Changing dynamics in KoreaThe Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Joongang Ilbo held our annual joint-seminar on the Korean peninsula in Washington, DC, on May 2-3. These conferences, which are usually convened in Seoul, offer unique insights into the state of American and Korean thinking on the challenge posed by North Korea and the evolving power dynamics in Northeast Asia. This year in Washington, discussions on and off the stage revealed a consensus that the U.S.-ROK alliance is strong, but also that there could be greater fluidity in the years ahead given elections in the United States and Korea, as well as North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Here are four key themes that struck me:
Korea is not ready for Donald Trump, but neither is Washington.
Korean speakers were indignant and concerned at presumptive Republican candidate Donald Trump’s criticism of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Trump has repeatedly argued that Korea cheats Americans by free-riding on American forward military presence and security guarantees. He has suggested that Korea might or even should develop nuclear weapons. He has implied, but never quite stated, that he might withdraw troops from the Korean peninsula.
Korean participants emphasized how much Korea actually contributes to the alliance, including significant expenses for U.S. bases and active participation in coalition operations overseas. It is important to get these facts straight for the American press and public. The problem is that Mr. Trump’s campaign has thus far been based on emotions rather than facts. Nevertheless, with the general campaign approaching there will be greater scrutiny of each candidate’s positions, and whoever ends up actually advising Trump on policy will be accountable to some extent for getting some basic facts right.
The American participants — particularly internationalist Republicans — expressed some dismay at Mr. Trump’s rise, but also expressed confidence in the fundamentals of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Public opinion polls in the United States show robust support for American forward presence in Asia and for the U.S.-ROK alliance, particularly as North Korea threatens the American capital with nuclear attack.
There is growing impatience in Korea about strategic patience in Washington.
It was striking that a number of the Korean participants urged greater action by Washington on the North Korean problem, or a more unilateralist approach by Seoul towards the North. One would expect that Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile tests would narrow the debate in Seoul, but American participants at the conference heard progressive arguments that were quite different from the Park government’s current stance. Specifically, a number of speakers echoed China’s call for the United States to open discussions with Pyongyang on a peace treaty parallel with talks on nuclear issues. Another speaker said that it is time for Seoul to strike out unilaterally to seize the initiative in solving the North Korean nuclear problem.
American participants, in contrast, were not terribly divided on North Korea strategy. Wendy Sherman, the former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and an advocate of engagement, laid out a clear case why diplomacy with Pyongyang could not follow the track of the recent agreement with Iran. Rather than urging efforts for a breakthrough with Pyongyang, she noted darkly that, “the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and most importantly China, must work to develop a common strategy that will launch our collective efforts to address this even more difficult phase of the North Korean nuclear challenge.” Republican and Democratic participants might have disagreed to some extent on tactics, but essentially agreed with this assessment.
While the State Department clearly has instructions to remain open to the possibility of dialogue on a peace treaty, there is no support in the White House or the Congress for such talks if North Korea maintains its current commitment to remaining a nuclear weapons state. How exactly Pyongyang would demonstrate a different attitude is probably under some debate within the administration. Yet at the same time, there is little indication — as Sherman indicated — that Pyongyang is prepared to take even minimal steps to restore credibility to diplomacy on denuclearization.
There is still a gap on China policy, but less so Japan.
There is fairly broad understanding that China only moved on sanctions in the UN Security Council after President Park took a tough response to the North’s nuclear and missile tests, including Korean receptivity to accepting THAAD. That said, there is still a gap in American and Korean strategic thinking about how best to manage China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in East Asia as a whole. On the other hand, Japan was not a major point of controversy as it had been in subsequent CSIS-Joongang conferences.
Non-government strategic dialogue is essential right now. Precisely because both outgoing governments are generally satisfied with the strong state of U.S.-ROK alliance relations, neither is sufficiently focused on the challenges that will emerge from North Korea in the years ahead as Pyongyang consolidates nuclear and missile capabilities.
More of the debate about North Korea policy will move to the public domain in the months and years ahead and thoughtful ideas about strategy towards the North and the neighborhood in Northeast Asia are essential. The CSIS-Joongang Ilbo conference added to that public discourse, but more is definitely needed.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.