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Aiming for a Nuke-Free Korea: Bold Diplomacy or Dangerous Delusion?

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images
A South Korean soldier passing TV images of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Seoul, South Korea, on March 9, 2018

When drinking in Korea, things turn perilous on the cry of “One shot!” It’s a call made in English that means “Bottoms up!” Everyone in the group has to dispatch their drinks in one fell swoop. No one gets a pass. Rarely does the cry come but once.

En route to meet US President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., last June, the newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, told reporters on the presidential plane that he favored a “one-shot” approach to the North Korean nuclear problem—something dramatic, overarching, and beyond the careful and not very successful diplomacy of the past. “The most ideal solution,” he said, “would be to completely denuclearize North Korea in a one-shot deal.”

Moon has not spelled out his one-shot strategy for finally solving one of the most intractable problems bequeathed by the cold war—as Moon also conceded, “such a deal will not be easy”—but its shape is starting to emerge as he prepares for a summit meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in April. Once on the table, Moon’s plan is sure to have a major effect on a Kim-Trump summit that is supposed to take place a few weeks later.

South Korea’s commentators—both liberal and conservative—understand the “one-shot” metaphor and its grave implications only too well. They think Moon will offer Kim a deal that promises the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. North Korea, they believe, would accept no comprehensive plan that didn’t include this stipulation.

In South Korea, that idea is guaranteed to divide conservatives and liberals, the latter being Moon’s camp. How the wildly unpredictable Trump administration might handle a proposal to fundamentally alter the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia after sixty-five years is impossible to fathom—especially one that calls for the expulsion of some 23,000 American troops to assuage the leader of history’s only Communist dynasty.

What seems very likely is that Trump’s particular American brand of conservatism, now bolstered by the appointment of hard-liners—Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser—will collide with the liberal ideology of Moon and his Korean allies. The labels conservative and liberal have different meanings in each country, but that only broadens the divide. Fundamentally, they are antagonists.

In South Korea’s case, many elements have contributed to an enduring liberal-conservative ideological divide. The bifurcation of Korea in 1945 is the most important factor: people in the South had to decide between American-style capitalism and Soviet communism, terrible things happened to those who chose wrongly, and permanent enemies were made. (With the Korean War, China replaced the USSR as the North’s main ally and sponsor.) Liberals viewed the conservatives as members of the same elite that collaborated with the Japanese during colonial days.

The American-backed dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, starting in 1961, had an enormous impact. Park wielded a dictator’s powers to bring development to some areas but not others, deepening the hues of the Korean equivalent of red and blue states. Under his rule, companies such as Samsung grew fat on cheap labor and by crushing labor movements, making enemies of exploited factory workers. After Park was assassinated by his own spy chief in 1979, his successor, Chun Doo-hwan, cracked down on anti-dictatorship protesters in Gwangju, one of the “bluest” of Korean regions, killing hundreds of people, and cementing the ideological rift.

The result is that the liberals are heavily concentrated in the southwest provinces of North and South Jeolla, the conservatives in the neighboring provinces of North and South Gyeongsang, with the rest of the country more mixed. The conservatives want US forces in Korea, are pro-business and champion economic policies that encourage growth. They believe in and are very proud of Korea’s democratic processes. But Korea’s conservatives and liberals don’t settle neatly into two parties as America’s tend to. Both sides have splinter parties. Currently, seven parties have representatives in the National Assembly, all on one side or the other of the ideological divide—with the main parties being Moon’s ruling Democratic Party and the conservative Liberty Korea Party.

The liberals are pro-North Korea in varying degrees, from those wanting more engagement with Pyongyang to pro-Communists who would be happy to see Korea unified and run by North Korea. They are anti-American because the US supported Korea’s dictators. Because they despise the big companies nurtured by the dictators, they favor economic policies that redistribute wealth. Many believe Korea is still a dictatorship, America’s puppet state, even though liberal candidates have won four of the seven presidential elections since democracy was restored in 1987. (Although one, a former dissident under the dictators named Kim Young-sam, was backed by a conservative ruling party.) They insist that Korea’s democracy is a con job, even after the impeachment for corruption and removal of conservative president Park Geun-hye, daughter of the original dictator, which helped Moon win last year’s presidential election.

No ideological divide is immune to events and the march of time, and South Korea’s “386 generation” is a good example. The term was coined in the 1990s when Intel’s 80386 chip powered the latest personal computers. It refers to people who were in their thirties in that decade (which accounts for the first numeral in the name), who went to university in the 1980s (the second numeral), and who were born in the 1960s (the third one). The votes of this constituency propelled two liberal presidents to power: Kim Dae-jung in 1997 and Roh Moo-hyun in 2002.

The 386 generation changed as it aged, becoming less liberal-minded and starting to vote differently. This political evolution helped elect the conservative candidates Lee Myung-bak in 2007 and Park Geun-hye in 2012. But the older generation’s shift in allegiance has been made up for by the liberal tilt of young voters, especially after their part in the 2016 candlelight vigils that accompanied the fall of Park.

The liberals’ base may be evolving but its leaders’ positions have barely budged through the decades. Korea has not found a “Third Way” leader such as Bill Clinton in the 1990s or Tony Blair in the 2000s who could push liberal parties closer to the center. Their zeal is undiminished for higher taxes on the chaebol, the big conglomerates, and measures to keep the wealthy in Seoul and Busan from making money on real-estate speculation. Above all, they consistently advocate a policy of engagement with North Korea—what conservatives would call a policy of weakness and compliance.

The conservatives’ tougher approach to North Korea painted them into a corner when Kim Jong-un came to power after the death of his father in 2010. He was so engrossed with cementing his control and developing his nuclear weapons and missiles that he ignored the South and was even willing to alienate China, his main ally and economic lifeline, which highly disapproved of the nuclear and missile tests. (That freeze in relations only stopped with Kim’s surprise summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month.)

Meanwhile, the conservatives in the South saw their political and ideological fortunes torpedoed with the impeachment and removal of President Park Geun-hye for corruption and abuse of power. The power vacuum was quickly filled by the liberals and Moon, and the ideological one as well: it will be a while before the conservatives are listened to on North Korea policy. The problem is that South Korea’s policy on North Korea is a toggle switch depending on whether conservatives or liberals are in power. And now, Moon seems set on achieving a new détente at all costs.

The liberals’ accommodationism toward Pyongyang becomes particularly obvious, craven even, when liberal presidents have convened inter-Korean summits. Both of Moon’s predecessors held one. Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his in 2000, but there was a price: it later emerged, in what became known in 2003 as the “cash-for-summit” scandal, that Pyongyang had received hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from Seoul and other lucrative economic deals. The summit in 2007 was partly organized by Moon, who was chief of staff to President Roh. The meeting is chiefly remembered for later revelations that, in discussions with Kim Jong-il (father of Kim Jong-un), Roh agreed to move the Northern Limit Line, the sea border between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea—a dangerous concession on the Korean Peninsula, where borders matter more than almost anywhere else in the world.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that North Korea got a lot from past summits and South Korea very little—since the real prize was to end the North’s nuclear weapons program. At the most, ten years of the liberals’ Sunshine Policy of engagement of Pyongyang and six years of six-party denuclearization talks (among the Koreas, the US, China, Japan, and Russia from 2003 to 2009) delayed Kim Jong-il’s development of the weapons somewhat. His son has brooked no delays and, in fact, has made more progress on nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles in his six years in power than analysts in the West thought possible. The big question is how North Korea has managed to run rings around South Korea’s liberals for decades. Are the liberals too eager for accomplishments in their engagement of Pyongyang? Are they naive about the dangers the Kim regime poses to South Korea?

Or is it something more insidious? In the 2012 general election, the liberal United Progressive Party (UPP) won thirteen of the 300 seats in the legislature, and became the third largest party. It had ambitions to be the largest opposition party in further legislative elections in 2014, and win the presidency in 2017.

Kim Jong-un disrupted those democratic plans. On March 5, 2013, his state media declared that the armistice that had halted the Korean War in 1953 was null and void. The leaders of the UPP interpreted this as a signal that North Korea was planning to invade the South imminently. A core group in the party, some 130 leading members, started to coordinate a secret plan for how to aid Kim’s invasion that would include building a “solidarity organization,” spreading propaganda, and gathering information on power plants and US military facilities. It was an old-fashioned plot for a coup or leftist insurrection, with one update: instead of seizing control of the press or state broadcaster, the UPP wanted to take over a branch of the telecommunications company KT, which suffered a server problem in 2003 that paralyzed the country’s Internet services.

Ordinary Koreans thought the UPP was a harmless progressive party, not a group of pro-North Korean traitors infiltrating the legislature to wait for and give aid to an invasion. The UPP’s leader, Lee Seok-ki, was subsequently arrested, convicted of plotting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The government of Park Geun-hye sought the banning of the UPP, which the Constitutional Court granted in 2014.

Shutting down political parties is not supposed to happen in a modern democracy. Neither is treason. Both are signs that South Korea’s relatively immature democracy is built on a cracked foundation, an inherent instability that reflects the division of the peninsula.

When President Moon sits across a table from Kim Jong-un on April 27, he will surely realize that his own base has started moving away from him on engagement with North Korea. The breakthrough that led to the current rapprochement was Moon’s invitation to North Korean athletes to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Moon encouraged the formation of a joint women’s ice hockey team. It was a diplomatic coup hailed around the world—but angrily condemned by many of the young Koreans who voted for Moon last May. They didn’t care that a joint hockey team reduced tensions or brought South and North Koreans together in a symbol of unity. All they could see was the unfairness to young South Korean players who trained for years and lost places on the ice to North Korean athletes. Moon’s approval rating fell to its lowest level in his nine months in office. South Korea’s youth don’t care about North Korea, and don’t want to make sacrifices for its sake.

“We thought the public would understand and support the forming of a unified team, but there turned out to be major differences with the views of the ‘2030 generation’ [people in their twenties and thirties],” a presidential office spokesman told the press. “We failed to gauge their feelings accurately.”

Moon has already done some heavy lifting for Kim Jong-un: he has accepted that Kim is serious about discussing denuclearization at their summit this month and, extraordinarily enough, convinced Trump of the same thing. Kim could be dissembling or referring to a very different concept of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which would involve the withdrawal of US troops and removing Korea from the American nuclear umbrella. That could lead to a summit that fails so badly Trump regrets any attempt to use diplomacy with North Korea. In that case, Moon’s “one-shot” solution will have blown up in his face.