Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.08.13

Who lost South Korea?

the japan times on August 6, 2019

Seventy years ago, "Who lost China?" was one of the queries that bitterly divided the United States. From the late 1940s through the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his supporters persecuted hundreds of Americans for being "communists" or "communist sympathizers." That was a period known as the Second Red Scare.

Thirty years later, a similar divisive question was raised in 1979 following the collapse of the shah's empire in Tehran. "Who lost Iran?" was a favorite topic of the time. A Washington Post article harshly criticized former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's comments that U.S. President Jimmy Carter should be held responsible for the fall of the shah.

Yes, Carter's authorization of the shah's entry into the U.S. led to the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The question, however, hasn't been fully answered, since recently declassified documents suggest that the Nixon and Ford administrations created an environment for cornering the shah's corrupt regime into a revolution.

In Northeast Asia, Tokyo and Seoul seem to have trapped themselves in an endless game of chicken. On Aug. 2, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally approved removing South Korea from the so-called white list of nations entitled to preferential treatment in Japan's security-related export control regime.

Tokyo insists that the new export control measures are consistent with the World Trade Organization and other international law and are not trade restrictive. Seoul, on the contrary, views the Japanese measures as retaliatory and is ready to double down. Now the disputes appear almost unstoppable, with the two capitals seemingly willing to fight to the death.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Four decades after 1979, a new proposition has surfaced, this time in Northeast Asia. The question in 2019 is about the future direction of South Korea. Are we losing Seoul to Beijing or Pyongyang? Or, where does South Korea go from here, following its Catch-22 spat with Japan?

My prediction is that by the end of the 2020s, just a decade from now, future politicians and pundits in Washington and elsewhere may start raising the question of "Who lost South Korea in the 2020s?" Although I am not a historian, the following is my take on this somewhat apocalyptic proposition.

1. Has Japan lost South Korea?

No, we don't even own them in the first place. We thought South Korea and Japan share freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and other universal values. What we have witnessed so far is to the contrary. South Korea looks more willing to depart from Japan.

2. Has South Korea lost Japan?

They don't believe so. Incumbent South Korean leaders found that geopolitical environment surrounding Korean foreign policy is changing. They know that the Cold War is over, and China is on the rise. And finally, they know that the Americans are not dependable anymore. So, they have nothing to lose in Japan.

3. Has the United States lost South Korea?

Maybe. Washington seems to be losing Seoul, to say the least. If the Americans believe that Japan is solely responsible for the loss of South Korea, they are helplessly naive. The recent bitter disputes between Tokyo and Seoul are just the results, not the cause, of the U.S.'s potential loss of South Korea.

4. Is U.S. President Donald Trump responsible for the loss of Seoul?

Most likely. A series of unconventional and least strategic diplomatic events since March 2018, including three meetings between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Hanoi and the DMZ, must have emboldened and tempted South Korean President Moon Jae-in to prioritize his inter-Korean agenda over ties with the U.S. and Japan.

5. Has South Korea lost the United States?

Not yet, but Seoul seems to be losing Washington, too. The tragedy is that South Korean leaders seem to truly believe that a steady rapprochement with China and North Korea, on the one hand, and a strong security alliance with the U.S., on the other, can and will coexist with each other.

6. South Korea is losing its national interests.

What Seoul is losing the most is the strategic interests of South Korea. Accusing Japan may help Moon stay in the Blue House with a higher approval rating but it will not achieve the optimum balance of power that South Korea wishes to keep among relevant major powers in the region. Seoul just seems to have gone too far.

7. Who gained most out of this mess?

If the United States loses South Korea, Beijing, Pyongyang and probably Moscow to a lesser extent will be laughing out loud. The three capitals all wish to see a weakened U.S.-South Korea-Japan tripartite security alliance/cooperation in times of contingencies in Northeast Asia.

In 1949, when people asked who lost China, it was neither communist sympathizers in the U.S. nor the communists in mainland China. It was the corrupt and venal Chinese nationalists who lost China, which they thought they had won. The next time it could be equally corrupt and venal Chinese communists who lose China again.

By the same token, in 1979, when we asked who lost Iran, it was neither Carter nor the Nixon and Ford administrations. It was the dictatorial and corrupt shah of Iran, who had lost the support of ordinary Iranians. The Islamic scholars/politicians in Tehran and Qom today may face a similar political crisis if they become too venal and authoritarian.

In the 2020s, South Korea's socio-political transformation will be inevitable, whether one likes it or not. If anyone loses a free and democratic South Korea, it will be ordinary Koreans living in the south. If political leaders cannot provide strategic visions and realistic policies, it will ultimately be the people who lose their country.

Americans could have had opportunities in the past to do something to unwind or solve the Tokyo-Seoul disputes, but, unfortunately, it seems too late for Washington to mediate. If so, Japan and South Korea may need a few more decades before reaching a true rapprochement. Will both nations still exist then on Earth?