A Nuclear Hangover: South Korean Editorial Roundup
Newspapers hit the stands in South Korea this morning, each and every one with a perspective on the North Korean nuclear test and a policy prescription cut from familiar political cloth.
Given that one of the main areas of division between the Korean right and left is North Korea policy, it was inevitable that the right — represented here by the nation’s biggest selling newspaper, Chosun Ilbo (조선일보) and a second market leader, Donga Ilbo (동아일보) — and the left-leaning Hankyoreh (한겨레) and Kyunghyang Sinmun (경향신문) would take noticeably diverging stances. The conservative bulwarks take a markedly hardline stance, though the message carried by Chosun is more than marginally different from its conservative counterpart regarding what is an appropriate response to the North’s latest provocation. The progressive papers, on the other hand, seem to be in lock step, both conveying the opinion that sanctions are not the answer and more talks are needed.
In summary, South Korea’s conservative wing wants to go even harder, and the liberal wing wants to talk more. But if there is one thing that all four papers do agree on, it is that Park Geun-hye has a lot of thinking to do between now and her inauguration as South Korean president on February 25th. – Assistant Editor Christopher Green and Managing Editor Steven Denney.
A Nuclear Hangover: South Korean Editorial Roundup
by Christopher Green and Steven Denney
For Chosun, the facts are unassailable. The test took place on the morning of the day when President Obama was due to make his State of the Union address, just as the past two such tests in 2006 and 2009 also took place on big days in the United States. Thus, the test was designed to send a message to the United States about the permanence of its nuclearization (note that the DPRK’s National Defense Commission statement released in response to the most recent UN Security Council resolution at the end of January did say that future tests would be “aimed” at the United States, acting as a predictor of this course).
As such, the editorial declares, it is time to return to some fundamental questions about the North Korean nuclear issue.
“The first,” it notes, “is whether we, through sanctions and economic aid, will be able to return North Korea to the time before it armed itself with nuclear weapons,” before stating by way of response, “Based on the attitude North Korea has shown to date, the answer to this question is ‘NO.’ North Korea has decided that its direct possessing of nuclear weapons is far safer than the systemic guarantees offered by the outside world.”
“The second question,” it adds, “is whether the United States or China can, by itself, get North Korea to abandon [it’s nuclear weapons].” The answer is an only marginally less vociferous negative.
“The tools the United States has that can move North Korea are unsuitable, and at a time when China’s relations with both the United States and Japan are in a tangled state, and it is unclear how they will develop going forward, they cannot easily give up their geopolitical shield called North Korea,” it explains.
Therefore, the Chosun Ilbo’s conclusion is as follows: that the only hitherto untested alternative is the combined power of the United States and China. Ergo, South Korea must now seek a way of forcing this union into existence. The only way to do this, it says, is to ensure that both countries are aware of how close Seoul is to going nuclear.
Although it doesn’t say so in so many words. Instead, the editorial muses obliquely: “Rather than… throwing the country’s national security and its people’s lives upon the mercy of North Korea, Korea and the Korean people must make the United States and China fully aware of the fact that we could also take an ‘unwanted decision’ in order to protect ourselves, even though it would involve considerable risk and sacrifice.” (Emphasis added.)
The editorial from the Donga, like the Chosun, is written in a predictably harsh and condemning tone with a clear and stern admonishment for the two superpowers with stakes on the peninsula. However, unlike the Chosun, the editorial discloses a clear penchant for multilateral action to counter the North Korean threat.
In the opening salvos following the standardized denunciation of North Korean provocations, the editorial decries the futile efforts to counterbalance the power asymmetry on the peninsula, conceding that North Korea’s status as a nuclear power gives it an asymmetric power advantage. The editorial goes on to stoke the fears of the ROK military’s four-stars by claiming the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile, vis-a-vis America’s, has created a “balance of terror” on the peninsula which puts Korea in the most unfortunate position of “strategic dwarf.”
Keeping the tension (and perhaps blood pressure) of the readers high, the editorial goes on to insist that there is no reason to rule out “the strict application of Charter 7 or the UN Charter,” which authorizes the UN Security Council to take military and nonmilitary action to restore peace and security in the event that, in the words of the charter, “a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” arises. Given that Kim Jong-un “cannot be restrained,” as the editorial states bluntly, multilateral action to prod North Korea into behaving in an acceptable manner is made out to be the only logical response.
In the concluding paragraphs, the editorial calls on the United States and China, specifically Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, to call out North Korea for its defiance and to put more pressure on North Korea to cease its provocative behavior. The editorial’s parting shot is a call for a further delay in the handover of operational control of military forces in Korea to the South Korean military, implying all the more that Korea does not want to go at this alone and calls upon the international community, especially the United States, to help carry the burden.
The Hankyoreh, meanwhile, takes a different approach, calling the current situation a “vicious cycle” that must be broken, but without offering a detailed policy prescription. Rather, the editorial passes the responsibility for policy to the politicians, and limits itself to calling for a measured bipartisan response involving dialogue and punishment, and for cool heads to prevail.
“The problem,” it explains, “is that sanctions alone cannot halt North Korea’s decision to arm itself with nuclear weapons. We cannot consider a military solution that could cost more than a million lives. There is little chance that North Korea will pursue its own destruction by being the first to use a nuclear weapon. The related countries should view the structure of the North Korean nuclear problem with cool heads, and wisely employ a carrot and stick policy.”
Therefore, the Hankyoreh continues, “Among [the related countries], our response is the most important. It is good that the ruling and opposition parties have promised a bipartisan effort to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem, and that we have created an environment in which we can take the lead.” And instead of doing something brash, like develop an indigenous nuclear device or reintroduce nuclear weapons to South Korea, “the more important thing is for the parties to put their heads together to find a creative solution that will break this vicious cycle of escalating North Korean provocations and international sanctions, and bring the international community on board.”
By way of the title, the Kyunghyang Shinmun editorial seems to take a conservative-like position, calling the North’s third nuclear test a self-destructive miscalculation. But lest the reader be fooled into thinking the Kyunghyang has thrown its rhetorical weight behind the conservative press, a full reading of the editorial reveals its predictably progressive message.
After one paragraph of condemnation and another given to a brief history of WMD development in North Korea, the Kyunghyang puts on its progressive face and shifts the focus away from looking at the issue from a purely military power-perspective by placing the emphasis on the human costs of North Korea’s quest to become a “strong and [economically] powerful nation,” calling it a hollow shell consisting of malnourished and poverty-stricken people.
However, so as not to leave the blame squarely on North Korea’s shoulders, the editorial claims that Resolution 2087, passed following the long-range rocket test on December 12th, has also resulted in “collateral damage,” implying that more sanctions will only exacerbate conditions for ordinary North Koreans. Thus, to prevent further hardship, the idea of a denuclearized Korean peninsula cannot be given up. The preferred path to peace, according to the editorial, is bilateral US-DPRK negotiations as precursor to multilateral peace negotiations, a la Six Party Talks.
The editorial ends by reaffirming the standard position that “sanctions are not the [appropriate] starting point” from which to solve the North Korean nuclear issue. The parting progressive shot delivered in the final sentence is a reminder that “though [we] must prepare for the worst case scenario, a heavy-handed response [perhaps passing more sanctions on North Korea?] could, contrary to intentions and expectations, worsen the situation.”