This week, the South Korean government imposed bilateral sanctions on North Korea, banning from its harbors ships that have been to North Korea in the last 180 days, cancelling a joint logistics project with Russia to export coal through Rajin, and designating “30 companies with links to the North’s nuclear and missile programs …, 38 North Korean nationals and two foreigners.” The targets include “Leonard Lai, president of Singapore-based Senat Shipping” (see this post) and “the Taiwanese president of Royal Team Corporation,” which repeatedly sold North Korea missile parts.
The designations will do in the Won system approximately what an OFAC designation would do in the dollar system — freeze any assets the targets have in South Korea and ban them from the South Korean financial system. By itself, this will have modest effects; the Won is a semi-convertible, non-reserve currency. But if this marks the beginning of a coalition in which Japan, the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, and other nations issue coordinated designations of North Korea and its enablers, the effect will be devastating. It will also mark South Korea’s graduation from a bystander to its own national destiny, to a global leader in shaping it.
It now seems apparent that the closure of Kaesong was a complete change in the polarity of South Korea’s policy toward the North, to all-out pressure on Pyongyang to change or perish. How times have changed since 2002, when my Army-chartered flight lifted from the tarmac at Osan Air Base, my pregnant wife weeping silently beside me as she left her homeland and her newly widowered father behind. Since then, I’ve wondered whether the land where I’d spent the last four years — a land which had so endeared itself to me, and so often exasperated me — could long protect its imperfect freedom and its independence from its rapacious neighbors. Would it grasp that it was being slowly censored and seduced into servitude before that process became irreversible? Would it spend the next century apologizing to history for its failure to stand in solidarity with its oppressed brothers and sisters in the North? For most of the 14 intervening years, I’ve held little hope that it would.
Two years ago, I saw the first clear, statistically supportable evidence that the appeasement fever had broken, but still, no leader emerged to challenge the sultry delusions of the Sunshine Policy. No one, least of all the cautious triangulatrix Park Geun-hye, manifested the courage, the convictions, or the coherence to start and win the national conversation about Pyongyang’s nature, or the unwelcome truths this implied. Who would call out Pyongyang for what it really was — pathologically martial, militarist, mendacious, and existentially irreconcilable to peaceful coexistence with the South’s democracy and prosperity? What politician would dare say so, and convincingly?
I was in the audience when President Park addressed a joint session of Congress in 2013. I saw hints of resoluteness in Park’s words and bearing, but her policies always fell short of anything grounded on coherent vision for inducing change and securing peace.
Until now. Since January 6th, and in defiance of the low expectations she had spent a decade instilling in me, Park Geun-hye has started that conversation, abandoning the fantasy that Pyongyang can be appeased. Park’s policy shifts this year may have been the first genuinely brave decisions of her political career. She did not bow to pressure; she defied it. She took risks, and she led. She defied the rage of the streets to resolve (however imperfectly) old grievances with Japan, and unite around shared interests. She sent her diplomats around the world to help build a global coalition to pressure Pyongyang to disarm. And most importantly, she offered a strong defense of those decisions to her countrymen, in a historic speech before the National Assembly last month.
North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program “will only hasten its collapse,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday, forgoing her usual caution to warn in uncharacteristically blunt terms that her government would do all it could to punish Pyongyang for its recent provocations. [….]
“Dear people of South Korea, it’s obvious now that our previous methods and goodwill cannot break Pyongyang’s nuclear will,” Park said in a special address to the National Assembly. “We should no longer be fooled by their deception and threats. I believe we should not provide them with unconditional support anymore nor succumb to their provocations. We now need to find a fundamental solution to effectively change North Korea, and it is our time to be brave,” she said firmly in the televised address. [….]
The shutdown was just the start, Park said Tuesday. “From now on, the government will start taking stronger and more effective measures to push North Korea to make changes by creating an environment in which the North will realize that nuclear development is not a way to ensure their survival but a way to ensure the quick collapse of the regime,” she said. [WaPo, Anna Fifield]
Events have finally clarified to Ms. Park that His Porcine Majesty is not a reformer-in-waiting or amenable to a negotiated disarmament, but an impulsive, brutal man who has lived a life without hearing the word “no.”
It was time to face the “uncomfortable truth” that the North would not change, Park said in comments that mark a significant reversal for a leader whose policy on Pyongyang had been based on what she’d described as “trustpolitik” that she hoped would lay the ground for eventual unification.
Park said past efforts at engagement had not worked. “It has become clear that the existing approach and goodwill are not going to break the North Korean regime’s nuclear development drive,” she told parliament. [….]
“The government will take strong and effective measures for the North to come to the bone-numbing realisation that nuclear development will not help its survival but rather it will only speed up the collapse of the regime,” Park said. [Reuters]
It probably wasn’t an accident that Park delivered the speech on Kim Jong-il’s birthday. She also addressed, however briefly, His Corpulency’s repression of the North Korean people.
Park’s speech contained harsh language, describing North Korea as “merciless” and under an “extreme reign of terror” following recent purges of top officials that outside analysts say were aimed at bolstering leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on power. Park also referred to Kim by his name several times when she criticized his government, something many Seoul leaders have avoided in the hopes of improved ties with Pyongyang. [AP]
And in an instant, Park swept away the irreconcilable contradiction between subsidizing North Korea and sanctioning it, a contradiction that had hobbled the world’s response to North Korea for the past 20 years, and that had denied Seoul the standing to ask other governments to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang.
“We cannot continue this situation in which we are de facto sponsoring the North Korean regime’s nuclear (capacity) and missile development,” Park said during a speech she requested to deliver before the legislative body, the first time she has made such a request since her inauguration. She emphasized that most of the funds South Korea paid were delivered to the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which is in charge of nuclear and missile development. [NK News, Ha-young Choi]
The best news of all is that now that Park has decided to lead, the South Korean people are behind her. The reactions from the center-left Korea Herald and the center-right Joongang Ilbo and Korea Times were all favorable. Park’s poll numbers are hardly stratospheric — she’s better at geopolitical chess than at empathy, noblesse oblige, or day-to-day administration — but her tough response to the North Koreans has at least raised those numbers from negative to neutral territory. In particular, most South Koreans support her decision to close Kaesong. Her emissaries are now delivering the message that if North Korea doesn’t disarm, the consequence will be regime collapse and reunification. The United States has also offered its support for “President Park’s principled and firm approach toward North Korea.”
The left-wing opposition, no doubt preoccupied by its own internal divisions, has hardly raised a peep as Park has dismantled the Sunshine Policy, its legacy, and its political base of support. It even welcomed the U.N. Security Council’s passage of UNSCR 2270. Instead, writes Steven Denney, “Security is a main concern for many South Koreans, and with elections coming up, no one — not even liberals — will want to come across as ‘soft on security.’” Denney describes the current political mood in South Korea as one of “national security populism,” which seems vaguely familiar somehow. For now, Park will publicly resist calls by some South Korean politicians to get some nukes of their own, but it would not surprise me to see those plans go forward under a future administration. Nor, all told, would that cost me much sleep.
I would not go so far as to say that compassion for the North Korean people has caught fire in South Korean society, but the recent passage of a human rights bill in the National Assembly means that appeasement had become a politically indefensible reason to block the long-stalled law. The political ground has shifted, and much for the better. All that is lacking now is President Park’s plan to engage, to aid, and to earn the trust and support of, her 23 million countrymen between the Imjin and the Tumen.