SHARED VALUES KEY TO JAPAN FORMING ALLIANCES IN INDO-PACIFIC
Korea watcher Takabumi Suzuoki had an intriguing thing to say about a telephone conversation Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in had on February 4. He noted that the Blue House (Moon’s official residence) issued three successive statements following the 14-minute dialogue between the two heads of state, explaining:
“The first statement made absolutely no mention of maritime cooperation between the two nations. That implies that Washington regards Seoul only as a partner needed for dealing with Pyongyang. The second statement, which quickly followed, mentioned that the two leaders agreed on matters relating to broad cooperation in Northeast Asia. Then came the third statement, which said the two countries will cooperate in the Indo-Pacific beyond the Korean Peninsula.”
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had spoken with Biden a good week before Moon, pledging Japan’s efforts to pursue a framework of close security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific with the US, Australia, and India. But Biden did not request the same extent of cooperation by South Korea in that region, which must have prompted Moon and his government to realize how lightly the Biden administration regards South Korea as America’s partner. That must have led the Blue House to issue the three statements in rapid succession, according to Suzuoki.
Put simply, the Biden-Moon phone chat reflected the low degree of interest the new administration has in the Korean Peninsula.
During his first news conference as Secretary of State on January 27, Antony Blinken made absolutely no mention of the North Korean issue. Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan also did not refer to the Korean Peninsula on January 29 during an on-line conference discussing the importance of the proposed “Quad” new security framework covering the Indo-Pacific. Against such a backdrop, one would naturally suspect that Moon must have issued the additional statements in order to impress the world that the US still attaches weight to South Korea as an ally.
Nine days before speaking with Biden, on January 26, Moon had a 40-minute telephone chat with Xi Jinping. But the message Moon delivered concerning his conversation with Xi was not consistent with his actions. Moon quoted Xi as expressing “positive support for (Moon’s) efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, as it is in line with the common interests of China and South Korea.”
Secret File on Building Nuclear Plant in North
The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a common goal of not only China and South Korea but the US and Japan, needless to say. Based on a framework agreed in 1994, the US, South Korea, and Japan established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to build two light-water nuclear reactors in the North to meet the North’s civilian energy needs in return for Pyongyang scrapping its nuclear arms programs. Nine consultations were held among the US, Japan, China, Russia, and the two Koreas between 2003 and 2007, with international aid extended to the North during this period. But in 2008 North Korean pulled out of the six-nation talks and started making nuclear weapons again. Recently, suspicion about a breach of faith on the part of South Korea has emerged, alleging that Seoul planned to build a nuclear power plant in the North.
On January 28, South Korean broadcaster SBS reported on a “secret file” which revealed an alleged government plan to assist the North in constructing a nuclear power plant in 2017. According to a “Korean Peninsula Watch” column series by Ruriko Kobota dated February 7, an editorial writer of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, the file compiled by the South’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy was dated May 2, 2018 and marked “60 Pohjois.” (Pohjois is “north” in Finnish.) It contained documents concerning the alleged power plant. The file was brought to light when the public prosecutors’ office investigated an allegation that the ministry had obstructed the Board of Audit and Inspection’s probe into a controversial decision by the Moon administration to prematurely shut down the nation’s second oldest nuclear reactor.
As is widely known, Moon met Chairman (now President) Kim Jong-un for their first summit in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Moon at the time gave Kim a USB stick containing a blueprint for an economic development initiative including joint projects on the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders spoke one-on-one for 44 minutes in the Truce Village garden completely detached from their aides. Lip-reading experts who deciphered a video of the scene have reportedly detected words like “power plant” and “nuclear” in their conversation.
Kubota pointed out that the secret documents referred to three proposals for the South’s energy cooperation with the North: 1) building a nuclear power plant in the North where KEDO had planned to build the two light-water reactors; 2) building one in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas; or 3) finishing the suspended construction of units 3 and 4 at Shin Hanul Power Plant in the South to transmit electricity to the North.
Should the SBS report be true, Moon’s official pledge to cooperate closely with China and the US in realizing a denuclearization of the peninsula will prove to be completely false. The alleged action on the part of his administration is a blatant violation and betrayal of the UN Security Council’s sanctions on the North and the 2015 US-South Korea nuclear cooperation agreement.
The Moon administration immediately denied any connection with the secret file, but that denial has fueled suspicion because career bureaucrats could hardly be expected to draw up such a geopolitically significant project.
I am not sure about the extent of Moon’s involvement in this project, but Kim abruptly announced during the North Korean Workers’ Party Congress begun on January 5 this year: “New planning research for a nuclear-powered submarine has been completed and is to enter the final testing process.” Kim also said the sub was designed with the addition of submarine-launched strategic nuclear weapons in mind.
About a year prior to the congress, Kim predicted during the 5th plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party’s 7th Central Committee in Pyongyang December 28-31 that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the future.” One cannot erase the suspicion that the Moon administration may be positive about supporting the North in its brazen nuclear strategy.
China as Country of “Real Revolution”
Moon started advocating distinctly ethnocentric policies immediately after taking office in 2017. Nationalism constitutes the foundation of his vision of the future of the Korean Peninsula. Renowned economist Lee Young-hoon, former professor of the prestigious Seoul National University and author of My Fight against Anti-Japanese Tribalism (Milaesa, Seoul; May 2020), explains that the nationalism Moon espouses is rooted in his strong conviction that North Korea has achieved an ideal national democratic revolution.
Roh Moo-hyun, the late South Korean president whom Moon adored as his mentor, was a child of a historical thought which constitutes the foundation of Recognition of Korea’s History Before and After Liberation, a six-volume historical account of the modern history of Korea which is like a bible to leftwing revolutionaries.
In their inner psychological world, they enshrine China as a nation of real revolution overflowing with humanitarianism—a mature civilization ready to replace the US as the leader of the world. To these revolutionaries, North Korea is materially hard-pressed but spiritually rich. Consolidating the South’s material wealth with the North’s spiritual richness, they believe, a unified Korea would be able to overtake Japan in a breath.
That would be the aim of the federal government of a unified Korea Moon has referred to more than a few times since his inauguration. I suppose Moon believes that forming his coveted federal government would be the first step toward a peaceful and ethnically unified Korea.
Moon’s vision of the peninsula’s future boils down to China, not the US, reigning over the world. In this scenario, South Korea is a member of a Chinese empire around which the world would revolve.
How should Japan deal with the Moon administration? I have earlier indicated that America is little interested in matters pertaining to the Korean Peninsula. By stark contrast, China is steadily setting its sights on the two Koreas, ready to put them under full control at any given moment.
What Japan should do under the circumstances is clear: Japan must bolster its strength in every way, bracing itself for the moment when South Korea is drawn into the Chinese camp. Beyond that, Japan should vigorously explain the importance of reinforcing the “Quad” framework to nations that share common democratic values, while inviting Britain, which has expressed a desire to join the group, to be a new member as soon as possible. Japan should also open the door to Britain’s membership in the 11-member CPTTP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). Japan should next coordinate closely with the anti-Moon movement steadily gaining momentum in the South, making every effort toward helping the birth of a pro-Japan and pro-US administration at the end of Moon’s term which is only 15 months away.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 939 in the February 25, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)