South Korea’s Rude Awakening

DENVER – On February 10, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced that she would respond to North Korea’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch by closing the Kaesong Industrial Region, the last major effort at inter-Korean cooperation. In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seized all South Korean assets in the region, giving the 248 managers living there only a few hours to pack their personal belongings and leave.

Shortly afterward, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly explained Park’s decision to me. “There is a new paradigm here,” he said. “No one believes anymore that the North will ever give up its nuclear weapons.”

It will take some time before the full meaning of this new paradigm comes into focus. In the meantime, one thing is clear: South Korea is headed into uncharted waters, where it will require the support of the international community.

For years, South Koreans have hoped that North Korea could be made to understand that a nuclear deal is in its own interest. After all, in exchange for abandoning its nuclear weapons program, the North would gain economic and energy assistance, a peace treaty with the United States, diplomatic recognition, the opportunity to join the international community, and even – eventually – the world’s blessing to pursue a civil nuclear program. By any logic, North Korea was being offered a good deal; sooner or later, it should have taken it.