South Korea’s Real Fear

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
News of North Korea’s ICBM test on a television screen at a railway station, Seoul, July 4, 2017

On July 4, North Korea tested a rocket that flew farther than any it has ever launched. But in South Korea, the stock market fell only half a percent—and rebounded the next day to a few points below its historic high. The following day, the biggest news in the country was the betrothal of a popular television actress and actor.

True, Tuesday’s missile test was Pyongyang’s twelfth this year—intended to attract the attention of the new administration of US President Donald Trump—and it’s hard to sustain a sense of mass panic in any country about something that happens every couple of weeks. It wasn’t immediately clear if the latest rocket was, as the North Korean government claimed, a true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which by definition has a minimum range of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles). (US officials soon confirmed that it was an ICBM.) Neither was the test a confirmed success: a true ICBM has to be able to leave a launch pad, exit the atmosphere, and withstand the extraordinary heat of reentry without its payload burning up, and South Korean scientists remain uncertain about whether it demonstrated this, since it was not carrying a payload and had an unusually steep trajectory.

So, many South Koreans have shrugged. As has long been true, the 10 million residents of greater Seoul are essentially human shields: any attack on Pyongyang by the US would be followed by a barrage of traditional artillery from the DMZ on the South Korean capital, and hundreds of thousands would be killed. But in recent months, the primary worry in South Korea has not been its bizarre and militaristic neighbor to the north; most Koreans are by now long used to living within close firing range of Pyongyang and do not think it will attack unless provoked. What really worries them is that the new US president doesn’t know all this—and is too contemptuous of the State Department to be instructed.

In fact, South Koreans did lose a measure of their calm in the weeks after Trump was inaugurated. In the past, the US has tended to observe a cautious policy toward North Korea. For example, during an earlier nuclear crisis in 1994, it was the threat of a retaliatory attack on the south that convinced Bill Clinton not to use force and to pursue negotiations instead. More recently, while Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” was recognized long ago as a non-policy, a way of kicking the can down the road, it wasn’t reckless—and everyone assumed that the can would be picked up by a president like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney. When Trump announced that all options were on the table, including military action, South Koreans hoped it was bluster, an opening gambit for dealing with Pyongyang. But they couldn’t be sure. Some foreign residents of Seoul even packed evacuation bags and carried them around at all times, in case war broke out.

The jitters subsided when Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to rein in Trump after an April summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump even backed off of criticism of China’s trade policies in exchange for Xi’s help with Pyongyang. It was ironic that South Koreans were pinning hopes for their safety on China’s leader rather than America’s. Xi Jinping is known to dislike Kim Jong-un, and has never agreed to meet with him.

Soon after, in fact, a rumor made the rounds in Seoul that China was going to solve the problem once and for all by shutting down North Korea’s nuclear program and replacing leader Kim Jong-un with one of his cousins. It had a whiff of plausibility because Kim Jong-un had just ordered the public murder of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport—perhaps out of fear that Beijing was planning to put the half-brother on the throne. A lot of Koreans were consoled by this theory, even though it would have meant that North Korea would become a true puppet state of China and unification of Korea would likely never happen. Yes, it made for a disappointing future—but it avoided a possible calamity, the destruction of Seoul and something like World War III.

More recently, the election in May of a new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has further assuaged many Koreans about the north. Moon Jae-in has long advocated better relations with Pyongyang and has even proposed meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader.

The new missile test may not have jolted many South Koreans, but it once more turns attention on the US and how it might respond. In view of Trump’s unsettling foreign policy statements, Pyongyang’s newfound ability to strike the US raises not one but two concerns. First is the possibility that the US might overreact with military action, provoking a North Korean attack on the south. But second is that Trump may not come to the defense of South Korea if Pyongyang can threaten to hit Los Angeles with a nuke. Trump did nothing to assuage that fear when he refused to commit himself to NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on one ally is an attack on all, in Brussels in May. (Though he has since made that commitment.)

Indeed, some analysts believe Pyongyang’s long-term strategy is to wait for a US administration that isn’t fully committed to defending South Korea, and then start a second Korean War to accomplish what the first failed to do: make Korea a united, communist nation. It’s an aspiration that has survived seventy-two years and two generational shifts in the world’s only communist dynasty. It’s also an aspiration that has few echoes south of the DMZ. Many South Koreans, while also hoping to reunite their nation, fear that even a peaceful unification with the north could be such a financial drain that it would make them poor again.

Second-generation dictator Kim Jong-il left a letter to be read by his son after his death in 2011: Never, it commanded, give up our nukes. That would be tantamount to walking in the footsteps of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who was convinced to end his nuclear program in 2003, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—to the gallows. His son may be no Einstein, but he has no intention of ending up like Qaddafi, who, so it is thought, might be alive today had he retained his nuclear weapons.

So although denuclearization of North Korea is the stated policy of all the countries directly involved—the US, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—nobody truly believes in it anymore as a workable goal. The best the world can hope for is some kind of freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. To get even there would require a long and complicated process that has not yet begun.

Moon Jae-in could be the best person to set that process in motion. South Korea is an ideologically polarized society and Moon is on the side labeled liberal: in favor of business regulation and of more engagement of North Korea. He succeeds two conservative presidents who shut down most contacts and cooperation with Pyongyang. Moon, by contrast, organized the 2007 summit between Kim Jong-il and South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun.

Moon has been artfully vague about his North Korea policy and echoed Trump by saying he believes in both pressure and dialogue. He will find it hard to champion a new Sunshine Policy while Kim Jong-un threatens to hit the US West Coast with a nuclear warhead. But he’s in the best position to talk to Pyongyang and many analysts believe a summit with Kim Jong-un is one of his main goals.

Aside from getting Kim Jong-un on board, Moon will have to also persuade Trump, Xi, Vladimir Putin, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He had his first shot at a busy Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg last week. South Korea’s fate is once again in the hands of the big powers and Koreans are starting to recite one of their favorite mordant sayings: “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”