South Korea is at a tipping point. There has been political turmoil after former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea has become more imminent and perilous. The new president — Moon Jae-in, who was elected on May 9 – will have to quickly determine the best way to respond to the North Korea issue. When asked about his approach, Moon has said that he would expand the South’s engagement policy toward the North.
The Sunshine Policy, or engagement with North Korea, is based on two assumptions. One is that increased interdependence between South and North will lead to the equivalent of glasnost and perestroika, which would lead to unification by absorption. The other is that by keeping channels open with North Korea and ignoring provocations, Seoul will have political leverage over Pyongyang that can lead to denuclearization and peaceful reunification. The former is an obsolete idea given the fear of the North Korean regime, which remembers the demise of the Soviet Union, and the lack of civil society in North Korea to push for change. Instead, Moon is likely to pursue a Sunshine-like Policy based on the second idea, as he has indicated that the peace process and denuclearization should be led by South Korea, without relying on neighboring countries (including China).
Insisting on South Korea’s leadership in the reunification and denuclearization process should not come as a surprise, since it was an animating principle for the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008), in which Moon served as Roh’s chief of staff. The self-reliance principle was publicly announced at the South-North High Level talk on July 4, 1972, where Seoul and Pyongyang agreed on three principles for reunification: self-reliance, peaceful means, and grand national unity. In other words, reunification should be independently achieved without external interference through peaceful means beyond ideologies and systems.
In 2000, Seoul and Pyongyang advanced the three principles of 1972 by substantiating mechanisms toward reunification at the inter-Korean summit. The statement adopted at the summit stipulates that South and North find common elements between two proposals for reunification — the confederation of the republics (or a South-North Union) and federation of a lower stage (or loose federation) — put forward by Seoul and Pyongyang respectively. The two ideas are the result of an understanding by the two Koreas that reunification should begin with peaceful coexistence as a gradual process for eventual unity.
This might sound legitimate and appealing to Korean nationalism, but there is no consensus on the meaning of self-reliance within South Korea. Plus, self-reliance as a concept poses certain risks to the long- and short-term goals of South Korea, reunification and denuclearization.
On one hand, the self-reliance principle will significantly affect and limit South Korea’s foreign policy and military options in achieving reunification. First, a lack of understanding of the self-reliance principle in South Korea can lead to unwanted debate about the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Self-reliance as understood by North Korea means that not only is the reunification process free from external influence, but also that a unified Korea must be a neutral state. In other words, there must be a discussion of an end to or at least reformation of the U.S.-ROK alliance before a federal government is formed. In 1993, former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung announced a 10-Point Program for National Unity and Reunification, emphasizing that a unified Korea must be an independent and non-aligned state. All efforts to enhance inter-Korean relations by Seoul and Pyongyang in 1972, 1985, and 1991 failed due to the North Korea’s concern about traditional security issues, especially the withdrawal of U.S. forces and suspension of U.S.-ROK military exercises.
In the future, there could be discussions over reducing the importance of U.S. forces defending South Korea. However, the majority of the South Korean population still thinks that the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea is important. A 2012 poll reveals that 68 percent of South Koreans think that the United States should stay in South Korea for the long term, and 48 percent believe that U.S. forces should remain in South Korea even after reunification (45 percent said that would be unnecessary). Although a reduced role for the United States in the Korean Peninsula would be necessary for realizing reunification, the public in South Korea is not ready to accept this due to deep distrust of North Korea and its provocations over the last six decades. Steps for self-reliant reunification should come only after a long trust-building process.
On a related note, a loose federation without mutual trust between Seoul and Pyongyang could create a situation in which the United States cannot protect South Korean interests if conflict arises on the Korean Peninsula. Two regional governments under one state would mean that there is one Korea within the United Nations, and any aggression between them would be recognized as a civil war. According to Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, member states should not intervene in another state’s internal affairs, and Article 2 (4) stipulates that no state should resort to use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state. Thus, if southern Korea were attacked by northern Korea within a federation system, the United States in theory could not protect the South, as such acts would be seen as interference in the united Korea’s internal affairs. Members of the UN Security Council would need to agree that an attack by northern Korea constitutes an act of aggression or breach of the international peace before any military action is considered within the UN realm. The debate over the Korean War in 1950 proved how difficult that would be.
Problems incurred from a lack of acknowledgement of the pitfalls of self-reliance are already arising. Moon showed a strong will to realize confederation or loose federation in 2012, and at the presidential election debate on April 25, 2017, Moon claimed that he doesn’t think there is a difference between loose federation and confederation. He might assume that North Korea would not attack South Korea if conditions are right for a loose federation.
On the other hand, the self-reliance principle in denuclearization will also entail political difficulties. Moon has stated that complete denuclearization and establishing a peace regime should be pushed forward together. This is not a feasible idea both technically and politically. Technically, denuclearization cannot be completed within the five year term of the ROK presidency. Before North Korea had nuclear weapons, it was possible for Pyongyang to come into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards within a few years — for example, the IAEA estimated that it would take several years to verify information related to North Korea’s nuclear program in 2000. Today, verifying nuclear information should North Korea decide to renounce nuclear weapons will take much longer.
For this reason, it can be assumed that Moon will try to make a nuclear freeze deal with North Korea during his term in exchange for changes to the U.S.-ROK alliance. If Moon pursues this bold approach, there could be too many upfront costs in a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea: negative security assurances, non-aggression pledges, and the promise to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea. This is likely to be acceptable, since another progressive presidential candidate, Sim Sang-jung, already claimed that she is open to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces in connection with denuclearization. However, a nuclear freeze deal is not as valuable as in the past. First, North Korean military nuclear facilities will be omitted from a verifiable freeze deal. Second, North Korea no longer needs nuclear tests if it has already achieved “miniaturization” and “standardization” of nuclear devices, as it claims. The South Korean public will not accept a deal that reduces or withdraws U.S. forces in exchange for a freeze given their emphasis on the U.S.-ROK alliance as mentioned above.
In addition, once a peace treaty and nuclear freeze deal are concluded in parallel, North Korea is likely to insist on disarmament and arms control talks with the P5, including the United States, as a legitimate nuclear weapon state. This will not only delay the denuclearization process but also undermine the U.S.-ROK alliance. At the United Nations General Assembly in October 2016, North Korea courted members of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) by arguing that the P5 governments had failed to honor their commitments within the nonproliferation regime. By contrast, as a “responsible nuclear weapon state,” North Korea said it would adopt a policy of no first-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons state and guaranteed negative security assurance to non-nuclear weapon states.
South Korea used to side with the United States in disarmament and nuclear weapons-related issues, voting against resolutions on the Convention on the Prohibition of Use of Nuclear Weapons at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. However, after conclusion of a peace treaty, Seoul’s priority would be maintaining a good relationship with Pyongyang amidst reduced reliance on the role of the United States. Also, South Korea would no longer seek the U.S. nuclear umbrella given the element of negative security assurance in the peace treaty. This could fundamentally change South Korea’s stance, which can lead to dissonance with the United States.
Liberal politicians in South Korea present a dreamy future of reunification and denuclearization without admitting how the self-reliance principle could work in realizing these goals. Any confederation or loose federation with North Korea will require an end to or transformation of the U.S.-ROK alliance so that South Korea becomes vulnerable to any attack by North Korea. In the short term, such a deal would change values that South Korea held as common interests with the United States, resulting in dissonance between the two allies. The United States and South Korea already had this experience during the Roh and Bush administrations in the early 2000s.
The self-reliance principle should not be discarded; however, the Korean people need to reach consensus on how the self-reliance principle can be practically applied before they move forward on denuclearization and reunification. Otherwise, these twin goals will be put off permanently.
Hyuk Kim is a non-resident research fellow of Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).