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Jeju Forum Alumni Newsletter
Titles [Jeju Forum Alumni Newsletter] (No.7 | November 2018) Can Jeju Forum Win Over Détente’s Skeptics?: Invite Them to Find Out
Writer JPI  (admin)
2018-11-29 오후 6:31:44

Can Jeju Forum Win Over Détente’s Skeptics?: Invite Them to Find Out


 

 



Robert E. Kelly

Professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at the Pusan National

University

 

This was my first Jeju Forum event. My overwhelming impression was of a politically progressive brain-trust for leftist foreign policy in South Korea, with a particular focus on North Korea. In the context of the current left-leaning government, it felt like a think-tank of sorts for the administration of President Moon Jae-In.

 

This is valuable. Convening South Korea’s best and brightest progressives, along with sympathetic allies worldwide, to help bring discipline and coherence to the current Moon détente effort is wise. Moon is moving very fast in his outreach to the North. He seems to be aiming for a revolution in inter-Korean relations, and to entrench those changes so deeply that they cannot be rolled back when conservatives next take the presidency. Large changes made very fast facilitate error, so Jeju Forum’s role in developing, debating, and vetting policy proposals for detente to be done properly is extremely valuable. Given the speed and depth of change the Moon administration is pursuing, it might even be useful to hold Jeju Forum twice a year just to keep pace with the peninsular changes sought.

 

Working from this ‘liberal think-tank’ understanding of Jeju Forum’s role, I would make the following suggestion for future gatherings: Bring in more critical, conservative, or hawkish voices on North Korea – not to change Jeju Forum’s tenor, but rather to: 1) sharpen its policy proposals and 2) win over critics in hopes of building a national, rather than just progressive, consensus for engagement with North Korea.

 

This may seem contradictory to the spirit of a forum devoted to liberal politics in Korea, but a few more conservatives on the panels would have provided greater critical dialogue and debate on North Korea. More pushback from skeptics would have sharpened the discussions and led to leaner, more focused proposals for the current detente effort. For example, many of the ideas I heard about North-South economic cooperation relied on heroic assumptions about North Korean treatment foreign commercial agents in-country, particularly given the very mixed previous experiences of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, Chinese extractive firms, or Orascom. Were such a panelist, I would have focused on more banal, but ultimately necessary, steps where North Korea is likely to drag its feet, such as commercial law and regulatory frameworks, to facilitate inward foreign direct investment.

 

As a (moderate) hawk myself on North Korea, I was flattered to be invited. I did not expect it. But I did notice only a few other North Korea hawks here and there, including just a few voices from the Liberty Korea party. Ban Ki Moon was probably the most prominent skeptical voice at the event.

 

This leftish bent is partly understandable. Jeju Forum struck me as a retreat for liberal and progressive voices on Korea to delve deep into the specifics of detente without engaging in fundamental debates on the wisdom and morality of engagement. Most of the Jeju Forum sessions were about how to do engagement better, not whether to do it. 

 

But these sessions would likely have produced sharper policy proposals with some constructive criticism from the right. And some of the more exotic notions – such as the supposed influence of the American military industrial complex in East Asia – might have been held in check. 

 

More importantly, the Moon administration and the engagement community need to win over at least some centrists and hawks on North Korea, and inviting them to Jeju Forum to launch that suasion effort is a great place to start. If detente is going to persist and deepen in the future, and if it going to survive a conservative re-taking of the South Korean presidency, the left here needs to convince queasy centrists and wary conservatives that outreach to Pyongyang is working, that détente is not actually appeasement.

 

Progressives will bridle at the notion that détente is appeasement, but what matters is not if this is true or not, but that a good chunk of the South Korean population and the national security communities in South Korea and the United States perceive it that way. These people need to be convinced. At least some of them need to be won over or intellectually convinced. I myself certainly found my predilections challenged, and my sympathy for Moon’s efforts expanded, by the best Jeju Forum panels, particularly the very rich, concluding event with Philip Zelikow. Without this, the next conservative presidency will roll back ‘Moonshine,’ just as the conservative Lee Myung-Bak and Park Guen-Hye administrations rolled back the ‘Sunshine Policy.’

 

Recall that Moon won the presidency with just 41% of the vote, and that the combined left in 2017 scored 47%, 1% lower than in 2012. In 2017, Ahn Chul-Soo captured a center-right bloc of 21%. Moon does not have a natural majority, and his revolution in inter-Korean relations, which might call into question the popular US military presence in Korea, requires a national consensus to transcend partisanship. A leftish coalition is simply not wide enough for change of this caliber. Unless the South Korean center and right get on board somewhat with Moon’s effort, it will be contested in the next presidential election.

 

A similar outreach to the US national security community would help. The South Korean left may resent that as unnecessary foreign intrusion into sovereign Korean affairs, but the US alliance is extremely popular in Korea. Moon has so far flattered US President Donald Trump into supporting his détente efforts, but the US North Korea community remains broadly unconvinced. This is a critical constituency to be won over, even if progressives dislike that. 

 

The fate of the Sunshine Policy is instructive here. Its architects never grasped the need to reach beyond the domestic left. The Americans, and South Korean hawks, were not much brought into the process. Roh Moo-Hyun ran an anti-American presidential campaign in 2002. So the whole Sunshine process depended on the left continually winning the presidency. When this did not happen in 2007, conservatives felt comfortable reversing course. They faced no national, supra-partisan consensus for engagement. Instead, Sunshine was a partisan issue and, hence, easily unwound. If Moon wishes to build a national consensus durable enough to survive the ebbs and flows of South Korean partisan politics, he needs to reach beyond the left for a pan-South Korean coalition for detente.

 

The Jeju Forum is a great way to do that. As a gathering of the top progressive minds committed to North Korean engagement, it is an ideal location to challenge hawkish critics, learn from what insights they do have, and ideally win over some of them to help sell engagement to their skeptical colleagues and constituencies.

 

Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at the Pusan National University in South Korea. His interests focus on security and political economy in Northeast Asia, especially the Koreas, US foreign policy, and international financial institutions. He has published in multiple academic journals, as well as popular outlets such as Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and the New York Review of Books. His complete writing may be found at his webpage: www.AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.