Beyond Division, South Korea: Center of Asian Geopolitics?

Beyond Division, South Korea: Center of Asian Geopolitics?

The geopolitical perspectives for South Korea are tied North Korea’s evolution. Key factors are the concrete threat it creates for Seoul, which is everything but a phantasy, but also the fact that when unity lacks, then a geopolitical obstacle remains for a full worldwide ambition. Moreover, the relations with Japan excepted, for which historical –and territorial‑ discontents prevail, North Korean issue widely determines relationships with China and the US. At the same time, South Korea continues to move forward in order to conquer an international status. Since a long time, it shows its capacity and willingness to be a great trading power. But it develops as well a brand policy, major dimension of its soft power, either in cultural and development policy fields. In this strategy economics and foreign policy are intimately interrelated.

The interview with Hwang Sok-Yong, probably the most important South Korean writer alive, offers a comprehensive perspective about reunification that we shall refuse to envision in nationalist terms. Korea’s unification would make it a territory not only open to the sea, but also to the continent. Mongolia would be a key piece for this new alliance. Young Korean people must also re-appropriate their own twin global history, with a critical distance. This educational challenge is at the very center of the issues the country shall address.

Cheong Seong-chang, one of the better specialists on North Korea, doesn’t see any medium term perspective than unification, but it is far away. We shall stop speculating on the fall of the regime, that doesn’t seem likeable because of the lack of radical reformists. Kim Jong-un’s authority is still strong and he succeeds in mobilizing patriotism and nationalism for the sake of his absolute domination on the country. He actually wants to modernize the economy, but from a military point of view the regime has never been so threatening and aggressive.

Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asan Institute, the main foreign policy South Korean think tank, states that we cannot deal with North Korean issues without mentioning at first nuclear threat. It is probably one of Pyongyang regime’s main goals in the same time to fully master military nuclear technology and to develop economic relations with other countries. This would not be acceptable for Seoul. There is a true risk that neither China nor the US shows a real concern for North Korea’s denuclearization. If this issue was solved, economic perspectives for the Peninsula would be brilliant. Furthermore, we could question the sustainability and the sincerity of Washington’s involvement in the region, as it was announced with President Obama’s “pivot”. Japan-South Korea relationships are a real mess: there is no true rationale for their deterioration, except the Japanese nationalist revival that has its roots in domestic policy. If we consider China, our American allies must understand that South Korea does not assess as a real threat: of course, Seoul needs Beijing, but our understanding of its strategy is different. We shall allow time to better understand Chinese strategy, and thus reinforce our strategic dialogue capacity as it exists in the US and in Europe.

Yonsei University Professor, Moon Chung-in has been also adviser to the South Korean government and one of the stronger advocates of Sunshine Policy. He considers that reunification between the two Koreas could move forwards through an alliance between the two states and not be envisioned as an unique state. In order to do so, a consensus and a progress through dialogue are needed. South Korean government’s reluctances and the hardening of North Korean regime with more repression at home and nuclear threat abroad, do not contribute now to achieve this goal. China’s stance remains ambiguous: on the one hand, it wishes Peninsula’s denuclearization; on the other hand, it doesn’t want to destabilize Kim Jong-un’s regime. Its influence is probably not that important. The new relationship with Russia, which is a consequence of Moscow’s diplomatic isolation and of Chinese firmness towards Pyongyang, is not really praised by Beijing. The alliance between Seoul and Washington must go far beyond dissuading North Korea. South Korea must find a new equilibrium between its relationships, both crucial, with China and the US. In order to solve this dilemma, we shall move towards balanced relationships between all the countries of the region that must be better integrated. Moreover, we shall not imagine, according to Professor Moon, that China has a grand strategy, well-thought and coordinated. The US shall play a stabilization role in this area, when it would be dangerous if they become a dividing factor.

Han Yong-sup, prominent scholar on security issues, is convinced that North Korea’s positive evolution is less likely today. However, the difficulties it is facing now could facilitate some move forwards, also because Kim Jong-un’s personal relations with China are weaker. The US is also committed to fight nuclear risks in the Peninsula. One of the most worrying issues is about China-US relationships. Seoul is wishing very much to avoid their deterioration and could play a diplomatic role. South Korea could also become a key player in framing a new security architecture in North-East Asia, which could be a counterpart of the on-going economic community.