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Candidates differ on how to win peace on Korean Peninsula

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This article is the sixth and final in a series about the 2022 presidential election candidates' campaign pledges. In this article, their pledges for inter-Korean relations are examined and compared. ―ED

Lee stresses balance between deterrence, dialogue; Yoon vows 'peace through strength'

By Kang Seung-woo

With North Korea steadily modernizing its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the new president of South Korea will have to work hard to deal with the decades-long unresolved issue upon inauguration in May.

The two leading presidential candidates for the March 9 election ― Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) ― are open to inter-Korean dialogue and economic cooperation, but they differ in their solutions.

Lee Jae-myung, left, of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party / Joint Press Corps
Lee Jae-myung, left, of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party / Joint Press Corps

Lee, 57, is following in the footsteps of previous liberal presidents who took the path of "reward first, denuclearize later" in order to engage the reclusive state proactively. The former Gyeonggi Province governor believes that pre-emptive inter-Korean economic cooperation could pave the way for the North to give up its nuclear program over the long term, so he proposes the conditional lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in return for steps toward denuclearization.

"It would be better to begin by pushing for North Korea to take meaningful steps for denuclearization in return for partial rewards," Lee said in his Feb. 23 contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine, titled, "A Practical Vision for South Korea."

In addition, Lee claims that the international community could deploy "snapback" sanctions to reimpose sanctions immediately if North Korea fails to comply with its denuclearization promises.

The U.S. government has urged the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear weapons first in exchange for economic rewards, but Pyongyang has pushed back on this demand, denouncing it as immediate and unilateral.

Lee is also expected to succeed the Moon Jae-in administration's pursuit of a declaration putting an official end to the Korean War, while seeking to play a mediator role in U.S.-North Korea relations, should he be elected president.

President Moon Jae-in floated the idea at the United Nations last September, believing it could serve as a catalyst for denuclearization negotiations with North Korea, but the Kim Jong-un regime has remained unresponsive to it. As for the mediator role, Seoul was recognized for setting up the first-ever summit between the United States and North Korea in 2018, but after their 2019 summit ended up without a deal, the South Korean government has been struggling to connect the two sides.

This photo, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 28, shows a long-range cruise missile being launched from a transporter erector launcher on Jan. 25. Yonhap
This photo, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 28, shows a long-range cruise missile being launched from a transporter erector launcher on Jan. 25. Yonhap

On the other hand, Yoon, 61, insists that without North Korea's sincere commitment to denuclearization, the sanctions must continue.

"Pyongyang's sincere and complete declaration of its existing nuclear programs would be the first milestone step in restoring trust. Sanctions against North Korea might then be eased in line with verifiable and irreversible steps Pyongyang must take toward denuclearization," Yoon wrote in his Feb. 8 contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine, titled "South Korea Needs to Step Up."

"Negotiations should rest on the idea that if the North Korean leadership makes the bold decision to denuclearize, the South will offer economic support and discuss cooperation projects, including an inter-Korean joint development plan to guide economic relations in a post-denuclearization era," he said.

Yoon opposes the push for an end-of-war declaration, arguing that there would be considerable consequences if it were signed before the security threats from the North are removed.

In accordance with its leader's pledge at the Eighth Congress of the Workers' Party in January 2021, North Korea has been doubling down on its military build-up, resulting in a mounting threat to South Korea.

Entering January, the country launched 11 missiles through seven rounds of testing, which included an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Following a hiatus in February while its ally China hosted the Winter Olympics, it resumed missile testing, firing a ballistic missile on Feb. 27.

Amid the series of missile tests from the North, there have been growing calls for actions from the South Korean government stricter than its repeated expressions of regret.

Yoon believes that the Moon administration has turned a blind eye to North Korean provocations for four and a half years, thereby changing inter-Korean ties into a "master-servant relationship" and weakening the South's national security.

"Relations between the two Koreas have been distorted by Pyongyang's provocations and Seoul's subservient reactions," Yoon wrote in his contribution, citing what he described as Seoul's yielding response to North Korea's unilateral destruction of the joint inter-Korean liaison office in Gaeseong in 2020 and its series of missile launches in January.

In contrast, he stressed that South Korea should seek to establish "peace through strength" by building up its military capabilities.

"For the South Korean government, protecting the lives and property of its people should be the main priority. Seoul must neutralize North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities by strengthening South Korea's air and missile defenses and reinforcing Washington's extended deterrence against North Korea."

In addition, as part of enhancing deterrence against North Korea's threats, Yoon said that he will deploy an additional THAAD battery here and launch a preemptive strike on North Korea if necessary.

President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hug each other during their summit at the truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hug each other during their summit at the truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018. Yonhap

In response, Lee claims that any measures to achieve North Korea's denuclearization must be peaceful.

"Saber rattling achieves little: glibly advocating for a preemptive strike against Pyongyang, for example, evokes Cold War posturing that is no longer relevant and serves only to stoke fear and division," Lee said in his Feb. 23 Foreign Affairs article.

"It is important to win a war; it is even more important to win without a war. This can be achieved with a mixture of deterrence, diplomacy, and dialogue. The Biden administration's 'calibrated and practical' approach to North Korea has emphasized this approach."




Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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