Most predictions of crisis on the Korean Peninsula focus on the murky politics of North Korea. Understanding South Korea would be a better place to start, Jeffrey Robertson writes.
With the South Korean presidential election upon us, the Trump administration is about to learn that efforts to pressure China, reassure Japan, and coerce North Korea, ignore one actor that will influence the success or failure of US policy – South Korea.
Since the Park administration started its terminal decline towards impeachment, the country’s foreign policy has been subdued. While ably managed by a competent foreign minister, Yun Byung-Se has only so many fingers to stick in the dyke as it crumbles around him. With THAAD, China’s response, and Trump’s Janus-faced tweeted policy thought bubbles of security reassurance and bilateral trade reconfiguration, South Korea needs strong executive leadership in foreign policy. For historical and cultural reasons, it’s lost without it. With a new administration in Seoul, regional dynamics will change – and US policy must also change.
Understanding this fact highlights weaknesses in the analysis of Korean Peninsula affairs. There is an overwhelming focus on North Korea and relative neglect of South Korea. For an analyst, this should seem strange. Why focus on State A that is consistent but consistently opaque, while State B is inconsistent but open? Analysis relies upon accuracy and completeness of information. When targeting State A, it makes more analytical sense to disregard incomplete and questionable information on State A, and instead base assessments on complete and accurate information on how State B will respond to State A’s actions. I label this vicarious analysis.
Vicarious analysis provides a framework to utilise third-party states to better analyse potential events. Vicarious analysis effectively accepts (a) an inability to secure adequate analytically relevant information on targets; (b) an overwhelming dominance of third-parties in target state affairs; or (c) the relevance of third-parties with the capacity to initiate or substantially alter target state decision-making. Vicarious analysis is important to countries like Australia – unable to directly influence but commensurably impacted by event outcomes.
In my current research at Yonsei University, I’m developing a framework for when and how vicarious analysis comes into play. Through close analysis of Korean Peninsula case studies, my research so far shows that during all stages of crises leading to heightened threat of conflict, a more predictable outcome can actually be discerned through vicarious analysis.
A useful example is the November 2010 North Korean artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island, which resulted in 23 casualties, including four deaths. In March the same year, a naval vessel was sunk with a South Korean investigation finding North Korea responsible, while just a month earlier the South and North Korean border forces exchanged gunfire in Hwacheon County. Tensions were unarguably high and escalation a major concern. Given an analytical goal to determine the likelihood of escalation or de-escalation in the immediate aftermath of the event, the need for vicarious analysis is clear.
Open source materials to determine North Korea’s ongoing response in the wake of the events were limited to English and Korean language state media (noting different material and rhetorical aims in each source) and official statements from the Korean People’s Army (via state media), the North Korean foreign ministry, and North Korean representation at the United Nations in New York.
In contrast, open source materials to determine South Korea’s ongoing response were plentiful, including official statements from the president and presidential office, multiple government departments (including directly responsible Joint Chiefs of Staffs), political party leaders, and individual members of the National Assembly. Additionally, joint statements made in coordination with the United States and United States Forces Korea (USFK) provided further materials to ascertain South Korea’s intentions.
If we accept that analysis relies upon accuracy and completeness of information, it made greater analytical sense to focus more on South Korea, rather than North Korea, to ascertain the likelihood of escalation.
For a country such as Australia, there are additional reasons to focus on South Korea. South Korean decisions to initiate or react to provocations impact Australia’s top four export destinations (China, Japan, the US and South Korea). Additionally, like Australia, South Korea is economically dependent on China and militarily dependent on the US. As a country on the frontline, decisions to stand or defect from the US alliance are significant, even bearing in mind that such decisions are multiple and incremental rather than individual and decisive. Finally, as a signatory to the 1953 Joint Policy Declaration Concerning the Korean Armistice, there are high expectations Australia would participate in any future Korean conflict.
If the current frontrunner in South Korea’s presidential elections comes to power, as he is widely expected to do so, a whole new ballgame commences. Moon Jae-in doesn’t hide his desire for a more conciliatory approach to North Korea. The Korean constitution provides for a single five-year presidential term. Pre-election, candidates cannot express more extreme views and aims. Post-election, these constraints disappear.
How the next leader of South Korea sees the world, plans, prioritises, acts and reacts, will have an impact on North Korea’s future. Importantly, it will have a greater impact on Australia. While Australia should watch North Korea, it should not be obsessed by it. On Korean Peninsula affairs, vicarious analysis should be Australia’s priority.