Let Seoul negotiate its own détente

By Bonnie Kristian

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is ready to talk to North Korea. Or rather, he would be, if he didn’t have to worry about Washington.

Moon indicated as much in comments responding to the invitation to direct negotiations extended by Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, when she visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics earlier this month. “We are hoping that the ongoing talks between the South and North will lead to talks between the United States and North Korea and, eventually, to denuclearization dialogue,” Moon said, because “a consensus is starting to build that there’s also a need for talks between the United States and North Korea.”

The implication was clear: Seoul wants to engage Pyongyang, but Washington has gotten in the way. Wary of risking American backlash, Moon spoke vaguely about “creat[ing] an environment” for talks without “get[ting] too far ahead.”

Moon’s calculus is reasonable given the that United States’ military intervention on the Korean Peninsula has lasted for the better part of a century. He understandably wants to avoid angering South Korea’s most powerful and present ally. What is not reasonable is Washington acting as an impediment to possible local resolution of the world’s most notorious nuclear standoff.

The trouble seems to be threefold, all severe mistakes that bring us closer to catastrophic war. First, Washington has refused to acknowledge and act in consideration of Kim’s primary goal of retaining power for himself. The North Korean regime “is engaged in a huge game of blackmail,” explains retired Col. Andrew Bacevich, a military historian. As Kim’s paper bravado unintentionally reveals, he rules “an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime” where the “principle objective is to remain in power.”

North Korea’s is not a project of expansion—it cannot be—but one of preservation. To make foreign policy as if the opposite is true is a recipe for what MIT political scientist Barry Posen rightly describes at The New York Times as “hellish results.” It risks a war in which Kim, aware he cannot win and thus has nothing to lose, could cravenly take millions down with him.

Second, Washington has refused to engage in talks with North Korea until their very purpose has already been accomplished. Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have been at the forefront of this irrational position in the Trump administration. All three insist the United States will not negotiate with North Korea until, as Haley put it in representative remarks in January, the Kim regime preemptively agrees “to ban the nuclear weapons that they have.” This is a bizarre and self-defeating demand, for the whole point of negotiations is to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear development.

Worryingly, while President Trump himself in the past signaled openness to engagement without this precondition, he reportedly committed to it in a phone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month. If Trump has indeed decided to require “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea before “meaningful dialogue” can occur, as the Japanese foreign ministry stated, it is safe to say such dialogue will never happen under this administration. For Pyongyang, denuclearization is perceived as an open door to U.S.-orchestrated regime change and the loss of a major national priority achieved at a brutal cost for the North Korean people. Why would Kim think otherwise before “meaningful dialogue” can persuade him to accept a new arrangement?  Furthermore, to skip straight to a demand of denuclearization is both unnecessary and reckless when deterrence and diplomacy are a more realistic route to containment in the foreseeable future.

Washington’s third error is the one most clearly visible in Moon’s hesitance to initiate talks on his own: Our government has confused a denuclearized or adequately deterred North Korea with American achievement of that aim. Washington is so fixated on the prospect of U.S. intervention resolving the Korean stalemate—so stuck on the idea of the United States as the “indispensable nation” in every situation around the globe—that it does not discriminate among crises. Washington can continue to deter North Korea with overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority, as it has done with much stronger and more capable powers, like Russia and China, and let South Korea take the lead in negotiating its own détente.

South Korea’s cultural similarity to the North and existential interest in achieving resolution of this conflict make it eminently better suited to the task than the United States can ever be. The Blue House has advantages here the White House cannot replicate. Given these shared interests and South Korea’s advantages, it is far more prudent for Seoul to proceed with diplomacy than for Washington to maintain the present dangerous cycle of insult and escalation. The Trump administration should support our ally’s interest in negotiations, not undermine it.

Moon is right, in the long run, about “a need for talks between the United States and North Korea,” but conversation between the two Koreas is more achievable and more likely to be effective in the near term. If Seoul is willing to talk to Pyongyang, Washington must get out of the way.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was recently published by The Hill on February 23, 2018. Read more HERE.