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Korean peninsula

How North Korea’s nuclear weapons are testing Seoul’s special ties with the US

Donald Kirk says debate on East Asian geopolitics at the Jeju peace forum highlights the difficulties in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, given the complex equations with the US among regional players

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2017, 11:18am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 4:37pm

The annual Forum for Peace and Prosperity, on the South Korean island province of Jeju, left the distinct impression that the North Korean nuclear issue is further than ever from resolution.

Gary Samore, of the Belfer Centre at Harvard and formerly with the Obama administration, suggested in a wide-ranging debate on “the future of geopolitics in East Asia” that the problem may be insoluble. That sense weighs heavily on policymakers in Seoul as well as Washington. How can the two agree on a common approach, and where is South Korea going in its alliance with the US?

Americans and Koreans alike questioned how long their special relationship can endure, despite claims by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during visits to Seoul that the two nations are “in lockstep”.

China’s missile tests in Bohai ‘aimed at THAAD’

Chinese participants seemed far more concerned about the US countermissile battery known as THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence), set up some 200km south of Seoul, than about North Korean missile tests. Asked whether the “US pivot” to Asia would continue under the Trump administration, Wang Dong of Peking University railed against the dangers of THAAD’s radar spying on Chinese forces. Japanese military power was also on expert minds. Alexis Dudden, from the University of Connecticut, saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe longing “to break Japan free” of Article 9 of its pacifist post-war constitution, a warning of the renaissance of Japanese militarism. But she was hopeful about new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s potential to de-weaponise “the region’s so-called history wars”.

From North Korea to THAAD: What Moon Jae-in’s victory means for Seoul

Moon is open to dialogue with North Korea. US President Donald Trump, by contrast, seems unable to decide what he would prefer – sitting down with Kim Jong-un for a burger or ordering a “pre-emptive strike” against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities. Moon would doubtless like to persuade Kim to stop test-firing missiles long enough to be able to follow through on gestures towards reconciliation. Trump, meanwhile, is waiting to see if President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) can restrain North Korea.

How far, however, will Xi want to go against North Korea while battling the perceived danger of THAAD and defending China’s claim, fortified by expanding island bases, to the South China Sea? And how likely is Trump to take matters into his own hands with results that are difficult to anticipate?

North Korean missile tests have so far sparked only censure and porous sanctions, but the threat of a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the US is deeply disturbing.

Seeing the Chinese unable to restrain Kim, might Trump decide now is the time to act?

This question is sure to test not only the historic South Korea-US alliance but an array of values and ties on multiple levels that bind the two countries. Korean democracy, far from perfect, still comes much closer to the democratic ideal than almost any other nation for which Americans have fought and died since the second world war.

Time for Asian-style diplomacy, not the US, to take the lead on North Korea

Back in Jeju, the danger of reversion to historic colonialism and imperialism permeated the atmosphere. Haruki Wada of Tokyo University perceived “the legacies of colonialism” as a vital problem but offered no solutions other than “apology and persuasion” to redress the wrongs of Japanese colonial rule over much of Asia, and of the exploitation of “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.

That ominous glimpse of the past was overshadowed by reminders of the US, aided and abetted by Japan, confronting China in a reversion to the bad old days – even as the North Korean leader brandishes the threat of nuclear war.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea