Getting the U.S. in Step with the Koreas’ Diplomatic Dance

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcome ceremony at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 18 September 2018 yeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcome ceremony at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 18 September 2018 yeongyang Press Corps/Pool via REUTERS

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea arrived in Pyongyang early on Tuesday for a three-day visit. The outcomes of this summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will set the tempo for the remainder of 2018 and beyond. But progress between the two Koreas is partly dependent on reversing the decline in U.S.-North Korean engagement since the 12 June meeting in Singapore between Kim and President Donald Trump.

For North Korea, the diplomatic dance began on 9 September with the 70th anniversary of its establishment as a separate state, celebrated with a military parade in Kim Il-sung Square and a revival of the country’s famed gymnastic displays, the Mass Games. What mattered was the presence of a senior Chinese official – Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu. Li helped Pyongyang achieve its primary diplomatic goal: demonstrating the robustness of relations with Beijing ahead of further dialogue with Seoul and possibly also Washington

Now it is South Korea’s turn. Moon, who committed to the trip during his first summit with Kim at the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom on 27 April, traveled north with a packed agenda. Reprising the role of mediator that he played with some success in the first half of 2018, Moon will push Kim to take concrete steps on denuclearisation that could unblock talks with the U.S. He will also seek a commitment to reduce the constant risk of inter-Korean clashes in the Yellow Sea. An agreement could include the creation of joint fishing zones as a way-station to turning “the areas around the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea into a maritime peace zone”, as per the Panmunjom Declaration that emerged from the April meeting.

Moon takes with him a delegation of around 200 from not only government but also the commanding heights of Korean industry. Among the delegation are heads of the “Big Four” conglomerates – Samsung, Hyundai, SK Group and LG – as well as the chairmen of steelmaker POSCO and the Korea Development Bank. The presence of these captains of industry reminds North Korea of the peace dividend at stake, but it also shows that the South Korean government wants to make progress on economic engagement as a string of economic policy stumbles at home undermines business confidence.

The composition of the delegation is also a reminder that the South Korean government is chafing at restrictions on pursuing economic engagement with the North. Further evidence of its impatience came on 14 September, when the two Koreas opened a liaison office at Kaesong, just inside the North, another stipulation of the Panmunjom Declaration. The office, in which North and South Korean officials work on different floors with a meeting room in between, is designed to provide a reliable channel of inter-Korean communication but would also be central to coordinating future economic exchanges.

South Korea’s restricted economic latitude is an outcome of an international sanctions regime that was greatly strengthened in 2017 and of unilateral South Korean sanctions imposed in May 2010. The Moon administration’s private stance is that North Korea has earned some relief on sanctions. Seoul is, however, highly unlikely to jeopardise its reputation as a responsible global stakeholder by violating UN Security Council resolutions in order to engage the North economically.

Unfortunately, while China-North Korea relations have improved and South Korea has sought creative ways to engage the North within limited parameters, U.S.-North Korea talks have stagnated. The marked decline since Trump and Kim met in June prompted an awkward last-minute cancellation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang in late August. Moon went to Pyongyang intent on trying to halt the slide

The U.S. now finds itself in a bind. Washington’s insistence on securing immediate additional steps on denuclearisation (beyond the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear test site and missile engine test facility) before taking its own steps does not align with Seoul’s economic priorities. In neglecting this disconnect, the U.S. risks shouldering the blame for a lack of progress between the two Koreas, playing into North Korea’s strategy of driving a wedge into the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

For his part, Moon has sought to reassure his detractors, who argue that his rush to engage North Korea could weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While senior ministerial officials were opening the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, Moon was at Okpo Shipyard on Geoje Island in the far south of the Korean peninsula inaugurating an attack submarine for the South Korean navy. Seeking to calm the fears of national security conservatives at home and others abroad, he described South Korea’s inter-Korean strategy as one of “peace through strength”, adding that his administration sees a strong military – which his more hawkish opponents associate with close ties to the U.S. – as an essential precursor to peace on the Korean peninsula.

The deepening divide between the U.S. and South Korea is in part an outgrowth of Washington’s internal dysfunction. Many in Seoul perceive a disparity between Trump’s optimism about diplomatic progress with Kim and what they believe is the gloomier perspective of much of Washington’s national security establishment. While experts initially feared Trump was too confrontational and heedless of the cataclysmic costs of an inadvertent war with North Korea, the new conventional wisdom in Washington is that he is too easily manipulated.

One concern is that Trump will trade away the prize of a political declaration ending the Korean War without securing sufficient reciprocal concessions. Harder-line voices in Washington assert that Pyongyang could thus acquire powerful leverage to push the U.S. to withdraw its troops from the peninsula, since the main justification for their presence would be gone. While Trump might welcome the opportunity for withdrawal, seeing it as cost-saving, his security advisers and much of Washington’s national security establishment surely would not. The counter-argument is that Trump’s instincts are better than those of his advisers: he should give North Korea the relatively cost-free peace declaration and see what comes of it, without agreeing to a demand for withdrawal. These are important debates, but the manner in which they are playing out in Washington creates the sense of policy incoherence.

Whether or not the U.S. agrees to such a declaration, other measures could change the conversation. A clear expression of U.S. support for the inter-Korean liaison office, which has an important role in easing military tensions along the border, would help restore a sense of unified purpose with South Korea. Better yet, proposing that the U.S. open a “liaison office” of its own in Pyongyang would test North Korean intentions in an appropriate way. Though it would be an unusual step for Washington to take prior to the signing of a peace treaty, it would keep the U.S. in step with the flow of inter-Korean affairs. Seoul hopes that the new liaison office at Kaesong will be the precursor to opening diplomatic representations in the two Korean capital cities.

The new U.S.-North Korea relations promised in the joint statement issued after Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore on 12 June have already receded from view. The second half of September offers an opportunity for the three leaders to resume diplomacy and make up lost ground. When Moon and Trump meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the South Korean leader is bound to be carrying a message from Kim Jong-un. The North may be willing to make concessions to get things moving again. If so, the U.S. must receive Moon with an open mind and be ready to make some creative proposals of its own.

Christopher Green, Senior Adviser, Korean Peninsula.

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