Dr. Sangsoo Lee on North-South Korean Relations

The following is an interview conducted by Seymur Mammadov who spoke with Dr. Sangsoo Lee.

Dr. Sangsoo Lee joined The Institute for Security and Development Policy in 2007. He is Senior Research Fellow, and Project Manager of the Korean Peninsula Project.

His areas of interest are Security and Conflict issues in Northeast Asia with a focus on North Korea’s nuclear crisis and inter-Korean relations. He is originally from South Korea, but studied in China and has lived in Europe for a long time. Dr. Lee holds a Ph.D. in Northeast Asian Studies from Peking University and has been a Visiting Researcher at the United Nation University (UNU-CRIS) (2007), and at the London School of Economics (LSE) (2011). He speaks Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English.

 What is the strategy of the US and Russia towards North Korea?

The Trump administration’s strategy toward North Korea is designed to put a Maximum Pressure to Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program. Nevertheless, despite of the recent increase of international sanctions and military pressure, Pyongyang sped up the nuclear and missile programs last year to achieve the nuclear ambition. Since this move significantly heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula in 2017, other parties such as RF, China and EU promoted diplomatic solution in order to ease military tensions on the Korean peninsula, although they don’t agree on nuclearized North Korea.

What can lead to the situation around the North Korean issue?

Despite of the upcoming inter-Korean Olympic event, the US-ROK joint military drill is scheduled in April. The next military exercise could lead to another tension on the Korean peninsula as North Korea is likely to response in a provocative way, such as missile test. Furthermore, the nuclear program has been a non-negotiable issue for North Korea after the long-range missile test last November and Pyongyang currently focuses on weaponized nuclear, targeting the US mainland.

What is the probability of a “hot” conflict? Will the “arms race” continue?

I don’t believe a full scale war will occur in Korea any time soon. However, some unexpected military incidents on the border areas, such as the recent defection of a North Korean soldier, could escalate into a serious military crash due to the absence of risk management mechanisms between the two Koreas. Of course we will see more arms race between countries in Northeast Asia, it could even be a nuclear arms race as South Korea and Japan could potentially be nuclear armed countries in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

In your opinion, how will the relations between North and South Korea develop in 2018?

I am more pessimistic about the situation after the Olympic games. In a short term, we can see some positive development on the inter Korean relations. Although South Korea has recently put a lot of efforts in improving relations with the North, Seoul has limited capacity to resolve security challenging issues, such as the nuclear issue as the US is not ready to negotiate with Pyongyang*. In the end, due to South Korea’s political position, it is likely it will join the US to increase pressure on North Korea economically and militarily. Therefore, it is likely to go back to normal, with even higher tensions on Korea after the Spring 2018 with resumption of the joint military exercise.

Is it possible to unite South and North Korea in the future?

Not in a couple of decades, maybe in a long term future. I am concerned about younger South Koreans who have more negative views on North Korea. They focus more on their individual life than national issues. This could have an impact on the future direction of Korea unification.

* this interview was conducted prior to the announcement of a Donald Trump/Kim Jong-un summit

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