This piece originally appeared on September 2, 2022, in The Korea Daily.
SPENCER H. KIM WRITES – President Yoon Suk-yeol has presented an “audacious” plan in which South Korea will “significantly improve North Korea’s economy and its people’s livelihoods in stages if the North ceases the development of its nuclear program and embarks on a genuine and substantive process for denuclearization.” A U.S. State Department spokesman said, “We strongly support the ROK’s aim to open a path for serious and sustained diplomacy with Pyongyang.”
Theoretically it does seem certain that only a “genuine and substantive process” and “serious and sustained diplomacy” can eventually create the conditions for a peaceful and mutually agreeable North Korean denuclearization. But what do those terms mean in reality, in detail, in President Yoon’s plan?
And will reality intervene to render them not achievable?
Sometimes reality is obvious. But inconvenient. So we perform some mental gymnastics that allow us to claim it’s not obvious, and then we can create a world for ourselves that is more convenient. Not real, but more convenient. That kind of world rarely brings success.
In the case of North Korean denuclearization, let us look at some obvious reality:
- North Korea is a dictatorship. Kim Jong Un is 39 years old. He will be dictator for probably 35 to 40 years.
- South Korea is a democracy. It has presidents that serve single five year terms.
- The United States is a democracy. It has presidents who serve four year terms; with the possibility of one re-election for another four years. Maximum for one president is eight years.
- Kim Jong Un knows very well the electoral patterns. In the past, elections have drastically changed US and South Korean proposals for dealing with North Korea. A quick review from the Pyongyang viewpoint shows a history of policies toward the North drastically changing following elections: George W. Bush in 2000; Lee Myung-bak in 2007; Park Geun-hye in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016; Moon Jae-in in 2017. And now, Yoon Suk-yeol in 2022. In all honesty, can we blame North Korea for feeling whipsawed? Kim Jong-un has already dealt with four South Korean presidents and three US presidents.
Who believes President Yoon’s audacious plan can be completed in five years, i.e. during the administration of President Yoon? Please raise your hand.
Who believes that President Yoon has confirmed that the presidents who follow him will agree to follow President Yoon’s plan? Please raise your hand.
Does Kim Jong-un know that the fulfillment of President Yoon’s plan would take way more than five years to complete, require several of Yoon’s successors to agree to the plan, to the large expenditures of South Korean tax money on North Korea’s economy called for in the plan, and to any definition of a “genuine and substantive process for denuclearization” agreed to by the Yoon Administration? Yes, he does.
Is Kim Jong-un going to take concrete, irreversible actions to denuclearize that will affect all 40 years of his expected reign, and, from his point of view, leave his regime disarmed, based on a five year plan introduced in 2022? Highly unlikely.
And that does not even address the question of synchronizing a South Korean five year plan with the four year election cycle in the United States, the key South Korean ally that has to be at the very least a passive cooperating partner in any plan, and more likely a willing co-partner.
But can a five year plan for engagement be made into a believable 40 year plan of action?
Years ago I met Volker Rühe, one of the key players as Germany reunified. Rühe was the Secretary General of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party from 1989 to 1992, and a top advisor to Chancellor Helmut Kohl as German reunification unfolded. He was then the first defense minister of the united Germany. He and I had the chance to talk on several occasions over several years.
Of course we discussed the issue of German reunification and the lessons for divided Korea. Rühe said the key to German unification was the bipartisan policy of Ostpolitik. From 1969 until 1990, West Germany followed one basic policy toward East Germany. West German politicians, liberal and conservative, knew what it was and both followed it as their policy guide when they were in power. East Germans, both the government and the people, knew what it was. Importantly, the US and Soviet Union knew what it was. When international and domestic circumstances became propitious, German unification unfolded, guided by West Germans with a clear vision.
Rühe said before North-South Korean fundamental rapprochement or unification could ever occur, North-South dialogue wasn’t the necessary first step. There first had to be a South-South dialogue that created a progressive-conservative commonly agreed policy toward the North that president after president would follow. So that the North would come to know what to expect from the South. So that China, the US, Japan, and Russia understood exactly what South Korea’s policy was. Only then, Rühe said, when circumstances presented themselves for breakthroughs, could progress be made. If Seoul tried to find an ad hoc solution in the political heat of whatever those international, regional and peninsular circumstances coming together were, it would be too late. Confusion would reign and opportunity would be lost.
President Yoon should be lauded for being willing to launch an “audacious” policy toward the North. But let us be realistic. The North hasn’t responded well to the effort, and they won’t. And we know why.
The really most audacious step President Yoon could make would be to organize a serious and sustained dialogue between all factions of South Korean politics, economics, and society to develop a fundamental, agreed policy toward the North. Toward the end of his term President Yoon could unveil that policy to Pyongyang and the world. Pyongyang will react with wait and see.
But when all the South Korean presidential candidates in 2027 pledge to follow that policy, President Yoon will have achieved something that earns him a prominent place in Korean history forever.
Spencer H. Kim is CEO of CBOL Corp., a California aerospace company. He is a co-founder of the Pacific Century Institute and a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations. He was appointed by President Bush to represent the US on the APEC Business Advisory Council 2006-08. He was a resident fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation 2012-13.