images of columns of smoke streaming skyward from the island as panicked refugees fled the scene served to affect the most fundamental shift in South Korean public opinion toward North Korea in over a decade.
Suddenly President Lee Myung Bok, who in some circles was still considered to be a hardliner, was accused of failing to protect the nation and threatened with impeachment by some members of his party. President Lee was gradually pushed by public outrage to revise the rules of engagement and to state clearly that any future such incidents would be met with a considerable show of force.
Importance of US-South Korea Policy Coordination
South Korea’s changing approach to North Korea has also had a direct impact on US-South Korean relations and upon Washington’s ability to coordinate its own policies toward North Korea. For example, much of the political difficulties experienced between Washington and Seoul during the tenure of President Roh Moo Hyun can be attributed to what were then rapidly diverging threat perceptions regarding North Korea.
Over the past three years, due in part to the laundry list of provocations noted above, there has been a dramatic re-convergence in US and South Korean perceptions of North Korea. But the improvement accelerated dramatically given the high priority the Obama administration placed upon prior consultation and coordination with its ally Seoul on all matters regarding North Korea. The June 19, 2009, Joint Vision Statement for the US-Republic of Korea (ROK) Alliance is an historic document.
This, along with the Korea US-Free Trade Agreement, South Korea’s hosting of the G-20, and its role in and hosting of the next Nuclear Security Summit, lends substance to the claim that US- South Korean relations are the best that they have ever been.
The result of this convergence has been a remarkably principled, consistent and well-coordinated policy between Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo in regards to North Korea. Ironically, one of the most immediate causes of the most recent cycle of North Korean provocations may be the consistent and coordinated approach with which the Obama and the Lee administrations have responded to North Korea.
President Obama has repeatedly framed the joint US-ROK approach in the context of the need to “break the pattern” of responding to North Korean provocations with concessions and talks that do not make progress on core issues at hand. In response, it is North Korea that has vacillated between threats, inducements, provocations, charm offensives, and outright attacks in its attempt to force or cajole the United States and South Korea to abandon their current approach.
China’s Enabling of Pyongyang’s Misbehavior
One way to understand Chinese priorities in North Korea is to focus on the more negative scenarios that China clearly hopes to avoid on the peninsula. They are the three “no’s” -- no nukes, no collapse, and no war.