What Does South Korea Want?

By Mo, Jongryn | Policy Review, April-May 2007 | Go to article overview

What Does South Korea Want?


Mo, Jongryn, Policy Review


THE NORTH KOREAN nuclear crisis entered a new phase when Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device on October 9, 2006. The response of the international community to the North Korean test was swift and stern. The five other countries participating in the North Korean Six-Party talks condemned North Korea immediately after the test, and the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing new sanctions on the North five days later.

International reactions grew more diverse over time, however. The North Korean nuclear test added new urgency to a peaceful settlement of the crisis and spurred a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at solving it through the Six-Party talks. Some would argue that this greater interest in diplomacy was responsible for the February 2007 accord in Beijing on the initial steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament.

But whether or not the nuclear test will change the basic configuration of national interests and policies on the North Korea security threat remains to be seen. Even in the aftermath of the provocation, three members of the Six-Party talks, South Korea, China, and Russia, have expressed clear reservations about drastic change in North Korea policy and emphasized the importance of diplomacy and dialogue in resolving the nuclear crisis. South Korea, in particular, has been reluctant to revise its engagement policy toward the North. Nor do the recent Six-Party talk agreements mean that Washington and Tokyo have given up their hard-line policies toward Pyongyang. Distrust of the North Koreans runs deep in Washington, and American negotiators went out of their way during the February 2007 talks to emphasize the tentative nature of the Beijing agreement.

In particular, the disagreement between South Korea and the United States is likely to persist even as they work together for the successful completion of the Six-Party talks. The current discord between the two allies goes back to the early 2000s, when the new Bush administration adopted a hard-line approach toward the North, and Seoul chose to adhere to the policy of engagement with Pyongyang that began in 1997 with the election of Kim Dae Jung as president. When Roh Moo-hyun succeeded Kim in 2002 and continued with the pro-engagement approach, it became apparent that South Korean assertiveness was here to stay.

Given the importance of the engagement policy to the identity and legacy of the current South Korean government, it is highly unlikely that it will be aggressive in supporting the UN sanctions and other U.S.-led hard-line initiatives. If the past nine years of South Korean policy are any indication, it will likely take a change of government in Seoul to see a fundamental transformation in South Korea's policy toward the North. No wonder that the upcoming presidential election in December 2007 is attracting so much attention. (1)

Many believe that if the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) wins after a decade in opposition, it will return to the pre-1997 hard-line policy. Likewise, it is said that another victory by the ruling Uri party will lead to the continuation of the pro-engagement policy. But I argue that these expectations are merely assumptions. There is no guarantee that a new GNP government will adopt a stand that is drastically different from that of the current administration. Neither can we assume that the next Uri government will automatically inherit Roh's security policy. Rather, it seems more likely that the next government's security policy will be determined not only by the party that captures power, but also by the nature of the factions that gain control of party policies.

In my view, there are at least four schools of thought that may determine the security policy of the next government. This essay will first explore the differences and commonalities among the four schools, before discussing which school is more likely to ensure long-term security for the country. …

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