North Korea policy juggles carrots, sticks
South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited a North Korean delegation to take part in an international taekwondo championship here last Saturday.
A demonstration team from the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), comprised mainly of North Korean nationals led by Chang Ung, a former ITF chief and the country’s only member on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), participated in the World Taekwondo Federation’s World Taekwondo Championships in Muju County, North Jeolla, Saturday.
It was the first visit of the ITF to South Korea in a decade.
In remarks at the championship, Moon suggested that the two Koreas form a united team for the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics next year and to walk in together to the games’ opening ceremony. That would be an echo of the good old days when North-South relations were thawed enough that the two Koreas could make a joint entrance to the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics opening ceremony and again at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The two Koreas competed separately in those games.
The Moon administration has a new vision of a stage-by-stage engagement of Pyongyang, a turnaround from the more confrontational policies of the past two conservative administrations. That vision will be put to its first test in Moon’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on June 29 and 30.
Trump has made North Korea’s nuclear and missile issue something of a priority in his foreign policy. At the onset of his presidency, Trump said that “all options are on the table” - which raised the possibility of military action including a pre-emptive strike on the North - a highly alarming prospect for Seoul.
But as the Trump administration’s strategy evolved, he touted a policy that calls for “maximum pressure and engagement,” putting more weight on a diplomatic process while pressing China to assert more influence over the isolated regime.
Moon is also pushing a two-track approach. He supports sanctions to pressure North Korea to denuclearize but also aims to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
The North Korea denuclearization issue is at the top of the agenda in the summit between presidents Moon and Trump this week.
In an interview with CBS News ahead of the summit, Moon said that he and Trump “share the common goals of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and building peace and security in Northeast Asia.”
Moon added that if they succeed, “this will be the most fruitful achievements that we can achieve during our terms in office.” He then threw a pitch at Trump’s well-known ego, adding, “I also believe that this will be the greatest diplomatic achievements for President Trump as well.”
On the surface, the two administrations share seemingly similar perspectives on North Korean denuclearization, employing a carrot and stick method. But pundits point out that the two leaders may collide on the details of how to resume negotiations with Pyongyang.
To complicate matters, Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student who died six days after his release from imprisonment in the North in a vegetative state, raised renewed criticism over the North’s atrocious human rights record and demands for a more hard-line approach within Washington.
Analysts say the summit will be an important chance for Moon to explain his approach to North Korea to Trump and for the two leaders’ to find common ground.
Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo pointed out the “known agreements and disagreements” between Seoul and Washington on the North Korea issue. The two sides are in agreement over the use of both “maximum pressure and engagement,” or dialogue and negotiation when conditions are met.
He added that the two also agree that regime change is not a goal, and that “China should be put on board.” The ultimate goal, in theory, is the complete denuclearization of North Korea.
But the two sides, he pointed out, could disagree over the preconditions for talks and what inducements can get North Korea to the table.
“There won’t be much divergence in views on how to advance the South Korea-U.S. alliance,” said U.S. expert Kim Hyun-wook, an associate professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (Ifans). “So the first divergence in opinions could be over how talks with North Korea could proceed and what the preconditions for starting talks would be.”
The Moon administration, which launched on May 10, is expected to take a gradual, comprehensive approach to denuclearizing North Korea.
Moon said earlier this month that he was willing to “sit knee-to-knee, head-on-head” with North Korea to discuss ways to implement past joint inter-Korean declarations - if Pyongyang refrained from conducting any additional missile or nuclear tests.
He made that offer at a ceremony that marked the 17th anniversary of the historic North-South Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000, which came from the first summit between leaders of North and South Korea: South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un. A second inter-Korean summit took place in October 2007 between Kim Jong-il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon served as chief of staff. Moon also was deeply involved in that summit.
Roh, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, continued the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung.
The past two conservative administrations under presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye took more hard-line stances toward Pyongyang.
Some analysts point out that North Korea under the Kim Jong-un regime is very different from a decade ago.
Over the past decade, North Korea conducted five nuclear tests: in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013, and two last year, on Jan. 6 and Sept. 9. It is much closer to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of striking mainland United States.
The UN Security Council has since 2006 adopted seven sanctions resolutions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
“President Trump and I have a common goal - that is, the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Moon told the Washington Post last week.
Moon told the Post his view of “engagement” is “actually very similar to the engagement that President Trump is talking about,” adding that engagement can only occur “if the conditions are right.”
Ifans Prof. Kim says that the Moon administration is expected to take a two-stage approach starting with a nuclear freeze and ultimately reaching denuclearization. Seoul is expected to adhere to the idea that it will not resume inter-Korean dialogue “unless proposed conditions are met.”
Along with sports exchanges, the Moon administration also is expected to be more positive about civic and humanitarian exchanges with North Korea.
The administration could look into resuming tour groups to Mt. Kumgang and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex, major Sunshine Policy economic cooperation projects that were shut down over the years.
Kim says this would also be a part of the Moon’s administration’s vision for economic integration to enable a gradual reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said that the differences between Seoul and Washington could be over the preconditions for dialogue. “The two sides could disagree, for example, on whether to go back to the September 2005 agreement or some sort of freeze or suspension of nuclear and missile tests.”
In the Sept. 19, 2005 deal reached in six-party talks including the Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program and submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), following assurances from the United States that it would not be attacked.
The long-stalled six-party talks kicked off in 2003. They have been suspended since late 2008, when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table.
Han was among a group of former diplomats invited to a luncheon by Moon Monday ahead of the president’s departure for the summit with Trump on Wednesday, his first overseas trip.
But Han, who served as South Korean ambassador to the United States under President Roh, continued, “I think the summit will stay away from differences and dwell mostly on agreements.”
Ifans Prof. Kim said, “Calling for the scrapping of the North’s nuclear program as a precondition for talks doesn’t make any sense - what’s the point of talking if it has already scrapped its nuclear program? What we are proposing is a halt in provocations. What the U.S. is asking is for North Korea to take some action that shows its sincerity.”
The Trump administration has been insisting that the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea is over, referring to the Barack Obama administration’s approach to wait out Pyongyang.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first summit in April at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The two leaders apparently hit it off, and they agreed too cooperate to rein in the North’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump, the self-fashioned dealmaker, however warned that Washington is prepared to “act alone,” asserting: “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson on April 28 told the UN Security Council, “North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks.”
This is in contrast to Tillerson’s remark in a press conference in Seoul on March 17 that the pathway to dialogue with the North “can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction.”
His words seemed to indicate a shift in Washington’s bar for dialogue with the North, indicating that “concrete steps” may suffice rather than denuclearization.
The Trump administration has taken a “carrot and stick” approach, offering Kim Jong-un a possible summit under certain conditions while reminding the regime that Washington is ready to take military action against Pyongyang.
In June 2016, as a presidential candidate, Trump said he was willing to talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over hamburgers.
In May, Trump told Bloomberg News that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances,” the first time he publicly indicated he is still up for holding direct talks with the North Korean leader since assuming office.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said on June 20 at a panel at the Korea Foundation for Advanced Studies in Seoul there are three general approaches to dealing with the North Korean challenge: to live with it with some combination of defense and deterrence; use military force of some type in a preventative or a preemptive mode; or to use diplomacy.
He said living with the situation means “tremendous risk and uncertainty,” and also warned of the “potential costs” of using military force in a preventative or a preemptive mode, adding, “You can’t know how North Korea might retaliate.”
Haass concluded, “So my preferred option is for diplomacy,” or “to create an environment in which negotiations can at least help us put some kind of ceiling on the problem.”
The veteran American foreign policy maker for both Bush administrations met with Moon last week. Trump has also publicly expressed respect for Haass, who served as a foreign policy adviser to him during his campaign.
Haass pointed out, however, that it is “unrealistic” to try to achieve denuclearization.
“I think that some type of seal or freeze on North Korean capabilities with intrusive inspections might be something both parties can live with,” he said. This is only possible if China “is willing to use the influence and leverage it says it doesn’t have, but I believe it does,” while “keeping the option of military force alive.”
He recommended that if China does not play this role the United States should consider introducing secondary sanctions against Chinese financial institutions and companies that are supporting the North.
Trump wrote in a Tweet last week: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi and China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.”
His remarks came amid mounting criticism that Washington’s attempt to press China - which accounts for over 80 percent of North Korea’s trade - to do more to rein in its neighbor has been ineffective. It further indicates the possibility that he could move onto a Plan B, or another policy.
Haass pointed out that after a diplomatic path is tried - and only if that is rebuffed or rejected - then a “Plan B” approach should be taken.
But U.S. government and military officials, as well as Congressmen, have been warning against the hazards of a pre-emptive strike, assuaging some of Seoul’s concerns. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on June 15 at a House of Representatives hearing on the prospects of a war with the North: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953,” referring to the 1950-53 Korean War.
Security expert Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, pointed out, “There are a lot of things that the United States could do that we don’t normally discuss. We have to remember that deterrence requires that we convince the adversary that he has less to gain than the costs he will incur if he takes an action.”
He continued, “We usually fail to recognize that a major objective of the North Korean provocations is to demonstrate regime empowerment for internal political purposes. Kim Jong-un may eventually decide to put a nuclear weapon on one of the missiles he is testing and detonate that weapon out over the East Sea,” hoping to gain recognition as a nuclear weapon state.
And the United States, he said, might therefore decide to “intercept any North Korean missile launch that it can reach with its Aegis interceptors.”
Where Seoul and Washington may differ and agree
Analysts say the most likely point of disagreement between Seoul and Washington are the preconditions for dialogue.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert took a hard-line stance on June 15 in a press briefing, “For us to engage in talks with the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), they would have to denuclearize. And that is not something we’re seeing them take any steps to do so.”
Moon Chung-in, South Korean presidential special adviser for unification, foreign and national security affairs, stirred controversy this month when he remarked at the Woodrow Wilson Center that if North Korea suspends nuclear and missile activities, South Korea could consult with the United States to scale down joint military exercises and reduce deployment of U.S. strategic weapons to the South. This prompted a backlash from Washington, and the Blue House distanced itself from the remarks.
“There are many areas where new principles and new ideas are required for dealing with North Korea,” said Bennett. “I believe that the principle of symmetry is seriously needed. Thus China has asked the United States and South Korea to suspend their military exercises, but it is only asking North Korea to suspend its missile and nuclear weapons tests, and not to suspend its other military exercises that it uses to prepare its military forces for invading South Korea.”
China expert Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow with the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, said, “The Trump and past U.S. administrations have said that talks without a prerequisite of denuclearization would be difficult. When President Moon speaks of a freeze, that is similar to what China is saying, asking for a nuclear cap since it’s difficult for North Korea to completely give up its nuclear program.” And a moratorium on its nuclear and ballistic missile testing is something Pyongyang could get on board with as well.
Other analysts however are optimistic that there is room for compromise on conditions for starting talks.
“The United States’ position is that for dialogue with North Korea, there has to be some sort of commitment on the North’s part, but a concrete precondition for dialogue has not been set,” said Kim Hyun-wook of Ifans. “We have been pushing for a halt in North Korea’s provocations as a condition for dialogue. Whether it be a halt in provocations or a freeze in its nuclear programs, because the United States has not decided on this yet, I think there is room for mediation.”
Kim also warned, however, “Inter-Korean relations are important, but they should not come at the cost of damaging the South Korea-U.S. alliance. There are plenty of ways to move forward inter-Korean relations while maintaining the South Korea-U.S alliance.”
Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo pointed out: “Summits, especially the first one, are not a place to negotiate nuts and bolts but to get to know each other, foster confidence and trust, and agree on generalities and directions.”
Han advised that the two sides try to “stick with the script,” on what junior officials ironed out leading up to the summit, “but also be prepared for the unexpected.”
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]