Two Constraints in Front of South Korea
APLN-Korea Times Essay Contest

Two Constraints in Front of South Korea

APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest Honorable Mention

Two constraints in front of South Korea and three new measures for a “Peace Regime” on the Korean Peninsula

BY Yong-su CHO

For the past 30 years, the denuclearization of North Korea has been one of the most critical issues in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula. Along with the denuclearization of North Korea, the issue of the Korean Peninsula is now decisively affected by the flow of US-China relations since China has appeared as an emerging power over the decades. In that sense, in my view, the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is currently hindered by “two structural constraints”.

The first structural constraint is macroscopic and indirect. This can be referred to as a military rivalry between the US and China, which intensifies again as the US has accelerated to engage in Asia since they canceled the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in August of last year. Since the 19th Party Congress, China has also implemented the modernization of military power in order to realize Kang Gun Mong(强軍夢), including the modernization of nuclear weapons as a high proportion. China is showing a willingness to defend its hegemony and global influence in East Asia against the US by continuously developing and displaying nuclear weapons such as Dong Feng and Hong. Such actions in both countries are contributing to maximize anxiety in the situation in East Asia while continuing various arms races including nuclear power competition.

The US-China competition caused by such nuclear weapons is more of a negative effect for Korea than any other country. In particular, the fact that the current priority and direction of U.S. foreign policy is to keep Chinese military power in check, which means that multifaceted efforts for peace on the Korean Peninsula can be treated as a secondary issue in the face of a huge current of strategic competition between the two. In addition, as the strategic security competition between the US and China deepens, it acts as a burden to aggravate our selective dilemma, and above all, essential agents in the issue of the Korean peninsula would not eager to cope with the nuclear problem. Eventually, the scope of negotiations for denuclearization that South Korea leads may narrow.

The second structural constraint facing South Korea is microscopic and direct, that the nature of the North Korean nuclear issue is constantly changing under the influence of G2 competition. If the US and China compete intensively, China will come out uncooperatively not only in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue but also in constructing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Also, if the US uses denuclearization as a means to prevent China, the North Korea issue may no longer be a target of negotiations. Moreover, the US can secure a justification for deploying its own strategic military assets on the Korean peninsula by taking the North Korean nuclear issue into question and delaying denuclearization. Even in the midst of this, if North Korea continues to provoke sporadically or shows a lukewarm attitude toward negotiations, the peace regime on the Korean peninsula itself is likely to become a colorless word. In other words, the strategic security competition between the US and China in the big frame and the North Korean nuclear issue in a small frame may be complexly intertwined, peace efforts that South Korea is pursuing would be led to the loss.

The Korean government must overcome these two structural constraints we face. To this end, it is necessary to demonstrate a wider and brighter international political imagination. Therefore, I would like to present the “three options” that we need.

First of all, in order to overcome the first structural constraint mentioned above, I argue we must come up with our own security survival strategy amid the US-China competition. This is, after all, a matter of perception. I mean that the recognition that there is a space for realizing our own strategy even in a competitive situation between the US and China can be an indispensable alternative to solving the problem. To achieve this, we must first seek ‘strategic autonomy’ instead of strategic ambiguity. So we should not be drawn to the plate, although the plate fluctuates, and we need at least to keep ours and actively seek ways to move the plate little by little. In addition, in order to overcome the structural constraints of strategic security competition, it is desirable to lead the North Korean problem at least from a humanitarian perspective. This is because it is a way for Korea to become the subject of issues on the Korean Peninsula and speak out even in the midst of the US-China competition. However, we should also heed that since North Korea has maintained a strong attitude since the breakdown of the summit in Hanoi, North Korea may not be our complete partner.

On top of that, I believe that the ways to resolve the Korean issue should be assumed as consistent national goals and approached regardless of political factions to instill trust in the others. The fact that if there is no mutual trust, the transaction cost increases accordingly is obvious in the liberal international order. Thus, to create and share the norm of ‘East Asia free from the crisis of nuclear weapons’, multilateral trust must precede. In order to positively show that Korea is a reliable partner internationally, it is necessary to work appropriately to national interests, not political parties.

Finally, in summarizing the above measures, I suggest that the “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone” must be established. The Nuclear Weapon Free Zone could play a role in strengthening the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and expanding peace on the Korean Peninsula into the basic order of security in East Asia. In order to keep this framework, cooperation between politicians, experts, and civic groups from each country is also imperative. Based on the global network, many stakeholders in East Asia must follow, understand and develop the norms of the peace regime and the nuclear weapon-free zone on the Korean Peninsula.

A Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons can only be achieved by breaking through the deficiencies of the structure to a shift of consciousness and implementing a specific step-by-step roadmap. In this process, we must not forget that peace is both an end and a means, and we must lead the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.


A winning essay from the APLN-The Korea Times essay contest.