This is a repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a couple weeks ago. The gist of it is that there a lot more hurdles to a Korean War peace treaty than many people realize. That is why it hasn’t happened yet even though it seems pretty intuitive, if not obvious, given that the war has been de facto over sine 1953.
The two big reasons are:
1. A peace treaty potentially undercuts the legal ground for the UN/US structure in South Korea. This, most have long thought, is a big reason the North wants it. If there is formal peace in Korea, what is the US military still doing there? The South Korean left might accept this logic, but the right will not. This is why SK President Moon Jae-In can’t get this idea past his own people. There is not enough consensus for it.
2. A peace treaty may well violate the South Korean constitution, which denies North Korea’s existence. Moon may not even be allowed to sign such a document, which is pointless without SK participation. Worse though is that a peace treaty formalizes and locks-in the division of Korea indefinitely. Again, the South Korean right and SK youth may not mind that, but I don’t think that is enough for the South to formally surrender unification on Southern terms. That woo would be another huge political fight.
The basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.
Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.
If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.
Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.
I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.
Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.
The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So
There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…
So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.
But my concern here is that the South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).
So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.
If you’re tired of all this, save yourself the trouble of reading the essay and just go watch the highlights of Trump’s crazed CPAC speech from yesterday. He is pretty obviously having a mental breakdown. If the guy at CPAC is the same guy who will bring peace to Korea, then we’re all delusional.
Basically I wrote this because South Koreans don’t quite get just how unhinged and ignorant Trump really is. Not being Americans or watching as much American news, they still, flatteringly, expect the US to be, um, mature and normal and don’t quite understand that we’ve elected a man-child who couldn’t care less about Korea, US power in Asia, allies, and so on. It’s crushing to see my students’ faces fall when I repeat some of the things Trump has said. Can’t wait for this to end…
The post of two weeks ago was a diagnosis of the Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) ills. I argued that post-Park Geun Hye, the LKP had no real ideology or platform beyond old-style anti-communism. Its devotion to the chaebol is passé and reeks of corruption, and extolling Korea, Inc. yet again is just not enough when issues like terrible air quality, spiraling consumer debt, and ‘Hell Joseon’ are the issues on voters’ minds.
So in this op-ed, I look at some possible models for the LKP to follow as it comes back from the wilderness. The one which strikes me as most likely, unfortunately, is a Trumpist-populist turn. The LKP presidential candidate of 2017 already test-drove this idea, calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea.’ Other models either culturally don’t fit well, like a Christian conservative party, or represent no real change, like copying the LDP of Japan.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and the LKP will come back as pro-market, pro-globlization party ready to open South Korea’s economy and support better corporate governance. But I doubt it. The Trumpian path of racism, damning immigrants and out-groups, and plutocracy is so much easier. The extremely harsh backlash to the Yemenis in Jeju suggests this would be a fruitful path to follow. Too bad…
So exactly no one in the English-speaking cares much about this topic. Everyone wants to talk about Trump and Kim and North Korean nuclear weapons. I get it.
But I do think it is fascinating thinking about how the South Korean right will come back from the wilderness where it now is. Its last president was so corrupt, she was impeached. The conservative party – the Liberty Korea Party – then got trounced in the presidential election of 2017 and then again the local elections of 2018.
Unfortunately, it is still dominated by dead-enders for the last president, conspiracy theorists, and mccarthyites. So here is my advice for bringing the LKP back from the dead. South Korea, like any other country, needs a robust opposition party, so the LKP’s implosion is not actually a good thing even if you dislike its policies.