Korea that can say ‘no’

By Choi Sung-jin

Park Geun-hye’s ability to disappoint people, including even her one-time supporters, seems to know no bounds.

Upon returning to her private residence in southern Seoul Sunday, former President Park didn’t try to hide her rejection of the Constitutional Court’s unanimous 8-0 ruling to remove her from the top job. “The truth will reveal itself without fail,” Park said, proving the highest tribunal’s decision could not be more justifiable.

It was one of the worst remarks imaginable for the nation and the former leader as well. Her unrepentant stance dispelled any sympathy left among some people, inviting harsher punishment in the upcoming judiciary process. Sadder still, Park’s refusal to acknowledge her wrongdoing will keep the nation split in the months, even years, to come. Korea will also need some more time to recover from the damage Park inflicted on the nation’s democracy, economy and diplomacy.

On Saturday, Koreans who gathered in Gwanghwamun Plaza to celebrate their “bloodless revolution” said in chorus that Korea succeeded only in the first phase of the three revolutions. “We must, and will, proceed from an impeachment revolution to an economic revolution by reforming chaebol, and to a unification revolution by easing inter-Korean tension and dissolving the North Korean nuclear crisis,” they said.

Currently the most urgent and visible crisis South Korea and its new leader should tackle is national security. As things stand now, few would be surprised if North Korea conducts its sixth ― and most powerful ― nuclear test anytime soon.

In a tit-for-tat strategy, the United States is heightening tension over this divided peninsula, like a vehicle with failing brakes. Washington has sent its Navy SEAL Team Six that killed Osama bin Laden years ago, to participate in the ongoing joint military drill. It is an apparent show of force targeting the North’s young, reckless leader, Kim Jong-un. The U.S. has also dispatched the Gray Eagle unmanned attack aircraft squadron, which it had originally planned to send in the case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Until when should spring come for Koreans in the form of an ever-escalating war game?

As soon as Park’s exit became apparent, the first responses from the U.S., China, and Japan were how it would affect their strategic interests. America, which had hastened the deployment of an anti-missile battery here to make it irreversible before the conservative regime loses political power, was curious whether the new liberal administration would reconsider the decision. China hopes the next president will cancel the introduction of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Japan worried Seoul might scrap the 2015 accord on the resolution of the so-called “comfort women” issue.

However sorry South Koreans might feel, that’s how international politics work.

That means Seoul should also base all diplomatic moves on its national interest. Currently, South Koreans are arguing over whether to hurry to deploy the U.S. missile shield, especially risking enormous economic retaliation from China when Korea’s economy is already reeling from sluggish growth.

Any ratcheting up of tension and unilateral moves at the risk of estranging, let alone antagonizing, a major player can wait until the parties involved exhaust all other means available. It is not necessarily because Seoul fears China’s economic and other retaliation. Beijing’s rash moves in this regard will backfire by triggering Koreans’ nationalistic sentiment if they continue beyond certain limits.

It is rather because there still is another major player who has refused to do what it can ― the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump says he will press China further to do more to force Pyongyang to drop its nuclear ambition. Some hawkish U.S. gurus call for the U.S. to introduce secondary boycotts to force Beijing to lock its oil pipelines to North Korea. That might be an option ― if only it is the last one remaining, but apparently it is not.

Bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiation table will be not only challenging but also unpleasant as it rewards bad behavior. However, at least three former conservative presidents in the U.S. and South Korea ― George W. Bush, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye ― must admit they have made it far costlier than it was a decade ago, whether because of their pride not to deal with a rogue regime or because of some hidden agenda in the military-industry complex.

Some might ask why the allies should bother to talk while they can make the North crumble by force. There are two preconditions, though, for this approach – they should be able to erase only the North Korean leadership, not hurting its people, and not trigger a military conflict in the process. That should be next to impossible given that history shows a minor incident or momentary mistake or misjudgment has led to massive, tragic war.

All this explains why Moon Jae-in, a liberal politician who is closest to the presidency in polls, should not have taken the trouble of denying he said Seoul needs to learn to say “no” to even Washington if need be, in a recent interview with the New York Times. The next South Korean leader should be able to reject unjustifiable demands from neighbors, whether that is America, China or Japan, based on its irrefutable causes of peace and human rights ― the right to live free from concerns about another war.

After all, according to the Constitution which has just ousted Park who was incompetent, corrupt and blindly hawkish ― North Korea is part of the territory of the Republic of Korea, and North Koreans are also the people of this republic.

Choi Sung-jin is a contributing op-ed writer to The Korea Times. Contact him at

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