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The Two Koreas Surprise the US

Words: Stephen Costello
Pictures: KCNA/Reuters

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has just done what five presidents (three in the US and two in the ROK) have been afraid to do. He has sent high-level Special Envoys to North Korea to talk directly to the senior leader there. Obama could have done this. Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye could have done this. None were wise enough or confident enough. And none understood the strategic landscape well enough to know what opportunities were possible. Finally, none were good enough politicians to know how to talk to both supporters and opponents about why they should engage the DPRK, and what could be gained from doing so.

The main question that emerges from the unexpected meetings and astounding photos from Pyongyang this week is not “Can Moon and Trump stay on the same page?” It is also not “Can Kim Jong-un drive a wedge between South Korea and the US?”

Regarding the widely-repeated “same page” assertion, it ought to be asked: how would anyone identify a specific “page” that US President Donald Trump is on? More to the point, why would any serious Korean leader, with a job to do and national interests at stake, be interested in the “pages” that US presidents have been on for the past 17 years? Bush, Obama and Trump have spectacularly failed to understand the issues at hand, much less address them in a coherent or realistic manner. Today’s North Korean nuclear and missile programs are proof of this. If one must talk about pages, the only question is how fast Trump can jump onto the page that Moon and Kim Jong-un are now on? The answer seems to be: Very fast.

Regarding the whack-a-metaphor “drive a wedge” foolishness, three points are so obvious they ought to help distinguish between serious analysis and all other output. First, if the US-South Korea alliance were so fragile that bad presidents, shallow posturing, and tactical maneuvers could end it, it would have died a long time ago. This alliance is far stronger than that. The South’s forward-leaning, deliberate and careful initiatives this week are helping both allies protect and advance their real interests.

The main question that emerges from the unexpected meetings and astounding photos from Pyongyang this week is not “Can Moon and Trump stay on the same page?” It is also not “Can Kim Jong-un drive a wedge between South Korea and the US?”

They are also saving an unhinged US administration from its profound weaknesses and mistakes. From itself, in other words. The oft-repeated threat of an unprovoked US military attack on the DPRK would be illegal and unjustified, and was always empty, despite its breathless repetition by legions of US voices. Many Americans are deeply thankful to their South Korean friends for this.

The second point about the wedge language is that the US destruction – beginning in 2001 – of the working, multilateral deal capping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs was the real wedge in the alliance. That reckless action was opposed by US allies South Korea, Japan, and the Europeans, as well as all other countries in Northeast Asia. It cost South Korea over $6 billion they had invested in the best multilateral nonproliferation organization ever created by the US: the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. And it arguably put off inter-Korean rapprochement for a generation, with all the costs to the region that has entailed.

That South Koreans have absorbed that, and even today are too polite to mention it, should brand them forever as the best allies anyone could have. The fact that in the past year they have impeached, imprisoned, and prosecuted a corrupt president, and then organized a new presidential election, may be a clue to the realism, steadiness, and quiet self-confidence South Korea is able to demonstrate today. And of course, they have just hosted a complex and successful Winter Olympics, revealing strengths the rest of the world had not known about.

Third, the widely-held assumption that the DPRK wants to split the ROK from its ally ignores many of the realistic interests that were revealed during diplomatic engagements over the past 25 years. It is more likely the North wants to improve its relations with the US so that they are at least professional, and it can begin to reap some of the rewards South Korea has since the Korean War. With the Peninsula’s history of being invaded by China and Japan multiple times in the last two centuries, the North’s appetite for facing them again – either alone or with the South – is probably small. The link with the US was a lifeline for the South, and the North has noticed. Such a goal would make obvious strategic sense and could increase regional security.

According to the South’s Envoys, Kim has just reaffirmed the positions his government has held for 20 years. The nuclear program is a deterrent against US coercion and attack, and it will talk to the US about these issues. Two things can now unfold. First, planning for an April summit between the Koreas will go ahead, unhindered by US objections. Second, the least capable government the US has had in at least a generation will now have to slap together a response, while trying to maintain that “maximum pressure” brought these developments about.

Due to the US’ reduced capabilities for strategic thinking and diplomatic action, it now becomes more important than ever to involve the UN and Secretary-General Gutierres. A new coalition will be needed to assure all parties that new understandings cannot be unilaterally destroyed by any party, as the 1994 US-Korean agreements were.

President Moon still faces tricky decisions, and a complex diplomatic and strategic environment. He has reasons to proceed carefully, but he can do so with confidence. He and his administration know much of the relevant history surrounding both South-North interests and South-US alliance management. They are in fact managing sensitive neighbors to the North and volatile allies on the other side of the world at the same time.

Maybe the best-kept secret throughout all the colorful language and posturing of the past year is that the fundamental strategic interests of South Korea, the US, North Korea, and even China and Japan overlap significantly. Moon seems to appreciate that. Such an understanding could be the beginning of agreements and progress on security and economic development that have been waiting on the shelves for over 15 years.

Let’s hope the US administration is just wise enough to follow its ally at a time when it has nothing better to offer. If it does, that would be the first significant positive US foreign policy decision of the Trump years.

Stephen Costello is a producer of AsiaEast, a web and broadcast-based policy roundtable focused on security, development, and politics in Northeast Asia. He writes from Washington, DC. 

Stephen Costello

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