The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrated New Year’s Day with his annual national address, confidently asserting that the nuclear button on his desk was now a “reality, not [a] threat,” and that the United States could no longer intimidate him or his country. Kim’s remarks prompted President Donald Trump to do just that, tweeting that his nuclear “button” was bigger and better than Kim’s.
Lost amidst the initial flurry of attention that Trump’s juvenile insult garnered, however, was the true significance of Kim’s speech: for the first time since South Korean leader Moon Jae-in took office last May, Kim has made a credible offer to open up the relationship with Seoul. Kim wished the South a successful Winter Olympics, suggested North Korea could somehow participate, and proposed immediate talks to discuss the Games and ways to “defuse military tension” on the Peninsula.
Skeptics have pointed out that Kim includes in his speech every year some kind of friendly feint toward the South. But the Olympics proposal was remarkable for two reasons: first, Kim chose a concrete deliverable, which is coming up soon—signaling a readiness to act; second, the Olympics is Moon’s agenda, not Kim’s. To faraway observers, the Olympics gambit may have seemed like a ploy invented by Kim. In fact, Kim’s overture was a response to Moon’s efforts.
Amidst the fire and fury of missile tests and testy tweets, the Moon administration has been hard at work over the past few months creating the opening which we are now seeing bear fruit. Moon repeatedly stressed the significance of the Olympics as a way to scale back rising tensions with Pyongyang. In a sit-down with CNN’s Paula Hancock in September, Moon described his “audacious plan” for using the “Peace Olympics” to make a breakthrough with the North. When Trump visited Seoul in November and reportedly asked Moon, “What can I do for Korea?”, the South Korean leader replied that he could help them with the Olympics. Speaking to NBC’s Richard Engel as they rode the new high-speed rail link from Incheon Airport to the Pyeongchang Olympic village, Moon revealed that he had already proposed to Washington that the two nations postpone their joint military exercises until after the Olympics as a gesture of peace.
Moon reinforced his public message by establishing direct contact with North Korean interlocutors behind the scenes. South Korean intelligence officials, ruling party members, and the governor of the province hosting the Games met with North Korean sporting officials to extend an in-person invitation for a delegation to participate. Sports, it should be kept in mind, are a big deal for Kim, who promotes athletes as symbols of national strength and pride. In 2012, shortly after assuming power, he set up a high-powered State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, headed by his uncle, Jang Song-taek. After Jang’s arrest on treason charges, Choe Ryong-hae, currently Kim’s number two, took over the Commission. Sporting officials, in other words, offer a conduit for sending signals to the top of North Korea’s stove-piped, hierarchical system.
Moon’s public and private diplomacy paid its first dividend with Kim’s speech. More followed. Within 48 hours, the two Koreas had restored their communication channel at Panmunjom, which had been defunct since early 2016, when the previous South Korean president, Park Geun-Hye, shut down the joint Kaesong industrial zone in indignation over North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. Communicating via hotline and fax, the two sides agreed that the first inter-Korean talks of the Kim-Moon era would commence on January 9, and the narrow agenda would involve the organization of North Korean participation in the Games. The bigger fish will be to use the Olympics as a stepping stone to improve inter-Korean relations. Wisely, the White House simultaneously announced that the joint military exercises would be rescheduled until after the Games. The decision to put off the exercises was significant, and it reinforced in deeds the message in Trump’s subsequent tweet, where he sang a slightly new tune, exclaiming, “Talks are a good thing!”
Although Trump himself has sent positive messages on opening up talks, the prospect of a resumed inter-Korean dialogue has sparked wider fears that Kim is merely seeking an opening whereby he could split the U.S.-South Korean alliance. After all, North Korea has a prima facie interest in weakening an alliance whose raison d'être is to deter it from attacking the South and, if necessary, defeat it in battle. This fear of “decoupling,” however, is exaggerated, as it underestimates the strength of Washington and Seoul’s relationship, which has proven its resilience over a long history of stress tests—from the “shock” of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China to the sudden unraveling of the Cold War order to the challenge of dealing with a nuclear North Korea.
What’s more, making North-South talks all about Kim’s malevolent intentions to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul involves a perilously reductionist logic. It overlooks the complexity of inter-Korean relations, which have their own rhythms, their own history, and their own destiny. In fact, the idea that Seoul could be so naïve as to be tricked by Kim into fraying ties with the United States could do more harm to the alliance than anything Kim could say or do. This kind of approach, which was apparent in the neo-conservative wing of the George W. Bush administration, unnecessarily aggravated tensions in the alliance in what amounted to the last truly difficult period for U.S.-South Korean relations.
Going forward, it is critical that U.S. policymakers and strategists recognize that the two Koreas’ future is theirs to write. Instead of issuing condescending warnings that Seoul is being naïve—as if Moon and his advisers don’t know the vicissitudes and frustrations of dealing with Pyongyang—Washington would do well to support Moon’s initiative, stay in close coordination with him, and even hope to gain insights from direct engagement with North Korean counterparts. Intensive talks could open a window into Kim’s intentions—his hopes and fears, his sources of confidence and vulnerability—that could help U.S. officials and analysts get a better read on their target. Such basic understanding is sorely needed, and it is a kind of knowledge that is inaccessible via spy satellite, let alone via Twitter.
Of course, Seoul also carries the burdens of the alliance as it resumes contact with Pyongyang. So how can improved inter-Korean relations indirectly support not only the shared long-term goal of denuclearization and the mid-term objective of rolling back North Korea’s program, but also, and more urgently, the White House’s pressing national security priority of halting Kim’s progress on a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile targeting the continental United States? Actual negotiations on denuclearization, arms control, and peace mechanisms will require direct U.S. participation. The sooner the Trump administration follows Moon’s lead in opening a direct channel to Pyongyang, the better. In the meantime, Seoul can look for ways to indirectly advance U.S. security interests in curtailing the North Korean nuclear threat to the homeland.
There are an almost infinite number of ways in which the fragile and fledgling process of inter-Korean reconciliation can go wrong. It is in the interest not only of the United States, but also of the international community as a whole to support the process. The United Nations, as well as concerned countries in Europe, may have important auxiliary roles to play in sustaining the momentum of dialogue and de-escalation. The upcoming summit in Vancouver between the “sending states” that fought with the South back in the Korean War, for example, should be used to coordinate a new phase of maximizing engagement, not just pressure.
The Korean security situation last year went off the rails, and if it starts to careen downslope again this year, the risks of a blow up will only increase. A serious incident could be catastrophic by every measure—humanitarian, economic, and geopolitical. Peacemaking efforts between the two Koreas alone are only part of a solution, but they could be an important catalyst and generate positive side-effects, paving a way for the United States and North Korea to resume their own dialogue, and begin taking mutual steps to improve common security—just as Seoul and Pyongyang will be trying to improve inter-Korean relations. And those who value the alliance would do well to have more confidence in it and in Seoul. What appear to be tests of the alliance’s strength can be transformed into opportunities to make the U.S.-South Korea relationship even stronger, and make Americans safer from a North Korean nuclear threat.