Jongsoo Lee is senior managing director at Brock Securities and center associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. The opinions expressed here are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year address has given rise to a potential for improved inter-Korean relations. Though caution is necessary in dealing with Pyongyang’s peace overtures, Washington and Seoul should work together to leverage his overture in order to create an opening for de-escalation in the nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea.
It is understandable why Kim’s speech may be seen as anti-American and a ploy to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Indeed, what was surprising was his sudden ardent call for inter-Korean reconciliation, in contrast to his previous New Year addresses lacking in such a call. Kim devoted much time making his case that the way to peace on the Korean peninsula is through inter-Korean cooperation instead of relying on interventions by foreign powers. Kim named the United States repeatedly as the chief foreign power opposed to inter-Korean peace and reconciliation.
For Washington to oppose the steps for inter-Korean dialogue underway in the wake of Kim’s speech would be to take Pyongyang’s bait and give credence to his narrative that Washington is an enemy, not a friend, of the Korean people. It is high time that the United States shattered the decades-old North Korean propaganda that America is the chief culprit behind Korea’s modern tragedies, including the partition of the peninsula after World War II, the ensuing Korean War, and the continuing division of the peninsula. For decades, the Pyongyang regime has been using this propaganda to indoctrinate and rally the North Korean masses behind its rule. Washington needs to start demonstrating by its words and actions that Kim’s narrative is deceptive.
Supporting the inter-Korean dialogue could also provide a way out for the United States from the current nuclear standoff by weakening Kim’s self-defense rationale for his nuclear weapons program. Instead of obliging him in exchanging threats and taunts and further escalating tensions, thereby further fueling Pyongyang’s anti-American propaganda, the United States should offer peace initiatives to North Korea, demonstrating that Washington is not an existential threat and that it supports peaceful Korean reunification through inter-Korean dialogue.
Washington has therefore made a step in the right direction by agreeing with Seoul in freezing their joint military exercises during the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea. Indeed, the Olympics comes almost as a godsend in that it has provided the cover necessary for Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington to call a truce and enter into a de-escalating mode, at least temporarily.
Lastly, supporting the inter-Korean dialogue would not damage the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Washington and Seoul enjoy a strong alliance that is decades-old and has successfully weathered past North Korean provocations and charm offensives. As long as the allies remain in close coordination, they should be able to overcome any attempt to weaken their alliance. De-escalation may take the form of inter-Korean dialogue leading to trilateral talks between Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington that discuss steps beyond the temporary halt of the joint military exercises such as more confidence-building measures aimed at inducing North Korea’s behavior as a responsible member of the international community and its eventual denuclearization.
The global community should support this Olympic momentum for de-escalation. Failure to sustain this momentum would probably mean a relapse to a worsening crisis as joint military exercises resume in the spring and Pyongyang likely follows with more nuclear or missile testing.