In uncharted waters

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In uncharted waters

The Moon Jae-in government’s Olympics diplomacy led to agreements to hold an inter-Korean summit and a North Korea-U.S. summit. The big surprise was Pyongyang’s push for direct dialogue with Washington — and Donald Trump’s acceptance of it.
Now we face an unprecedented sequence of summits. Expectations are understandably high about resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. But if you think calmly, an opportunity of a larger negotiation means not only a chance to resolve the crisis but also the possibility of a complete breakdown.

We should take advantage of this opportunity to find a decisive turning point for denuclearization and peace, but we should also prepare for expected risks. To this end, we must be wary of naïve optimism. Just because unprecedented talks will take place, it does not guarantee the resolution of a decades-long nuclear crisis.

What’s important is what will be discussed at the negotiations. There has been a little progress which exists with ambiguity. Pyongyang promised to suspend nuclear and missile tests, which is progress. But it is unclear if its willingness for a denuclearization negotiation means a change in its attitude or a willingness to listen to the U.S. demand for denuclearization.
Until now, North Korea has insisted that it wants to negotiate as a nuclear state, but the United States has refused to do so. But U.S. President Donald Trump accepted the North’s offer for a summit, although Pyongyang’s position on this matter is unclear. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, therefore, managed to win something considerable: he is being treated as an equal counterpart to the U.S. president by making only a few concessions.

A summit was decided upon without preparatory negotiations. This is not normal. It is a risky adventure. If North Korea’s position stays the same, then the summit will take place amid unclear prospects. That is dangerous.

The next step will be preparation for the North’s maneuvers. North Korea will try to separate topics for the two summits. Preparation for an inter-Korean summit will likely progress smoothly, while the North-U.S. summit preparation may face obstacles. We must not think that we can push forward the inter-Korean summit because the North-U.S. talks will begin. Furthermore, we must be cautious of any deal between Washington and Pyongyang that will not include Seoul. We must take into account Trump’s unpredictability. We must pay close attention to the issues concerning national security such as a peace treaty and the fate of U.S. Forces Korea.

We should also manage the Japan factor. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to visit the United States in April, shortly after the news broke about the North-U.S. summit. As Korea-Japan relations have deteriorated, the two countries must not fall out over the North Korean nuclear issue. We must embrace Japan.

In order to prepare for various challenges that we will face with the summits — the North’s possible tricks and Trump’s unpredictability in particular — we must have strong cooperation with the United States. As of now, Seoul-Washington cooperation could use improvements. Until now, the South has made the first moves while the United States endorsed them later. It was effective, but Washington was not fond of it.

The South’s immediate response to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, the North Korean athletes’ participation in the Winter Olympics, the South Korean envoys’ visit to the North, the agreement on the inter-Korean summit and the North’s offer for a summit with the United States progressed at dazzling speed. Although Washington was uncomfortable with the rapid progress, it nevertheless accommodated Seoul’s position. As complaints are building up in the United States, however, it is doubtful that this way can continue. Furthermore, our coordination process has been very top-down. Instead of having discussions with various departments in the U.S. administration, Seoul went directly to Trump to win his support. That has been effective, but it can have undesirable side-effects.

Making a move first and pulling Trump along could be an effective approach from the perspective of Korea. But the method raises worries considering the U.S. standard of valuing processes and the multi-layered policy-making structure of Washington. Furthermore, the government and the people of the United States are particularly sensitive toward the top-down approach by a leader with unusual characteristics.

Criticisms were already rising inside the U.S. administration about Trump’s immediate acceptance of Kim’s invitation to a summit. Some wonder whether he accepted the offer in order to escape his own various political crises and vulnerabilities.

It is, therefore, desirable to have lower-level discussions with the U.S. government. From now on, it will be a game by the United States, and foreign affairs and security officials in Washington will lead the way. Strengthening cooperation between Seoul and Washington is more effective when Seoul and Tokyo also cooperate.

The current opportunity has arrived all of a sudden. We must prepare for risks. If things go wrong, the outcome will be catastrophic.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 12, Page 33

*The author, former special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a visiting professor of Seoul National University.

Wi Sung-lac
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