by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Yonhap
NORTH KOREAN participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea has been an object of international media spectacle, seeing as in a rare show of unity, North Korea and South Korea jointly participated under a unified team. Equally an object of global media spectacle have been the displeased responses of the Trump administration, which warned against South Korea seeking rapprochement with North Korea. In particular, this has been visible in pictures from the opening ceremony of the Olympics, in which American vice president Mike Pence refused to stand for the unified South Korean team. Eventually, international pressure seems to have motivated America to change tack, stating now that they are open to engagement while also still aiming to keep up “maximum pressure”.
It should not be surprising that while both North Korea and South Korea hope to avoid a war which would be costly for both sides, members of the Trump administration initially remained more interested in brinkmanship and making threats against perceived threats. Although the Trump administration has claimed that its interest is in standing up for democracy, reminding the world that North Korea is a dictatorship, and preventing South Korea from being taken in by North Korean trickery, this is anything but the case. The Trump administration hardly has any concern with its claimed ally of South Korea, except where this benefits American interest. As the slogan of the Trump administration goes, America first, after all.
One does well, for example, to remember that early on its administration, the Trump administration previously lashed out at South Korea with the claim that South Korea was freeloading off of American munificence. This led to threats that the Trump administration would withdraw American bases from South Korea, something which led to panic from South Korean leaders due to the fact that American army bases in South Korea are seen as a deterrent against North Korea and China, of which North Korea is the client state of. Panic would also ensue from neighboring Japan—which also hosts American army bases and also faces frequent threats from North Korea and Japan—that the Trump administration was similarly contemplating a troop withdrawal from these bases in Japan.
It points to the true nature of the diplomatic relationship between South Korea and America that South Korea had to be wary of American intervention in attempts to outreach to North Korea for joint participation as a show of unity in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. South Korea and America are hardly unconditional allies; South Korea itself must always contend with the realities of American power in the Asia Pacific. South Korean is a American client state by virtue of its longstanding military and political relationship with America, as is most dramatically visible in the fact that wartime control of the South Korean military reverts to America, with its domestic military leadership superseded by America’s military leadership in times of war. But American interference in South Korean affairs is hardly a guarantor of peace; on the contrary, it can sometimes be the largest difficult to peace on the Korean peninsula, with America all too happy to slander attempts to realize lasting peace as South Korea cozying up to North Korea.
Indeed, it does not do to see the North Korean regime in any rosy light either. Among critics of Trump in the United States, there have been those who have praised Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, for her successful diplomacy on the world stage, simply because she provides a foil to Mike Pence’s unenthusiastic participation in the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony. Yet the Kim family is indeed a dictatorial regime that rules over the North Korean people in an authoritarian manner. Calling for peace on the Korean peninsula does not exactly mean siding with the Kim regime either, or seeing it as any less oppressive than it is. One notes, for example, that North Korean athletes and even cheerleaders, are at risk of imprisonment once they return home for any missteps they make while in front of cameras at the Olympics.
Nevertheless, if lasting peace is to be achieved by the Korean peninsula, inclusive of liberating the North Korean people from the rule of the Kim family, one cannot see the only solution as through American-led regime change in North Korea either. The dangerously destabilizing actions of America, then, only point to how America only maintains any of its ally relationships in the Asia Pacific for its own interest and not those of residents of Asia Pacific countries.
In this sense, American actions should be a warning for other countries which are currently allied with the US for the sake of American geopolitical interests, including Taiwan, which America maintained for decades as a bulwark against China. Certainly, Taiwan does not seek “reunification” with China in the manner that this may be the aspiration of South Korea and North Korea, but rather to give firm foundations to its current de facto independence from China. However, American support of this is conditional, and much as it currently suits America to maintain cautious support of Taiwan, America could very well act to impede Taiwan if it seeks to fully realize Taiwanese independence if this is what is in America’s strategic benefit. This is a lesson which Taiwan should take away from American actions with regards to South Korea, then.