As the waves of diplomatic heat over the South China Sea gradually subsided in recent days – and while the Philippines and China explored options for negotiation on the one hand and the Vietnamese prime minister visited Beijing appearing to seek to repair their rifts on the other – tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula grew. Such was due primarily to the North’s continuing nuclear and missile tests and the South’s deployment of the terminal high-altitude air defense (THAAD) system in response. But to understand the current turmoil there better, we should perhaps briefly visit a brief history of modern Korea.
The circumstances surrounding the Korean War in the 1950s and the ensuing confrontation between the two ideologically contrasting Koreas have been well reported over the years. Indeed, not until Kim Dae-jung assumed the South Korean presidency in the late 1990s did the hitherto frosty and at times belligerent relations between the North and South thaw a little bit. The military junta leaders before Kim were ideologically rightist, thus ardently anti-communist. They were not only antagonistic toward the North, but were equally strong-armed toward the leftists in the South. Meanwhile, the junta-era democratic opposition in the South, to which Kim belonged, while not being aligned with the North, but were strong-willed in their socio-democratic beliefs, and were supportive of accelerated reunification with their Northern brethrens. The then opposition’s stance against continued American military presence in the Korean Peninsula sometimes also played into the hands of the North.
If viewed from this angle, Kim’s “Sunshine Policy” of extending a hand of brotherhood and cooperation with, and even his personal visit to, the North, was not at all surprising, and ameliorated the tension over the Korean Peninsula. For his efforts in bringing about Korean rapprochement and his previous democratic struggle, Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Price during his term, as Obama later did. But Kim did not shun away the US while being close with the North. Instead, he reiterated the need for continued US military presence even after a purported Korean reunification. Kim was apparently not blind to the fact that while the Americans had been working closely with the previous junta, they were also overtly supportive of the South’s then burgeoning democratic movement, which eventually led to Kim’s election as President.
The two South Korean Presidents after Kim were not as stellar in their diplomatic performance, especially vis-a-vis the North, perhaps because they were too preoccupied with internal strife and development. And the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, while dabbling occasionally with unsettling moves (such as the declaration of a nuclear armed North), appeared nevertheless to be interested in rejoining the wider international family. As such, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was then more or less stable.
A few years back, both North and South Korea renewed their top leaderships. At first, the international community learned of the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, who attended private schools in Switzerland, and thus, they were hopeful that he would continue his father’s tango with the West. But Kim’s various domestic and strategic moves thereafter, including frequent missile and nuclear tests, have left many international policymakers exasperated. In the South, Park Jun-hei, daughter of a former junta leader, assumed the presidency. She impressed many by not necessarily adopting her father’s anti-communist stance, but has been realistic in appreciating China’s indomitable economic rise and its huge impact on Korea’s economic well-being, and thus pragmatically pursued the deepening of the already significant ties between China and Korea. At times, China and Korea adopted essentially joint stance against alleged Japanese whitewashing of its history of aggression before and during World War II, and Japanese senior officials’ annual visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which housed, among others, the spiritual tablets of top war criminals.
But in recent months, due primarily to the North’s often unpredictable aggressive behaviors, South Korea decided to allow the American forces in Korea to deploy THAAD. But both China and Russia are deadset against the deployment, claiming that its attendant radar system could detect the movements of these two superpowers’ intercontinental ballistic missiles, and thus, upset their strategic balance with the US. To a certain degree I can understand this worry. The strategic balance between various superpowers hinges often on the so-called MAD (mutually assured destruction) model, deterring any one power from launching a preemptive nuclear strike for fear of annihilation. If any of these super-parties could detect missile launch by other super-parties earlier, the strategic advantage they gain would raise many ultimately potentially fatal suspicions.
But to an even higher degree I am also of the opinion that South Korea’s defense needs against an unpredictable North must also be seriously and realistically addressed.
It is both moving and lofty to call upon the various concerned parties of the Korean Peninsula to come back to the negotiating table. But this sort of rhetoric is not enough to protect the South Koreans who live under the fearful shadow of a sudden missile or nuclear attack by the North. The reality is that certain preconditions such as the North’s relinquishment of nuclear weapons and American departure from the Korean Peninsula would not obtain in the short to medium term.
Therefore, if THAAD is strongly objected to, an equally robust replacement defense mechanism has to be put in place in the South. Only then would the South Koreans be more confident and feel protected. The dilemmas for both the South Koreans and those interested in Korean peace are, thus, understandably intense.
These sort of undulating events in East Asia, while unlikely to drag regional countries down the path of a quagmire Middle East, would nevertheless pose great challenge to regional peace, calling out for both caution and resolution.