America’s leadership in the Asia Pacific was founded in the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on its status as the first atomic power. Nuclear weapons thereafter defined Asian geopolitics. Today, on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear technology is again set to feature in a dramatic shift in Asia’s power balance. With a summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un now in prospect, future historians may come to see North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missiles as the trigger that unravels America’s strategic leadership of Asia.
This article was originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on 5 January 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s conciliatory gestures towards South Korea are a welcome move. But they should not belie the high possibility that it will continue ballistic missile and warhead testing in 2018.
Circumstances are ripe for South Korea, the United States, and the international community to adopt a fresh approach to address the North Korean crisis. High-ranking officials in North Korea are disaffected to an unprecedented degree, and granting amnesty to them may ultimately lead to the removal of Kim Jong-un.
In an April 6 analysis, Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, listed ways President Donald Trump could attempt to deal with North Korea, which included conventional strategies such as intensifying sanctions, increasing pressure on China to enforce sanctions, and even preventive military strikes. However, he concluded saying that the safest option would be to negotiate “a peaceful end to the 60-year-standoff on the peninsula” by providing the North Korean elite with an alternative to their “murderous and unstable leader.” He added that such an approach “could be the safest and most realistic way to sheath North Korean nuclear weapons and safeguard the American people.”
On Feb. 13, 2017, Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was assassinated in Malaysia. South Korean responses to the murder have been mixed. For some, it is confirmation of the tyrannical, despotic nature of the Pyongyang leadership, a call to stiffen South Korean resolve and a reminder to double down on security measures. For others, it is proof of North Korean insecurity and one more example of the need to reach out to Pyongyang and convince it that the outside world is not implacably hostile. We believe this act is an opportunity for young South Koreans to forge a bipartisan consensus on how to deal with North Korea.
There has long been a generational divide within South Korea when thinking about how to deal with the North. Unlike older generations who felt the pains of Korean division, younger South Koreans have no personal ties to the North and have thus made reunification less of a priority than their elders. It is widely believed that younger South Koreans are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make reunification a reality; they are more inclined to accept continuing division even if the price is high. A survey conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification revealed that 55.1 percent of the younger generation in South Korea prefers division in the Korean Peninsula while only 19 percent of 60 year olds share that view.
Millions of people around the world went to the polls this year. The results provided plenty of surprises. British voters defied the pollsters and voted to leave the European Union. Colombians did much the same in rejecting their government’s peace deal with FARC, though Colombia’s president found a way to complete the deal a few months later without a vote. The biggest electoral surprise of all might have been in the United States, where Donald Trump defied the political experts and defeated Hillary Clinton. Perhaps 2017 will produce similarly surprising results. Here are ten elections to watch.