The current state of playI recently attended a meeting with a small Chinese delegation from one of the country’s leading think tanks. The subject was the current crisis on the Korean peninsula. For almost two hours, the Americans and Chinese exchanged views. But a prominent South Korean expert in international relations was also at the table, and we finally turned to him. “My views,” he said dryly, “are that China and the United States talk about this issue and largely ignore South Korea.”
We all had to laugh because he was right. However, that is about to change.
As readers of this column know, I am hardly a fan of Donald Trump. But after the Mar-a-Lago summit, the president and his team stumbled on a relatively coherent strategy, missteps aside. Denials to the contrary, the U.S. would in fact continue the strategy of strategic patience for a while to see if the Chinese could move the North Koreans back to the negotiating table. During that period, the administration would put off any action on trade, despite the fact that it was one of Trump’s central campaign promises. Both Xi Jinping and Trump went to great lengths to emphasize their willingness to cooperate on the issue.
But at some point, strategic patience would end. To assure that China and North Korea did not believe that the status quo was acceptable, Trump and his cabinet also increased the temperature on the issue. Vice President Pence and others said that “all options were on the table” and the administration moved military assets, if belatedly.
These maneuvers did not signal that military action was imminent. But they did seek to telegraph the sense of urgency that North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is advancing much more rapidly than we thought. The U.S. does not fear a bolt from the blue. But it does fear a North Korea that is emboldened by its newfound weaponry, more prone to take risks, and more likely to miscalculate during a crisis, with a much more deadly effect.
Buried in this strategy was one important concession that did not receive adequate attention in either the South Korean or American press. While Secretaries Mattis, Tillerson and the Vice President said that the time was not ripe for negotiations now, the operative word was “now.” North Korea will not magically decide to give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally. Moreover, China’s whole approach to the problem rests on negotiations; it is Beijing’s mantra. The U.S. will ultimately have to resume some kind of talks — Six Party, Four Party, Two Party or some combination — if this problem is going to be solved.
The fact that so much effort has been devoted to the U.S.-China aspect of this problem is partly because China dominates North Korea’s trade and thus has more leverage than it likes to admit. But part of the reason U.S. diplomacy has focused so heavily on China is that South Korea has been sidelined by the impeachment, an interim president and the waiting game before the elections.
How will a new government in Seoul affect the U.S. approach? My first impulse was to think that the Moon-Trump relationship would replay the tensions between both Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush. It is now almost a cliché that a liberal in the Blue House and a conservative in the White House do not mix well.
In fact, a Moon administration will play a crucial role if the Trump strategy has any chance of success. But it will demand some delicate balancing acts. On the one hand, South Korea and the United States have to stand together in holding China to play a role similar to the one it played in 2003 in convening the Six Party Talks. On the other hand, South Korea will need to stand firmly with China in reminding the nited States of its obligation to remain open to talks.
What about ties with North Korea? Again, the situation demands a delicate diplomacy. I appreciate the desire to open an independent line with the North. There is no reason South Korea should not try to improve relations with the North following the deep freeze of the last two administrations; the Lee and Park approach hardly has much to show. But a North-South initiative cannot be a substitute for serious talks on denuclearization any more than Six Party Talks are a substitute for North-South détente.
Looking forward, all three parties — the U.S., China and South Korea — need to be forgiving of one another. This is not an easy problem, and the prospects of success are far from clear. But the winner from divisions between Washington, Seoul and Beijing resides in Pyongyang.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego.