In a scenario few thought we would see again, we find ourselves anxiously observing a world leader with little more, but no less than, a catastrophically destructive military capability to threaten our allies near and far.
Both the United States and its ally, South Korea, are key players and key targets in the drama that Kim Jong-un insists on producing. His position is indefensible from the standpoint of most civilized nations, but South Korea — an important Western ally, democracy and market economy — may actually be exacerbating the situation.
Buoyed by the ouster of recently impeached President Park Geun-hye and scandals involving the legal troubles of tech giant Samsung’s CEO, Jay Y. Lee, newly-elected President Moon Jae-in appears to be taking advantage of these situations to gain favor with voters. To most observers, Mr. Lee was convicted based on less than solid evidence of criminal behavior in what turned out to be a largely political case, making former President Park’s legal situation tenuous as well. Economic and political observers are concerned about the potential negative impact of disrupting the leadership of a company making up roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economy, not to mention what they see as a tendency to take a softer stand vis-a-vis the North Korean regime.
Beyond the Lee case, Mr. Moon is expected to reduce the power of other South Korean tech and industrial leaders — LG, Hyundai and others. The combined effects of the ouster of the former president, the conviction of a major industry leader, anticipated actions to reduce the influence of other large companies and a softer policy toward North Korea may gain Mr. Moon some political favor that is very short-lived.
These actions may actually yield very negative results over the longer term — causing significant damage to one of the world’s most robust economies while eroding the credibility of Mr. Moon and his entire government and emboldening the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un.
Like the United States or any other country, South Korea must handle its own domestic affairs, but actions by leaders that appear politically driven, weaken a critical economy and encourage an unstable demagogue can have dramatic effects regionally and globally.
Nevertheless, the United States has an important role to play in this increasingly volatile situation as well. We must stand firm against a dangerous demagogue while sustaining and nurturing the strong, engaged partnership that has characterized our relationship with South Korea for 70 years. Likewise, we must model an ability to make progress on our own internal issues — healthcare, immigration, tax reform, trade, etc. —in a way that engenders trust and builds confidence on the part of our friends and allies.
The United States needs a South Korea with a strong economy, that is restrained in its actions by a respect for equal treatment under the law, that is committed to our long-standing relationship and that understands the importance of the world’s democracies being united in their opposition to irresponsible dictators. Our own policies toward South Korea must continue to reflect our full understanding of those realities as well.
• Roger A. Brady is a retired U.S. Air Force general.
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