea that Seoul could broker peace on the peninsula just might work, given the help of another key player in this whole situation: China.

Ally for Both Koreas

Of course, China—along with Russia, Japan and the U.S.—favors a denuclearized Korean peninsula. And though it has officially wanted to play no major role in mediating between Washington and Pyongyang, Beijing wants to see this problem defused. Problems in Northeast Asia make investors jittery and could take the edge off China’s economic growth. Also, if North Korea has nuclear weapons, it might cause Japan to go nuclear. And “that’s Beijing’s worst nightmare,” according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute.

Beijing is in favor of a solution that doesn’t rattle the region too much at the offset. And it will certainly give its blessing to Seoul as it shows itself worthy to relieve the situation.

In fact, China’s relations with South Korea have never been better. During the Korean War, China was strongly allied with North Korea—fighting alongside its soldiers against South Korea and America. But things have changed since South Korea and China established diplomatic relations and Kim Dae Jung launched his Sunshine policy toward the North.

Perhaps this newfound diplomacy can be seen more clearly through an economic lens. South Korea’s most important economic partner is now not the U.S., but China. South Korea is presently the fifth-largest foreign investor in China and China’s third-largest trading partner. In 2001, South Koreans invested more money in China than in the U.S. In 2002, China’s trade with South Korea increased 20 percent over the previous year and China became the peninsula’s largest trading partner, ahead of the U.S. (China was already North Korea’s largest trading partner.) In the coming year, South Korea is expected to commit about half of its total overseas investment to China.

These economic factors confirm that China will only increase its dominance in the region. “China is looming large as an alternative to the United States,” according to Lee Jung Hoon, international relations professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University. The strengthening relationship between South Korea and China is occurring while relations between South Korea and the U.S. are beginning to lag. The current nuclear crisis in the North will only amplify this restructuring of thinking in the South.

In Asia’s Hands

Yes, the North Korean standoff is significant. How this situation unfolds will reshape the geopolitical landscape of the Orient. A strengthened South Korea, in closer alliance with China, will make strides toward reunifying the peninsula—regardless of its nuclear capability. The presence of a weakened U.S.—unable to use its diplomatic or military might to quell nuclear fears in Asia—will soon be eliminated or drastically reduced in the East.