Yesterday, TASS published a lengthy interview with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, many details of which could only be described as quite remarkable. The interview contained strong indicators that, as North-South relations have thawed, South Korea’s entire geo-political orientation has started to imperceptibly shift. Geo-politically, South Korea is no longer an American satellite-state.
Take for example, when discussing the issue of denuclearization, President Moon’s statement that “not only myself but other leaders who have met him in person, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, all speak of their trust in Chairman Kim’s promise. Trust can be said to constitute a precondition for dialogue.”
So what do we have here?
South Korea effectively advocating for the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the North Korean negotiating-position, and implicitly assigning a brokerage-role to China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) which is equally as significant as the brokerage-role assigned to the United States.
This is perfectly logical on one level. It is clearly understood that, given the United States’ sorry litany of military misadventures, most particularly in recent decades, that reciprocal American guarantees of North Korea’s security in exchange for denuclearization would be meaningless. In order for denuclearization to happen, China and Russia will have to become the guarantors of the DPRK’s security.
Or, for example, take President Moon’s assertion that “the Korean Peninsula peace process is about dismantling the last vestige of the Cold War rivalry on Earth.”
Well, the implication of this is quite pointed, isn’t it?
Implicitly, Moon sees the formal continuation of the Korean war as having been primarily a manifestation of cold war geopolitical conditions rather than a manifestation of anything specific to the Korean peninsula. The implication of this is to delegitimize the United States’ continued military presence on the Korean peninsula. As much as things have changed over the past few years, I am certain that American geo-strategists still find these signals alarming.
This remark was quite probably partially devised to tap into the resentment of the United States’ military presence which is felt by a strong majority of the South Korean population. American military bases in South Korea are magnets for drugs and prostitution, and most citizens of South Korea are deeply resentful of their corrosive social impact. In addition to which, American military personnel have impunity-privileges when they commit serious crimes in South Korea (drug-possession, pimping, people-trafficking, rape, reckless driving resulting in fatalities, etc…). For decades, most elections in South Korea have seen candidates working very hard to outdo each other in anti-American sentiment.
However, with American hegemony fading fast, a resurgent China and Russia, and a new geo-political map of the world emerging, these longstanding domestic resentments take on a new significance.
During the TASS-interview, President Moon repeatedly links the issues of denuclearization and the Korean peace process to the issue of economic cooperation between the Koreas within the framework of the New Economic Map Initiative for the Korean Peninsula. For example:
“Moreover, the concept of peace has to be further broadened. The Korean Peninsula needs to take the path toward common prosperity as one unified community... Efforts to jointly pioneer the future of economic growth and prosperity, to share and enjoy higher cultural values and to cope with disasters and diseases together will help the everyday lives of all the people in both Koreas.”
He mentions a number of such projects for economic cooperation, including the prospect of re-opening the jointly coordinated Kaesong Industrial Park (located 10 kilometres north of the DMZ) and the East Asia Railroad Community initiative (involving both Koreas, Russia, China, Japan and Mongolia), which he predicts “will be able to further develop into an energy community, an economic community and a mechanism for multilateral peace and security for East Asia.”
A new treaty-organization in East Asia, existing for the purpose of multilateral cooperation on transport, infrastructure, trade, energetics AND regional security, with Russia and China as its senior partners….
Even from 5,000 kilometers away, I can still hear the heart-attacks in Washington DC. These simply do not sound like the pronouncements of the head of state of an obedient colony.
Before I try to decipher further, I’ll cite one more eye-popping statement from the TASS interview with President Moon. He says:
“I've never contended that the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation projects had to be exchanged for the dismantlement of the North’s Yeongbyeon nuclear complex.”
So what do the South Koreans really want?
Given that, during this quite remarkable interview, President Moon repeatedly gives assurances of Chairman Kim’s purity of heart on the denuclearization issue, effectively giving assurances on behalf of Kim, and his continued emphasis on the Korean peninsula’s economic integration, I have a vague suspicion that maybe the South Koreans do not think of denuclearization as a major priority. In fact, I vaguely suspect that they’d ideally prefer not to see denuclearization at all. They’d ideally prefer the coming-into-existence of a politically unified, nuclear Korea.
But maybe that’s just the Dr. Strangelove in me.
It’s just my vague suspicion – I may very well be wrong.
In the long term, such a prospect may not be quite as unrealistic as it appears at first glance. As banal as it may sound, the ROK and DPRK have an extremely peculiar relationship – even when they were formally still at war, they seemed never to have stopped seeing each other as brothers. The mutual love-bombing which we’ve seen since 2018 has been gestating for a long, long time.
When President Moon and Chairman Kim met last year, and the discussion switched almost immediately to enhanced economic integration, I immediately feared that it was simply a euphemism for South Korean industrialists colonizing the DPRK’s human and natural resources. It is extremely difficult to see how any meaningful vestige of the DPRK’s socialist traditions could survive political unification. This would make any process of negotiation exceptionally difficult. Be that as it may, the long-term trajectory toward political unification may be inexorable, especially as American influence on the peninsula fades.