A student rushes into a college dorm lounge with a look of pained concern on his face. “Guys! Guys!” he shouts. “It’s a crisis! They’re saying that North Korea tested a missile!” Upon watching the news coverage, another student rolls his eyes. “Ugh, they do this all the time,” that student says. A third student pretends to be holding a bowl and muses, “Speaking of, I could really go for some Pyongyang cold noodles right now.”
The following exchange is actually from the South Korean sitcom So Not Worth It, whose Netflix trailer features the above scene. Comedic timing aside, the students' callous response to North Korean belligerence is actually a highly accurate representation of South Korean citizens.
A recent survey released by the Korea Institute for National Unification found that over 90 percent of South Koreans no longer believe that North Korean denuclearization is a realistic outcome. Furthermore, over half of the respondents were unconcerned with North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, while over 80 percent believe the nuclear program does not influence their lives at all.
All of these statistics point to one broad finding: even as South Korean president Moon Jae-In devotes significant political capital to diplomatic engagement with the North, his people are, on balance, highly apathetic to the North Korean threat.
For South Koreans, missile tests come and go; in the face of other major domestic issues that plague them, such as the lowest fertility rate in the world (and the gender inequality that undergirds it), one of the worst housing bubbles in the nation’s history, and the recent decision to put Seoul under the highest-level restrictions in the wake of record numbers of coronavirus cases, it’s far from surprising that South Koreans simply no longer care about what Kim Jong-un is up to. What’s the point of worrying about a war that hasn’t reignited for almost seventy years when your daily livelihood is under attack from all directions?
Here lies the problem: while it is a difficult ask for South Korean citizens to constantly be up to date on inter-Korean relations, the casualness with which they perceive Pyongyang’s missile tests only serves to exacerbate the very real North Korean threat. Missile tests cross a very specific and dangerous line in that they—even the failed launches—provide valuable information with which the Korean People’s Army can use to refine the security threat against South Korea, Japan and the United States. Additionally, missile tests strain American influence in Asia by forcing our allies to doubt the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. It’s one thing to not be paranoid about North Korea at every moment, but for much of the South Korean public to be this nonchalant about missile tests is another matter entirely.
So are 90 percent of South Koreans wrong to not place their faith in denuclearization? Probably not. The U.S.-ROK alliance’s efforts to get Kim Jong-un to voluntarily forfeit its nuclear weapons have overwhelmingly failed, and there is a swath of empirical reasons to believe that for Kim, nuclear weapons are intimately tied to the stability and survival of his rule and giving them up is tantamount to regime suicide.
Proponents of complete denuclearization have long repeated the argument that it’s simply a matter of convincing North Korea that it (and by extension, Kim’s rule) is better off without nuclear weapons. The case of Libya, however, has given Pyongyang ample reason to be highly skeptical of those claims. The window for denuclearization is closing in real-time; as North Korea perfects its arsenal, it will have less and less reason to acquiesce to American stipulations. All the more reason that Washington ought to place a premium on halting missile and nuclear tests while deemphasizing denuclearization in the short term.
Here is where South Korean apathy towards its neighbor can be an opportunity for Washington. For obvious reasons, any significant change to America’s North Korea policy entails South Korean coordination. While the White House’s agenda is rarely at the mercy of its Blue counterpart, it is nevertheless essential for Biden and Moon to be on the same page when it comes to engaging with North Korea, as friction during joint policy planning could stoke alliance concerns.
Suspending tests indefinitely should be Washington’s top policy priority on North Korea, not complete denuclearization. Those two goals can and should be pursued concurrently, but the former is a more proximate and pressing concern. If the South Korean people no longer believe that denuclearization is a realistic outcome, then it is unlikely that their next president who will be elected in 2022 (South Korea practices a one-term rule of five years) will feel much domestic pressure to oppose a move by Washington to move away from short-term denuclearization.
Shifting the focus from complete denuclearization to medium-term arms control is far from a perfect solution. For starters, North Korea’s existing arsenal is plenty threatening to regional security, consisting of dozens of ballistic missiles that can cover South Korea, Japan, Guam, and the United States. Additionally, its border closure due to the coronavirus has all but ensured that Kim will continue to refuse contact with the outside world for a considerable amount of time. Finally, a freeze on North Korea’s arsenal may prevent them from being tested within its borders but still leaves open the possibility of weapons of mass destruction technology being sold to other actors—state and non-state—that are hostile to U.S. interests.
Yet it would only be a loss for the United States if it does not at least try something new. The status quo policy of sanctions, “strategic patience,” and demand for complete, verificable, and irreversible denuclearization, also known as CVID, has not worked for decades. A large number of experts on Korean history know this to be true as do the vast majority of South Koreans. North Korea has more or less gotten away with a dangerous series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests that increasingly gives them the edge against U.S. extended deterrence. Waiting for Kim to come crawling to the table is little more than wishful thinking; the onus is on Washington to reach out first, reach out often, and continue to gauge interest.
The Korean words for So Not Worth It actually translate to something like “I Wish the World Would End Tomorrow”; the statement holds little weight throughout the comedy and mainly serves as a hyperbolic plot device to showcase the protagonist’s cynical mindset towards life. But in a world in which there appear to be no good solutions to the North Korean nuclear threat, she and jaded South Koreans everywhere may want to be careful of what they wish for.
JJ (Jaejoon) Kim is a research assistant for the Korea Chair at the Center for the National Interest and an MA candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JJ_or_Jaejoon.