The hard-line trapAs North Korean provocations in the age of Trump have become a reality, the nuclear situation has entered an important turning point. The beginning was the North’s testing of new missiles. Following the first provocation since Trump’s election, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam took place. The United States responded by denying a visa to the North Korean foreign ministry envoy for talks in New York. As South Korea and the United States begin their drills, Washington is reviewing various options for its North Korea policy. Then Pyongyang tested another missile that could strike U.S. military bases in Japan. It gave more reason for U.S. policy to become more hard-line.
Until now, North Korea has been rushing to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities to reinforce its stance against the United States. We’ve seen this same old game for every U.S. presidential election: the missile test shortly after the inauguration was Pyongyang’s way of proposing a negotiation. It provokes in the front while seeking contacts through track-two talks in the back.
Therefore, North Korea is in the last stage of seeking a long-planned negotiation. In general, if it doesn’t work out, Pyongyang kicks off a full-fledged confrontational cycle. So now is the decisive moment, the beginning of a new cycle.
At this juncture, South Korea’s response is awkward. Historically, it has asked the U.S. to either punish or pursue dialogue depending on the ideological tendency of the administration, and this pattern is still not broken. Seoul has advocated sanctions and pressure, and now, it has requested hard-line moves like identifying North Korea as a terrorist-sponsoring state and disqualifying it from international organizations.
But this is an evidence-based approach, not a tactical and strategic approach. First, it is an important moment deciding whether to move into a new cycle or not. South Korea is in a transitional period, and that could lead to a discrepancy between Korean and U.S. policies.
Let’s first look at how crucial this moment is. Originally, the United States was skeptical about North Korea’s negotiation tactics. So if South Korea asks for hard-line moves, it is likely that the United States will respond. In that case, the primary concern is escalated interaction, prolonged confrontation and a stalemate. We’ve seen a similar situation lasting for eight years under Obama.
We cannot expect different outcomes by repeating the same actions, so it is likely that the same deadlock will continue for four years under Trump. Therefore, a more realistic tactic is to make contact while imposing sanctions and pressure. Hopefully, South Korea will no longer interfere with contact between the United States and North Korea.
Such an approach will also help bring China around. Since North Korea’s missile launch, China announced it would suspend imports of North Korean coal. Pyongyang immediately condemned China as a country dancing to America’s tune. As China responds to the Korea-U.S. policy direction, it would be nice to meet one of China’s demands by facilitating a U.S.-North talk. It is necessary to show flexibility as China’s participation is necessary to break through the situation.
The second concern is that South Korea’s hard-line demands could escalate the situation. If the United States is pushed by the development of the situation and starts considering military options, it would be beyond the sanctions and pressure that South Korea had hoped for. During the first nuclear crisis in 1994, Seoul asked for a resolute stance from Washington, but when the United States actually considered a military option, Seoul desperately dissuaded them. Considering the unpredictability of the Trump administration, Seoul should be careful when suggesting any action.
Now let’s look at the interim leadership. In South Korea, a new administration will be established soon. It is appropriate for the interim government to focus on transferring power to the next administration. So another concern is that when the Trump administration is reviewing North Korea policy, hard-line demands from the interim Korean government could put constraints on the next administration’s stance. Once the United States turns hard-line, policy coordination between South Korea and the U.S. could become difficult in the future, and it is hard to say the interim leadership is entrusted with such authority. Therefore, the current government needs to focus on deterring North Korea’s provocations and asking the United States to control the intensity and speed of North Korea policy until the next administration is formed. The U.S. should also take this into account.
Even if North Korea’s provocations are detestable, the current situation demands strictly strategic and tactical considerations. At this important and delicate moment, a hard-line response is a concern. It is not proper for the interim government to make such a decision.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 14, Page 29
*The author, a former Korean ambassador to Russia, is a visiting professor at Seoul National University.