The Straits Times says

Tackling Korean 'trilemma' afresh

From the region's perspective, the most reassuring signal from new South Korean President Moon Jae In is his willingness to go to Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and "even Pyongyang in the right circumstances" to help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. It is a tangled issue and not hewing to a rigid policy will help to clear the decks to make meaningful engagement possible.

South Korea's strategic focus was sidelined for six months - when then President Park Geun Hye was bogged down by a scandal which led to her impeachment - and, during that period, tensions had risen alarmingly on the Korean peninsula. While having a steady hand on the rudder is a plus in itself, a departure from almost a decade of a hardline approach to the North, adopted by conservative Korean rulers, is a bonus. Punitive measures to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambition have not yielded any better results than rapprochement efforts undertaken earlier by liberal South Korean presidents. These are reasons enough to break from the past and take a fresh approach.

Whatever form of dialogue takes place, the world can count on North Korea to use every trick in the book to have its way: strengthen its military hand ahead of negotiations, divide and rule, and generally confound others with its reckless actions. Pyongyang's latest provocation reflects this - the ballistic missile it fired improved on the range of the previous one, presumably to show that its missile capability should be taken seriously. It also wants to test evolving geopolitical stances and, so far, all reactions are in character. Washington called for tougher sanctions on the North, Seoul strongly condemned the missile test and Beijing urged restraint. A familiar pattern, indeed. What could make a difference now is a united front to deal with the rogue regime.

The peace process is encumbered by the security trilemma evident in North-east Asia. China's long-time support for Pyongyang is based on strategic concerns - it fears changes in the balance of power if the South and the US gain an upper hand. For similar reasons, China is against the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (Thaad) in South Korea as its powerful radar could track Chinese missiles and thus degrade any element of surprise. Mr Moon will have to deal delicately with the Thaad issue as he cannot do without US protection and yet cannot afford to alienate China, his biggest trade partner. Thaad has already sparked Chinese boycotts of popular South Korean goods.

A united front with Japan would also ease multilateral discussions, but Mr Moon will first have to overcome the thorny issue of war reparations. Naturally, he cannot be expected to cut the Gordian knot on his own. Japan must curb militaristic impulses at home. All have a part to play if nascent hopes of change in Korea are to be fulfilled.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'Tackling Korean 'trilemma' afresh'. Subscribe