Being stuck between a rock and a hard place: The tyranny of geography – Part 1 

South Korea is in a state of flux.

Veteran Singaporean diplomat and Executive Deputy Chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and former Secretary-General of ASEAN, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong provides his thoughts on South Korean, ASEAN and Singaporean nuclear and energy concerns in an exclusive two-part interview with nuclearforum.asia at the Singapore International Energy Week, 2017

Korea’s President Moon must follow his people
South Korea is in a state of flux. President Moon is trying to review his nation’s nuclear policy and is equivocating. Torn between different interest groups, nobody is quite sure what Korea’s chosen path is, “As a candidate,” says Ambassador Ong, “President Moon gave the impression that he would reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear power but at the same time, he didn’t say he was going to leave the nuclear arena.” In the latest voting on Korea’s latest under-construction projects, a majority of the people favoured nuclear continuance. “If President Moon is true democrat, he must follow the will of the popular vote. I would not say that he has decided on taking South Korea out of the nuclear energy sector but because of the recent popular polling with what to do on with current and pipelined nuclear power plants, policymakers cannot say that they have settled the debate. There will always be people in favour and people against.” President Moon is facing a major challenge; candidates often significantly change tack when they become elected (NFA can’t think of another example right now – but it does happen). On the one hand, he was committed to less reliance on nuclear power, but certain Korean segments continue to favour nuclear. 

According to Ambassador Ong, the real nub of the nuclear debate transcends politics. It is simply a matter of pragmatics - whether viable and affordable alternatives exist. What he terms the “Tyranny of Geography” couple with good (or bad) luck is the major factor in determining where nations may look for their energy futures. “South Korea is an island,” he says. “Like Singapore, South Korea has very little space for solar panel, no wind, no hydro. So, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the ideal for energy development?’”

The Tyranny of Geography
There are three factors in answer to this fundamental question according to the Ambassador. One is geography. “There is no [realistic] choice for South Korea than to continue with nuclear energy unless North Korea, overnight, becomes a friendly democratic state allowing access to China’s resources.” Two, which is also linked to point one is affordability, can the population afford to explore and utilise often expensive alternatives. “The third factor,” says Ambassador Ong, “Involves considering what your neighbour is doing.” A prosperous and developed nation like South Korea can enjoy good governance (although in the case of nuclear, the Koreans are blemished by graft and potential safety breaches) but the actions of its neighbours can isolate and corner the nation, driving the decision-making process down a certain road. The three factors above, are highly intertwined.

“We can only manage the situation and look for new technology to provide safety and security and we hope that technology will evolve. Human capability cannot be underestimated.” Right at this moment, says the Ambassador, the east Asian region needs to do all it can to secure the current situation. “The Korean President, Mr Moon, was elected on a ‘no nuclear power/no reliance on nuclear energy platform’ but at the moment can he afford to push that policy? When nuclear is brought to the table, his ‘friend’ in North Korea keeps pulling the rug from his feet - public sentiments come into play and if the South voluntary retrenches itself from nuclear options, the guy up North has the upper hand and he is certainly not presently willing to negotiate a peaceful nuclear future.”

No easy answers
Such factors feed into the actions of a cautious South Korean voting public and these policy routes are taken seriously at the ballot box. South Korea is a democracy and as such there will always be a concerned and powerful anti-nuclear voice on the left and a pragmatic and powerful pro-nuclear voice on the right. As is often the case the centre will decide. Are security concerns paramount to affordable energy independence or vice-versa? Ambassador Ong’s message is that the South Korean people do not enjoy the luxury of co-operation and dialogue that say ASEAN members have to a great extent built, their energy independence is grossly hampered by the Tyranny of Geography… affordable and sustainable, and that includes politically sustainable, energy solutions may only lie in future technology. While that is being research and developed, Koreans may have no choice but to continue nuclear power generation, the need for affordable energy clearly influenced a great number of people that voted on the issue of continuing with nuclear power. Internal prevarication and second-guessing however merely means the neighbours win the psychological war.

In Part Two of this in-depth and exclusive interview with Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, with look at another nation that, for different reasons, shares a Tyranny of Geography challenge with its South Korean friends, the tiny island-republic of Singapore. Resource self-reliance (energy and water independence being necessary national obsessions) has been arguably the greatest policy-making driver in the City-State’s half-century as a sovereign entity.