New realities on the Korean Peninsula

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 17 May 2022

The inauguration of new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol took place earlier this month, signalling a possible new departure in the country’s politics, writes Hussein Haridy


On 9 March, South Korea elected conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol to become its new president, succeeding former president Moon Jae-in after a campaign that centred mainly on domestic questions.

These included issues regarding the state of the economy and accusations of nepotism and corruption that targeted not only the two main candidates, Yoon Suk-yeol and his opponent from the Democratic Party Lee Jae-myung, but also their respective spouses.

The two men had done their best to capture the support of the new generation of South Koreans, those aged between 20 and 39 years old, and some experts believe that the vote of this rising generation played a greater part in these elections than it had done in previous ones.

The problem of inflation and rising house prices for young Koreans was among the concerns uppermost on their minds. In the earlier parliamentary elections held on 5 and 6 March, the turnout was 37 per cent higher than that reached in the previous elections in 2020. The difference is attributed to what is known as “Generation 2030,” the age bracket mentioned above, which likes to refer to South Korea as “Hell Joseon,” the latter being the name of Korea from 1392 to 1897.

In order to woo this generation, both presidential-elections candidates had promised during their campaigns to build two and half million apartments over the next five years if they were elected. This contrasts with the years between 2017, the year former president Moon Jae-in was elected president, and 2022, when relations between the two Koreas took centre stage in the political priorities of the former Korean government. 

Inter-Korean relations were not a prominent question in the presidential campaign in 2022.

A researcher at Washington think tank the Centre for a New American Security, Duyeon Kim, quoted in the French daily Le Monde, said that for the first time in the history of presidential elections in the Republic of Korea, the elections in 2022 were not about ideology or foreign policy but rather a “battle between generations.”

The elections demonstrated the polarisation of South Korean society, which is why the new Korean president wants to be a president who is able to forge consensus, despite the fact that the parliamentary majority is from the opposition party the Democrats.

During his inauguration on 10 May, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to steer South Korea on the road of liberal democracy and to promote a flourishing market economy. He faces a daunting job on the domestic front, politically, economically, and socially, and more particularly on the question of gender equality.

His approval rating stands at 51.4 per cent, low when compared to the rates of his predecessors upon assuming office. Unlike the smooth talk of the former Korean president vis-à-vis North Korea upon assuming office in 2017, the new president also wants to be firmer with the North.

As a conservative, the line of the new president towards North Korea will probably be less accommodating and more supportive of US efforts to enlarge and deepen alliances in the Indo-Pacific region. He is also more open to good relations with Japan after the tensions that marred Korean-Japanese relations over the last few years for reasons that go back to World War II.

In the months preceding his election, North Korea engaged in some sabre-rattling of its own in response and in anticipation of a tougher position by the new South Korean government towards it, particularly on denuclearisation. 

Among the 110 priorities that the new South Korean president’s campaign adopted figures his determination to adopt a less friendly attitude towards North Korea. He is not willing to accommodate the North at all costs, he has said. He has deplored the nuclear warnings coming out of Pyongyang, but in the meantime has promised the North a very ambitious economic assistance plan if it commits itself “seriously” to a programme of denuclearisation.

This stance will be welcomed by US President Joe Biden, who will begin his first Asian tour since January 2021 by visiting Japan and South Korea later this month. It is expected that talks in the two capitals will cover how the three allies can work together to defend security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region as well on the Korean Peninsula.

The Biden administration has put relations with North Korea on the back burner for now, while encouraging the North to get involved in negotiations to denuclearise. The US position adopted by the last three administrations under two Democratic and one Republican president has proven ineffective so far, however. 

During the last five years, North Korea has been perfecting and improving its intercontinental ballistic-missile capabilities, and it has been reported as testing a hypersonic missile in the first quarter of 2022. If these reports prove to be true, it would be the third country in the world to have tested such a missile after China and Russia. 

Former Republican president Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Sentosa in Singapore in June 2018. The statement released on this occasion charted a diplomatic roadmap for reaching a peace settlement that would put a legal and political end to the Korean War (1950-1953). 

At the time, hopes were raised that at long last diplomacy could work on the Korean Peninsula. But for one reason or another the Sentosa Process stalled. Nevertheless, Trump was the first sitting US president to set foot on North Korean territory and to shake hands with Kim Jong-un, who was also the first leader from the North to deal with a US president when in office.

Will Biden and the new South Korean president recommit their respective countries and their regional allies to reengage with the North? We will have to wait until Biden’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo takes place to look for clues as to the future prospects of peace and security – and a comprehensive and not one-sided peace deal – on the Korean Peninsula.

A paragraph in the Joint Vision Statement of the ASEAN-US Special Summit at the White House on 12-13 May could provide help on what to expect from the two visits. The paragraph states that “we reaffirm a shared commitment to the goal of the complete denuclearisation and the establishment of a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. We continue to call on the DPRK [North Korea] to fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

If only the US and its Asian allies and partners would reorder the order of things, in other words, and recommit themselves to permanent peace between the two Koreas and then, and only then, agree on a denuclearisation programme in the North. Personally speaking, I doubt very much if Pyongyang will ever agree to denuclearise under the present geostrategic conditions in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe. The role played by the US-led NATO alliance in Ukraine makes it highly doubtful that the North Korean regime will trust US intentions or signed agreements. The North Koreans are not mistaken in this regard.

It seems that the US administration is doubling down on the traditional US position vis-à-vis Pyongyang, one that dates back to 2003-2004 during the Bush administration with its bag of sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions did nothing, not an iota, to prevent the North from making tremendous advances in its nuclear capabilities and its intercontinental ballistic-missile strike force. 

Some press reports have suggested that the North is also now preparing for a new nuclear test. According to the US TV channel CNN, US military and intelligence officials told one of its correspondents, Barbara Starr, that after a hiatus of five years the North could fire up its underground testing programme at the Punggye-ri testing facility “as soon as this month,” May 2022, according to their estimates.

The new South Korean president will have to be imaginative and more accommodating of the demands of the North if he wants to end the state of war on the Korean Peninsula. The traditional positions of the Americans and the South Koreans will not go that far.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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