Apart from Donald Trump’s need for a dramatic foreign policy initiative, is there any good reason why we are having a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing now?
If the Pyongyang regime is really planning an underground nuclear test soon, as Washington alleges, it will be the sixth bomb test it has carried out, not the first. That hardly qualifies as a new development that requires urgent action. The same goes for its ballistic missile tests, which have been ongoing for many years. Nothing new is going on in North Korea.
In South Korea, on the other hand, things are about to change a lot.
The winner of Tuesday’s election and South Korea’s next president, Moon Jae-in, favours a much softer policy towards North Korea. He has even promised to re-open industrial and tourist projects in North that were financed by South Korea under the last Democratic (centre-left) government.
A decade ago, when Moon’s Democratic Party was still in power in Seoul, he was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun and the so-called Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea was the order of the day. The goal was to create commercial, financial and personal ties between the two Koreas, and to that end South Korea sent aid and investment to the North.
It’s impossible to say whether that would eventually have led to a less tense and militarised situation in the Korean peninsula, because in the 2008 election the conservatives won and scrapped the Sunshine Policy. The past nine years under right-wing governments have seen North-South relations re-frozen and the investments in North Korea closed down by Seoul.
Now Moon Jae-in will be in charge, however, and he has promised to reopen economic ties with North Korea in a policy his advisers call Sunshine 2.0.
This runs directly contrary to Trump’s policy of tightening economic sanctions against the North and even threatening military action to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, the Trump administration may have pushed a military confrontation with North Korea to the top of its foreign policy agenda precisely in order to pre-empt Moon Jae-in’s new Sunshine policy.
Given the chaos that reigns in the Trump White House, this may not be the case. It could just be that Trump is making policy on the fly, and that he neither knows nor cares about the domestic politics of South Korea. But some recent US actions point to a deliberate attempt to get the confrontation going before Moon took office.
One clue could be the sudden rush to deploy the Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system in South Korea before the election. It’s a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles of the sort that North Korea might use to deliver nuclear weapons on South Korea (and maybe Japan) if it ever managed to make its nuclear weapons small enough to fit on them.
A reasonable precaution, perhaps – but Thaad was originally scheduled to be installed in South Korea between August and October of this year. Then suddenly it arrived in the country in March, and was “operational” (at least in theory) by last month. Moon will now have great difficulty in reversing that decision, and the North Koreans are predictably waxing hysterical about it.
On the other hand, Trump shocked the South Koreans by announcing at the end of April that South Korea would have to pay $1 billion for the Thaad system, despite an existing agreement that the US would bear the cost. He also declared that he was going to renegotiate the existing free trade agreement between the two countries. Which suggests that there is no clever plan, just the usual stumbling around in the dark.
Whether the US is deliberately manipulating events or not, Moon Jae-in is in a difficult situation. He quite rightly believes that there is no need for a crisis this year to resolve a problem that has been simmering away (but never boiling over) for at least fifteen years, but unless he goes along with it he will find himself in a confrontation with Donald Trump.
Could he win it? He could if he has strong support at home. South Koreans are divided more or less evenly between a hard and a soft approach to North Korea, but they all agree that they don’t want a war in which they would be the primary victims. Trump will find the new South Korean government very reluctant to pursue his campaign – only diplomatic for the moment, but who knows? – against the North.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries