Anything but normal
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must be really puzzled by now. He test-fired ballistic missiles last month, yet everyone acts like they are totally OK with it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s take on the issue was that they were “just a test” of short-range missiles, stressing Kim was still keeping his word by not testing long-range missiles. Kim tried to turn the tables around in the stalled denuclearization talks with Washington by escalating military tensions, and that’s all he got. Now Kim is pulling in Chinese President Xi Jinping to get the upper hand in the denuclearization talks.
It is preposterous to shrug off North Korea’s missile launches. They blatantly violate the United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang’s use of ballistic-missile technology and firing of ballistic missiles. John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, admitted North Korea violated UN resolutions, while Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, vaguely said the regime “probably” violated UN resolutions. Yet Trump said, “My people think it could have been a violation […] but I view it differently.” What a comedy! But the worst had yet to come: The South Korean Defense Ministry said it was still “analyzing” the North Korean projectiles when asked whether they constituted a breach of UN resolutions.
What’s even more abnormal is the whole fiasco surrounding Kim’s latest letter to Trump. The act of a head of state sending a letter to the leader of a different country is a highly diplomatic act that requires confidentiality more than anything else. The contents of such letters are considered national secrets, just like the phone conversation on May 7 between President Moon Jae-in and Trump over the test-firing of new projectiles in North Korea. Guess why the Blue House became so furious when an opposition lawmaker leaked the telephone chats between the two leaders?
Last week, the Blue House breached diplomatic courtesy by mentioning Kim’s letter to Trump out in the open. A high-level Blue House official told local reporters last Friday that Chung Eui-yong, director of the Blue House National Security Office, “saw” the letter and “expected” Trump to think it was “such a beautiful letter.” “It turned out Chung was right,” said the Blue House official. The Blue House source was basically saying South Korea saw the letter before the United States.
But after local media churned out news reports saying Chung “saw” Kim’s letter before Trump did, the Blue House issued a message to reporters that the high-level official actually meant Chung had been “informed about the letter’s content” from the United States.
Moon also mentioned the letter at a public forum last week during a three-nation Nordic tour. He said the letter contained “some interesting parts President Trump did not announce” to the press. What’s so wrong about Moon’s comment is that he should not publicly discuss other heads of states’ letters, especially if he’s neither the sender nor recipient. That is diplomacy 101.
Time is not on our side. Trump’s remarks that the North Korean missile launches were not a breach of Security Council resolutions were not a sophisticated strategy to strike a nuclear deal with Pyongyang. Rather, it was to buy more time to win the next presidential election. And if Trump is re-elected, no one knows how he would confront the nuclear crisis. We cannot even be sure that Trump will serve a second term.
If former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden — who calls Kim “a tyrant” — wins the White House next year, the United States will likely go back to square one in its North Korea diplomacy. This period of what looks like abnormal diplomacy could actually be the North’s last opportunity to negotiate before it all goes back to normal.
The same goes for our diplomacy. The Moon administration’s North Korea-centered diplomacy has come at the cost of diplomacy with the United States and Japan. Over the past year and a half, we have witnessed how ineffective this tug-of-war between complete denuclearization and sanctions relief has been.
In that sense, Moon took a right step by urging North Korea to show the will to first dismantle its nuclear weapons. That’s a good sign. The next wise step for Moon to take is to replace his foreign minister, who is unwilling to take any responsibility for repeated diplomatic fumbles except demanding tougher discipline from diplomats. Russell H. Ewing, a British journalist who spent his whole career writing on leadership and management, said, “A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes.” Does the public want a boss or a leader? The answer is clear.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 19, Page 30