Kim Jong-il must be chuckling right about now. Almost a week after his provocative missile tests, there is still no regional consensus on what should be done about North Korea, thanks (in part) to South Korean domestic politics, and a renewed fondness for Japan-bashing in Seoul.
More on that in a moment. On the diplomatic front, China was, at last report, pressuring North Korea to abide by its previous commitments. A Chinese delegation, led by Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, is reportedly in Pyongyang for talks. However, both China and Russia remain opposed to tougher sanctions against North Korea, and could veto any UN Security Council resolution offered by the United States and Japan.
Meanwhile, the government in Seoul is also signaling that it prefers more deferential treatment for North Korea. In fact, some ROK government officials have been more critical of Tokyo than Pyongyang, accusing the Japanese of using a “shrill” voice to push for new sanctions against the North.
To most Americans, such comments sound a bit odd. Afterall, South Korea has the most to lose from North Korean militarism. Efforts to reign in Pyongyang would certainly benefit Seoul, which must sustain a huge defense budget to offset the DPRK’s massive military, which is concentrated along the DMZ that seperates the two Koreas. South Korea’s Presidential mansion, the Blue House, lies within range of North Korean artillery along the DMZ. Based on that sobering reality, you’d think that Seoul would welcome any effort to help mitigate the DPRK threat.
But it depends on who’s making that effort. Hatred of the Japanese remains endemic in South Korea, based on Tokyo’s brutal occupation of the peninsula from 1910-1945. During that time, the Japanese plundered Korea’s natural resources, and forced thousands of Korean women into prostitution for the Imperial Army. And despite the passage of time, tales from the occupation remain vivid in the Korean psyche, and ROK politicians manipulate those sentiments on a regular basis.
For example, the current ROK President, Roh Moo Hyun, is currently locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with Tokyo over the Liancourt Rocks, a pair of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan, located equidistant between the two countries. While the Japanese and Koreans have disputed control of the islands for centuries, Roh has pressed the issue in recent months, partially to deflect public attention away from a corruption scandal, which resulted in his impeachment in 2004. The impeachment was later overturned by South Korea’s highest court, (and Roh was reinstated as President). Despite that favorable ruling, Roh’s term has been highlighted by failed initiatives and political missteps, making him one of the least popular chief executives in South Korean history.
Meanwhile, the “Japan issue” has provided a welcome diversion for Roh. Speeches critical of Tokyo’s claims to Liancourt Rocks have given him a temporary boost in the polls, and Roh has tried to keep the issue on the front-burner. Additionally, Mr. Roh favors a “Sunshine” policy toward North Korea, continuing the overtures begun by his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. Roh reportedly wants some sort of diplomatic agreement with the DPRK before he leaves office, in hopes of salvaging something from his presidency. Achieving that goal explains why Seoul is willing to go easy on Pyongyang–while simultaneously bashing Tokyo for being too harsh. Even in South Korea, all politics are local.
Unfortunately, Roh’s political salvage operation comes at the expense of a regional consensus on North Korea and the missile crisis. By opposing tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, Mr. Roh may actually create more serious issues for future occupants of the Blue House. Last week’s North Korean “test” generated actual fear in Japan, which lies within range of hundreds of DPRK missiles. There is a growing demand within Japan for increased defense spending, discussions about the acquisition of offensive weapons, and even the development of WMD, as a hedge against the growing North Korean threat.
South Korea will, of course, view any Japanese military build-up with alarm. In a post-North Korea environment, Seoul has long viewed Tokyo as its major adversary, a point that has been emphasizsed in various defense white papers over the past decade. But it is slightly ironic that an emerging “Japanese threat” would be partly the result of Mr. Roh’s refusal to follow the lead of Tokyo (and Washington) in getting tough with the DPRK.