Wobbly bike rideU.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear on Wednesday that he was sending South Korea the message that the United States does not want denuclearization of North Korea to lag behind the improvement of inter-Korean relations. He delivered the message shortly after South Korea and the United States kicked off their first working group meeting between Steve Biegun, the new U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy, and his counterpart Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.
Pompeo also stated that he made the remarks to ensure that the two allies speak with the same voice and that neither of them goes solo without the knowledge of the other or without sharing their views and thoughts. That’s a very rare — and explicit — warning to prevent such actions by South Korea as it took unilateral actions in the past without notifying Washington of its projects with North Korea.
Where do we stand exactly? If North Korea submits a list of its nuclear weapons and facilities to the United States, it can serve as one of the most reliable indicators of Pyongyang’s sincerity about denuclearization. But North Korea rejects that step and is keeping shy of denuclearization talks. And yet, President Moon Jae-in is trying to get countries to ease international sanctions on the North.
He went so far as to seek international support for easing of sanctions during his European tour last month despite one of the host countries requesting he refrain from discussing the issue. Security experts in Washington are increasingly expressing concerns about the widening schism.
In October, the United States asked South Korea to set up a joint working group to coordinate the Moon administration’s push for the improvement of inter-Korean relations to match UN sanctions and the United States’ unilateral sanctions. Nevertheless, the Moon administration demanded that the United States exclude its project to reconnect inter-Korean railways from sanctions. Lee Do-hoon, the special representative of South Korea, said Washington fully supported the idea, but U.S. press releases did not reflect that.
Reconnecting inter-Korean railways calls for lots of money. The problem is the Moon administration’s impatience. Pompeo compared the relationship between denuclearization and inter-Korean ties to riding a tandem bike: Seoul has nothing to gain if it tries to drift away from the alliance — except the bike tipping over.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 22, Page 34