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Pyongyang’s threats remain in South Korea - Kavi Chongkittavorn

In summertime, Gangnam district of the South Korean capital is the place to go to observe the country’s dynamism and vibrancy. It is colourful and full of youthful energy. However, when you start casual conversations with youngsters here, immediately a different mood prevails.

On the surface, they look enthusiastic and forward looking. Well, at the moment, they are all excited with the South Korean football team’s victory over Germany even though it did not make it to the final 16.

But then once the topic turns to the North Korean nuclear crisis, they look uncomfortable. Some say they do not pay much attention, and are more focused on their day-to-day activities and survival. Others show a high level of anxiety and uncertainty about their own and country’s future, especially the unintended consequences of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump last month in Singapore.

In general, Koreans living below the 38th parallel, the latitude which forms the boundary between the two Koreas, continue to go about their business, knowing full well there is nothing much they can do. Deep down, they realise that a process has started and it takes time to achieve the two lofty objectives -- denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula and reunification of the two Koreas after real peace is guaranteed. If something positive happens, family reunions would also resume.

South Koreans, having lived under North Korea’s threats for the past 25 years, are extremely resilient. They have even developed a kind of psyche that is hard for outsiders to understand. In other countries facing such serious threats for a long time, frustrations that would lead to punitive responses are unavoidable. But this is Korea, where cool heads always prevail. Just look at K-pop culture, how cool it has been. Confrontational coexistence is the name of the game.

Despite the threats, the two Koreas share a goal of reunification. Of course, there are differences in their approaches. At this juncture, the talk of reunification is being treated liked a romantic story or a dream. It is too far-fetched. For the time being, average Koreans have not yet seriously discussed this matter, except for think tanks and academics.

Indeed, the desire for reunification is stronger than ever before due to the geopolitical shifts of late. Both young and older generations of the 51 million people in the South would like to see the two Koreas become one in their lifetime. A united Korea would be strong, standing up against bigger powers, just like a united Germany in Europe.

The prevailing sentiment here is that the South should take the lead due to its economic development and social progress. South Korea’s economy is among the top 10 largest industrialised countries. It is natural Seoul would be the driving force to reintegrate the North with the South and the rest of the world. Right after the reunification of Germany in 1990, South Korea sent a team of experts to study the reunification model for nearly a decade. The findings were clear: Korea’s reunification would be extremely costly due to the less developed economy and other aspects of North Korean society. When East Germany reunited with West Germany, the development difference ratio was 3 to 1. With North and South Korea it would be around to 33 to 1. It could be worse now albeit Pyongyang’s growing nuclear clout.

At the other end, according to the statements and speeches of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un over the past six decades, the Kim dynasty unwaveringly wants to have South Korea in its embrace with the prevailing system and conditions in the North. Not many young Koreans are aware of this longstanding dream.

Beyond the dream of reunification, it is interesting to gauge South Koreans’ sentiment about the prospects of denuclearisation of the Peninsula. Myriad of opinions were expressed after the Trump-Kim summit. Most of them, however, were full of suspicion of Pyongyang’s intentions, especially among the older generation. Mr Trump’s comment that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat continues to rattle them. But deep down, they are willing to give the benefit of a doubt to both Mr Trump and Mr Kim. All Koreans want to see the change in status quo.

It remains to be seen how the future situation will evolve. There is one caveat some South Koreans observed that the denuclearisation effort applies only to North Korea because in the South, there are no nuclear weapons or even any ambition to become a nuclear power. To Seoul, it could mean the dismantling of conventional weapons and other aspects of the US military presence and joint exercises with South Korean armed forces. Already, Mr Trump has ordered suspension of key joint military exercises.

While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pursued a rapprochement with North Korea, he also initiated a new balanced foreign policy towards Southeast Asia under the New Southern Policy, which was first announced in Jakarta last November. For the first time since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has a real policy towards the region. Before that, it viewed the region as an economic zone for trade and investment--a good place to make money. Despite the region’s geopolitical dynamic, previous presidents have never ventured as far as President Moon has in engaging Southeast Asian countries and beyond, including India. Now, Mr Moon wants to closely ally with its Southeast Asian neighbours and India.

The president began a week-long visit to India and Singapore on July 8 to underscore his new diplomatic approach that seeks to promote peace, prosperity and people-to-people exchanges. He also plans to visit remaining Asean members as early as possible during his presidency.

Indeed, South Korea’s relations with Asean have attained more strategic significance than before in the past few years. Seoul used to only be interested in Asean’s collective position on the Korean Peninsula. Now, with the new atmosphere prevailing over the peninsula, the Moon administration is diligently working on implementing its New Southern Policy so that it can be announced next year when South Korea and Asean commemorate their 30th year of relations.

To highlight this new orientation, the Centre of Asean-India Studies was set up within the Korea National Diplomacy Academy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Last week, a group of Asean and Indian scholars were invited to discuss the future of relations with their South Korean counterparts. Their recommendations will form part and parcel of recommendations for President Moon.