The North Korean crisis: Why now?

Coming elec­tion may be be­hind sabre rat­tling

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Apart from Don­ald Trump’s need for a dra­matic for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tive, is there any good rea­son why we are hav­ing a crisis over North Korea’s nu­clear weapons test­ing now?

If the Py­ongyang regime is re­ally plan­ning an un­der­ground nu­clear test soon, as Wash­ing­ton al­leges, it will be the sixth bomb test it has car­ried out, not the first. That hardly qual­i­fies as a new de­vel­op­ment that re­quires ur­gent ac­tion. The same goes for its bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests, which have been on­go­ing for many years. Noth­ing new is go­ing on in North Korea.

In South Korea, on the other hand, things may be about to change a lot.

The can­di­date pre­dicted to win the pres­i­dency in Tues­day’s elec­tion, Moon Jae-in, favours a much softer pol­icy to­ward North Korea. He has even promised to re­open in­dus­trial and tourist projects in North that were fi­nanced by South Korea un­der the last Demo­cratic (cen­tre-left) gov­ern­ment.

A decade ago, when Moon’s Demo­cratic Party was still in power in Seoul, he was chief of staff to pres­i­dent Roh Moo-hyun and the so-called Sun­shine Pol­icy of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with North Korea was the or­der of the day. The goal was to cre­ate com­mer­cial, fi­nan­cial and per­sonal ties be­tween the two Koreas, and to that end South Korea sent aid and in­vest­ment to the North.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to say whether that would even­tu­ally have led to a less tense and mil­i­ta­rized sit­u­a­tion in the Korean Penin­sula, be­cause in the 2008 elec­tion the con­ser­va­tives won and scrapped the Sun­shine Pol­icy. The past nine years un­der right-wing gov­ern­ments have seen North-South re­la­tions re­frozen and the in­vest­ments in North Korea closed down by Seoul.

In this week’s elec­tion, how­ever, Moon Jae-in is far in the lead, with the Eura­sia Group, the world’s largest po­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tancy, giv­ing him an 80 per cent chance of win­ning the pres­i­dency. If he wins, he says he will re­open eco­nomic ties with North Korea in a pol­icy his ad­vis­ers call Sun­shine 2.0.

This runs di­rectly con­trary to Trump’s pol­icy of tight­en­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions against the North and even threat­en­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion to force Py­ongyang to aban­don its nu­clear weapons pro­gram. So the ques­tion is: Has the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pushed a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with North Korea to the top of its for­eign pol­icy agenda in or­der to pre-empt Moon Jae-in’s new Sun­shine pol­icy?

One clue could be the sud­den rush to de­ploy the THAAD (Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense) sys­tem in South Korea be­fore the elec­tion. It’s a sys­tem de­signed to in­ter­cept short- and medium-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles of the sort that North Korea might use to de­liver nu­clear weapons on South Korea (and maybe Ja­pan) if it ever man­aged to make its nu­clear weapons small enough to fit on them.

A rea­son­able pre­cau­tion, per­haps — but THAAD was orig­i­nally sched­uled to be in­stalled in South Korea be­tween Au­gust and Oc­to­ber of this year. Then sud­denly it ar­rived in the coun­try in March, and was “op­er­a­tional” (at least in the­ory) by last month. Moon will now have great dif­fi­culty in re­vers­ing that de­ci­sion, as­sum­ing that he be­comes pres­i­dent, and the North Kore­ans are pre­dictably hys­ter­i­cal about it.

On the other hand, Trump shocked the South Kore­ans by an­nounc­ing at the end of April that South Korea would have to pay $1 bil­lion for the THAAD sys­tem, de­spite an ex­ist­ing agree­ment that the U.S. would bear the cost.

He also de­clared that he was go­ing to rene­go­ti­ate the ex­ist­ing free trade agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries. Which sug­gests that there is no clever plan, just the usual stum­bling around in the dark.

Whether the U.S. is de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­lat­ing events or not, Moon Jae-in will be in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion if he be­comes pres­i­dent. He quite rightly be­lieves that there is no need for a crisis this year to re­solve a prob­lem that has been sim­mer­ing away (but never boiling over) for at least 15 years, but un­less he goes along with it he will find him­self in a con­fronta­tion with Don­ald Trump.

GWYNNE DYER

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