Korea is back in the eye of a perfect storm as political forces in and around the peninsula are intensifying
UNITED NATIONS — Thunder clouds are swirling over the Korean peninsula as a perfect storm of political instability and regional geopolitical challenges rumble through South Korea.
North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, as well as Chinese bullying, have thrust the region into a dangerous cycle which could affect South Korea’s hard won peace and prosperity sixty-seven years after the devastating Korean War. Events over the next six months will be crucial.
Political crisis has returned to South Korea, a vibrant if fractious democracy for over a generation. President Park Geun-Hye, the once popular but tough president has been forced from office after a bitter drawn out impeachment scandal.
President Park, the now tarnished daughter of Park Chung-Hee the strongman who rebuilt the shattered South Korean economy, was a close American ally.
Elections slated for May will no longer be the polite formality as expected where former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would swan into the Blue House, but a tough knockdown contest between the now discredited right and an ascendant left.
Not since the countdown to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics has there been such political tension.
Yet today’s Korea faces a very different dynamic as young people have grown up in a safe, secure and prosperous society no longer shadowed by the Korean War of 1950-53 and the arduous rebuilding era of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The candle-holding protesters are hardly the militant firebomb throwing hyper political youth of the mid-1980’s.
North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile provocations continue. While the UN Security Council has slapped salvos of economic sanctions on the Pyongyang regime, the reality remains that the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) holds workable if rudimentary nuclear weapons and is doggedly working for the delivery means through repeated rocket testing.
North Korea’s communists pose a real and present danger not only to neighboring South Korea, but to Japan and the USA, and most especially American military bases in Japan and Guam. Before long the Hawaiian islands and West Coast may be in effective range.
Responding to the emerging missile threat, the U.S. and South Korean governments agreed to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to counter North Korea.
The decision by the Obama administration is now being carried out by the Trump team. The U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty with Seoul has offered both defense and crucial deterrence behind which South Korea’s socio/economic miracle flourished.
Though THAAD is a defensive system for the Korean peninsula, the People’s Republic of China, has vigorously opposed the ongoing deployment as posing a threat to the Chinese Mainland!
Beijing has encouraged consumer boycotts of South Korean Pop stars, TV shows, tourism, and businesses over initial THAAD deployments. Given that the PRC is South Korea’s largest trading partner, Beijing’s boycott has teeth. But such blunt tactics can also backfire, as the Koreans don’t savor being treated as the errant “little brother.”
In a diplomatic attempt to defuse the brewing crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, Korea, and China and not a moment too soon.
As Secretary Tillerson told the press in Tokyo, “I think it’s important to recognize that the political and diplomatic efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to the point of denuclearization have failed.”
Now all parties, including China, need to soberly assess the impending danger from North Korea and to unceasingly work to resolve the crisis.
Will Washington work to restart the moribund multilateral Six Party Talks in which both Korean states and the regional neighbors, China, Japan, Russia and the United States work for a diplomatic solution?
The disinterested Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” towards Korea allowed Pyongyang years of extra time to develop its military resources.
A double-edged dilemma follows South Korea’s post-election period, as the likely new president in Seoul will come from the leftist political opposition which firmly opposes THAAD.
Will the opposition curry favor with Beijing at the expense of Washington? Moreover how will the USA who has invested military and political capital in the THAAD deployment react to an about face by its ally in Seoul?
Facing such an uncertainty from Seoul, would President Donald Trump then consider active military measures to neutralize North Korea’s military threat which has gone beyond the Korean peninsula and may soon threaten the USA?
Deterrence and diplomacy are confronted by Pyongyang’s dangerous escalation. North Korea has offered no concessions to contain the crisis.
Following a recent Security Council meeting, American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley stated, “We have to see some sort of positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously.”
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]