South Korea and National "Maturity"

In the discussions following on North Korea's missile tests last week, much has been said about the differences between the US and South Korean approaches to the problem. The US effort has been to isolate the rogue nation by enlisting multi-lateral talks that focus on restricting the development of Kim Jung Il's nuclear capabilities. The South Korean initiatives have been centered on their "Sunshine Policy", and an attempt to slowly integrate the North into the family of nations through humanitarian aid.

The divergent strategies are understandable, given how the US and South Korea differ in their views of North Korea. The US sees the North as a threat to our forces on the Peninsula and the danger of weapons proliferation in an age of terrorism. The South Koreans focus on the substantial risks posed by the collapse of the North, and the damage a poorly managed integration would do to their economy.

To the younger generation of South Koreans, the US offers itself up as a convenient bogey man in the stand off with the North. Those born without direct memories of the Korean War see the US as an occupying force and the source of many of the problems on the Peninsula. Most recently this faction of South Korean politics helped elect a government that was outspokenly anti-American and began acting out its campaign promises until Donald Rumsfeld threatened to remove American forces from the country. Then, all went quiet, and there was hurried diplomacy culminating in a conciliatory visit by South Korean president Roh to the White House in May of 2003.

Although it is understandable that the South Korean's primary concern is with an uncontrolled and possibly chaotic collapse of the North, the South's strategy and actions are notably devoid of concern for the actual state of the North Korean people. They are, after all, being systematically destroyed by their government. It is estimated that over two million people have died of starvation in the last seven to ten years. Human rights advocates estimate that the average height of those living in Kim's hell are as much as five centimeters shorter than their cousins to the south. And it is thought that over one million North Koreans languish in Soviet style gulags.

This begs questions about South Korea. While the US is pouring billions of dollars into the Middle East, attempting to lead a response to the tragedy in Darfur, and making substantial efforts to alleviate the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, is it too much to expect that South Korea can focus more broadly on the human tragedy taking place on its border?

South Korea is now, on a per capita basis, one of the richest countries in the world. It has become an exporter to China of its technology focused culture and is enriched by its export led economy - exports that come at the expense of jobs in other modern nations. Might it now be time for South Korea to accept some of the broader responsibilities of a rich nation and sacrifice its own economic interests for the embetterment of those on its own peninsula?

Until South Korea demonstrates such sacrifice, it will be hard to consider it a mature and fully modern nation.