Date: March 21, 2017

Why Korea’s election might not change North Korean policy

With the dismissal of South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye from office, a new presidential election is coming up on May 9, and a change of parties is not only expected—it is almost certain. With the liberal Democratic/Minjoo Party replacing the conservative Korean Liberty Party/Saenuri, what kind of changes can the world expect with regard to U.S.-Korean relations and policy towards North Korea?

Throughout the past year, the Minjoo Party criticized Park’s decision to deploy the U.S.-produced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The leading Minjoo Party candidate, Moon Jae-in, served as the chief of staff to the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, who supported policies of engagement with North Korea. So will the next government be more open to diplomacy at this dangerous time on the Korean peninsula?

To answer these and other questions, I talked to John Lee, who is the Conservative Columnist at NK News and the writer behind The Korean Foreigner.

Lee said that because of the reality on the ground, the next president, whoever it is, will be constrained in his choices. The Minjoo Party will have to accept THAAD, because it is already a done deal. The first components of THAAD arrived at Osan Air Base, outside of Seoul, on March 6, and the system is in the process of being assembled. “By the time the elections are over, this is going to be a done deal, and they will have no choice but to accept it. They’ll just blame it on the Park administration,” Lee said.

As for possibilities of dealing with North Korea,

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John Lee on Korea’s election, North Korea, and why South Korea isn’t “ethnically pure”

John-Lee-copyJohn Lee is the Conservative Columnist at NK News and the writer behind The Korean Foreigner. Born in Brunei to immigrant parents, Lee was educated in English (a legacy of British colonialism) and then went to study in the U.S., before taking up citizenship in his ancestral Korea. As such, he says he feels like “a foreigner in my own country.” I interviewed him about the upcoming Korean elections, policy towards North Korea, Korean politics, and other topics.

Mitchell Blatt: There’s been lots of news about North Korea launching missiles and threatening to test an ICBM that could hit the U.S. South Korea is having elections, and the Trump administration seems to be suggesting that they might take a more aggressive policy towards North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the time for “strategic patience” is over. Do you think that Trump and Tillerson are going in the right direction on this?
John Lee: I don’t think that either Donald Trump or Tillerson are going in any direction regarding North Korea. Just recently they said that all options are still on the table. But that’s the same thing they’ve been saying since the Clinton administration. And anytime you say, ‘All options are on the table,’ what that means is, yeah, we have options, but we haven’t picked one yet. So I think they’re just going with being ‘tough’ on North Korea as far as their rhetoric goes, but I am not convinced that their rhetoric can be backed up by any significant actions.

Blatt: Suppose there was an attempt to go in a new direction. Do you think a new direction is needed?
Lee: If by “new direction,” you mean something more kinetic, then I think that would be a horrible idea. I think deterrence has worked for the past seventy years, and I think it can continue to work. Strong deterrence militarily and economic sanctions, I believe will help contain the situation as much as possible, but something more kinetic would involve a lot of human lives being lost. I think that would be the absolute worst case sanctions.

Blatt: China is talking about trying to open up four party talks. What kind of role does China play in this, and is there any possibility for China to play a bigger role in keeping North Korea in check?
Lee: I think China’s role is more limited than people think it is. It has been proven repeatedly that the North Koreans do not listen to China all that much. China does not want the North Koreans to conduct these missile tests, but they’re conducting them anyway. Recently, because of the unofficial sanctions that the Chinese has imposed on South Korea, China has lost a lot of good will with the South Koreans, too. Four party talks might be enticing for the next progressive government, but I think they will have a hard time juggling the economic interests of China with the military alliance of the United States. The military alliance, as much as they [the progressives] disdain it, is not something that they can just ignore. It would just be irresponsible.

Blatt: One of the big sticking points there is THAAD, and most of the Minjoo Party candidates over the past year have opposed it, but now they seem to be shifting their positions. Do you think in the end, they are going to—if not support THAAD—support the status quo, which is the deployment of THAAD?

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