Because of teaching opportunities, I spent more than 24 months of the last eight years in South Korea. While my academic specialty is American politics, I’ve read many books, attended conferences and have had numerous discussions with Koreans about the future of the two nations.
First, conflict with North Korea has been the defining issue in the South Korean public arena since 1953. It would surprise most Americans that South Koreans seem able to just go about their lives. Just in the past week, I became aware of three South Koreans who will be visiting their homeland despite the headlines. Apparently, they just don’t believe that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un would take actions that annihilate the peninsula.
The two most promising opportunities for obtaining a more stable situation on the peninsula were the end of the Clinton Administration 2000 and during the George W. Bush’s 2002 visit to Korea. Bush including North Korea as part of the “Axes of evil” was not helpful. Sadly, not much has changed in the last 15 years between the U.S. and North Korea, except that a young man succeeded his father as Supreme Leader and has chosen to be more brazen and brutal.
The standoff since 1953’s ending of the Korean War without a peace treaty seems bizarre to many Americans, but it has been stable. Support for Korean unification is difficult to ascertain. It is included as a national goal in the South Korean constitution, but few Koreans seem to really want it. Economic and cultural disparities between North and South have grown tremendously since the 1970s. Economic equalization, a goal nearly achieved in East and West Germany’s unification is considered to be unrealistically expensive requiring massive commitment assistance from the United Nations, United States and China.
Perhaps because of concern with Japan and China, Korean problems have not received the attention they should have in Washington, D.C., over the past 50 years. This is partly because there has not been a clear solution. In fact, both the U.S. and China prefer the status quo over an expensive unification that runs the risk of tipping the scales between U.S. and Chinese dominance.
In hindsight, what should have been done is aggressive nation-building with U.N. and U.S. aid flowing into agriculture cooperatives, community schools, health clinics, and information dissemination. Such community-building activities by churches, health agencies, and even environmental organizations are present in North Korea and are slowly increasing. Ultimately, a society collectively determines how long it will accept a non-democratic leader. There are pockets of opposition to Kim Jong-Un, but the price is high. Information technology has been a useful tool for helping North Korea learn about the outside world and to set up meetings with each other.
American leaders seem content to place the full responsibility for solving the Korea problem on China. This is a mistake. China’s South Sea actions, trade practicing, and aggressive patriation in international tribunals suggest that they aspire to be a, if not the, global leader. We need to cooperate with China, letting them take the strategic lead, in resolving North Korea issues, but we need to maintain our economic assistance and political presence.
The ultimate goal should be to welcome North Korea into the family of nations so that they have no reason to use their nuclear arsenal. President Trump’s escalating rhetoric is certainly unconventional. Perhaps it will prove productive when Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts Kim and Trump for a weekend visit and they all toast and have a laugh about how “three wild, and crazy, guys” shook up the status quo and scared the pants off half the world.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.