North Korea is on the warpath and its neighbor, South Korea, isn’t taking any chances. In a policy U-turn, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in bolstered the THAAD anti-missile shield in the wake of rising tensions. But apart from military posturing, perhaps a little more introspection is required on Seoul’s part in the face of the increasingly volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula. That is because South Korea has of late not only managed to irritate its core allies, the US and Japan, but is also burning bridges with other players in Asia that may have a constructive role to play in defusing the North Korean crisis.
To begin with, the trilateral alliance between South Korea, the US and Japan is certainly not in a good shape. US President Trump has been at odds with Moon’s pro-dialogue attitude. In a recent tweet, Trump criticized Seoul’s approach, stating that “appeasement with North Korea will not work” at a time when the North detonated its strongest nuclear device yet. However, Moon has been unrelenting in his intent to pursue talks with its belligerent neighbor, with the result that the hitherto steadfast US-South Korea military alliance is now at its weakest in 67 years.
The US-South Korea relationship has been a central pillar in the post-war Pacific order, but the current tensions are shaking its very foundations. Perhaps this is not surprising. In the run up to South Korea’s elections, Moon has made clear his opposition to greater American involvement in intra-Korean affairs, a factor that contributed to the mutual decline in goodwill. This would be disconcerting enough on its own; the problem is that the strain undermining relations with Washington is accompanied with a simultaneous deterioration in the equally important partnership with Japan – a fact that is jeopardizing the coherence of the entire trilateral security alliance against North Korea.
Frictions with Japan stem from President Moon’s inability to look beyond narrow national interests oblique to the pressing situation at hand. Following public discontent, Moon decided to revisit the Comfort Women Agreement struck in 2015 with Japan at a moment when peace on the Peninsula seems exceedingly fragile. The deal was designed to be a recompense for the sexual enslavement of Korean women during the Second World War, and included an official apology from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as the establishment of a foundation endowed with $8.3 million from Japan. Now, Seoul is looking to investigate ways in which Japan may have violated the agreement, much to Tokyo’s displeasure.
This has isolated South Korea in an alliance whose direction is primarily defined by the close interactions between Washington and Tokyo. Nevertheless, no effective action can be taken without Seoul’s approval, a caveat effectively crippling the alliance’s ability to act. With the range of action thus limited, it would be wise to encourage greater involvement from a country with continually good connections to Pyongyang to drive de-escalation– Vietnam. Governed by a communist party, Vietnam does not pursue a policy of isolation against Pyongyang and could therefore assume a crucial role in conflict mediation, as Japan, South Korea and the US seem unable to do so.
Vietnam is exceptionally well-positioned because it achieved the tricky feat of striking a balance between developing good relations with Washington and Seoul, while maintaining a long-standing (though uneasy) friendship with Pyongyang. Hanoi has opted to keep North Korea internationally involved as much a possible through forums such as ASEAN, or by offering advice on economic reform. Owing to several shared historical experiences, like having fought against the US and dependence on China, Kim Jong-un continues to look favorably upon Vietnam.
Since countries able to get Kim Jong-un to pick up the phone are in short supply, rudimentary back-channel talks between the US and Vietnam about leveraging this condition have already begun. And this is not even the first time Hanoi has acted in this capacity: during the Cold War, Vietnam functioned as a mediator between the US and a number of Eastern European countries on several occasions.
These developments are doubtlessly good news. Unfortunately, historical grievances are marring the relationship between Seoul and Hanoi too. While Moon is insisting that the Comfort Women Agreement with Japan is insufficient, Seoul is refusing to acknowledge the fact that its own historical record of warfare is by no means unblemished. During the Vietnam War, South Korean soldiers raped thousands of Vietnamese women, and abused them in “comfort women”-like conditions. An estimated 5,000 to 30,000 mixed heritage children – called Lai Dai Han – were born from these sexual assaults. Shunned by Vietnamese society to this day, they have long waited for an apology from Seoul, just as Seoul has insisted on one from Tokyo. In recent days, the Lai Dai Han gained a new advocate in the person of former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who called on Seoul to acknowledge and apologize for its treatment of these Vietnamese citizens.
Which is why Moon’s recent lauding of the South Korean soldiers as men who displayed “true patriotism” has not gone down well in Hanoi. In fact, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman warned that the Korean government’s behavior “hurts the feelings of the Vietnamese people” with negative consequences on the two countries’ “friendship and cooperation.” It’s easy to understand why: The Independent profiled some of the heartbreaking stories that the Lai Dai Han were put through by South Korean soldiers.
It should not take a foreign spokeswoman to point this out. In these times, a more flexible, realistic approach is needed. Though uncomfortable, South Korea needs to shake off the victim status it clings to and accept that it too is capable of committing atrocities during wartime. Just as Japan apologized for its crimes in Korea, Seoul needs to apologize for what it did in Vietnam to the “Lai Dai Han”. For it is certainly not just “hurt feelings” at stake right now, and with the Korean crisis worsening by the day, it is unwise to irritate partners crucial in potentially bringing about a de-escalation of the current predicament – be they the US, Japan, or Vietnam.
*Hariette Darling is originally from London, has a BA in Economics and currently resides in Singapore while working as a freelance environmental risk researcher for a local consultancy and runs a blog on Daily Kos.
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