Washington and Seoul can use their differences to challenge a dangerously ambitious North Korea.
- By Duyeon KimDuyeon Kim is a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul and specializes in nuclear nonproliferation, the two Koreas, and East Asian geopolitics. She was previously an associate in the nuclear policy and Asia programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views are the author’s own.
The Kim Jong Un regime isn’t modest about its technological achievements. Pyongyang claims that its second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), carried out on July 28, shows the missile can carry a “large-sized nuclear warhead,” can reach “its maximum range,” and that a menu of key parts makes this missile fully functional and reliable. These need to be independently verified, but they can’t be written off as mere bluffs — they indicate the regime’s goals, even if it hasn’t gotten there yet. If left unchecked, Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal will be able to successfully hit the entirety of the United States.
The two ICBM tests have heightened the sense of threat in the United States while again sparking regional fears about decoupling — anxieties about whether America’s nuclear umbrella still serves as a credible deterrent against North Korea and whether South Korea would be abandoned if the United States came under direct strike from Pyongyang.
Recognizing the growing threat’s urgency, Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in began to formulate the contours of a joint plan in their meeting on June 30. But no diplomatic display or rhetoric could mask the stark differences reflected in their joint press announcement and statement. An undercurrent of deep distrust, suspicion, and frustration runs between Washington and Seoul, impeding their cooperation even as North Korea’s arsenal appears to be taking on an increasingly offensive tinge.
The regime claims that its nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence purposes, but its stated conditions for nuclear first use — that it will not use nuclear weapons first unless Washington shows signs of attacking it — are dangerously ambiguous, especially for a regime whose internal paranoias could easily spill over into the international arena. It’s easy to imagine Pyongyang misinterpreting an instance of American posturing or deterrent threats as an indication of incoming attack.
Some former U.S. officials who met with incumbent North Korean officials said their counterparts saw relations with Washington as mutual assured destruction (MAD) and were either unaware of the intricacies of deterrence theory or did not seem to fully understand it. A big nuclear power would chuckle at the MAD description because it is a Cold War military doctrine that assumes each side possesses enough nuclear firepower to destroy the other and, if attacked, would be able to retaliate without fail. But it may also be difficult for a big, strong nuclear weapons state to understand a small, weaker nuclear-armed state’s definition of deterrence for survival and leverage.
More rational North Korean thinking on “deterrence” has some parallels with France’s nuclear posture back in the days of the Soviet Union: perfecting a secure second-strike (or retaliatory) capability and ensuring countervalue targeting (civilian populations and economic bases). Its first line of deterrence appears to be twofold: the ability to deter an American attack and to prevent a U.S. invasion after an internal crisis drives the regime to the brink.
Whatever the scope of the North’s nuclear plans, they can’t be countered without a coordinated response from the United States and South Korea. When Trump and Moon met in Washington, they began to put together a badly needed response to the North’s ambitions. Among their notable accomplishments were an agreement to work closely with Japan, followed up with a trilateral summit at the G-20, and a commitment to further upgrade their own alliance to include issues reaching beyond the peninsula. But serious obstacles remain in the way of deeper cooperation on North Korea.
For South Koreans, Trump’s “America First” policy and brash and derogatory tweets, together with the recent North Korean ICBM tests, have raised fear and suspicion about Washington’s defense commitment. They suspect that Washington would sacrifice South Korea to protect American territory from a North Korean nuclear strike, and some lawmakers are again calling for South Korea to have its own nuclear weapons. Feeding such speculation and distrust was Trump’s public jab at the U.S.-Korean free trade agreement during the summit’s joint press announcement.
Many in Washington, meanwhile, fear Moon would restore inter-Korean relations and align with China at the expense of U.S. interests. They see confirmation of such suspicions in Moon’s July 6 Berlin proposal for inter-Korean dialogue, especially military talks, perceiving Seoul as moving too quickly without prior coordination with the United States. Seoul’s refusal to name Pyongyang’s July 4 missile test an ICBM and its lack of clarity and predictability on the definitive and full deployment of the American anti-ballistic missile defense system THAAD are further deepening distrust and frustration. For the suspicious, it was not enough that Moon voiced reassurances during the summit that he prioritizes the bilateral alliance and is realistic about today’s North Korean security threat.
Moon’s priorities are also sharply different from Trump’s. Moon, known for his strong left-wing views and slammed by critics as a Northern sympathizer, has so far signaled a balanced North Korea approach by even calling for unilateral sanctions after Pyongyang’s second ICBM test and for the temporary deployment of four additional THAAD launchers, although a final decision on full deployment still depends on an extensive environmental assessment.
But Moon is also waiting for the right time to drive his true agenda. First, he wants finally to complete the Sunshine Policy initiated by former progressive Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun that aimed to persuade North Korean denuclearization with generous concessions and to achieve inter-Korean reconciliation before eventual reunification. Second, he wants to gain a bigger voice in the alliance with America while taking the lead on reunification. Moon appreciates that Koreans desire freedom from the grip of big powers — sentiments dating back centuries — but also that any overt expressions of such desires by his government or the public, even just for domestic consumption, could be misinterpreted as nationwide anti-Americanism or ungratefulness.
Moon will nonetheless gauge opportunities for an early summit with Kim Jong Un within this year. He will also seek ways to revive the Kaesong Industrial Complex (a symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement and operated by South Korean managers with North Korean workers, whose wages the previous conservative administration argued bankrolled Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs) despite his public admission that it violates sanctions. But the fate of Sunshine 3.0 will ultimately rest on uncontrollable external factors — North Korean behavior, geopolitics, and timing. Pyongyang has already snubbed Moon’s Berlin proposal to improve cross-border relations.
The Trump administration could still utilize Moon’s feelers as an opportunity, not a threat. History has shown that a coordinated effort by Washington and Seoul to play “good cop, bad cop” on Pyongyang and inter-Korean dialogue could give rise to U.S.-North Korea negotiations. The key, however, is careful alliance management between Seoul and Washington to prevent cleavages and North Korean attempts to play one against the other.
In order to effectively deal with their common security threat, the allies need to point the finger away from each other and cement a unified approach. They must not allow issues like THAAD to symbolize the alliance and its health. Instead, they should devise a comprehensive strategy to reduce tensions and freeze and roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the context of a larger regional design.
The September 2005 joint statement following six-party talks among the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, with necessary upgrades, is a useful blueprint that provides pledges and pathways to resolving all parties’ concerns and establishing a peaceful and prosperous Northeast Asia. It includes a peace regime (sometimes called a “peace treaty” to formally end the Korean War) that has never been taken off the table. The focus now should be on easing Pyongyang’s fears, as complete disarmament cannot be achieved without a resolution of all parties’ security concerns. The North can no longer be lured by the usual bags of rice and biscuits as economic inducements (Pyongyang might demand larger overseas developmental assistance-style aid).
The allies should also devise the right mix of tools to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table while maintaining credible pressure underpinned by a strong defense posture and effective sanctions. Halting U.S.-South Korean military drills would be like dropping a shield in the face of a drawn sword. Direct governmental discussions are the best way to gauge the range of possibilities and opportunities for a bargain, as opposed to reading public statements that never reveal the entire picture. Washington and Seoul should consider initiating formal negotiations with North Korea at the foreign ministerial level within the six-party framework that includes Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow, with both Washington and Seoul assigning a diplomatic all-star team to the task. Frequent U.S.-North Korea discussions should also be held amid these broader negotiations.
Finally, America and its allies should not lose sight of the end state: a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula, an official end to the Korean War, the establishment of a regional peace and security mechanism that also ensures North Korean prosperity, and the eventual reunification of the Koreas.
Only then will the sun truly shine on the peninsula.
Photo Credit: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images