Last year was rife with speculation that Donald Trump would go to war with North Korea to prevent the regime from completing its ICBM program. The danger of military hostilities rose precipitously as Pyongyang drew near to its goal of being able to target the American homeland with nuclear weapons.
But 2018 dawned with conjecture that hastily convened meetings between the two Koreas might defuse the crisis and facilitate their stepping back from the precipice of conflict. North Korea’s routine call for improving inter-Korean relations during its annual New Year’s Day speech was quickly accepted by South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, who was desperate to maintain calm during the upcoming Winter Olympics.
According to South Korean officials, President Trump reassured Seoul that “there will be no [U.S.] military action while inter-Korean dialogue is taking place.” The respite, though welcome, is sure to be only temporary, because attempts at dialogue with North Korea inevitably lead to disappointment. Pyongyang consistently rejects international calls to divest itself of its prohibited nuclear and missile programs. Meanwhile, in the south, the annual allied military exercises — which inevitably trigger threats from north — remain on the horizon.
Observing the opening of inter-Korean talks is like rewatching the movie Titanic — breathless exultation at the grandiose launch of the voyage, fervent hope that this time the ending will somehow be different, mounting trepidation as the venture moves toward danger, and, finally, conflicting accusations as to who was to blame for (spoiler alert) the tragic denouement. The captain will be blamed for moving too fast or too slow, but the iceberg (North Korea) is seldom blamed, since it was simply acting according to its nature.
Indeed, North Korea’s agreement merely to meet with the South was celebrated as progress. The January 9 meeting was the first since the failed December 2015 talks, when the regime declared that “prospects of North–South relations became even bleaker.”
At the January 9 meeting, North and South Korea agreed to reestablish military hotlines. That, too, was progress, but bear in mind that the sole reason the hotlines had been abandoned was that Pyongyang refused to answer the phones.
In previous inter-Korean talks, Pyongyang repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise on core objectives. Seoul’s calls to standardize the reunion of separated families and to address North Korean denuclearization have been brushed aside in favor of regime priorities such as canceling South Korea’s military exercises with allies or establishing a peace treaty.
This month’s meeting ran true to form. North Korea angrily rejected Seoul’s attempt to raise denuclearization, claiming that its nuclear-weapons programs were “strictly aimed at the U.S. They do not target our brethren, nor do they target China and Russia.” Clearly, the North Korean delegation had forgotten Pyongyang’s frequent threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” with nuclear weapons or that “the four islands of the Japanese archipelago should be sunken into the sea by our nuclear bomb. Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.”
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is walking a diplomatic tightrope, trying to make progress with Pyongyang while not alienating allies.
However, Seoul and Pyongyang did agree that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympics. The opening ceremony will doubtless produce heartwarming pictures of athletes from both countries marching together behind a non-national Korean unification flag (white field with blue Korean Peninsula superimposed). Such was the scene during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which, opening only six months after the historic first inter-Korean summit, led many to predict imminent Korean reunification.
But those Olympics, as well as subsequent joint sporting and cultural events (most recently, the October 2014 Asian Games in South Korea), all failed to improve inter-Korean relations or to moderate regime behavior.
President Moon is walking a diplomatic tightrope, trying to make progress with the regime that threatens his country, while not alienating the U.S. ally that guarantees South Korea’s security but remains wary of his tactics. Moon’s May 2017 election raised concerns in Washington that the progressive president would resurrect the naïve engagement policies of Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon served as chief of staff.
Moon, like Roh, initially sought to prioritize dialogue over pressure with North Korea. But Moon adopted a tougher, more centrist approach toward Pyongyang than many had predicted — largely because Pyongyang rebuffed his initial attempts at engagement while continuing its nuclear and missile tests.
The U.S. welcomed Moon’s conversion but remained uneasy, uncertain whether he would revert to a softer stance if North Korea initiated a charm offensive designed to split the alliance. During a lengthy press conference in early January, President Moon sent all the right signals to his nervous U.S. ally, including praise for President Trump’s tough stance, reassurance that Seoul wouldn’t go rogue and abandon international sanctions, and a pledge that North Korean denuclearization remained the ultimate goal.
Pyongyang’s efforts to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea can be mitigated with careful alliance-management efforts. Moon has signaled his adherence to international pressure and sanctions against North Korea. He has also postponed — not canceled — the annual bilateral Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises. Washington should privately ensure that he abides by those commitments but publicly support Moon’s efforts at using dialogue to reduce tensions while continually striving for denuclearization.
The Trump administration should also define and articulate its North Korea policy more clearly. The president and senior officials have sent conflicting signals on whether Washington is interested in dialogue with the North. This has sown confusion. Media reports have further muddied the waters. They have suggested that the Trump administration has “dramatically” stepped up preparation for a military attack — to give Kim Jong-un a “bloody nose” and to trigger negotiations by showing that Trump is serious about stopping further nuclear development.
The Trump administration should refrain from any bellicose threats of preventive military strikes. An emphasis on preventive attacks undercuts both components of its “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy. U.S. attacks should be reserved for convincing signs of imminent North Korean attack.
U.S. and South Korean diplomats should be willing to meet North Korean counterparts, particularly to discuss confidence- and security-building measures geared to increase transparency regarding both North Korean and allied military forces and to reduce the potential for military miscalculation.
But dialogue shouldn’t come at the cost of giving out concessions or reducing the international effort to pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of United Nations resolutions. Nor should the allies agree to constrain defensive measures necessitated by North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities and repeated defiance of U.N. resolutions.