Suspension of disbelief in South Korea


South Korea's President Park Geun-Hye speaks in front of photographs of sailors who died, during an event marking the third anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by what Seoul insists was a North Korean submarine, at the national cemetery in Daejeon March 26, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • What can any South Korean official believe they will gain from more “negotiating” with Pyongyang?

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  • There should be no hesitation to knock down any missile illegally fired by the North.

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  • South Korea and the United States also should do nothing that helps Pyongyang keep itself in power

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A top South Korean official has pithily revealed all that’s wrong with the world’s approach to North Korea. Seoul’s minister for unification said on a nationally televised conference, “We hope the North Korean authorities come out to the dialogue table.”

Sadly, no reporter has followed up with the obvious question: For what purpose? What can any South Korean official believe they will gain from more “negotiating” with Pyongyang, other than a further lesson in the North’s bad faith, or the latest blackmail request in the guise of inducements for good behavior? Further, a Defense Ministry spokesman was quoted on Thursday as saying that the South “may” try to shoot down any North Korean missiles that come within range of its Patriot anti-missile batteries. Why the qualification? There should be no hesitation to knock down any missile illegally fired by the North.

New South Korean President Park Geun Hye would do her young administration more good by taking a harder line. If the North is indeed softening its rhetoric, as the New York Times suggests, it is certainly not due to a change of heart. Kim Jong Un has not had a Road to Damascus moment, converting him to good international behavior. Instead, President Park should stick with her earlier statements promising to end the South’s constant compromising with the North. Maybe such hardline sentiments, along with a new U.S.-South Korea defense pact that is supposed to set rules for responding to even minor aggression (such as the shelling of a South Korean island back in 2010), as well as the dispatch of a handful of U.S. F-22s, B-2s, and B-52s to Korea, brought about a shift in tactics from Pyongyang. If so, then easing the pressure, and going back to the failed policies of conciliation is the wrong step.

Such clarity from Seoul would also send a signal to Washington, as well as Beijing, that North Korea has long passed its diplomatic sell-by date. Further negotiation is useless, as is maintaining the fiction of denuclearization. Credible, no-nonsense preparation to attack North Korea in response to any aggression, as well as to shoot down its missiles, has a far better chance of preventing war. Young leader Kim Jong Un has had too much success in his first year in power; he needs to be reminded that, in the event of war, his 1,000-year regime would come crashing down in a few days. Only that fear keeps the North’s bandit government from forgetting its prime directive of staying alive. While keeping that hard line, South Korea and the United States also should do nothing that helps Pyongyang keep itself in power, including further aid of any kind. But most of all, a consistent reiteration of our will to take the fight to the North is the best chance of keeping peace and maybe even getting Beijing to try to rein in its wayward ally. Sending Kim messages of weakness will only embolden him, making a tragic accident more likely. 

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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