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Ahem South Korea, words matter

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South Korea has spent the summer amidst a scorching and record-breaking heat wave. And perhaps it is the unbearable heat affecting the judgment of the ROK’s Ministry of Defense (MOD), for what other explanation could there be for the ministry’s latest announcement that it would consider removing the phrase “main enemy” to describe North Korea in its upcoming biannual white paper?

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in speaks at the ISEAS 42nd Singapore Lecture in Singapore July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

This development is only the latest in a slew of troubling updates from the peninsula. Just this past month, South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo announced plans to remove 10 guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone that divides the North and South. This, at the same time the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report stating it could find no indication North Korea had stopped its nuclear activities — a “grave concern” according to the report. All of this makes the MOD’s recent announcement especially concerning.

This is not the first time a “Sunshine policy” administration has tried to whitewash its legitimate main enemy. The South has on-and-off referred to North Korea as an enemy since 1995, when North Korea threatened to turn the South into a “sea of flames.” But in the early-2000s, the Roh Moo-hyun administration scrubbed the phrase “main enemy” and replaced it with “direct military threat,” then an unsurprising development in light of the previous Kim Dae-jung administration’s more conciliatory policy toward the North. The enemy designation was reinstated in 2010, after North Korea shelled Yeongpyeong island, killing and wounding several South Korean sailors in a nearby vessel.

While the ROK government’s periodic usage of “main enemy” to describe North Korea might seem trivial, several factors make this instance particularly disconcerting. First, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities today far exceed those of the early-2000s. North Korea is not just a serious threat to South Korea, but also to Japan and even the US mainland. Second, while the MOD may not consider Pyongyang to be Seoul’s main enemy, it’s clear the feeling is not exactly mutual. Through its various propaganda outlets, North Korea repeatedly references the “urgent” need for the North and South to reunify and just last month called DPRK founder Kim Il Sung the “eternal president” of North Korea. These are not the words of a country intent on seeking peace.

Where does all this leave us? Quite simply, words translate to action. A country that has failed to fulfill its promises of denuclearization would in no other circumstance receive relief from sanctions. But as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un prepares to meet with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month (not to speak of Mike Pompeo this past weekend), likely with this very goal in mind, South Korea may just indulge its “former” enemy.

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