South Korea's Left Needs to Rethink Its North Korea Position

 
 

On November 10, a South Korean lawmaker from the main opposition Minjoo Party, Rep. Yun Ho-jung, said he would seek a dismissal motion against Defense Minister Han Min-koo if South Korea continues to move forward to sign the Security of Military Information Agreement — an agreement with Tokyo to share military intelligence on North Korea.

This comes on the heels of the country’s three opposition parties releasing a joint statement a day earlier expressing their opposition to the agreement claiming that it would escalate geopolitical tension in and around the Korean Peninsula.

When one considers their position for even a moment, one realizes that the claim makes no sense whatsoever. The need to share intelligence with Tokyo would never have been made an issue if North Korea didn’t pose an existential threat in the first place.

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Time and again, whether it is the Terminal High Altitude Area Deployment (THAAD) deployment, joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, or intelligence-sharing with Japan, South Korea’s progressives have consistently voiced their opposition, claiming that they would make matters worse while only perfunctorily stating that North Korea should not escalate tensions.

This should come as no surprise considering the kind of rhetoric that has come from South Korea’s progressives in the past. Only a month ago when President Park Geun-hye gave a speech calling on North Koreans to abandon their country and defect, Rep. Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the People’s Party, accused the president of making “a declaration of war.” Not to be outdone, Ki Dong-min, a party spokesperson for the Minjoo Party, said President Park seemed to have been “on the warpath.”

Considering the fact that the Minjoo Party has also committed itself to opposing the deployment of THAAD missile batteries, should the next South Korean president come from the Minjoo Party (and that does appear likely considering Park’s recent scandals), it’s more than plausible that South Korea’s policy toward North Korea might take a sharp left turn.

However, unlike progressives and liberals in other countries around the world, an ascension of progressivism in South Korea spells doom for those facing oppression in North Korea.

Due to actions taken by Moon Jae-in and his former boss President Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean government repeatedly abstained from UN General Assembly resolutions on North Korean human rights in the mid-2000s. Furthermore, South Korean progressives also have a history of stifling South Koreans’ right to free speech in order to appease Pyongyang.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that South Korea’s conservatives are paragons of liberty. They’re not. But considering their past, the call of South Korean progressives for peace reminds one less of Shimon Peres and more of Neville Chamberlain.

However, their moral rot is not the most pressing issue for South Korea. Considering the still unbelievable Donald Trump victory in the race to the American presidency, there is a much more urgent thing to consider if and when South Korean progressives take over the reins of power from the scandal-ridden conservatives. And that is the fact that South Korea’s progressives have a long and sordid history of anti-Americanism.

Should South Korean progressives be tempted to exploit anti-American sentiments again for any reason whatsoever, President Trump’s likely braggadocious response might be less genteel than President George W. Bush’s response while he was in the White House. After all, one of the more consistent things that Trump campaigned on was the need for America to project a much tougher image abroad.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Trump has shown little love for South Korea during the campaign. He suggested that South Korea ought to pay 100 percent of the cost of stationing American troops and military hardware in the country. He has also called the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement a “job-killing deal” that has resulted in trade deficits for the United States. Trump’s campaign went on record saying that he wants to go back to “ground zero” with regard to the trade deal.

Furthermore, Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be greatly ignorant of international politics, particularly when he expressed a blasé attitude about the possibility of a North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan, America’s staunchest allies in Asia. Asked about the possibility of war between Japan and North Korea, Trump responded, “it would be a terrible thing but if they do [go to war], they do.”

The South Korean government is desperately trying to put on appearances that everything is still normal. However, one of the most telling things about Trump’s phone call with Park, where he reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to the alliance, was that not a word was said about renegotiating cost sharing plans or troop-withdrawal, thus leaving room for plenty of deal-making (and arm-twisting) between Seoul and Washington.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is an unknown. A lot of the uncertainty may have to do with the fact that Trump likely doesn’t know just how much he doesn’t know. But what he does know is that he wants to appear as a strong leader and come January next year, he can do that because he will be the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military.

In order to thrive in the Age of Trump, South Korea is going to have to rethink the way it has conducted its foreign policy. It’s going to have to bury hatchets and cooperate closely with Japan, which is also likely to be nervous about Trump. Seoul is also going to have to act more cautiously in its approach to the United States, as it can no longer take Washington’s support for granted. The calculus has fundamentally shifted.

In short, if and when South Korea’s progressives do take over from the conservatives in the next election (or after Park resigns amid the scandals that are engulfing her administration), they are going to have to grow up and do so quickly.

John Lee is a pro-free-market blogger at The Korean Foreigner (thekoreanforeigner.blogspot.com) and focuses on economic and political issues as they pertain to Korea and the United States. He is also a columnist at NK News and a regular contributor to Freedom Factory, a libertarian think tank based in Seoul. Follow him on Twitter: @koreanforeigner

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