Hand-wringing over North Korea only benefits Kim Jong-un
John Barry Kotch says with the US, South Korea and China no closer to an effective plan to stop Pyongyang’s missile programme, it’s time to revive the inter-Korean agreements that will provide the best chance for peace
Over the past fortnight, a summit in Washington between new South Korean president Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump – preceded by high-level Sino-American talks – have failed to bring clarity to the political uncertainty and complexity on the Korean peninsula.
No common approach – much less a strategy – emerged from either the summit or the Sino-US talks, which featured the secretaries of state and defence Rex Tillerson and James Mattis on the American side, and state councillor Yang Jiechi ( 楊潔箎 ) and high-ranking general Fang Fenghui (房峰輝) on the Chinese side. This lack of progress makes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un the default beneficiary.
As a follow-up to the Trump-Xi tête-à-tête in Mar-a-Lago, one might have hoped for more in the way of a path forward. But the day-long get-together brought none of the optimism associated with the earlier event. Soon after, harsh sanctions were meted out to the Bank of Dandong and Dalien Global Unity Shipping, both Chinese entities allegedly dealing with the North in violation of existing UN sanctions, as well as the announcement of a US$1.4 billion arms shipment to Taiwan.
One Chinese academic labelled the move “a stab in the back”, since Beijing has been cooperating closely with Washington in opposing the North Korean weapons programme, while fully complying with UN Security Council sanctions imposed on the North.
Watch: Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in threaten ‘stern response’ to North Korea
At the US-South Korean summit, Trump trumpeted that “the policy of strategic patience is over” in dealing with the North Korean “menace”, but without indicating what would replace it other than broader and more intrusive sanctions or increasing shows of force.
The era of strategic patience with the North Korea regime has failed. That patience is over. We are working closely with.... pic.twitter.com/nCZ51HnIdx
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2017
Trump and Moon emphasised cordiality and the historic importance of the Korean-American alliance in underpinning South Korean security. Not having settled on his own strategy to replace Barack Obama’s “strategic patience”, the president appeared prepared to cut Moon some slack in approaching the North.
Still, Moon has less room to manoeuvre compared with former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung two decades ago, given the North Korean strides in weapons of mass destruction and missile development in the interim.
At the same time, Moon can be forgiven for feeling trapped by the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, having suspended further deployment in deference to China while fending off pressure from the US to make the remaining batteries operational.
And, as with China, Trump muddied the waters by intermingling economic and trade issues dividing the two allies with more weighty security matters in dealing with North Korea, thereby detracting from the primary focus of the summit. In particular, he has labelled the US-Korea free trade agreement “a bad deal” for US companies and workers, and something that would have to be revised, leaving Moon in a double bind.
The best method for enhancing security and stability on the peninsula is by implementing previous inter-Korean agreements covering both conventional and nuclear arms; specifically, the 1991 Agreement on Non-aggression, Reconciliation, Exchanges and Cooperation providing for transparency, including prior notification and observation of military exercises, as well as the North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, banning the development, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons. Although nearly three decades old, they still provide the basic building blocks for a new security framework on the peninsula.
The massive power and combat readiness of the US-South Korean alliance has probably become counterproductive, and is likely to be responsible for driving the North into an existential corner. For this reason, scaling back their annual military exercise should not be viewed as appeasement but as a step towards enhancing peninsula security. Similarly, a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests could take place within the parameters of a joint nuclear protocol.
Crucially, to encourage their implementation would require Washington and Beijing to coordinate a diplomatic approach.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant