Balbina Hwang, who was recently interviewed on PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, has a long essay at the Heritage Foundation entitled The U.S.-Korea Alliance on the Rocks: Shaken, Not Stirred, which nicely encapsulates the different perceptions the two testy allies have of the threat posed by North Korea.
Most Americans tend to attribute the strategic dissonance in the alliance to the dissipation of the “North Korean threat” altogether in South Korea. They cite the Sunshine Policy, the emergence of a younger generation with no first-hand experience of the Korean War, and a government in Seoul seemingly limitless in its willingness to accommodate the Pyongyang regime, including the omission of the official label “enemy” from its national Defense White Paper and even the refusal to discuss human rights abuses.
But as many South Koreans (both young and old) are quick to point out, they do feel threatened by the North, only the threat has metamorphosed into a completely different kind of peril than that perceived by Americans. Today, the majority of South Koreans no longer view North Korea as an invincible, evil enemy intent on conquering the South. Rather, the greatest threat posed by the North is the instability of the regime which could lead to a collapse (whether through implosion or explosion), thereby devastating the South’s economic, political, and social systems. What explains South Korea’s sudden shift to fearing the North’s weakness rather than that regime’s strengths?
The Sunshine Policy and the ensuing historic summit between the two Korean leaders in June 2000 marks the proximate symbol of a profound shift on the Korean peninsula, but the true causes are more complex and lie in the previous decade. They include the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of China in the early 1990s, as well as the devastating floods and famines of 1994–1995 that produced shocking pictures of starving, skeletal North Korean children. These images “humanized” a traditional enemy and caused South Koreans to feel a connection to what they see as poor, starving, and weak brethren, who at best are victims of a bad regime and at worst are misguided, but certainly have neither the capability nor intent to truly harm their Southern relatives. Most importantly, they were viewed as fellow Koreans.
The significance of this psychological mind-shift cannot and should not be underestimated. After all, who can blame South Koreans both young and old? They are tired of being the last remaining victims of the Cold War, and they too want to reap the “peace dividend” that the rest of the world enjoyed. South Koreans now want the freedom to not fear that their very way of life is in constant danger, a life that is built on prosperity, material well-being, physical comfort, and freedom.
The problem is that for the United States and many others in the region (including Japan and Australia), North Korea largely remains an unchanged Cold War threat based on its continued pursuit of a military-first policy despite mass starvation and a failed economy; its pursuit of nuclear weapons, missile proliferation, and illicit activities including counterfeiting; its record of state-sponsored terrorism; its continued hostile stance toward the South and other countries in the region; and even its continued brutality toward its own people through widespread human rights violations.
For the United States, the source of the threat lies in the strength of the North Korean regime, while for South Korea, the threat now lies in the regime’s fundamental weakness and its potential for collapse. Given this vastly different assessment, the divergence in policy prescriptions is predictable. Seoul wants to mitigate the potential for greater instability by engaging the Pyongyang regime in the hope of coaxing it gradually toward positive regime transformation. Washington, in contrast, views engagement efforts as part of the problem if it contributes to augmenting the regime’s existing strengths rather than seeking ways to further weaken it.