Will the real South Korea please stand up?

In all of the talk that has gone on about the brewing crisis in North Korea, one facet that seems to be absent is the actions and views of South Korea. While the US does have a defense treaty with South Korea and a sizeable amount of military equipment and personnel stationed in and around the peninsula, the South Koreans have thus far been fairly quiet on the issue of North Korea and on the US’s response to the inflammatory and aggressive statements made by the North Koreans. South Korea has by far the most at stake in this conflict with Seoul being well within striking distance of any number of North Korea’s weapon systems, both conventional and Nuclear/Biological/Chemical. Approximately 10 million people are in serious danger in the event that all-out war begins again on the Korean peninsula. The South Korean government is currently being paralyzed by a massive corruption scandal that has seen the ousting of the President and criminal charges being filed against her. This makes the situation that much more complicated for the current acting president of South Korea. He is trying to balance the US’s sabre rattling with the seemingly unwillingness of China to do anything meaningful when it comes to deterring North Korean nuclear and missile testing/development.

South Korean thoughts on the matter are varied as the older generation typically is much more US friendly while the younger generations have become less and less favorable to what is seen as an unnecessary US military presence. The current crisis with North Korea has caused the generational differences to become even more distinct with some questioning the US’s motives for the perceived deception on the USS Carl Vinson’s location. The seeming lack of any clear and direct strategy is also becoming an issue for many Koreans as stated by Kim, Ky-Baek who runs the South Korean news website Minjokcorea, and was quoted in an article by the New York Times, “But the impression we get is that the Trump administration still doesn’t know what it is really trying to do with North Korea, and has no clear and efficient line of communication.” There are also many in South Korea who are angered over a recent interview conducted by President Trump who said, “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” The South Koreans are a fiercely nationalistic people and take any slight against their heritage very seriously. These types of comments are sure to rile the anger of the South Koreans and make this situation even more difficult.

The US keeps saying that China is the key to the North Korean problem and that China is working with us to help solve this crisis. The main problem with this assertion is that China has little incentive to ever completely solve the North Korean problem. With longstanding ties both militarily and economically with South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, China finds itself with a large number of US friendly countries in its area of influence. North Korea has a very strong ally in China and relies on them for a large number of basic living goods and is their primary trade partner. China would not risk any major conflicts with North Korea as they are far too strategically important as a buffer against a very pro-Us South Korea and Japan. So while various heads of the US government may say that the Chinese are working with us to solve this problem, it is highly unlikely that they actually are. It’s not in their best interests to lose the buffer of North Korea, and North Korea currently forces the US and allies to split their focus, making it unlikely that China will force North Korea toward any significant strategic shifts. With the amount of secrecy that can be maintained in both of those countries it is very difficult to verify any actions China says it is taking, even when providing the appearance of trying to reign in North Korea.

Pandora’s Box has already been opened when it comes to nuclear weapons in North Korea, and there isn’t really anything the US and allies can do about it. The concern now becomes proliferation to terrorist groups, which is unlikely because that would most certainly not be in the best interests of either China or North Korea. The same can be said for their missile technology. Are the US/South Korea/Japan willing to risk all-out war and millions of lives to try and limit the development of North Korean ICBMs? Along with that issue is our lack of understanding of third parties that may be involved in helping North Korea to develop this technology since it weakens the US’s power and influence in the region, and in the world in general. As time has marched on and the world has become more interconnected its problems also have become much more complex, requiring more parties being involved to see them resolved. The situation with North Korea cannot be solved unilaterally by the US. Any attempt to continue down this path would be disastrous at best. Hopefully once the new South Korean government is established they will take a much stronger role and be more vocal about things that are happening on their borders.

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