I agree with much of what David French writes on the end of the Korean summit. From prematurely accepting the invitation to a summit, to turning it into a kind of climatic episode of the TrumpTV presidency, to failing to warn our Asian allies of the decision to pull out of the June summit, the missteps of the Trump administration on the Korean peninsula are many. And they will be rehearsed elsewhere. The consequences of these miscalculations are serious as well.
But we shouldn’t let anyone off the hook. During the run-up to negotiations, the North Korean government set their nation’s clocks forward by one half hour in order to match them with time in South Korea.
But the amount of harmonization was only to begin there. South Korean President Moon Jae-in had started floating daring proposals of creating a single market structure across the two Koreas.
That ambitious idea reflects Moon’s personality and his daring. But it is as if Moon’s political life is fatally mistimed. He wanted to take an activist approach to peace-making on the Korean peninsula. But he did so just as North Korea had secured its nuclear umbrella. The effect was to vindicate the North Korean government’s strategy. For joining the ICBM club, it got a U.S. president willing to mint coins of the Supreme Leader, and a South Korean president willing to begin creating harmonization of the Koreas without the North Korean government giving much of anything in return.
It was a typical mismatch between an authoritarian and two democracies. Trump wanted a major foreign-policy victory to tout at home. Moon wanted to assuage fears in Seoul and consolidate his popularity. The democratically elected leaders hoped to use a summit with the North as a way of shoring up domestic political success. Kim Jung-un was the only player in the game focusing relentlessly on his own foreign policy goals. Worse, the attitude of the U.S. and South Korean presidents was diametrically opposed. The North Koreans would have had an easy time dividing us from each other.
America’s position in East Asia and South Asia is becoming weaker. And the wedges that can be put into its relationships there are getting bigger and more damaging. This episode only accelerates the decline, it makes us look unreliable precisely at a time when the Chinese government is in a strong position to deliver on its promises.
Any U.S. president looking to go into multi-party talks about the Koreas, must cultivate an extremely close relationship and coordinated policy goals with South Korea. They must do their homework. This isn’t a game. We are rapidly heading toward a world that realizes the U.S. will not hold the line in Korea, because it is unwilling and unable to imagine a world in which America and its ally push up so close to Chinese interests and Russian naval bases. That is a world in which the strength of the regime in Pyongyang is taken as an unmovable reality that everyone has to accept, and U.S. rivals will quickly converge on ending potential for conflict by pushing the U.S. out of East Asia altogether.