from Asia Unbound

The U.S.-South Korea Alliance and North Korea Under Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in

June 20, 2017

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon shakes hands with South Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Lim Sung-Nan at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea June 14, 2017. Reuters/Ed Jones/Pool
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North Korea

South Korea

United States

Moon Jae-in

Donald Trump

Hwang Jihwan is an associate professor at University of Seoul and a visiting scholar at Catholic University of America.

Trump, Moon, and North Korea

Many in Washington and Seoul are concerned that tensions might emerge between the United States and South Korea during the upcoming summit between President Trump and President Moon. Given Trump’s diplomacy in Europe and Moon’s liberal approach to foreign policy, nobody can be sure of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD)’s future, the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA), and the North Korean nuclear issue. However, the summit meeting is also a good opportunity for both sides to show their diplomatic credibility to the world, particularly on North Korea, which has risen as the most urgent national security issue for the alliance. Trump and Moon both understand the importance of the on-going sanctions effort against North Korea. For now, the two leaders should focus on finding a coordinated approach on North Korea while leaving other issues to be discussed later

Diplomatic Strategies and Prospects for Dialogue with North Korea

Given the current situation with North Korea, new administrations in the United States and South Korea are unlikely to achieve much by opening a dialogue with North Korea. However, several years have passed since the U.S. government had a dialogue with North Korea with the breakdown of the Leap Day Agreement of early 2012. In the meantime, North Korea has conducted three more nuclear tests and several ballistic missile tests. Much has changed, and it is necessary to examine North Korea’s changing reference point on the nuclear issue. If Trump and Moon open a dialogue with North Korea in the near future, the expectation should not be any substantial progress on the denuclearization issue, but seeking to understand what North Korea wants and can do to compromise or negotiate in future talks.

It is improbable that North Korea would agree to denuclearize because it has already declared itself a nuclear weapon state like the United States and China. Rather, North Korea will seek to make use of such a dialogue to consolidate its position. Against this backdrop, it is not desirable to expect a grand bargain with North Korea in the short term. However, it may still be worth opening a new round of dialogue because the United States and South Korea will be able to examine North Korea’s current reference point and have a chance to discuss a realistic, practical, and alternative counterarguments and proposals. Exchanges of ideas and positions can occur. The goal would be to decrease the gap in positions and to understand what can be negotiated. A dialogue can begin with North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. The freeze should be merely a start. In addition, there should be North Korea’s pledge to eventually denuclearize, agreements on the future of U.S.-North Korea and inter-Korean relations, and a peace regime. They may be agreed comprehensively but should be discussed gradually. In this process, there should be some division of labor between the United States and South Korea. The United States needs to deal directly with China while South Korea needs to reach out to the North on inter-Korean issues.

Between Denuclearization and Peace Regime

The United States and South Korea need to think about a new framework for denuclearizing North Korea and building a peace regime on the Korean peninsula. North Korea has consistently made Kim Il Sung’s claim that the United States has caused the crisis on the Korean peninsula by deploying nuclear weapons in Korea. This is why North Korea believes that a peace treaty should be established first before any measure on denuclearization. Although the United States and South Korea believe that a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula would be meaningless unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program, North Korea is reluctant to denuclearize. While North Korea intends to make its regional security environment favorable with its nuclear weapons, the international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Therefore, the United States and South Korea need to think about the meaning of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula. Although the Korean War is still on-going, both internal and external situations on the Korean peninsula have changed much during the past decades, and the armistice established in 1953 does not guarantee peace and security in the region. Because the United States and South Korea do not accept the North Korean version of the peace treaty intended to weaken the U.S.-Korea alliance, it is imperative to prepare for an American and South Korean version of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula. The United States and South Korea are unlikely to be able to make any progress on denuclearization without a realistic plan for a peace regime. China has also recently started arguing for the need to discuss both the denuclearization and peace treaty issues at the same time. A new peace initiative on the Korean peninsula should include the change in North Korea’s national strategy from the Byungjin (simultaneous nuclear and economic development) to an economy-first policy, and its official pledge and initial steps to denuclearize eventually.

Resolving the North Korea Issue, Not the Nuclear Issue

China is one of the most important parties in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue. However, China is unlikely to put much pressure on North Korea to the degree that the United States and South Korea are seeking. Although China possesses the economic leverage enough to coerce North Korea, it does not want to destabilize the North Korean regime.

If neither North Korea nor China cooperates to resolve the nuclear issue, the United States and South Korea need to approach North Korean people directly in order to accelerate the slow and long-term change in North Korean society by supporting marketization and introducing more outside information. This does not mean that the United States and South Korea should seek a coercive and sudden change in North Korea. A coercive change is unlikely to produce a positive effect on the future of the Korean peninsula. It would be another Iraq after Saddam Hussein. North Korean people would not support the United States and South Korea now even if the Kim Jong Un regime were to collapse. The United States and South Korea have failed in securing North Korean people’s support for decades. If some contingencies occur inside North Korea, North Korean people are more likely to build a new regime rather than support a South Korea-led unified Korea on the peninsula. China will also seek to use such an opportunity to usher in a new pro-China regime.

Therefore, the United States and South Korea should pursue a policy that changes North Korean society itself. This is why the North Korea issue as a whole, not just the nuclear issue aspect, needs to be resolved. This is the agenda that Trump and Moon should focus on in the upcoming summit meeting.

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