This is a precarious moment for the Republic of Korea. The president has been impeached following a corruption scandal and nationwide protests. Korea’s export-based economy is hampered by a slowdown in global trade and increased competition from emerging markets. Several of Korea’s largest conglomerates are facing drastic cuts to avoid bankruptcy, resulting in thousands of lost jobs.
Across the DMZ, North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal and escalating its provocations. Recent ballistic missile tests have indicated that Pyongyang has the ability to overwhelm the missile defense systems currently deployed in the South, yet the controversial implementation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is still months away. And despite recent statements of support from Washington regarding the U.S.-ROK alliance, Seoul is justifiably wary of the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.
In addition to these myriad problems, South Korean policymakers further hinder their ability to pursue the nation’s interests by being unable or unwilling to discuss three unmentionable realities about the country’s relationships with its neighbors. Whether because of ideological limitations or public pressure, these issues are largely ignored in policy debates. This, in turn, limits South Korean leaders’ ability to proffer an effective foreign policy.
First, the government in Seoul must accept that the People’s Republic of China is not now, and never has been, a friend of the ROK. Since its inception in 1949, the PRC has supported North Korea like a big brother. Mao Zedong sent a million men into the peninsula during the Korean War, not just to defend the North, but to attempt to unify the entire country under Kim Il-sung. The Chinese even invaded and briefly occupied Seoul, though few Koreans today vocalize this uncomfortable fact about their largest trading partner. After the war, China continued to support the Kim regime, even as they launched guerrilla attacks into the South and kidnapped thousands of South Korean citizens. To this day, China provides North Korea with the means to develop the weapons that threaten the South.
Half-hearted attempts by Beijing to impose sanctions on Pyongyang are not earnest efforts to impose change, but rather token gestures to show the international community that they play by the rules. And when South Korea tries to defend itself against the very real threat of North Korean conventional and nuclear attacks, China actively opposes it by strangling bilateral economic ties.
South Korean policymakers must acknowledge that, both ideologically and militarily, Beijing allies with Pyongyang, not Seoul. Although bilateral economic relations between China and South Korea are inevitable and beneficial for both sides, the South must stop trying to figure out how to get China to “help” with North Korea. They can’t help, because they do not share the same interests vis-à-vis the North. No matter how disruptively Kim Jong-un behaves, China will not risk destabilizing the regime to the point where it could collapse. The reason is that, for China, none of Pyongyang’s provocations are worse than the unknown consequences of a unified peninsula. There is, however, one scenario in which Chinese and South Korean interests could align. This brings me to the second point.
South Korea could gain Chinese support if the Seoul government abandoned unification in order to pursue regime change in Pyongyang. If South Korea guaranteed that it would not rush up to the Chinese border to unify the country the moment that instability occurs, moderate elites in Pyongyang, disgruntled with the current system, might be empowered to take matters into their own hands. They would know that toppling the Kim clan would not mean an automatic submission to their southern brethren but would give them a chance to lead their own country towards reform.
As the increasing number of high-profile defections indicates, there is discontent among the North Korean elite. A responsible and practical North Korean policy for South Korea and the rest of the international community would involve exploiting these cracks in the system and encouraging North Korean citizens to overthrow the Kim regime. If this occurs, and moderate revolutionaries are allowed the chance to rule, Chinese fears of a unified U.S. ally at their border would be assuaged. Even if the Chinese installed a puppet government subservient to Beijing, it would still be an enormous improvement over what we have today. China, the United States, South Korea, and the North Korean people would all be better off. Divided families could reunite, human rights abuses would be curtailed, and the threats against the South would disappear. The overwhelming challenges of integrating the two Koreas would also be avoided. Perhaps in several decades, if unification was still desirable, two less disparate Koreas could raise the issue again.
Attempts to get the Kim regime to open their markets, denuclearize, or otherwise become a “normal” country reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the state. They do not want what the international community wants. It is not in Kim Jong-un’s interests to have a strong economy or a peaceful relationship with his neighbors. The regime needs a docile and restricted populace to maintain its grip on power, and it needs foreign enemies to blame for their problems. Thus, all solutions to the North Korea question begin with regime change.
Although offering to forego unification in an effort to foster such a change would be a practical and untried policy to align U.S., Chinese, and South Korean interests, no South Korean politician would advocate such a step. Despite polls showing that an increasing number of South Koreans are hesitant to push for immediate unification, the idea of maintaining a divided peninsula never enters the public discourse. The ideal of one country remains powerful, despite the way it overcomplicates an already difficult situation. Ultimately, unification should be the sole decision of Koreans on both sides of the DMZ. But by refusing to even discuss the possibility of maintaining the division, as long as North Korea reforms under new leadership, many creative policy options are ignored.
The final barrier hindering South Korean foreign policy is its relationship with Japan. For an outside observer, it is bewildering to see Koreans who still view Japan as a colonial power, more than 70 years since Korea regained its independence. The Korean media promotes a narrative of victimhood and portrays their nation as scarred by the memories of their Japanese oppressors. Many Koreans still believe, erroneously, that Japan has never apologized for its crimes of that era, and some seem to think that Japan today has not changed from the militaristic fascism that defined it in the 1930s.
This kind of thinking is not just objectively wrong, it actively opposes South Korea’s national interests. Japan and Korea are both thriving democracies that would benefit tremendously from a healthy relationship. Both countries face a direct military threat from North Korea and a long-term struggle to maintain a balance of power against China. South Korean policymakers must accept this fact and, more importantly, educate the Korean public about why it is in their interests to pursue agreements like the General Security of Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan.
Framing the relationship around issues like war-time sex slaves is hugely detrimental to the interests of both countries. Obviously history is a contentious issue and should not be forgotten. But South Koreans are wrong for thinking that Japan is their enemy. Japan has changed, despite a vocal, reactionary minority. Today, no picture of Tojo Hideki hangs in downtown Tokyo, whereas in Beijing, the man responsible for ordering an invasion of South Korea, Mao Zedong, is still revered. His picture is on the renminbi and his portrait remains hanging in Tiananmen. This double standard is emblematic of Seoul’s quixotic relationships with its neighbors.
By willfully ignoring provocative Chinese behavior, blindly adhering to the narrative of unification, and framing ROK-Japan relations in the context of historical disputes, Korean policymakers are severely limiting their foreign policy choices. South Korea needs creative solutions from far-sighted leaders. If they are going to weather the uncertain times ahead, they need to start thinking the unthinkable.
Ben Forney is a Research Associate at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, the largest independent foreign policy think tank in South Korea.