Dr. Leonid Petrov, a visiting Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at The Australian National University in Canberra discusses the situation with host John Harrison.
The West has perhaps been caught off guard by what is happening right now in Korea. The North and South of country are on the verge of opening up diplomatic negotiations despite the will of the USA. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proposed resuming talks with South Korea in his New Year's Day address, Seoul seemed to leap at the opportunity. Dr. Petrov explains that President of South Korea Moon Jae-in was elected with a promise that he would improve relations with the North, and that has not yet happened. Now it is possible, after a 10-year freeze that another era of 'sunshine policy' will once again lead to improved relations. "Before then, there were zones of cooperation, charter flights between the two countries; tourists could drive their own cars into North Korea to visit their loved ones who they hadn't seen for decades after the Korean War." Koreans, whether they live in the South or the North, Dr. Petrov says, are, in general, interested in improving relations between the two countries. But unification would bring its own difficulties. "Young and old will all tell you that unification of the country is their dream. But it depends what the next question is going to be. Are you going to introduce a unification tax, are you going to give your job to brothers and sisters in North Korea, who would agree to be paid half of your salary? So they might say — let's have unification sometime in the future, not now. South Koreans view North Korea as a territory which needs to be liberated and emancipated."
One could perhaps compare the possible unification of the two Koreas with the unification of East and West Germany, but that, Dr. Petrov said would not be a very good comparison because the wage levels of North Koreans are proportionally far lower than those of the East Germans before the Berlin wall came down. The South Koreans are extremely well educated now and competitive in commercial and industrial know-how and skills, this is clearly very different from the situation in North Korea. "North and South can talk about unification but only after a joint process of collaboration and education. That's why President Moon Jae-in's thesis is firstly one of reconciliation, second, economic integration and only then unification. The nuclearization, well that's something that makes the whole story very complex because North Korea is not preparing to denuclearize."
The Americans see their presence in South Korea as having provided stability in the area, surely they are not going to take been shouldered out lying down?, John Harrison asks. To that, Dr. Petrov answers that the whole idea of American presence in South Korea is based on anti-communist sentiment. "It is very ideological and political; this is in essence, a Cold war mentality which brings together American and Seoul right wing politicians. …For them, it is important to stand together because China and Russia are just next door, and the Americans want to be present. South Korea provides the opportunity for American troops to be stationed in the South Pacific….An American withdrawal would undermine the whole thesis of an American-Korean brotherhood in arms built on anti-communism."
Since coming to power, President Trump has questioned Seoul's contributions towards the alliance, opened renegotiations of the long-fought US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and threatened direct military action against the North for which the South would bear the bulk of the risk. Dr. Petrov says that South Korea is the power that will benefit from Trump's inconsistences in foreign policy. "South Korea will gain access to raw materials and minerals which North Korea is now selling to China….South Korea will be much stronger. This is why Japan is so paranoid about reconciliation as well. Everybody is against the idea of reconciliation but one country, and that is Russia. Russia is very keep to sell its raw materials and expertise to the unified Korea….Right now, North Korea is a black hole in a quickly growing region. For Russia, it makes much more sense to support the unification project because that will open the doors to export opportunities in South Korea, and the Russian Far East is hugely under developed and under populated….I think it is a win-win-win situation for Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul to see the reconciliation process restarted, maybe at the expense of the South Korean-American alliance. The Americans don't want to see a unified Korea right next door to Vladivostok, the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. China is also paranoid about potential US military bases on its borders. So, for Russia and China, it is important to see Korea as a kind of Finland of East Asia. A country which is nonaligned but prosperous, which is peaceful but vigilant, and is an economic powerhouse."
There is a possibility that the current thaw between the two Koreas might actually lead to an increased likelihood of war because the US may feel that it needs to safeguard its alliance whilst it can. Dr. Petrov explains that this is unlikely because of the close proximity of large centers of population spread between the two countries. "What President Trump was talking about last year, about fire and fury, about a nuclear armada all turned out to be just empty talk, he didn't send a nuclear armada to the shores of North Korea because the coastline of North Korea is not far away from the Russian coastline, and the Russian Pacific fleet. I don't think the United States is going to jeopardize its own naval and air assets and the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who live work and study in South Korea because if war starts there, there is going to massive loss of human life, huge nuclear contamination of the whole region and economic disaster for everyone involved. South Korea would not tolerate any reckless action, President Moon Jae-in made it very clear to President Trump that there will be no war without his consent, that there will be no war against North Korea without the specific permission of the South Korean government, and the South Korea government is not suicidal…"
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