When he last spoke at a luncheon of the Atlanta Council on International Relations (ACIR) in February , Lt. Gen. (Ret.) In-bum Chun, predicted that an upcoming summit between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump was brewing. He also said that his aim at the luncheon was to “scare” the attendees about the nuclear threat that North Korea poses not only to his country, South Korea, but to the United States as well.
It turned out that his prediction about a summit, which was held later that month in Vietnam, was correct. But in his comments on his return to a similar luncheon and speaking engagement on behalf of ACIR on May 29, he said that if he wanted to scare the attendees last time, this time he admitted to being scared himself and accepted the invitation to speak because “You Americans, it’s difficult to get your attention. You are a world leader. You have a great responsibility.”
The failure of the Hanoi Summit was evident, he said, as soon as the team accompanying Mr. Kim was evaluated because there were no scientists among them who could speak authoritatively with U.S. counterparts about the steps toward denuclearization.
During his most recent presentation, he evoked greater concerns than merely the face-off between the U.S. and North Korea. What surprised him most, he said, upon his return after a four-month departure from home was the state of South Korea itself. “I’ve never seen my country so polarized. I sometimes think there might even be a civil war the people are so divided.”
Before he concluded his remarks and answered questions, he cited South Korea’s relations with Japan, the role of China, the conduct of the North Korean government, and the responsibility of the U.S. as major causes of concern at a time when the normal inter-country relations in the region are in flux.
The lieutenant general, who retired in 2016 after a 35-year distinguished career in the South Korean army, has been a visiting scholar in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the first Korean and third Asian to receive the U.S. Special Operations Command Medal. He served with coalition forces in Iraq and became the first Korean officer since the Vietnam War to be awarded the U.S. Bronze Star.
Given his extensive experience with both the U.S. and South Korean armies, he serves as a bridge of understanding between the two and often is called upon to lecture at conferences dealing with the peace process on the peninsula.
Citing a political poll, he said that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating is historically low at 45-50 percent with 16 percent of those who approved of his administration responding that they disliked him personally. Only 15 percent, he added, approved of his policies toward North Korea, which seek to bring the two halves of the peninsula closer together.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s economy was registering mixed results, according to Mr. Chun, despite a record high of $600 billion in exports. Unemployment is at 4.4 percent in an economy that generally has only slightly more than 2 percent unemployment. Also two minimum wage hikes have cut down on low-end jobs and the country’s growth rate is down.
With elections coming up for the country’s National Assembly in April and with progressives and conservatives more apart than ever, Mr. Chun expected to return to a heated, contentious political climate.
Mr. Moon’s policy of inter-Korean detente has left the South Korean president caught between the U.S. and North Korean positions with Mr. Trump refusing to remove sanctions and Mr. Kim insisting that they be removed. That has led some to dismiss Mr. Moon’s policies of bringing the two Koreas together as irrelevant.
Mr. Chun implored the U.S. to take more of a leadership role in overcoming the impasse. He viewed the different options along a spectrum from taking the hardest line against North Korea to one of greater compromise. His solution, he said, is for a middle way to be determined which takes a long-term view of North Korea’s future allowing a “natural” progression toward peace under a policy of “containment.”
He defined this “natural” course as one in which North Korea’s economic circumstances would be improved over time and the advantages of the modern world’s ability to ease the suffering of the North Koreans to slowly bring about change in the Kim regime’s policies. At the bottomline, it might mean a moderate stepping away from total denuclearization and agreeing to a policy reminiscent of the containment policy that the U.S. adopted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
For the U.S. to remain aloof could have the direst consequences, he said, adding that South Korea plays an important role in the region. Although its economy represents only 3 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, equivalent to that of Russia, it is important, especially as a U.S. ally.
“It’s not a heart or a brain,” he said of South Korea’s import to the global economy. “Let’s just say it’s a gallbladder without which it’s difficult to digest food, and you have to go to the bathroom a lot.”
Drawing a laugh with his metaphor, his point was serious. Without an active presence in the region, he underscored, current events would change dramatically the traditional balance of power.
He pointed to two specific developments, which could change the scene substantially. The first is the growing role of China, which is playing an ever-increasing factor in South Korea’s economy, and the second is the growing frayed relations with Japan.
“Americans, if you can’t see that,” he said, “woe to the U.S. because the landscape will change and be a threat to who you are, which already is in progress.”
China’s involvement on the peninsula is evident in several ways, he said. For instance, 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited North Korea last year, a leap of three times more the number that visited five years ago. Meanwhile, trade between South Korean companies and China is intensifying. China overtook Japan as a trading partner of South Korea in 2007.
The economic ties linking Japan and South Korea in the post World War II period are faltering. South Korea’s decreasing economic dependence on Japan is making it easier for Mr. Moon to support his agenda on the diplomatic front.
The legacy of Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 is a major source of discontent in South Korea. The Moon administration’s more conciliatory policies toward North Korea differ from the more aggressive ones of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It’s not so much their attitudes toward North Korea that are causing the friction between the two, however, but rather the legacy of war crimes. The “comfort women” issue referring to the Japanese Imperial Army’s forcing Korean women into prostitution and the reparations issue for Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during the war are once again being prominently advanced.
In recent decades the U.S. played a leadership role by keeping Japan and South Korea focused on mitigating the threat from North Korea. Now that South Korea is less dependent economically on Japan, that relationship is no longer as cohesive.
Japan’s consul general for the Southeast, who is based in Atlanta, attended the luncheon. In response to Mr. Chun’s comments, he acknowledged the problems between Japan and South Korea, adding that as the “closest neighbors” they were critical to maintain peace and security in the region. “This is so important for the world and they must keep talking,” he said.
He cited the upcoming G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, June 28-29 as an opportunity for “useful discussions,” and said that he could point in Georgia to where children from both the Korean and Japanese communities are going to school together as providing hope for future positive relations between the two countries.
Mr. Chun thanked the consul general for his comments and underscored the importance of the U.S. continuing its leadership role in the region to help provide a unified front in the face of the security challenges North Korea is provoking with missile launches.