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Washington Scrambles to Slow Seoul’s Roll

The United States is worried North Korea will pocket goodies from its southern neighbor without giving up its nukes.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, pose with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, on the top of Mount Paektu on Sept. 20. (Photo by Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, pose with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, on the top of Mount Paektu on Sept. 20. (Photo by Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)

As the United States’ diplomatic opening with North Korea has largely stalled in recent months, South Korea has pressed ahead with its own effort to improve ties with the North, promoting projects to connect the two countries by rail and an ambitious gas pipeline initiative.

The diplomatic rapprochement has included the prospect of massive economic investments, which North Korea badly needs. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has publicly touted a “new economic map” for the peninsula that would envision connecting the two countries’ economies. When he traveled to Pyongyang in September, he brought with him a delegation that included some of South Korea’s most prominent businesses.

But much of that progress was thrown into doubt yesterday, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned South Korea not get too far ahead of the United States. His remarks underscored a growing concern in the Trump administration that North Korea might already be enjoying some of the benefits of the thaw in relations with the United States without paying the price: genuine progress toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

“We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “We view them as tandem, as moving forward together, we view them as important parallel processes.”

As of now, the American and South Korean diplomatic initiatives could hardly be described as moving forward together. Earlier this month, North Korea canceled a meeting between Pompeo and his counterpart in Pyongyang. And other U.S. officials are struggling to get face time with their North Korean interlocutors.

Pompeo named Steve Biegun his special envoy to North Korea in August. Biegun accompanied Pompeo to Pyongyang in October for high-level meetings, but more than a month later he’s yet to meet with his North Korean counterpart.

“Biegun is waiting by the mailbox like Charlie Brown waiting for a valentine,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA official specializing in North Korean affairs.

Part of the problem is that the terms President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un outlined in their joint declaration in Singapore six months ago remain undefined.

That document called on the North “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the two sides haven’t agreed on what “denuclearization” means or what “the Korean Peninsula” includes, according to Klingner, who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

Trump has said he would like to hold a second summit with Kim in early 2019 but plans for that meeting have not materialized. The White House appears to be backing down on its preconditions for the meeting, with Vice President Mike Pence telling NBC News last week that the United States will not require the North to provide a list of its nuclear weapons and missile sites ahead of a second summit.

That lack of progress has not discouraged South Korea from trying improve ties with the North on a variety of fronts. The construction of a gas pipeline would funnel natural gas from Russia to power South Korean industry. Rail links through the North would connect South Korean industry to Russian railways that could ship the South’s product overland to customers in Europe.

Last month, North and South Korea agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony before the end of the year on an ambitious proposal to link the two country’s railway systems, a move that would bind their economies more closely together. The American and U.N. sanctions regime against North Korea has prevented any business deals from being signed with Pyongyang, and U.S. diplomats have even delivered explicit warnings to South Korean companies not to carry out transactions with the North.

But economic sanctions can’t prevent Seoul from engaging on other fronts. A military agreement between North and South has lowered tensions along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone. The two countries are carrying out demining operations, conducting a joint survey of the Han River estuary to open the waterway to civilian traffic, and are connecting roads in the DMZ. Just this week, North Korea blew up 10 guard posts along the border.

South Korean officials argue that the divide between Seoul and Washington is far less than what meets the eye. “Inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations are like two wheels of the same vehicle,” said a South Korean diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are closely coordinating on the direction and speed of the vehicle, the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”

Still, the initiatives make Washington nervous. On Tuesday, Biegun met with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, as part of a new working group to coordinate diplomacy on the peninsula.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, seems to understand that Washington is acting as a brake on Seoul’s initiatives. This month, state media lashed out at the working group as evidence of the “U.S.’s heinous inclination to ruin … inter-Korean cooperation projects at any time,” according to a translation by NK News.

Some experts argue that South Korea’s warming relationship with the North may be cause for optimism. “In my opinion their steps are all positive,” said Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who has traveled widely in North Korea and studied the country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. “They’ve bought time and space to try and get the nuclear resolution.”

In Washington, many officials are skeptical that the Pyongyang will abide by its commitments, but that feeling is not shared by Seoul, which views the diplomatic opening as a unique opportunity to ease tensions with its neighbor. “There is a tremendous amount of optimism within Moon’s inner circle,” said Kristine Lee, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security who recently returned from meetings in Seoul.

That optimism reveals the incredible swing in U.S.-North Korean relations since last year. In an interview this week with Fox News, Trump revealed just how close he was to going to war with Pyongyang. “I think we had a real decision as to which way to go on North Korea. And certainly, at least so far, I’m very happy with the way we went,” Trump said.

That fear of returning to that war footing is what powers Seoul’s push toward reconciliation, said Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If negotiations fail, what’s left? We go back to hard-line policies and maybe even talk about military strikes. They don’t want to revert to that time period.”

Robbie Gramer contributed reporting to this article.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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