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Beyond Dreams of Collapse

Posted August. 26, 2015 03:00,   


John Merrill

The recent stand-off between the two Koreas is a reminder of the importance of lessening tensions on the peninsula and establishing a broader, more businesslike relationship between the two Koreas. As demonstrated in the Panmunjom talks, Seoul has managed a dangerous situation skillfully. Yesterday's agreement defuses a potentially explosive situation and could provide an opportunity for Seoul to play a leading role in formulating policy towards the North. This is especially important on the eve of President Park Keun Hye's visit to Washington, where North Korea is sure to be high on the agenda.

President Park displayed great aplomb and patience during the marathon talks?which could have gone badly wrong. Seoul kept its eye on the main goals of diffusing one of the most dangerous crisis in recent memory and preventing another flare-up. It also managed to put together a win-win agreement. Beyond diffusing the immediate crisis, the agreement opened the way for family reunions and broader civilian exchanges?a remarkable turn of events.

Since Kim Jong Il's death, South Koreans had been caught up in a wave of collapsist thinking about North Korea. Those espousing this view seemed to genuinely believe that collapse will mean the end of the problems posed by division?just as the collapse of the DDR supposedly did for Germany. The agreement suggests that Seoul has gotten beyond that now. It clearly recognizes high stakes and the enormous damage that Pyongyang can do if cornered?especially now that it is a nuclear weapons state.

Until recently, the logic of deterrence has kept peace on the peninsula, but that may not hold going forward. When North Korea in a few years achieves the ability to strike the continental US with nuclear weapons, for example, the credibility of the US security umbrella will increasingly be called into question.

More importantly, deterrence will not likely continue to be effective in a collapse scenario. If North Korean leaders conclude that the end is near, there is little reason for them to exercise restraint. If they do nothing, they will go down. Their best chance for survival is to throw everything they have at South Korea in hopes of delivering a strong enough blow to fundamentally restructure the situation and open a way out. The risk of war would greatly increase a a collapse scenario?and Pyongyang could be tempted to employ nuclear weapons. Even a slim chance of survival is better than no chance at all. And does anyone think that North Korean leaders will go gently into the night?

Nuclear weapons are not the only worries. In a collapse scenario, Pyongyang could douse the South with chemical and biological agents, bombard it with missiles and artillery, disrupt information infrastructure with cyber attacks, infiltrate large numbers of special forces--and who knows what else. If the MERS crisis earlier this year shows anything, it is South Korea's vulnerability to biological attack. A North Korean collapse, if it happens, is not likely to be quick and clean.

In the long run, unification may indeed prove to be a "jackpot," as President Park suggested. But the question is what form unification will take and what path will the two Koreas take to get to it? Even if South Koreans see Germany as their model, they have a lot of catching up to do to match the progress the Germans had made before the climatic event of the Berlin Wall's collapse. Nothing hike the gradual process in Germany of coming together, through greater economic, cultural, and social integration, has happened in Korea.

In both Seoul and Washington, North Korea's abysmal human rights record has been the focus of attention. Not so long ago, attention in Washington focused on the human rights record of authoritarian leaders starting from Syngman Rhee. There is an understandable impulse to do something about the North Korean human rights situation today, but with a surprising lack of historical and comparative perspective. There is no sense of the time element or memory of South Korea's own long struggle towards democratization. An improvement in human rights in North Korea will not happen unless tensions are reduced and inter-Korean ties improve.

A divergence seems to be emerging between opinion leaders in Seoul and Washington on North Korean policy. Many South Koreans feel that, whatever its intentions, the Park Keun Hye administration has dropped the ball on unification policy and that a more sustained, forward-leaning approach is necessary. In the U.S., on the other hand, the predominant feeling is that, after so many false starts, missed opportunities, and failed agreements, there is little point in engaging North Korea.

The American public is fatigued. Even for U.S. policymakers, there is little interest in trying again to negotiate with North Korea. They regard it as a "difficult case" and see little political gain in trying to engage. Except when a crisis erupts, North Korea is way down on Washington's list of priorities. The feeling is that past attempts to negotiate with Pyongyang have been exercises in futility. American officials seem to want to avoid repeating the experience. After so many disappointments and false starts, U.S. officials have fallen back on a policy of "strategic patience"? a phrase suggesting that inattention will somehow make the problem go away.

With Washington focused on Iran and next year's presidential election, no one seems to be minding the shop on Korea. If Seoul does not rise to the occasion, who will? South Korea needs to move beyond its dream of North Korean collapse and be a more active partner with the United States in coming up with realistic solutions to real problems. If it fails to do so, policy drift will continue, as North Korea further develops its nuclear, missile, and military capabilities.

The current crisis shows that Seoul is capable of handling critical security matters in the crunch. What it needs to do now, rather than falling back into its preoccupation with collapse scenarios, is to sustain its more realistic policies towards North Korea?and get a U.S. buy-in. With U.S. leaders looking away from a seemingly intractable problem, Seoul needs to continue the momentum it seems to have established. South Korea should pull more weight in formulating policy towards North Korea as it knows the problem better and has more at stake. Following the latest crisis, President Park's visit offers a rare opportunity to begin doing that.