Jae-Seung Lee: The Moment of Truth for the Two Koreas


Kim Jong Il’s death had been anticipated for the past few years, but his recent demise has brought the Korean Peninsula into a period of uncertainty. North Korea and South Korea must face a critical transition period. It will be the moment of truth for the two Koreas to figure out a roadmap for the coming years.

The Moment of Truth for North Korea

North Korea does not seem to have established a solid governance system for the post Kim Jong Il era. The leadership succession to Kim Jong Un still needs to be consolidated. North Korea has maintained a social and political unity in the middle of economic difficulties during past decades. Whether it would be described as a domestic consensus or mass hypnotization, the demise of its strong leader will inevitably bring a vacuum in the political governance.

So far, the North Korean administration tightly controlled the society under a closed system. The first question for the moment of truth will be whether the new leadership could manage domestic stability. On the other hand, North Korea has to deal with dire economic difficulties. As a typical failing state, food and energy shortages have undermined North Korea’s economic fundamentals and provoked a series of humanitarian crises.

A huge number of North Korean people suffer from malnutrition and diseases. Its nuclear program has become an effective means to negotiate with the U.S., but its mishandling of it could also jeopardize the survival of North Korean regime. Potential over-dependence on China could be another political burden to North Korea. The new North Korean leadership should deal with these multiple challenges both from the inside and from the outside.

The Moment of Truth for South Korea

The North Korean issue has been a major political agenda which divided South Korean politicians and the public. Differing opinions are vital for a democracy, but growing ideological polarization regarding North Korean issues has often been amplified by political manipulation.

The principle of engagement with North Korea has already been established as the main pillar of South Korea’s unification policy, but the conditions and modality of engagement often diverged between the conservative and the progressive parties. North Koreans are either brothers or enemies depending on which South Koreans you ask. While a growing number of people admit it's necessary to help the North Korean people through difficulties, they also remember North Korea’s attack on the Korean military vessel and shelling on Yeonpyung Island last year, which led to the loss of dozens of innocent lives.

The nature of the North Korea problem has not changed. However, South Korea may have to deal with a neighbor in a more fragile situation. Also, two big South Korean elections — the general election in April and the presidential election in December — are scheduled in 2012. The South Korean administration will be faced with the moment of truth in testing its new position for inter-Korean relations.

At the same time, diplomatic coordination with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, as well as the international society, will be another big challenge for South Korea to mobilize support for peace-building on the Korean Peninsula.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Jae-Seung Lee
Jae-Seung Lee is a visiting scholar with the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University and a professor of international studies at Korea University. He is an Asia Society Asia 21 Fellow.