The Seoul skyline at sunrise. Image credit: Janis Rozenfelds/Unsplash
As North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons, its relationship with its southern neighbor is becoming even more concerning to South Koreans.
Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston, a Lecturer at a Troy University teaching site in South Korea, previously served as Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
Pinkston recently answered questions about life in South Korea and the continuing effects of Kim Jong-Un’s regime on the people who live there, revealing insight into what has become one of the world’s most important ongoing stories.
Question: What is the general feeling among those living on the ground in South Korea? Is there an increased sense of fear, or is it business as usual?
Dr. Daniel Pinkston: I would say it’s pretty much business as usual, but many people are more concerned than in the past. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal poses an existential threat to South Korea, but the South is being squeezed from many angles. The U.S. and South Korea have a mutual defense treaty that went into effect in November 1954. The alliance is a critical pillar of South Korean national security, but as in any alliance, Seoul sometimes experiences fears of abandonment or entrapment. The fears of abandonment are being addressed by the Moon Jae-in government’s moves to increase the defense budget significantly and to acquire, develop and deploy greater ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets as well as counter-strike capabilities. There is a lot of anxiety about the leadership crisis in the U.S. Public opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of South Koreans have no confidence in Donald Trump, and government officials often tell me about an increasing number of bureaucrats and officials who are questioning the credibility of U.S. alliance commitments under Trump. However, the mil-mil ties are strong, and the bilateral relationship has withstood severe friction in the past.
South Korea also is feeling pressure from China, which is their largest trading partner. Earlier this year, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy a THAAD battery to South Korea, and when the deployment started in March, China began to retaliate with “informal economic sanctions” that targeted the Lotte group, which worked out a land swap agreement with the South Korean government to host the missile defense system. Lotte has several department stores in China, and a boycott of Lotte ensued. South Korean cultural exchanges or exports, such as South Korean television dramas and artist visits, were banned. China also banned group tours to South Korea, and that affected the South Korean tourism industry since Chinese had provided the largest number of tourists visiting the South. So economically, Seoul needs to maintain amicable relations with Beijing, but at the same time, South Korea needs to maintain its bilateral alliance with the U.S. However, China is suspicious of increased security cooperation between D.C. and Seoul, and between D.C. and Tokyo. And Beijing does not want to see greater trilateral security cooperation so China pressures Korea to refrain from extensive missile defense cooperation.
Q: For you, personally, what have the last few months been like? Have you felt a sense of dread or surprise, or are things happening generally in the way you’d expect them to?
Pinkston: No significant surprises for me. The only surprises are the pace of missile development, the frequency of missile flight-tests, and the number of nuclear tests — three since January 2016. However, everything in North Korea seems to be moving at a faster pace since Kim Jong-un came to power following his father’s death in December 2011. Statements and responses in state media, economic projects or performance, weapons development, etc., all move at a faster pace now. For example, in the past, if there was an event, such as a U.N. Security Council resolution, that would trigger a foreign ministry response, two or maybe three days would pass before the foreign ministry would issue a statement. Now, they would do it the next day and sometimes even on the same day.
In 1958, under Kim Il-sung, Km Jong-un’s grandfather, the country began the Ch’ŏllima (千里馬) campaign to accelerate socialist development. Ch’ŏllima is a mythical winged horse or pegasus that could travel 1,000 li (one li is 400 meters) or 400km in a day. The campaign mimicked China’s Great Leap Forward as a campaign to mobilize labor for state development. The Ch’ŏllima campaign faded except for nostalgic historical references even though North Korea has continued to implement Stakhanovite-style “speed battles” to encourage labor inputs and productivity. However, recently Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has claimed the country is now following a Mallima (萬里馬) campaign, which is based on a “ten-thousand-li horse” that can travel 10,000 li or 4,000km in a day.
Q: How do South Koreans view the perceived increased aggression of the North? Do they look to the West for a stronger reaction, or are they hoping for a de-escalation?
Pinkston: Recently, there have not been any kinetic attacks like there were in 2010 when a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean Navy ship, killing 46 sailors, and when artillery rained down on South Korea’s Yŏnp’yŏng Island, killing two civilians and two South Korean Marines. In general, people want de-escalation so they can concentrate on the daily aspects of their lives, but I sense there is less patience and greater support and resolve to respond to any North Korean kinetic attacks.
Q: What is the impact on commerce and daily life in South Korea near the border when North Korea conducts missile tests and releases hostile rhetoric?
Pinkston: There is no real change there. The DMZ is heavily fortified and inaccessible for civilians. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were a lot of infiltration by both sides, but there is a two-kilometer wide demilitarized zone on each side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and the area is heavily mined. There are checked points and military control before you even approach the southern boundary of the DMZ.
Pinkston is a lecturer in international relations at TROY’s teaching site at the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Previously he was the Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul, and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Pinkston received his Ph.D. in international affairs from the University of California, San Diego, and he has a M.A. in Korean studies from Yonsei University. He is the author of “The North Korean Ballistic Missile Program” and has published several scholarly articles and book chapters on Korean security affairs. He also served as a Korean linguist in the U.S. Air Force.