A big misunderstanding and miscalculation
The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
About this time of year in 2019, I was camping out with other reporters at the Melina Hanoi in Vietnam. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been staying there as he was to meet U.S. President Donald Trump, who declared he had fallen in love with his younger North Korean counterpart since their first summit in Singapore in 2018. But affection and denuclearization had been irrelevant. Despite much hype about a tantalizing détente, the U.S.-North Korea talks in Hanoi collapsed abruptly. The matchmaker, South Korea, alone could not concede that the beautiful relationship had ended.
At that time, I pointed out two misunderstandings for the collapse in Hanoi. The first misunderstanding was on North Korea. South Koreans and Americans believed Pyongyang was sincere about complete denuclearization, which turned out not to be true. The second was on Trump and the United States. To please his ego, Trump was expected to press on with some kind of a deal. But the U.S. system did not let Trump’s self-centeredness get in the way of national interests. The U.S. saw the North Korean nuclear issue in the context of the Iranian problem. North Korea thought it could divert the U.S. gaze to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, but America had a wandering eye, and a far-reaching telescope in its hand.
Three years have passed. Was I right?
On the North’s will to denuclearize, we have seen the consequences already. In the following year, North Korea took denuclearization out of the terms of negotiations with the U.S. As it turned out, North Korea fired missiles seven times during the first two months of this year. Pyongyang told Seoul that the ballistic missiles it test-fired flew at the speed of Mach 10, ten times the speed of sound. North Korea went so far as to forewarn that its missile launches were not over as it would be testing nuclear weapons and ICBMs. Satellite pictures showed the Yongbyon complex was operating enrichment facilities for weapons-grade uranium. Intelligence officials in the U.S. and Japan estimate that North Korea’s nuclear warheads would have doubled to 60 from 30 from the time of Hanoi summit.
Either we were fooled by North Korea on its will to denuclearize or we misled the world. Whichever it may be, a new South Korean administration will have to look back on the matter and find out who was liable for such an utterly incorrect judgment. It also must verify the rumor from Washington that Seoul paid money to Pyongyang.
President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wave to 150,000 Pyongyang citizens welcoming Moon on September 19, 2018 after watching a mass performance titled the “Shining Fatherland” in the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in the capital of North Korea. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
Under the Biden presidency, no policies receive a go-ahead until they are backed by the administration, the Congress, and think tanks. Yet the Moon Jae-in administration has been repeatedly asking Washington to ease the terms for Pyongyang, even as it had not earned enough trust to make Washington feel a sense of guilt.
In comparison, Japan has indulged Washington. The Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Consultative Committee (2+2) meeting last month had a line welcoming “robust progress on evolving Alliance roles, missions, and capabilities, and on bilateral planning for contingencies.” What sounded like a ceremonial and figurative statement actually meant the beginning of U.S.-Japan joint operations at times of contingency related to Taiwan, according to a high-ranking Japanese official. Last week, Japan even offered to provide liquified natural gas to Europe in case Russia cuts its supplies over Ukraine.
Japan acted on what can please the U.S. the most. If Washington had to choose, whom will it choose: Tokyo, which willingly responded to the Taiwan and Ukraine issues, or Seoul, which has been begging Washington to send a personal letter to Kim Jong-un or make other overtures when North Korea has been set aside since the fallout in Hanoi?
There must be a give-and-take in inter-government relations. That’s the ABCs of diplomacy. Yet, South Korea believed that North Korea and the United States were always on its side — a big misunderstanding and miscalculation. In a nutshell, Seoul has been most badly misled by believing that it could persuade both Washington and Pyongyang.
When asked about his biggest diplomatic achievement in an interview last week, President Moon Jae-in pointed to his address before an audience of 150,000 citizens in a mammoth stadium in Pyongyang as the most memorable moment in inter-Korean relations during his five-year reign. He could still be self-absorbed about the summit in the North Korean capital. But it is very sad that he remembers the mobilized North Korean crowd as the most shining moment in his presidency when no progress has actually been made in denuclearization.