Nuclear development in North Korea is the most often raised issue within Inter-Korean relations. Considering the mercurial nature of the North Korean authoritarian regime, its nuclear proliferation poses a threat to South Korea and the Asia Pacific region. Regardless, tenure by tenure, South Korean presidents and their governments fail to remain effective and consistent, as they embrace often drastically different approaches to the already unstable foreign relations with North Korea. Ambitious Sunshine Policy, aiming for Inter-Korean cooperation and reconciliation, and severe securitisation, with its antagonism and apprehension, are interwoven with each other, forming a peculiar, geopolitical plait which doesn’t provide long-standing, positive outcomes. With his election last year, President Yoon Suk-yeol ominously embraced the latter as South Korea’s default approach to Inter-Korean relations for his term. This hardline attitude might bear significant consequences for the future of the Inter-Korean dialogue, especially considering the gradual growth of hostility on the Korean Peninsula.
Nowadays, the general idea of bilateral relations between North and South Korea frightens many, especially when it’s usually described in mass-media solely via reports on missile tests, military drills, and possible nuclear tests, which might happen in the future. But to understand these bilateral intricacies and answer the question of what lies ahead for the Korean Peninsula, it’s vital to start at the very beginning of the XXI century, where South Korea took its first, monumental step towards reconciliation.
A leap towards unity: The policy of Sunshine
In 1994, the Korean Peninsula went through its first nuclear crisis, due to North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nonetheless, South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), began his presidential term in a relatively calm atmosphere. He immediately prioritised Inter-Korean dialogue, emphasising cooperation and conversation over unification. His approach is known as the Sunshine Policy and owes its name to Aesop’s fable titled “The North Wind and the Sun”, when the Sun represents strength and successful influence. The policy’s principles included zero tolerance of North Korea’s provocations, no intentions to absorb North Korea or sabotage it, active attempts to develop mutual understanding and encourage cooperation, separation of politics and economy, reunion of families separated after the Korean War, humanitarian assistance to North Korea and a reciprocity requirement. Thanks to the Sunshine Policy, South Korea engaged diplomatically with North Korea in a way the two states had never cooperated before. That is also when the June 15 Summit happened, marking the first-ever meeting between the North and South Korean leaders.
Nevertheless, the Sunshine Policy, although historic for the two states and even granting Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2000, did not evade criticisms, mostly because of its tendency to stick to a partial compromise on the South Korean side, its unfavourable effect on the South’s government’s credibility in the eyes of the North Korean authorities and way too lenient responses to security threats made by North Korea. However, despite the critiques, Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), Kim Dae-jung’s successor, decided to prolong this approach through his Policy of Peace and Prosperity, focusing on Inter-Korean economic partnership and collaborative projects.
What is important to note, Roh became president during the second nuclear crisis and his term overlapped with the first North Korean nuclear test. Therefore, he was in fact the first one after Kim Dae-jung to dabble in the idea of securitising the North Korean nuclear issue, mostly through his speeches. But it was Lee Myung-bak and then Park Geun-hye, Roh’s subsequent successors, who can be considered responsible for the actual, forceful securitisation.
The meaning and aftereffects of securitising North Korea
The term securitisation refers to a process of constructing threats so that they become politically significant. It transpires within particular contexts and structures, providing a dynamic understanding of what can be a threat. Securitisation processes produce specific outcomes, especially negative ones. Most importantly, specifically for the nuclear dilemma on the Korean Peninsula, securitisation creates an expectation of hostility through the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, where the former is by default safer than the latter.
President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) was the one who stimulated thesecuritisation process in South Korea. From the beginning of his presidency, he underscored North Korea’s nuclear development as a security threat and considered denuclearisation as an unnegotiable prerequisite for any further Inter-Korean cooperation.
The ‘all or nothing’ tactic became his way of handling and possibly eliminating the North Korean nuclear concern, which failed miserably, as North Korean authorities refused to accept such an arrangement, fearing for its own stability.
Lee and his administration’s unyielding stance led to increasing antagonism and securitisation of not only the nuclear issue, but the North Korean state as a whole. Things quickly turned into a vicious cycle, where the intention to lessen the hostility on the Peninsula became the very reason for more hostilities to arise.
In consequence, Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), Lee’s successor, started her term amidst intense distrust, which permeated the Inter-Korean dialogue. Considering Lee’s policy errors, resulting in the South Korean populace’s displeasure, she aimed to amend it. That’s when she introduced Trustpolitik, as her supposedly moreflexible take on the previous policy. As can be assumed, its objectives were to build mutual trust between the two Koreas. However, her idea of trust was not unconditional. Park attempted to lessen the negative effect of full-on securitisation by officially not treating complete denuclearisation as a set-in-stone precondition for Inter-Korean dialogue. Despite this, her “extended hand” approaches to North Korea always involved counterproductive, one-sided requirements for the regime to first get rid of its nuclear weapons anyway. It’s therefore not surprising that by 2016 another North Korean nuclear crisis transpired. Eventually, when Park’s tenure ended in a rather severe manner through impeachment, her Trustpolitik gained no significant support nor had any positive effects on the Inter-Korean dialogue.
A few rays of Sunshine before the storm
President Moon Jae-in (2017-2022) shifted the policy towards North Korea once more, with his administration prioritising peace and mutual respect. His approach was a more contemporarily suitable emulation of what Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine used to be; a breath of fresh air into the troubled, up-until-then securitised relationship.
Reassuring North Korea of the South’s good intentions and flexibility regarding policy transformations as the Inter-Korean dialogue progressed, Moon’s administration rejected the conservative perspectives of its predecessors. The foreign policy sinusoid witnessed a sharp spike, when the new government attempted to mend what the two previous administrations managed to damage.
It was a partial success. The two Koreas performed together in Pyeongchang Winter Olympics during Moon’s term, as well as engaged in the internationally scrutinised Inter-Korean 2018 Summit, introducing the Panmunjom Declaration.
That said, while making grand promises of a hopeful future, the Declaration itself was seen as performative; it provided no new approaches towards denuclearisation, which it also included as part of the reached agreements, and thus had no concrete outcome. But even though Moon’s administration didn’t completely abandon the securitisation narrative of President Lee and Park, it also did not make it impossible for any conversation between the two Koreas to take place. In the grand scheme of things, the small step approach seemed a tenfold more promising and reasonable. It’s unquestionably easier to negotiate uncomfortable topics with an ally, than with an adversary, and Moon’s administration understood it very well.
Alas, Yoon Suk-yeol (2022—), Moon’s successor, appears not to be confident in this at all, as he continuously regards North Korea as a threat, providing yet another, notorious policy shift. His unsympathetic remarks towards the North peppered his presidential campaign and remained in his agenda ever since he was elected, resulting in a completely ruined North-South relationship, with all the lines of communication (literally) destroyed, and hostilities growing day by day. All that along with his government’s focus on expanded weaponry development and commitment to a peace through strength approach is enough to convince those interested that he is to remain a steadfast securitisation advocate till the very end of his tenure.
Why does the South see North Korea as a threat impossible to reason with? The risks of dismissing dialogue and drastic policy shifting in the case of Korean Peninsula
South Korea’s transition to securitisation in its approach to North Korea’s nuclear development resembles a particular sinusoid. It fluctuates from Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and Roh Moo-hyun’s continuation of it, to Lee Myung-bak’s hardline, ‘all or nothing’ stance and Park Geun-hye’s own definitions of trust, back to Moon Jae-in and his seemingly moderate tactics. Nowadays, yet once again, South Korea is strongly relying on securitsation. For Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration, North Korea appears to be nothing but ‘mad’ and ‘bad’; an entity driven by viciousness and irrationality, too evil to comprehend or feasibly predict its actions. The problem is, such view of North Korea often lacks evidence, is purely emotional, does not anticipate change, and omits data that does not align with it or even manipulates it for further validation.
No wonder securitisation was ineffective in changing the North Korean nuclear program – during Lee Myung-bak’s and Park Gun-hye’s terms, North Korea conducted five nuclear tests and cut all official ties with the South, which Moon’s administration managed to at least partially re-build. Accordingly, the fact that North Korea has allegedly halted its nuclear development and destroyed its nuclear testing site in Punggye village in 2018, can be attributed not to the rigid securitisation, but, once again, Moon Jae-in’s efforts to communicate via his open policy towards the North.
That said, North Korea, although not experimenting with factual nuclear weapons publicly as of now, and only partially reminding the world of its capabilities, for instance through tests of nuclear attack drones in March 2023, still exhibits no progress in its Panmunjom denuclearisation promises.
Moreover, as of January 2023, there is evidence to suppose that the Punggye testing site is being rebuilt. Expectedly, the lack of respect for the 2018 Korean Summit agreements, as well as the rumors about Punggye, come hand-in-hand with the term of a new, securitisation-oriented President.
At the first glance, it all sums up to a statement which has been echoing in the Asia Pacific region for decades – North Korea is unpredictable. It makes promises it fails to keep and flauntingly antagonizes the South, thus makes itself extremely hard to consider as a partner for any negotiations. It’s also believed that foreseeing North Korea’s next manoeuvre is often no more reliable than fortune telling. Nonetheless, according to the history of Inter-Korean relations, when Kim’s regime is blatantly treated as an enemy, it is unquestionably more likely to behave like one. Based on past experiences and the fact that nuclear power is North Korea’s only significant leverage, to give the state a choice between full obedience to their supposed foes or lack thereof, expecting it to suddenly opt for the former seems almost foolish. Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidency and his bold, stern statements, his frequent utilisation of words like “threat” or “aggressive” and making threat-like remarks towards North Korea himself, do not bode well for the prospects of Inter-Korean cooperation.
Of course, the criticisms made about the Sunshine Policy and its spin-offs cannot be ignored either. However, securitising North Korean nuclear development, in contrast to a flexible approach based on mutual understanding and benefits, has had more adverse effects on the Inter-Korean dialogue. Focusing solely on the ‘bad’ and ‘mad’, as well as the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamics when dealing with North Korea creates a risk of limited, dangerous decision-making. As a result, current South Korean administration fails to consider any gradual, hypothetical transformation in the securitised state and perceives North Korea as a country uncapable of even the smallest change, but, at the same time, expects it to make the biggest one it possibly could.
On one hand, the securitisation-oriented decisions South Korean government makes can be justified and considered as necessary in a pragmatic sense, but on the other prove that North Korea is not a state unable to transform. Quite the opposite.
North Korean regime knows what it wants, and if its needs are not at least acknowledged, it’s fully capable of taking impulsive, often extremely hazardous steps with long-term consequences, especially when its interests are at stake.
One crucial question arises – what is the South Korean administration more ready for, compromising with the unstable, or dealing with the possible consequences of not doing so?
The prism of the past and the first year into Yoon Suk-yeol’s tenure – what conclusions can be drawn?
Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and Moon Jae-in’s cooperation-oriented approaches create two peculiar, sinusoidal timeline “borders”, encompassing the whole of the harshsecuritisation period. Comparison of the Inter-Korean relations dynamics clearly demonstrates that securitising North Korea’s nuclear development adversely influences the North-South dialogue and relationship.
In such circumstances, it’s not easy to imagine the next move of the North Korean regime. Therefore, it’s equally hard to determine the right foreign policy with the prosperous, or at least neutral, future of the Inter-Korean relations in mind. Although it can be somewhat justified on a superficial level, in a longer run, if the securitisation approach is not replaced with a foreign policy tactic, where no inflexible demands are made and compromise is not avoided by default, the Peninsula can only dream of peace and stability. According to the past events on the Korean Peninsula and the overall everchanging state of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, if securitisation is further staunchly applied by Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration, it will continue to make a poor policy-making compass. Relying on it has already proven to have adverse consequences for the Inter-Korean relations, several nuclear weaponry tests included. At this point, everything seems to depend on Yoon’s administration and its willingness to embrace dialogue and compromise. It needs to realize that giving up its instant denuclearisation demand does not close any doors, but rather opens many. If not, the Korean Peninsula can expect more antagonism in the foreseeable future.