Speaking Of Asia

A deep chill on the Korean peninsula

It is time Washington considered talks with Pyongyang in consultation with Seoul

SEOUL • It is autumn in South Korea and the hints of approaching winter are everywhere. This time, though, those winds that blow down from the North feel a little colder than usual.

In mid-January, when I was in South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the minds of many Koreans, who had watched exasperated as he conducted another atomic test, claimed to be the prototype of a hydrogen bomb. It was the fourth time he had tested a nuclear bomb and, as always, it was not clear why he had chosen that moment to do so.

Could it be that he was incensed that the US, which has some 30,000 troops in the South, was not responding to his overtures for a diplomatic opening on the lines of its deal with Iran? Was it linked to the approaching Workers' Party Congress and his desire to consolidate power ahead of that crucial meeting? Theories abounded in Seoul.

While there were worry lines on the faces of responsible people in government and academia, the overwhelming sentiment was one of exasperation with the young leader in the North. The official position on accepting Thaad, the US military's Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, was that it had been neither offered to South Korea, nor discussed and hence, was not accepted.

Two weeks ago, when I was back in Seoul to moderate some sessions at the World Knowledge Forum - an impressive assembly of opinion makers and analysts from around the world organised by the group that publishes the Maeil Business Daily - the mood was decidedly sombre. The North had tested yet another device weeks earlier. This time the bomb was said to be three times more powerful than the one exploded in January and, according to Pyongyang, the warhead could be mounted on rockets.


ST ILLUSTRATION : CHNG

In the intervening months, much had taken place. Seoul had reluctantly turned to Washington for Thaad, ignoring forceful objections from China that accepting that level of lethal US military equipment on its soil could alter the strategic balance in the region to its disadvantage.

NORTH'S MILITARY PLAN

What had changed in 10 months? Several things. The first is growing acceptance that the periodic testing in the North is not some random activity calculated to draw attention to itself, but the punctuation marks of a meticulous military plan that is steadily advancing towards ever more sophisticated weapons and delivery systems. Aside from the threat to the South, which was always credible, all of Japan, across the waters, is now vulnerable. Equally importantly, it is a matter of time that Guam, the strategic US outpost in the Western Pacific Ocean, gets within reach of North Korean missiles.

More dangerously, there also is a sense in Seoul that it is time to think of building its own nuclear deterrent, a sentiment that moves in tandem with apprehension that the US commitment to Asia may wane in time to come.

Secondly, there is palpable trepidation that far from being cowed by the threat of a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities or top leadership, Pyongyang may be ready to take the fight to its aggressor in any such eventuality. The Kim regime, rather than put its hands up, is more likely to go down fighting, goes the assessment. As the North's military capability rises, who knows how far the orbit of its threats could widen to.

Of course, a regime collapse could upend a lot of things. While many would wish for that to happen, it must be recognised that such hopes have resided, and gone unfulfilled, for decades. For one thing, Mr Kim is just 32 and not likely to be felled by age-related issues. His grandfather Kim Il Sung lived to be a healthy 82 years and his father Kim Jong Il to almost 70. These Kims are made of sturdy stuff.

What's more, Pyongyang's protectors in Beijing would simply not countenance this possibility. And that is not just because of the prospect of millions of refugees streaming into some of the poorer Chinese territories. It comes from fear that Korean reunification that would follow from a North Korean collapse would bring US forces right up to the Yalu River. Besides, there is no shortage of hardliners in Beijing who secretly admire Mr Kim for standing up to the US.

One huge surprise was to see how much South Korean attitudes towards China have changed. The country, under Ms Park Geun Hye, had actively promoted a strong relationship with Beijing. It has been one of the earliest to sign on to the China-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an initiative spurned by the US and Japan. A year ago, President Park had travelled to Beijing to stand next to President Xi Jinping as China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the only US ally to honour China in that fashion.

Indeed, with North Korea's Mr Kim not in attendance, there was even speculation that China was in the process of turning away from its underling in Pyongyang to build an exciting, fresh chapter of ties with Seoul.

SOUTH'S FEARS GROW

It was not to be. Such talk ended with a thud - or Thaad if you prefer - when Mr Xi was not available to take the call of a worried President Park after North Korea's Jan 6 nuclear test. One senior government official in this city, who had had a markedly emollient view on China, surprised me with the anger he now displayed towards it. Seoul is not only upset that China has not done more to rein in the nettlesome Mr Kim, but it is also increasingly leery over the hardline positions Beijing has taken over maritime disputes. There is nervousness, too, that some sections in China, despite Pyongyang being Beijing's only ally, seem to be voicing claims to nearly a third of North Korea as Chinese territory.

This has had its effects on South Korean thinking. Many in Seoul are markedly softer towards Japan today than they were a year ago. Indeed, some military figures believe that it is time for a closer strategic relationship between the two, never mind the political opposition that will inevitably follow. More dangerously, there also is a sense in Seoul that it is time to think of building its own nuclear deterrent, a sentiment that moves in tandem with apprehension that the US commitment to Asia may wane in time to come.

At the Forum, Mr Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, noted that it is going to be a "real challenge" for the next US president to convince South Korea about American commitment to its defence.

"North Korea, and the Korean peninsula, will be the most serious in-box issues for the next American president," he said, adding that it is time to "find euphemisms for a pre-emptive strike". After all, he noted, peace in the Balkans was achieved only because it was backed by force.

Perhaps a better option, though, is to open direct talks with Pyongyang, something the Obama administration has declined to do, even as it brought other totalitarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and Myanmar in from the cold. Mr Barack Obama has insisted that the US will not accept the North as a nuclear weapons state and so, naturally, does his State Department.

US intelligence, though, seems to have a more realistic approach. Mr James Clapper, director of US national intelligence, said on Tuesday that "the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearise is probably a lost cause" because "that is their ticket to survival".

It is time that Washington opened fresh channels with Pyongyang with this in mind. It would not come without precedent. Professor Bruce Cumings, a celebrated expert on Korea with the University of Chicago, points out that US president Franklin Roosevelt normalised ties with the Soviet Union when Stalin was at the height of his power. Mr Richard Nixon, for his part, went to China without preconditions even as the mainland had just emerged from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, many could also argue convincingly the other way - that Roosevelt was a dupe for trusting Stalin, and that America is now ruing the help it extended China in its rise. Still, conversations with people at the heart of the establishment in Seoul suggest that while many are not comfortable about yielding even an inch to North Korea, it is getting increasingly fraught to not have a dialogue with Mr Kim. All they would seek is that any such attempt is done in consultation with Seoul every step of the way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline 'A deep chill on the Korean peninsula'. Print Edition | Subscribe