Today’s world is facing a crisis of democracy. It is probably the result of a collective pathological phenomenon of the 20th century – the world was fractured by two world wars, polarized by the Cold War and then the rapid process of globalization over the past 30 years – and the fatigues caused by it. Even America, which once proudly carried the flag of internationalism, elected Donald Trump as its president – a man who promised to revert back to the nationalism of the motto of “America First,” showing this crisis has come upon the whole world, regardless of whether one’s country has a developed economy or a developing economy.
South Korea has faced its own version of a crisis of democracy lately by impeaching a president and replacing her with another one, a never-before-seen constitutional crisis in Korean history. Meanwhile, North Korea – which, over the past 20 years, firmly believed nuclear armament is the only way to guarantee the regime’s safety – has escalated its nuclear program to a dangerous level where it could drag both Koreas and their neighbors into a nuclear war.
The seriousness of the crisis in Korea derives from the fact that, like Thucydides’ Trap, the inevitable conflict between America, the established power, and China, a rising power, will meet head-on on the Korean Peninsula alongside the existing conflicts between South and North Korea. Hence, the importance of the meeting between Moon Jae-in and Trump in Washington. So much so, that it could determine the direction and the future of the Korean Peninsula and Asia. Formerly, disagreements over the procedures of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployments were pronounced, and sometimes misinterpretations occurred. Now it has ended with two heads of state showing a friendly disposition toward each other. It was fortunate and, at the same time, a natural outcome.
Yet only three days after the summit meeting, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. There was a stark contract between the response of Moon and Trump (strong condemnations along with U.N. sanctions) and Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (a phone call to each other, followed by a joint statement urging talks between parties), and it seems we are finally entering Cold War 2.0, 30 years after the end of the original one.
There are big differences between the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (when America and the Soviet Union almost dragged the entire world into a nuclear war) and today’s Cold War 2.0 (caused by North Korea). First, it is not the Soviet Union that is trying to fight with America today, but rather China and North Korea. Second, the point of contention was Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban soil; now it is North Korean missiles in North Korea. However, China can still be faulted as a major player in Cold War 2.0 by the following logic.
Over the course of 40 years of the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union shared an awareness that nuclear war could bring down the entire human race, which prevented an actual, full-blown nuclear war. In the post-Cold War days, they also had an agreement that accepted China as the sole nuclear power in East Asia, preventing further crises. Now, however, North Korea declares itself to be the second nuclear power in East Asia, and it is determined in its course of action. The only neighboring power capable of preventing such a venture, China, seems either incapable or complacent in dealing with the crisis. Such strategic ambiguity has led to an accusation that China has brought on Cold War 2.0 and the very real possibility of nuclear war that puts North Korea at its point of origin.
Due to its geopolitical situation and cultural heritage, South Korea is a community-oriented state that pursues humanity, peace, coexistence, and co-prosperity. Hence, its special alliance with the U.S., which strives for democracy and internationalism, continues to exist. At the same time, South Korea continues to try to build mutually beneficial relationships with all of its neighbors in Asia and the global community in general. As the strains on international diplomacy grow, South Korea and America must stand ready to defend democracy, and, more importantly, continue to promote internationalism to prevent war – or nuclear war, to be more specific. Because this ideal stands, the alliance is alive.
If Trump can turn America into a global leader of peacekeeping internationalism based on reciprocity, and if Moon’s promise of turning South Korea into the partner of every East Asian country, including North Korea in pursuit of peace can come to fruition, this could be an opportunity to revitalize the democracies around the world, which are currently facing many crises. Would you say that this would be the perfect time to launch our own “Korea Accords”? Just like the Helsinki Accords* that paved the way for the system of peaceful coexistence in Europe around the 1980s, this could relieve the tensions between South and North Korea, America and China.
*Editor’s Note: The Helsinki Accords, or the Helsinki Final Act, was an agreement signed in 1975 by 35 countries that addressed a range of global issues, having a far-reaching effect on the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet relations.