What the zero versus 18 means
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A friend told me a joke from Seoul during the college admissions season. How does President Moon Jae-in study? The answer: he only reads books. It is a word play, as “book” can sound like “North” in Korean. While the economy crumbles and discipline at the Blue House falls apart, North Korea is at the center of his attention. At a VOA talk on Dec. 15, Heritage Foundation researcher Bruce Klingner said that South Korea was acting like an attorney or PR agent for North Korea. So there may be some truth in the joke.
As the year-end nears, cold-headed Kim Jong-un turned down President Moon’s request for a return visit to Seoul. He may have thought that there isn’t much to gain from a visit. If Kim visited Seoul, South Korean society would be excited and divided. Real issues in the South — such as employment cliff and regulatory reforms — would be buried all of a sudden. Moon’s first expanded economic ministerial meeting, 19 months into the administration, would not have happened on Monday. I may not be the only one feeling thankful towards Kim.
In fact, it may be Stephen Biegun who is most ardently looking at North Korea. It has been four months since he was made the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, but he hasn’t even seen a shadow of his North Korean counterpart Choe Son-hui. He visited North Korea, sent a letter to her and called her, but to no avail. Biegun is visiting South Korea again. He and his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon, the foreign ministry’s head of the Korean Peninsula Peace Negotiation Headquarters, have met 18 times. Zero versus 18: that’s not normal by any standards.
It is because of no other man than Trump. Trump said at the U.S.-North summit in Singapore that the South-U.S. joint military exercise, which had been the basis of the alliance, was a provocative war game. He said that the U.S. Forces in South Korea would withdraw someday. North Korea has repeated these claims for decades, and now the U.S. president has said it. In Kim Jong-un’s mind, the negotiation partner that would understand North Korea is Trump, as he might believe the U.S. president is easy to deceive.
So, Kim thinks that meetings with fundamentalists like Biegun before a second summit might only pose obstacles. Kim wants to directly deal with Trump, who likes making deals. Trump has his eyes on the Nobel Peace Prize and also wants to make a deal. He believes that one great negotiator is enough. That’s why Biegun is growing increasingly isolated.
While South Korea focuses on North Korea, the United States sticks to the principle. It has the power to endure the abnormality of 18 versus zero. North Korea may have failed to read this and made a mistake.
During the negotiation with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.” But the atmosphere in the United States dealing with North Korean affairs is different. Former envoy Robert Gallucci said, “Don’t trust. Therefore, verify.” South Korea cannot change the trend for now. This is the grand premise that South Korea needs to reflect in its U.S. and North Korea policies in 2019.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 19, Page 34