Testing everyone’s patience
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter asked why North Korea’s military strength was so much better than South Korea’s when they apparently spent the same amount of money on defense. South Korean President Park Chung Hee had asked the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) not to withdraw. Carter responded that he could not promise anything, but that he would work with him on the withdrawal plan.
The intense conversation during the Korea-U.S. summit on June 30, 1979 was included in the White House confidential diplomatic documents that the Hanmi Club, a group of former correspondents to the United States, received from Johns Hopkins researcher James Person and recently released.
In the past four decades, both countries’ military capacities have changed, and so have inter-Korean relations.
But the USFK withdrawal is still a hot potato. No one knows when and how it will catch fire. U.S. President Donald Trump is negative about the USFK compared to his predecessors. At the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, Trump said he would like to withdraw from the USFK someday. He mentioned it several times. Why?
A source in Washington said the beginning was when Trump visited the demilitarized zone on Nov. 8 last year. Because of thick fog, Marine One had to return to Yongsan from Paju, which is close to the demarcation line.
Now the second round has begun. The target is the Korea-U.S. Special Measures Agreement on defense cost-sharing. The Foreign Ministry is optimistic about reaching an agreement this year. But the atmosphere in Washington is different. Sources claim that after nine meetings this year, the disagreement on the total cost burden for South Korea grew. Trump has ordered the United States not to make easy concessions. There are rumors around the White House that if the United States does not drastically reduce its share on defense cost, Trump will withdraw the USFK.
The Moon Jae-in administration emphasizes that the U.S.-North Korea talks and the USFK withdrawal were separate issues. But the core of the current crisis in the alliance echoes the tense dialogue between Park and Carter from 40 years ago: it could be repeated sooner or later due to South-U.S. ties, not U.S.-North relations.
If South-U.S. relations are challenged, then U.S.-North relations will be like a candle flickering in the wind. South Korean and U.S. diplomatic authorities were optimistic that North Korea would come for high-level talks with the United States in November. The media made speculative reports on certain dates.
But their hopes were in vain. In fact, Vice Chairman of North Korea’s Workers’ Party Kim Yong-chol and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui did not even apply for U.S. visas. North Korea wants to take the initative. If South Korea sides with North Korea and North Korea drags its feet a bit longer on the denuclearization front, Pyongyang thinks it can get sanctions relief without substantial denuclearization steps.
But North Korea’s testing of U.S. patience could lead to unexpected outcomes. Hawks in the White House clearly remember the night of September 23, 2017.
A U.S. B-1B strategic bomber crossed the Northern Limit Line in the East Sea and performed an operation right in front of Kim Jong-un’s nose. But North Korea’s radar did not notice it before China informed it of the operation. North Korea is not at that level yet. The obvious thing is that time is not on North Korea’s side, or South Korea’s side or the United States’ side. As time passes, it becomes worse for every party.
Now is not the time cheer for the sanctions exemption of a joint survey for a project to reconnect inter-Korean railroads.
It is time for the Moon administration to urge Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table immediately. The clock is ticking.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 34