Perspectives on the Current Political Situation on the Korean Peninsula

Interview with Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. (Research Fellow, The Sejong Institute)

Last week, two research assistants of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Korea Office interviewed Prof. Lee of the Sejong Institute for Policy Studies. Prof. Lee is a security expert and his current research focuses on the political situation in and around North Korea, China and the United States.

Q: South Korea recently elected a new government and a new President, Moon Jae-In. Most of Moon’s policies, as well as the officials he surrounded himself with suggest that President Moon wants to leave the door open for dialogue with North Korea. But, with the recent situation and provocations in mind, is it still possible to work towards dialogue? Or does President Moon have to change his policy towards North Korea?

A: Moon is a new president who wants dialogue and engagement with North Korea as a new approach toward Pyongyang. He thinks that negotiation and exchange programs, as for example in sports or family reunions, will lead to reconciliation of the two Koreas. That is the spirit he emphasized in his speech in Germany at the G20 summit. Moon’s choice of Germany for such an occasion itself is a message too. I think that Seoul wants to model after the German unification experience.

However, a lot has happened since Moon held his speech in Germany. Also due to the continuing missile launches and the nuclear test of North Korea, the world is paying keen attention to what is happening on the Korean peninsula. And we have a very unusual U.S. President, Donald Trump, who is gifted with various forms of threats and insinuations as such. We now have a situation where he is engaged in a verbal diatribe and war of words with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It includes even threats of war and preemptive strikes. I think President Moon is stuck between Trump and the “Dear Leader.” Both the U.S. and South Korea want the same thing with the same goal: denuclearization of North Korea. But their modes of approach are starkly different. Now, there is an increasing fear that Trump might be a U.S. president who will start the Second Korean War. There is even a view in Washington that Trump might start a World War III. It used to be a joke. Now, people take it seriously. At this juncture, the Trump administration is focusing on sanctions. And President Moon is seen supportive of Washington. My sense is that Moon is doing so to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula. It’s because if Trump concludes that sanctions don’t work, then the next step might be a war. In addition, given that the US is more powerful than South Korea in their alliance, and Trump has an uncommonly dominant character, Washington seems to call the shots in dealing with North Korea. Yet, I am compelled to think that “the Trump factor” is 80% here.

However, it’s fair to say that the United States and South Korea are on the same page in agreeing on sanctions in order to send a signal to North Korea. This signal needs to be firm to show strength against North Korean provocations. But this is not the signal President Moon initially had in mind. So, in the end, it is North Korea to blame.

Q: We also heard Moon saying that “we have to learn to say no to Washington”, but this does not seem to happen. As Seoul is dependent on Washington, is it even possible for Moon to oppose Trump’s decisions?

A: Moon is surrounded by a lot of critics these days, including those who initially supported him and voted for him. On the one hand, his own supporters, who are in favor of engagement and dialogue, are disappointed as they see Moon following the muscular approach of America. They criticize Moon for not doing what he promised he would do as a presidential candidate. On the other, the conservatives demand more solidarity towards Washington, as they see the alliance with Washington as the foundation of South Korea’s defense security.

One thing outsiders often don’t understand is that South Korea has a very complex lens of looking at North Korea. One the one hand, North Korea is an enemy to destroy. But then, they are also your estranged ethnic brother to reconcile with. It’s a “two brothers in dispute” situation, like Jacob and Esau in the Bible. The US doesn’t have that emotional baggage in dealing with North Korea. For Washington, North Korea may be just a problem country in a faraway land.

All this puts President Moon in a very difficult position, where he receives criticism from all sides. I think Moon is in agony right now.

Q: Especially when considering Trump’s policy, which he emphasized again, in his speech in front of the United Nations. President Trump made it clear that he intends to put national interests first. So, if worse comes to worse, do you think that South Korea can rely on America as an ally?

A: When Trump said “America first” at the UN, Moon said “People First” at the UN. This shows how different they are as human beings and as leaders. At the moment we have a very unusual U.S. President, someone embodying a self-centered world view of “America first”, which he stated again outright at the UN meeting – a body of nations that have been working together for the world peace and not just for their respective countries. At the UN, Donald Trump was also speaking about “totally destroying” North Korea. That was quite an “anti-UN” statement because the UN was founded to save countries, not destroy them.

Now, for the first time, we have a U.S. president who is seen as a liability to world peace – on the par with North Korean leader Kim. People are beginning to worry about Trump and what he might do next. When we analyze Trump’s words, America is seen not as a responsible superpower that assures peace, but rather seems to be trying to find a way that it can justify a military attack on North Korea. America’s regional allies, Seoul and Tokyo, are worried about the U.S. implementing a preemptive strike without consulting them first since they will face possible North Korean retaliation first in case Washington bombs Pyongyang. The frequency of discussing war in the American public sphere is increasing, and unfortunately, President Moon’s options are very limited, as he has to stand with America while at the same time, his supporters want him to voice his point of view more.

So, I think at the moment, President Moon is trying to choose the lesser evil in this dire situation and that is to prevent a war. Unfortunately, for Moon, that means to go along with the U.S. approach. President Moon is the victim of the situation where he is surrounded by unfortunate circumstances: North Korea is not willing to come to the negotiation table, the U.S. is taking a muscular approach, and China is retaliating Seoul for hosting the advanced US missile battery system. And Moon personally is being criticized by his opponents as well as by his original supporters.

Q: The UN has recently again reinforced the sanctions against North Korea, but we don't see them taking any effect so far. One could go as far as to compare the situation in North Korea with the situation in Japan in 1941. Pressured by strong sanctions, Japan reacted by striking first on Pearl Harbor. Could this also be a possible scenario for Pyongyang? Is it maybe not just ineffective to impose sanctions but even dangerous?

A: That is a two part question. First, the question concerning the effectiveness of the sanctions, and second concerning possible reaction of Kim Jong-Un to the sanctions.

To the first part: Japan reacted to the sanctions by attacking Pearl Harbor, because the sanctions were effective and Japan felt cornered. But now the sanctions on North Korea are not effective. In fact, “sanctions” are a political tool and are not meant to be “effective” from the very beginning as one wish to see. One has to keep in mind that the UN is a political body. We resort to economic sanctions as a means of punishment, because we don’t want to choose to go to war.

There is also a political PR element here. When P5 countries, like the US and China, meet and come to an agreement, say, on North Korea, they play up this agreement to show that they achieved something significant. Otherwise, they will be blamed by their own taxpayers. It is a bit like PR, they need to show they succeeded in accomplishing something and didn't waste taxpayers’ money. When a new resolution on North Korea passed, we hear that there are the “strongest ever” sanctions. That’s a political PR word.

For a person like me, who analyses sanctions, there are certain criteria to approach the sanctions. One way of doing this is to compare the goal with the outcome. America’s goal is to enforce an oil embargo and to blacklist Kim Jong-Un. Yet China succeeded in blocking those attempts of the US.

If you now evaluate the sanctions from this angle, it was a victory for China and a failure for the US. And many people don’t see it this way because they just look at the PR statements: “These are the strongest sanctions ever!”. This has been the pattern for the last 10 years, it was always the situation that the United States set a goal and it was China who “watered it down” and undermined the initial goal. That is why since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, for the last 11 years, despite “all too many” the sanctions, North Korea has been marching towards accomplishing the goal of developing nuclear weapons, each time more sophisticated ones.

Q: Based on what you just said, is it fair to describe the alliance between China and North Korea as stronger than the one between America and South Korea? Since China is obviously protecting North Korean interests by preventing sanctions against North Korea.

A: This is a very important question. Many people think: “China is tired of North Korea’s behavior”, “Now the US and China cooperate with each other and punish North Korea” and “China’s alliance treaty with North Korea is just a piece of paper that doesn’t mean much”. This is all wishful thinking.

I have a list of things why North Korea’s relationship with China is very strong, despite all the trouble caused by North Korea. But simply put, China’s strategic frame of thinking is to look at North Korea under the canopy of China-US relations, particularly their competition and rivalry for leadership in the Asia Pacific region. Xi Jinping has this publicly open goal of “rejuvenating the great Chinese nation”. China thinks that Donald Trump is helping to speed up the decline of America and therefore fostering the rise of China.

The competition between the US and China is deepening, the tension in the South China Sea is rising, the US is trying to strengthen its alliance with Japan and South Korea. Washington has deployed THAAD in South Korea despite China’s protests. China thinks that THAAD is aimed not at North Korea but China.

For China, North Korea is a small neighbor who is causing a lot of trouble. Therefore, North Korea is an inconvenience, but importantly, North Korea is not an enemy to China. For China, it is the United States that is the biggest existential threat to its security. China sees the US as the only country in the world that can stop China’s rise. China suspects that, whenever the US is trying to persuade China to agree to impose severe sanctions on North Korea, the US is trying to topple and induce the collapse of North Korea, which will undermine the North Korean regime. If North Korea is gone in Northeast Asia, China will be the only communist country in the region, isolated and surrounded by US allies. The US troops stationed in South Korea will come near to the Yalu River when North Korea collapses, facing the People’s Liberation Army from China, just like during the Korean War. So for China, North Korea is standing in the middle between China and the US functioning as a “buffer zone.” China thinks that as long as they are in a structural competition and rivalry with the US, North Korea remains useful, even helpful, despite all the mischievous behavior that North Korea has been displaying.

Your second question was about how Kim Jong Un might react to the sanctions. What I am concerned about is that North Korea, due to a few successes it made recently regarding nuclear weapons, became “too confident.” They may underestimate the US military capacity. North Korea’s foreign Minister in New York at the UN meeting said that their goal is to have a military deterrence capability equal to that of the US, which shows that they are underestimating the US military power while overestimating their own military capacity. Therefore, it is likely that North Korea may continue to engage in more provocative behaviors and at some point, the US’ patience may run out. If the US thinks that its own homeland security is in danger, they might launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. The fear in Seoul is that in the process, Washington may disregard the safety of its allies.

On the other hand, given North Korea’s isolation, the inability to distinguish Trump’s war rhetoric from a real warning, as well as the room for miscommunication, suspicions, all of that coming together, in the end, I think “a Pearl Harbor scenario” is possible, in which North Korea attempts to strike on the US first. When the dust clears, North Korea is gone. But that question is: will this be the simple end of the story? What if one or two North Korean nuclear weapons land in Seoul or Tokyo? What about China’s reactions? Some Chinese state-run think tank scholars are already publicly warning that China will militarily intervene when the US attacks North Korea. What does that mean? It’s not “the day” America attacks North Korea that worries me. It’s “the day after”. The US and the international community should consider all different possibilities and dangers that entail.

Q: So basically both scenarios are possible, if not even likely. It could be the US striking first, it could be North Korea striking first, but it also could be neither of these, right?

A: This is what people are talking about the so-called “Mad Man Theory”. Trump is a mad man and Kim Jong Un is also a mad man, it’s like two trains coming towards each other, two crazy men yelling at each other: “YOU should stop because I am not going to stop, so you should divert first, otherwise we will collide.” This might lead to a situation where both sides miscalculate each other. It may be possible that those old North Korean Generals might misinterpret the strategic US bombers that came very close to North Korean territory recently as an “imminent US attack.”

Q: We have talked a lot about the role of China and the role of the US because basically, the current conflict could be seen as a power game between the two but fought on Korean ground. Recently, our chancellor, Angela Merkel, offered to also play a role as a mediator in this conflict. Do you think that the involvement of a party that has less interest in this area co uld change something, could maybe help solving the conflict or do you think Germany can play a role?

A: First, to prevent all those kinds of bad situations that we have discussed, I think someone should go to North Korea and sit down with Kim. This person, he or she, should be important enough that Kim Jong Un is willing to meet. A person like this might have the chance to send important signals to both Washington and Pyongyang and reduce the temperature.

Second, yes, I think that Angela Merkel suits the profile of the figure I just described. She is perceived as a rational, fair and courageous person, both by the international community and hopefully also by North Korea. Merkel is known to be an open critic about many of Trump’s wrong-headed policies such as his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and also his handling of the North Korean matter. She is also seen as a leader who prefers patient dialogue to seek a peaceful solution to the matter, not through war. I also remember Merkel visited Japan and met with Shinzo Abe in 2015 and told him that whitewashing Japan’s World War II crimes is not the right way to face history. She carries a long list of international credentials that qualify her to be the “headmaster” who could neutralize the dangerous standoff between mischievous North Korea and the US. I think both of them need adult supervision. I think that Kim Jong Un might actually be willing to meet her, because he sees her as a fair person, not just as someone delivering a message from Trump. He hopefully sees her as an honest intermediary who is genuinely interested in brokering a peace deal.

Importantly, there is a keen awareness that we are in a situation where time is running out. Washington claimed that they have tried everything to solve the North Korean issue for the past 20 years, but nothing worked. This time, together with the UN, Washington has imposed stronger sanctions but there is also already the apprehension that the sanctions won’t work. If these sanctions don’t work – and honestly I also believe that they won’t bear fruit – the US will be able to justify military actions by stating that they have tried “all options on the table except for one.” They call it a “kinetic” option in Washington DC. It means “military” options. Trump’s UN speech should be seen as a very important public warning to North Korea and Pyongyang should not take it lightly. Normally, Trump just speaks off the top of his head but, this time, he prepared this speech and consulted his military advisors before he said we will “totally destroy” North Korea. The choice of words was pre-meditated, consulted and executable.

Q: Just as our time is running out, is the time for peaceful solutions also running out?

A: I think that – very frankly speaking – South Korea’s options are very limited. Any breakthrough or means to steer the situation away from the brink of war should be coming from outside at this juncture. It’s like when your car battery doesn’t work in the middle of the road; you need someone who could push the car from behind to jumpstart the car. Normally South Korea would expect this role from the US, the main ally, but as I said and as you know, now the US under the helm of Trump is increasingly seen as a liability. So it should be someone else, a third party. Angela Merkel might therefore be a good option. Germany has the biggest economic power in Europe and it now has the leader who is respected. I think Trump respects her too. If Merkel takes up the role as a mediator, talks with North Korea and the US should be initiated rather soon. Time is running out.

Prof. LEE Seong-hyon, Ph.D. from Tsinghua University (Political Communication, International Communication), is a Research Fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. Currently, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies (non-resident) at Peking University.

The interview was conducted by Ms. Nele Becker and Ms. Lena Rottmann who are currently conducting research assistant work at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Korea Office.