Why do the US midterms matter to the Korean Peninsula?

4 mins read

By Hanjun Park

As the US midterm elections 2018 are close to begin, they catch the eye of people around the world. Most people have an interest in what will happen to the current president of the United States, Donald Trump. But in this article, I will concentrate on the elections as an important factor to the relationship between the US and the Korean Peninsula. For the Trump administration, the Korean Peninsula is an  important strategic location where the US and its allies face China and Russia. Also, the North and South Korean conflicts are major diplomatic issues for this administration. The difference between a Democratic or a Republican lead in the US is crucial to the future of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s change in attitude

During the presidency of Trump, North and South Korea have made more diplomatic travels and progress on the situation than during any other presidency. The first summit between North Korea and the United States took place in 2018, and three inter-Korean summits were held this year, too. North Korea’s attitude also changed after US congress passed H.R. 1644 on 4th May 2017, which acts to enhance sanctions towards North Korean trade and labor to crack down on North Korea. In 2018, North Korea’s diplomacy changed from armed struggle and threats of nuclear weapons to negotiation by using denuclearization as one of its diplomatic means. Still it is very difficult to trust North Korea, but it must be seen as big progress to bring her to the table. In this situation, the Democratic and Republican parties have a different way and view on the Korean Peninsula. The Democratic party wants to  denuclearize North Korea, but it thinks action should be preceded by talks. The Democrats keep demanding to the Trump administration to ‘hold the line’ and are worried about side effects of ‘pressure’ without ‘talks’. The Republican party wants to keep pressure on North Korea and demands ‘no retreat’ before they ‘reach the goal’, the goal being denuclearization of North Korea.

Diplomatic progress and economic struggles on the Korean Peninsula

In the case of the relationship between North and South Korea, it shows a big improvement seemingly. North Korea surprisingly participated in the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic winter games. During the Olympic winter games, North and South Korea competed together with a joint women’s hockey team. And then, on 27th April 2018, the first inter-Korean summit of the year was held. In this summit, Kim Jong-Un, who is supreme leader of North Korea, and Moon Jae-In, who is the 19th and current president of South Korea, signed the Panmunjom declaration to promise denuclearization and cultural and economic cooperation in the Korean Peninsula. In the second summit which was held on 26th May 2018, those two leaders confirmed a North Korea and US summit on 12th June 2018, the Korean family reunion and inter-Korean Red Cross talks. The US and South Korea had a strong diplomatic cooperation and a common goal: denuclearizing North Korea. Also Mr. Trump changed his opinion on disarmament from collective action to gradual action, following South Korea’s opinion.

But when it comes to gradual action, the Trump administration and South Korea have different views on the rewards for that.  In the third inter-Korean summit, North and South Korea agreed to build roads to connect the two countries and SEZs (Special Economic Zones) on the western and eastern coastlines following gradual disarmament of nuclear weapons. Also, Mr. Moon, the current South Korean president, asked France to support easing sanctions on North Korea. The reasons for this could be related to one of South Korea’s grand economic plans, the ‘Trans-Asian Railway’. In recent years, South Korea has experienced an economic slowdown; it’s growth rate is around 2 to 3 percent since 2012, following OECD research. So the Moon administration are hoping to boost up South Korean industry by building the Trans-Asian Railway. With this railway, South Korea can get the benefit of reducing transportation cost for export and import, which is important because the economy is heavily dependent on trade. And also South Korean investors want to enter the North Korean market as a new emerging market. South Korean investors invest a lot in North Korean theme stocks; during the three inter-Korean summits, North Korean theme stocks temporarily took top 10 in Kospi. Moon’s approval rate is also connected to this situation; it dropped from around 80 to 49 percent in 2018 because of the reasons above. But the inter-Korean summits boosted his approval rate back up to 60 percent.

North Korea needs economic support from South Korea and wants to ease sanctions. Following South Korea Central Bank’s estimates, North Korea’s economic situation is the worst it has been during two decades. It’s growth rate will drop to -5 percent, according to Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University and expert on the North Korean economy, in a comment to CNN Business. Most experts in South Korea estimate that this is one of the big reasons for North Korea’s change in diplomatic attitude.

Democrats versus Republicans and the future of the Korean Peninsula

If we look to the future, it is clear that relations between North and South Korea and the US could go in very different directions depending on whether Democrats or Republicans are in the lead in the US. With more Democrats in power, South Korea will have a partner who will support its way to denuclearizing North Korea. It will accelerate investment and the process of easing sanctions on North Korea. Both North and South Korea will get a benefit on economy. But if the sanctions were to be eased, it is hard to forecast how North Korea would change its attitude after getting what it wants.

As long as Republicans stay in power, the Korean peninsula will stay in this situation until one of the sides says ‘give up’. The situation can be sustained but it is hard to look forward to progress. And there is a risk that North Korea will turn away from this more diplomatic attitude because no changes happen even when it tries to make a difference. The result of the midterm elections will give an important indication of what type of progress we can expect on the Korean Peninsula in the near future.

By Hanjun Park

Image: Dan Scavino

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