Put Seoul back in the center
The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University.
Press reports indicate that in Washington, Chung Eui-yong, director of the National Security Office, asked his American counterpart, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, to give greater scope for Seoul to expand its engagement with North Korea. The response from many hawkish Korea watchers in Washington in and out of the Trump administration has been negative because the Blue House is viewed as too naïve about the North, particularly after President Moon’s New Year’s address pledging to realize a Kim Jong-un visit to Seoul and resumption of the Kaesong industrial project and Mount Kumgang tourism in spite of the North’s intransigence in talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on nuclear issues.
I suppose I fit within the hawkish consensus on North Korea in Washington right now, but I hope that the Trump administration responds positively to Chung’s proposal. Seoul should be returned to the center of diplomacy with North Korea for three key reasons.
First, the U.S. strategy toward North Korea for seven decades has aimed to elevate Seoul’s leverage and legitimacy over Pyongyang’s. And over the same period North Korea’s strategy has been to diminish Seoul’s leverage and legitimacy by going directly to the Americans and portraying South Korea as a U.S. “puppet.” Veteran American negotiators at Panmunjom can recount numerous examples of how they had to force their North Korean counterparts to accept that the South Koreans deserved a seat at the table, a battle I had to carry on during the Bush administration when North Korea and China initially resisted including South Korea in the six-party talks. That dynamic is no less important today.
Trump’s top-down diplomacy with Kim Jong-un has returned the dynamic to a U.S.-North bilateral focus that may satisfy Trump’s vainglorious political style, but it clearly puts Seoul in the back seat. Pyongyang has literally mocked Moon for thinking that South Korea should have a role in diplomacy with the North. As retired North Korean diplomat Kim Kye-gwan recently commented dismissively, it was “presumptuous for South Korea to meddle in the personal relations between Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong-un and President Trump.” That statement should not be acceptable to the United States. Now is precisely the time that Trump needs to back up Moon publicly.
This goes to a larger point in U.S. strategy toward Asia. At a time of relative decline in U.S. power, ambitious adversaries are seeking to achieve grand bargains with the Trump administration to legitimize their own expansion in anticipation of American retreat or decline. Yet the United States is not at all in decline if one considers that other democratic powers in Asia seek to preserve an open and rules-based order based on the values espoused by the United States since 1945. Asia has more features of multipolarity — including states like South Korea, Japan, India or Indonesia — than it does Chinese unipolarity or even U.S.-China bipolarity. U.S. strategy should aim to reinforce the diplomatic role of these middle powers that share common interests and democratic values, including South Korea.
The second reason for supporting Seoul’s goal of a central role in North Korea diplomacy is the need to restore trust in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump’s announcement in Singapore in 2018 that he would halt what he called (using the North Korean term) “war games” with South Korea came as a complete surprise to Seoul, Tokyo and the Pentagon. The president fulfilled a tactical objective of Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang and undercut U.S. allies, even though some in the Blue House did welcome the reduction of tensions. More recently Trump’s demands for a 500 percent increase in Korean payments under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) has further shaken confidence in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. To be sure, bipartisan support for the alliance remains strong among the general public and in the Congress and the National Assembly — but there has been clear damage from these areas of friction at a time when neither country can afford any doubts about the future of our security relationship. U.S. support for Moon’s proposal for expanded inter-Korean dialogue would create a more positive bilateral atmosphere at a time of friction over issues like the SMA.
Third — and somewhat cynically — putting the Blue House back at the center of North Korea diplomacy would force Moon to own the nuclear problem more completely. I expect that Pyongyang will sorely disappoint those in the Blue House who still hope for a dramatic breakthrough, but it would be wise to let the Blue House test that hope and find out what happens. If inter-Korean talks advance, that would be good news. If they fail, the U.S.-South Korea assessment of North Korean intentions will be better aligned.
In sum, I hope Trump says yes to Moon. But there will have to be conditions. First, as U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris has stated, inter-Korean issues should be conducted in close consultation with the United States and not completely decoupled from the nuclear problem. Second, the Blue House should drop heightened expectations about Kaesong and Kumgang and focus on more immediate steps such as expanded surveys needed for possible completion of road and rail lines that would connect the North and South. (U.S. President George W. Bush at Dorasan Station in 2002 called on Kim Jong-il to complete the railroad, and conservatives in this administration should do the same.) Kaesong and Kumgang involved large cash transfers to the North which would not be a good idea, but completion of transportation lines would build expectations for the future without immediately enriching the North. Finally, Seoul should reciprocate the U.S. expression of support in ways that further reinforce the U.S.-South Korea alliance, such as flexibility on SMA negotiations or enhanced trilateral coordination with Japan — a priority in Washington.