Don’t push WashingtonThe road to Pyongyang has been cleared. But North Korea wants South Korea to keep to the second lane. But Seoul cannot drive in the second lane as it is already occupied by Washington, which does not allow others to intrude on its path. Seoul is almost near passing the final barricade, but Washington does not budge an inch. It dares Seoul to disobey the Pyongyang-set rule and go through the first lane.
Here, the first lane refers to a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with the goal of denuclearization of North Korea. The second lane is deferment or the scaling down of joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises. South Korean President Moon Jae-in — now in the hard-won driving seat to probably determine the fate of the Korean Peninsula — would soon face a dilemma.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who came to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, was very scrupulous. He took care to avoid the awkward moment of coming face to face with the North Korean delegation led by Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s ruler, and Pyongyang’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, and be forced to smile and shake hands with them.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supported Pence by keeping a stony and disapproving visage. Pence and Abe arrived late to a reception for VIPs attending the opening ceremony and intentionally stayed in a separate room to avoid bumping into North Korean officials. The two kept the same expression and refused to join the standing ovation for athletes of the host nation marching into the stadium with their North Korean counterparts. South Koreans can complain of the American and Japanese being discourteous. But Washington could make the same complaint about Seoul’s overindulgence of its North Korean guests.
The Blue House claims it did its best to allow the U.S. and North Korean officials to meet naturally. But a photo of a North Korean delegate shaking hands with an American representative would only please North Koreans. South Korea will earn nothing except distrust from Americans and misconceptions from international society. What Seoul believed to be the best course of events was not viewed the same way by Washington and others.
The first round of PyeongChang diplomacy has ended. Seoul officials were more doting and catering toward the North Korean dictator’s sister than Tokyo had been with President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka. President Moon invited Kim Yo-jong to the Blue House and the prime minister went to her residence to make a courtesy call. Not once did they mouth the word “nuclear.” The unification minister even cried out encore three times after Hyon Song-wol, head of the North Korean art troupe, finished her performance at a concert hall in Seoul.
The Moon government made sure the glamorous Hyon and proud Kim received all the attention. Just months ago, North Korea threatened South Korea and the world with its nuclear and missile weapons. The 90-year-old figurehead of North Korea may have shed tears on his last day in South Korea to celebrate the victory of Pyongyang’s peace offensives in the South.
Upon returning to Washington, Pence suddenly indicated a willingness to talk to Pyongyang. Some interpret his comment as Washington’s approval of inter-Korean dialogue and its own readiness for one. Washington would already have presumed the chance of the sister coming with an olive branch and even a proposal for an inter-Korean summit. But it cannot outright agree.
Washington’s policy on North Korea has been wobbly. There were talks of Washington studying the option of a so-called “bloody nose” strike and of the nominee for ambassador to South Korea Victor Cha being removed because he disapproved of such a hawkish option. But both hawks and doves agree on the basic stance on denuclearization because it does not just affect the Korean Peninsula but the international nonproliferation campaign.
So what now? Seoul may try to convince Washington that it needs to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table to achieve denuclearization. But the United States and the rest of the world are cynical as they have been fooled over and over by Pyongyang. North Korea has advanced too far in its weapons program to be addressed with such naivety. If Seoul insists on a reconciliatory path, it will only worsen relations with its most important ally. The next stage will be critical and hard.
A meeting between Moon and Kim demands patience and creativity. Seoul must not nag at Washington. We must not forget that North Korea is the source of the problem. If Pyongyang insists it cannot yield the first lane, Seoul must demand it come up with a third option. That is the only way to get U.S. officials to sit across from North Koreans. We must keep to procedures and defend our dignity.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 14, Page 26
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.