Monday, November 14, 2016

South Korea's Progressives Need to Grow Up in the Age of Trump

On November 10, a South Korean lawmaker from the main opposition Minjoo Party, Rep. Yun Ho-jung, said he would seek a dismissal motion against Defense Minister Han Min-koo if South Korea continues to move forward to sign the Security of Military Information Agreement - an agreement with Tokyo to share military intelligence on North Korea.

This came on the heels of the country’s three opposition parties having released a joint statement a day earlier where they expressed their opposition to the agreement claiming that it would escalate geopolitical tension in and around the Korean Peninsula. Today, they reaffirmed that threat.

When one considers the progressives’ position for even a moment, one realizes that the claim makes no sense whatsoever. The need to share intelligence with Tokyo would never have been made an issue if North Korea didn’t pose an existential threat in the first place.

Time and again, whether it is the THAAD deployment or joint US-South Korean military drills or intelligence-sharing with Japan, South Korea’s progressives have consistently voiced their opposition claiming that they would make matters worse while only perfunctorily stating that North Korea should not escalate tensions.

But this should come as no surprise considering the kinds of rhetoric that have come from South Korea’s progressives in the past. Only a month ago when President Park gave a speech calling on North Koreans to abandon their country and defect (a speech that was far less controversial or memorable than Reagan’s “tear-down-this-wall” speech), Rep. Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the People’s Party, accused President Park of making “a declaration of war.” Not to be outdone, Ki Dong-min, a party spokesperson for the Minjoo Party said President Park seemed to have been “on the warpath.”

With rhetoric like this coming from South Korean progressives, who needs the KCNA?

Giving this woman a real run for her money
Image Source

The Left often bristles anytime conservatives refer to them as jongbuk - pro-North Korean sympathizers. However, as much eye-rolling as the conservatives have induced due to their overuse of red-baiting, which has pushed many to compare conservatives to the boy who cried wolf, the accusation is not entirely without merit.

The Choi Soon-sil scandal has rocked the Park Geun-hye administration and with every new reveal, this onion of a scandal is a gift that keeps on giving. The opposition is right to demand that President Park withdraw herself from the day-to-day operations of the government and the protesters are more right still to demand her immediate resignation. However, opposing the Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) has exposed the opposition for what they always have been - craven reactionaries who seek nothing but their own political goals.

The opposition party has been enjoying growing support in the polls recently as a direct result of the Choi Soon-sil scandal but in their hubris, they seem to think that they can just about do anything. They ought to remember that though ousting the president may be justified, working against the country’s interests is unforgivable.

The progressives will be the new stewards of the country and they had better grow up and do it quickly because the world is changing as we speak.

It is likely that the next South Korean president is going to come from the Minjoo Party and as long as they can maintain their alliance with the other minor parties, it will become the next ruling and majority party. But it is important to bear in mind that the Minjoo Party has long committed itself to opposing the deployment of THAAD missile batteries and that it has a long and sordid history of anti-Americanism. So it’s more than plausible that South Korea’s policy toward North Korea might take a sharp left turn.

That sharp left-turn could mean that the future South Korean government might become more anti-Japanese (not that the conservatives were any help whatsoever in trying to improve ties with Tokyo), less pro-American, and more sympathetic to Pyongyang. After all, although it is unclear if Mayor Park Won-soon might become the next president, his incredibly naive positions such as revamping the Sunshine Policy and building “economic and cultural cooperation with the North” (I wonder what the mayor of Dandong might have to say about that!) are shared widely on the Left.

Good luck with that
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Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But that’s in the realm of physics. In the realm of politics, however, the reaction is not always equal. And it is quite hard to come up with a better example of that than Donald Trump’s electoral win. The incoming Trump administration could bring immense changes and it is now time for South Korea’s progressives to quickly learn to assess the new political reality.

That is because should South Korean progressives be tempted to return to their old ways and exploit anti-American sentiments again for any reason whatsoever, Trump’s likely braggadocious response would be less genteel than President George W. Bush’s response was while he was in the White House. Overt acts of anti-Americanism aside, one of the things that Trump ran on was for American allies to become more active in their own self-defense and to increase their share of joint-military budgets with the United States. It’s obvious how further South Korean attempts to maintain the status quo or push away Japan, which weakens the trilateral alliance (and we know what Trump thinks about perceptions of weakness), would be perceived in Washington.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Trump has shown little love for South Korea during the campaign trail. He suggested that South Korea ought to pay 100 percent of the cost of stationing American troops and military hardware in the country. He has also called the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement a “job-killing deal” that has resulted in trade deficits for the US and his campaign went on record saying that he wants to go back to “ground zero” with regard to the trade deal.

It is true that Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be greatly ignorant of international politics when he expressed a blasé attitude about the possibility of a North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan, America’s staunchest allies in Asia, saying “it would be a terrible thing but if they do, they do.”

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Trump’s ignorance automatically means that the incoming administration will be incompetent. Trump already said months ago that should he win the election, he would consider appointing John Bolton, who should not need any introduction (or his views for that matter) in South Korea, as his Secretary of State. If South Korea’s progressives are not feeling even a little wary about the possible return of this real-life version of Yosemite Sam, then they’re going to be in for a rude awakening.

He’s baaaaack!
Image Source

In order to thrive in the Age of Trump, South Korea is going to have to rethink the way it conducts its foreign policy. It’s going to have to bury hatchets and cooperate closely with Japan, which is also likely to be as nervous about Trump. Consequently, South Korea’s progressives are also going to have to stop and think for a moment about the possible risks and benefits of reestablishing engagement with North Korea. And they are also going to have to act more cautiously in their approach to the US as America’s support can no longer be taken for granted - no matter how much people may want to pretend otherwise. The calculus has fundamentally shifted.

In short, if (more likely when) South Korea’s progressives take over from the conservatives in the next election (or after President Park resigns amid the scandals that are engulfing her administration), they are going to have to grow up and do so quickly. The country’s survival may depend on it.