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Hawks Will Only Drive South Korea Away From America

Seoul sees the prospect of peace in sight.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, shown with their wives Ri Sol Ju, left, and Kim Jung-sook, join hands on the top of Mount Paektu in North Korea on Sept. 20 during the recent Inter-Korean summit talks. (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, shown with their wives Ri Sol Ju, left, and Kim Jung-sook, join hands on the top of Mount Paektu in North Korea on Sept. 20 during the recent Inter-Korean summit talks. (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)

The Korean Peninsula moved from 2017’s “fire and fury” to 2018’s historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with tentative U.S.-North Korean detente amid the self-declared lovefest between the two leaders. Along the way, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has fostered the process through a series of rolling inter-Korean summits and adroit communication between Pyongyang and Washington.

The recent three-day inter-Korean summit, the third of Moon’s term and the fifth ever, appears to have restarted stalled U.S.-North Korean talks. Although still tentative, the agreements arranged at the summit open space for yet more historic developments ahead, including a possible declaration marking the official end of the Korea War. That would be a political step, not a legal one, but still hugely important.

In short, we may be on the verge of a fundamental restructuring of the decades-old security regime on the Korean Peninsula. However, that restructuring could go one of two ways.

One route sees the emergence of a more stable and peaceful regime in the North, and even the possibility of the Korean Armistice Agreement being replaced by a formal peace treaty. But things could also go very badly wrong. The power of the hawks in the Trump administration could soar after events turn sour. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang might not just stall, but fully break down. And the existing fissures between Washington and Seoul could potentially turn into a more open rupture in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Historically, Pyongyang demanded a particular sequence of steps in relation to the United States, U.S. peninsular-based military forces, and any North-South settlement. First, it consistently proposed direct U.S.-North Korean talks and a bilateral peace treaty, to be followed by the removal of U.S. troops and dissolution of the U.S.-led United Nations Command. Only then would it pursue North-South negotiations. Simply put, Pyongyang’s position was that Seoul, never a signatory to the Armistice Agreement, should not be a part of the agreement’s replacement. The South Korean authorities were considered foreign lackeys and, by definition, illegitimate.

Yet going back to the 1970s, successive U.S. and South Korean administrations consistently proposed direct North-South talks and the signing of an inter-Korean nonaggression pact. Gradual confidence-building measures would follow, such as cultural and political exchanges and family reunions, and later more substantial demilitarization measures in and around the Demilitarized Zone. Once trust was established, all the parties could then work toward the replacement of the Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty formally ending the Korean War and the disestablishment of the U.N. Command. This could lead to general disarmament and a so-called peace regime. Over the years, such a sequence was laid out in both South Korean and U.S. internal memos as well as public proposals, but it was never achieved.

But the days of Pyongyang vociferously denying Seoul’s legitimacy and obstructing its participation in U.S.-North Korean security-related talks are gone. Pyongyang has made an important shift in directly recognizing denuclearization as a legitimate topic for inter-Korean discussion. Moreover, the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, though not a formal North-South nonaggression pact, certainly contains the spirit of one.

Furthermore, both Koreas have already instituted or begun to institute certain confidence-building measures proposed in April’s Panmunjom Declaration and reaffirmed at the third Moon-Kim summit last month. Both sides now intend to implement the tension-reducing and peace-building efforts outlined in their military agreement, which is designed to end “hostile acts against each other in every domain,” on land, air, and sea, on and around the DMZ. This week, they began landmine removal efforts in the Joint Security Area portion of the DMZ. They also set a schedule for a joint excavation effort from April 1 to Oct. 31, 2019, during which North and South Korean teams will unearth the remains of some 500 troops in Cheorwon, the site of a particularly bloody battle during the Korean War.

Additionally, Pyongyang’s demand for immediate U.S. troop withdrawal has waned, with the North Koreans becoming more flexible on the issue in recent years. Kim is said to have told Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security advisor, that he understands any declaration ending the Korean War (if it occurred) would have nothing to do with the status of United States Forces Korea.

In short, Pyongyang has ditched its intransigence on its previously preferred sequence. This has set the stage for both Koreas and the United States to formally declare an end to the Korean War, a goal agreed to in the Panmunjom Declaration, which both Moon and Kim hope to achieve before year’s end.

Pyongyang’s apparent shift in tactics, vastly improved inter-Korean relations, and the possibility for yet greater progress have been driven by several additional factors.

North Korea’s theoretical capability to strike the U.S. mainland allows it to negotiate from a position of relative strength, unlike ever before. This new confidence allows Pyongyang to offer small concessions up front, such as returning U.S. service members’ remains, a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, a promise (now repeated for a second time) to dismantle the Sohae missile engine testing site and missile launch area in the presence of international inspectors, and even an offer to close down its nuclear operation at Yongbyon in exchange for an end-of-war declaration. Meanwhile, Kim maintains his charm offensive. He meets world leaders, looks the part of a normal head of state, and subtly shifts the collective perception, thus making a return to the saber rattling of 2017 all the more difficult.

The Moon administration, much like the previous progressive administrations of Presidents Kim Dae-jung, from 1998 to 2003, and Roh Moo-hyun, from 2003 to 2008, is inherently inclined toward engagement with Pyongyang. Moon served in Roh’s administration and was his right-hand man. Nevertheless, Moon closely observed Roh’s tension-filled relationship with the George W. Bush administration and consequently is acutely aware of the limits of inter-Korean engagement when Seoul and Washington are not in sync. Considering Trump’s sudden shifts in behavior and rhetoric, not to mention the undue trade pressure he has put on Seoul amid the ongoing nuclear crisis, it is a testament to how deeply Moon absorbed this lesson and his steadiness as a leader that he has managed to keep things on track.

Yet, after three inter-Korean summits, including an address to roughly 150,000 North Koreans (a truly remarkable if still highly choreographed event), Moon has reached the point of no return. For him to turn back, or acquiesce in Washington-led return to the pressure and bellicose rhetoric of 2017, is politically untenable. Indeed, on Sept. 24 during his press remarks alongside Trump at the U.N., Moon went so far as to say, “North Korea’s decision to relinquish its nuclear program has been officialized to a degree that not even those within North Korea can reverse.” He kept up his own charm offensive by telling Trump, “you are, indeed, the only person who can solve this problem.” In the wake of these recent events, Moon’s approval rating is once again on the rise.

Third, and finally, Trump is simply unlike any previous U.S. president. He is perfectly willing to jettison long-standing U.S. imperatives and the logic that underpins them. Trump’s unstable domestic political situation makes an end-of-war declaration a potentially attractive option. No matter how little actual substance is behind the declaration, Trump would sell it as golden, and the goal posts would slowly shift.

But that’s also the catch. Trump may be oblivious to longstanding U.S. imperatives and prone to making sudden and significant shifts in U.S. policy. But others are not. His own Cabinet, the New York Times reports, is concerned about his tendency to be “overly enthusiastic about engagement with wily adversaries.” They regularly tell the press and officials from other countries not to pay attention to his tweets. Put differently, they openly tell the world not to listen to what their president says.

Moreover, regardless of what Trump says, the official U.S. position has not changed. According to the standard Washington line, Pyongyang must first produce a weapons inventory and permit inspections before any end-of-war declaration or real progress can be made. On Tuesday, according to the Washington Post, North Korea’s state-run broadcaster called the demand for an inventory “rubbish,” and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha herself proposed the United States hold off on the demand. Thus, the potential for a breakdown in U.S.-North Korea talks and an open crack in the U.S.-South Korean alliance is very real.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton does not trust Pyongyang. He is on record calling for U.S. military strikes against it and is reported to have been behind the cancellation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s August trip to Pyongyang. Nor is Pompeo ready to abandon the U.S. position. When asked if the United States was willing to declare an end to the Korean War, Pompeo evaded the question. Instead, he stressed that Pyongyang still poses a threat and that denuclearization must be the main goal. It would also appear the Pentagon and local U.S. military officials are not pleased with elements of the recent inter-Korean military agreement. Add to this CIA Director Gina Haspel’s known skepticism toward Pyongyang’s stated willingness to give up its nuclear weapons, and one has the ingredients for a rapid shift away from potentially historical agreements toward something very different. Were Trump to follow his advisors and return to Bolton’s bellicose line, Moon would not follow. Considering Trump’s vindictiveness and documented tendency to belittle South Korea and advocate for disengagement form the peninsula, this could lead to an irreparable rift in the alliance.

Can Trump override his own Cabinet and the larger U.S. foreign-policy and defense establishment by pushing forward with concessions they find anathema? In other words, is Trump willing to walk back from the formerly sacrosanct demand that Pyongyang give up its nuclear and missile programs before further security guarantees and an end-of-war declaration are given? These questions matter, because Pyongyang has made promises and taken some steps, but without further moves from Washington it is very hard to see it agreeing to much else.

It bears mention, though, that an Oct. 2 Korean state media editorial said that even an end-of-war declaration “is not just a gift from a man to another at all. Furthermore, it can never be a bargaining chip for getting the DPRK denuclearized.”

What North Korea appears to want, nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis recently noted, is: “a version of the Israel deal — they don’t test nuclear weapons or show them off at parades; we pretend they don’t exist.” It is not hard to see Trump moving in this direction and interpreting what appear to be good faith signals from Pyongyang as sufficient reason to make ebullient public statements and agree to historic declarations. The leaders in Pyongyang are keen observers of the U.S. president. They see what most of us see: a man desperate for applause, who faces severe troubles at home and is easily swayed by “warm” letters and sweet promises. They know Trump keenly desires the appearance (with or without substance) of a historic deal. For its part, the Moon administration sees a clear if fraught choice: a move toward a more stable modus vivendi, or return to “fire and fury” and an almost certain fracture in the U.S.-South Korean alliance. That choice is an easy one.


Clint Work is a doctoral candidate at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

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