An uneven playing field
The author is an honorary editor-at-large of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first reaction to the disastrous collapse of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, with U.S. President Donald Trump was his speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 12. Three keywords are particularly noteworthy. Stressing the importance of self-reliance, Kim criticized South Korea for trying to act as an “officious mediator.” The speech also showed his understanding of geography — and that North Korea is located in a region in which the power dynamics are fierce.
Kim expressed his willingness to have another summit with Trump until the end of the year if he offers one. Yet Trump said he would not hurry. As a result, Kim declared that North Korea will put up with international sanctions to survive on its own.
The North Korean leader also demanded that South Korean authorities “must directly get involved in advocating the Korean people’s interests instead of acting as an officious mediator or facilitator.” The North Korean dictionary explains that “officious” means a shameless attitude to gain more without doing a fair share. Kim’s shamelessness has gone too far. And it’s more frustrating to see President Moon Jae-in keeping his mouth shut despite such an insult.
Kim’s perception of the geography of North Korea is a response to today’s situation in which Northeast Asian countries’ relations are being restructured. The immediate goal of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was to request an easing of sanctions on the recalcitrant state. More importantly, however, Kim met with Putin because of a desperate need to reinforce relations with traditional patrons. He realized in or after Hanoi that China’s patronage was not enough to stand up to the United States. On Putin’s part, there is no reason whatsoever to refuse a summit as he is eager to expand Russia’s influence in Asia and the Pacific region.
It is superficial to interpret the remarkable changes simply as a revival of the trilateral alliances — South Korea, Japan and the United States vis-à-vis North Korea, China and Russia — from the Cold War. Due to the deteriorated Seoul-Tokyo relations and Washington’s distrust of the Moon administration, the southern alliance has no substance these days. Thanks to the trade war prompted by Trump, China and Japan are growing closer, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing a wise dual-track diplomacy.
A warship of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces carrying the Rising Run flag — a symbol of Japan’s militarism — was dispatched to the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s ceremony to mark its 70th anniversary last week. Abe went to the United States to celebrate the 49th birthday of the first lady and flaunted the close relationship between Japan and the United States by playing golf with Trump.
Trump will visit Japan in May to meet the newly enthroned emperor as his first foreign guest, followed by another trip to Japan in June to attend the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka. If Trump bypasses Korea during the period — and if a Korea-Japan bilateral summit does not take place on the sidelines of the Osaka G-20 summit — Korea will not only lose its momentum to push forward the Korea Peninsula process, but also become Northeast Asia’s odd man out.
It is an emergency situation when South Korea’s diplomacy falls into such a black hole. The first step to reversing this situation is restoring Seoul-Tokyo ties. Japan never takes a rest from having secret contacts with North Korea to improve its relations with Pyongyang. Moon’s understanding of the situation has a serious problem because it pushed Korea-Japan relations to a cliff from which they need to be extricated.
Moon’s standing can be restored by successfully arranging a third U.S.-North Korea summit. In his speech, Kim said he is willing to have another summit with Trump if the United States can come up with a methodology it can share with North Korea. Trump’s term ends at the end of 2020. It is doubtful if a methodology effective enough to overcome the failure in Hanoi will be discovered by then.
Moon did not appear to have received a magical solution from Trump in his April summit in Washington to resume the North-U.S. dialogue. That’s probably why Moon has yet to dispatch a special envoy to Pyongyang and why an inter-Korean summit is unlikely to take place soon. Kim is unlikely to be attracted to Trump’s proposal that is expected to be relayed by Moon.
Another unexpected obstacle is Kim’s decision to replace the key negotiators in the North-U.S. talks. Kim Yong-chol, who used to be the negotiation partner of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Korean National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, have been replaced by career diplomats such as Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui, probably in an attempt to exclude Pompeo from the talks.
It seems that arguably the best U.S. expert on North Korea has suddenly become the most burdensome to Pyongyang. South Korea’s counterparts to Kim Yong-chol and Pompeo also may need to be changed.
As U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who managed to turn things around in Hanoi to his own way of seeing things, remains strong, concerns are high that the denuclearization game is taking place on an uneven playing field. This is why Moon needs to hire the best negotiators of our time.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 29, Page 32