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Korea: The Impossible Country

Daniel Tudor covers Korea for Newsweek and The Economist. Contributor MATTHEW FLACKS chats with the presidential advisor about the curious thaw in relations with the Hermit Kingdom in "The Impossible Country."

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Kim Jong Un

The rhetorical tomfoolery of two of the world’s most unstable, ticklish leaders is well-versed. Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump are going at it like two overgrown toddlers squabbling over who can blow the biggest saliva bubble. Unfortunately, this inanity of deeply insecure narcissists (Guys, you’re doing great, really great!) involves those lethal red buttons which Kim remindeds us "sit right on his desk." And, of course, there’s always collateral. Because the region is becoming increasingly destabilised and Seoul is rather nervous, I recently spoke to Daniel Tudor to gauge how the overlooked southern peninsula is responding to the playground antics of their neighbours to the north, and the US President’s threat to global security.

South Korea has been one of Asia’s stunning democratic successes in what has been a relatively short fifty years, but the country has been incessantly overlooked by its more brash and demonstrative regional partners. The rapid economic and social expansion of the country alongside the recent political scandal that brought down the Park government have exacerbated inter-generational tensions, suggests Mr Tudor, and recently-elected President Moon Jae-in has a full in-tray for unlocking the country’s “compressed” development. Building a welfare state, addressing inequality and tackling the nepotistic corruption that pervades the “corporatism”, are all necessary to rid the country of its ‘Republic of Samsung’ trademark.

And then there’s North Korea. Daniel Tudor has lived in South Korea for many years, has written four books on the region, and believes that his adopted country should be very fearful of the recent acceleration in verbosity. Koreans have become accustomed to the threat of aggression over the years, but Mr Tudor now sees the “Trump Factor” as a seminal juncture. It is fair to say that most South Koreans are not delighted by the spectre of the American President, though it’s hard to imagine North Koreans being particularly enthused either. Remember, behind the media bluster, North Korea is, to all intents and purposes, a functioning nation - people eat, drink, socialise – albeit within restriction.

North Korea is approaching its nuclear program conclusion and this would have undoubtedly created a dilemma for President Obama or a President Hillary Clinton, but there has been an explosion of hostility since Kim Jung-un began to goad the West by launching missiles with gay abandon earlier in the summer. What remains to be seen, is how (if at all) the other major powers attempt to stifle the conflict. China is viewed with suspicion by ordinary South Koreans, according to Mr Tudor, but Japan has historically borne the brunt of the empirical hatred. He explains that China would prefer the division of Korea to continue, but it craves stability in the area and hence would hark back to the “manageable” hostility of five, ten, even twenty years ago that kept the Korean-US-China axis feasible.

Mr Tudor is in no doubt that deals are indeed going on behind the scenes – the watered down UN sanctions for example – and given the choice, it is pretty unthinkable that China would fail to side with the economic might of America (Trump or no Trump) in favour of a small satellite state prone to fits of fancy. The fall of North Korea would also prove hugely costly to China – refugees fleeing across the border to a spiritually and politically similar, if not more developed, regime. Not to mention the massive rebuilding process of the state itself. Cynical perhaps, but certainly judicious.

Mr Tudor goes on to express grave concern as to where the present metaphorical muscle-flexing may lead – the personalised nature of the rhetoric being flung means that whoever backs down will look even more foolish than they do already. It is dubious to think that, having come this far, North Korea will decide to disarm. It is also equally dubious to imagine that Trump, with form for being erratic and highly sensitive to his own regard, will back off. Still, the modern Korean generational shift is having an effect in the south – the young have no interest in engaging with North Korea – what does it hold for them? – whereas many of the country’s elders still recognise a tenuous historical attachment.

It may not be fashionable, or indeed compelling, to adhere to the sensible remarks of President Moon Jae-in, not within the American media outlets such as Fox who have a penchant for warring reportage, but Mr Tudor believes that dialogue is necessary. Yes, the cost of such a conflict to the US would have minimal practical impact in the corridors of Washington or on the streets of California, and North Korea won’t be firing first for fear of total destruction, but ten million Seoul residents are now seriously at risk of a “misunderstanding” or a trigger of impulse if diplomacy continues to stumble. The quiet success of Asia could be catastrophically, irreparably damaged.

Just when we'd given up hope as to who and where the real grown-ups are, Kim Jong-un’s overture could drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. Beyond a New Year’s declaration by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un — that he would move to the mass production of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles in 2018 – lies a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea and drive a wedge into its 70 year old alliance with the United States.

Mr. Kim, perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, called for an urgent dialogue between the two Koreas before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

The strained relationship between the allies has been playing out for months, as Mr. Moon, a liberal, argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North, even as Mr. Trump has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions. Mr. Moon also angered Mr. Trump and his aides in recent months by suggesting he holds what he called a veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program, and has demanded a probe over the contentious American missile defense system — THADD — in South Korea.

Until now Mr. Kim has largely ignored Mr. Moon, whom the North Korean media has portrayed as a spineless lackey of the United States. But the dramatic shift in tone and policy, toward bilateral talks between the two Koreas, suggests that Mr. Kim sees an opportunity to develop and accentuate the split between Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump, betting that the United States will be unable to mount greater pressure on the North if it does not have South Korean acquiescence.

Its worth mentioning that Moon Jae-in is the son of a North Korean refugee. A Human Rights lawyer by trade, he’s returned the nation’s liberals to power after nearly a decade in the political wilderness, and, unlike his U.S. counterpart, eschews the luxurious perk of living in the presidential palace. Moreover, The Sunshine Policy — the theoretical basis for South Korea's foreign policy towards North Korea from 1998 to 2008 — is on the rise in the Seoul Special City.

As Trump roars and urges the world to step up pressure on Pyongyang, he comes face to face with an unconventional ally with deep roots in activism, civil rights and reality. Called the Dark King, South Korean President Moon Jae-in may yet match swagger and ego with sunshine and peace just in time for the Winter Games.

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