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For much of its recent history, Korea has been caught in conflicts between powerful neighbors—an experience that provides sobering lessons for South Korean leaders grappling with their country’s vulnerabilities today. Since its independence following World War II, South Korea has recovered from war, overcome poverty, democratized, and developed into the 11th-largest economy in the world. Yet sitting astride Northeast Asia’s major geopolitical fault lines, it remains existentially vulnerable: the North Korean nuclear threat continues to grow, and the war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un continues to escalate. There is no ready historical template to help South Korean leaders sidestep tragedy should words turn into military action.
It is no wonder, then, that South Korean President Moon Jae-in so eagerly grasped Kim’s New Year’s olive branch and invited North Korean athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as an insurance policy against disruption during the games—and with the hope that the Olympic goodwill generated would avert a return to confrontation. But with the Olympic flame extinguished at the end of the February 25 closing ceremony and the Paralympics to follow, the question is whether Moon can extend the spirit of inter-Korean reconciliation beyond a limited-time-only easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Making his gambit succeed, and forestalling a return to dangerous escalation, will require more than just diplomacy between the two Koreas. Moon must find a way to bridge the divide between Washington and Pyongyang.
For Moon, brokering the Olympic truce proved surprisingly easy with a big assist from Kim. He failed, however, to connect his North Korean and American guests. The perceived overeagerness of his administration to roll out the red carpet for the North Koreans generated pushback domestically and internationally. Moon’s domestic critics charged that he had turned the Pyeongchang Olympics into the Pyongyang Olympics by allowing not only North Korean athletes and officials but also an orchestra, a cheering squad, and a tae kwon do demonstration team to come for the games. Those feelings were reinforced by the novelty of hosting Kim’s sister both at the opening ceremonies and at the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential headquarters. The symbolism of the fielding of a unified women’s hockey team also proved controversial among South Koreans: they could accept athletes marching together under a unified flag but were reluctant to sacrifice South Korean competitiveness on the altar of political symbolism.
Internationally, the pushback against a seemingly overeager South Korean embrace of North Korean demands came from Vice President Mike Pence, who as the leader of the U.S. delegation sought to counter North Korea’s charm offensive with his own propaganda campaign. He highlighted North Korean human rights abuses and brought with him to South Korea the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died following extended detention in North Korea. Pence threatened to further strengthen economic pressure on North Korea and refused to greet the North Korean representatives in attendance (including Kim’s sister), prompting them to cancel a planned meeting in Seoul the next day.
The diplomatic misconnect between Moon’s guests from Pyongyang and Washington, seated in close proximity at the opening ceremonies, has exposed the precariousness—and the necessity—of Moon’s bridging efforts. Pence and Moon agreed to maintain international pressure on North Korea until it took concrete steps toward denuclearization, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Moon not to further delay joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. But pressure alone cannot bring about the peaceful outcome that South Korea most desires; Moon will likely keep trying to play a bridging role by promoting dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
As for North Korea, it made its goals clear by rolling out its familiar unity campaign—staging concerts for South Korean audiences and delivering a surprise invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang, a predictable attempt to force Moon to choose between Pyongyang and Washington. But Moon cannot embrace reunification if it comes by accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. North Korean efforts to whip up fervor for a unified Korea through musical and sports exchanges may stir emotions among an older generation of Koreans, but such appeals fall flat with South Korean youths, who fear rather than romanticize such a prospect. Moon cannot simply ignore the North Korean nuclear elephant in the room while pursuing reconciliation-as-usual with Kim Jong Un.
PATH TO PYONGYANG
In response to Kim’s invitation to Pyongyang, Moon pledged to create the conditions under which an inter-Korean summit would be possible. Although Moon did not specify what those conditions were, he should be well aware that the two prior inter-Korean summits went forward on the condition that North Korea’s nuclear development was at a minimum contained and on a path to reversal. The June 2000 summit between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il occurred while the 1994 U.S.–North Korea Agreed Framework was in place, and former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s October 2007 summit was held the day after North Korea agreed to further steps toward implementing denuclearization commitments under the 2005 joint statement of the Six Party Talks. Unless North Korea’s nuclear development is once again bounded, a summit between Moon and Kim in Pyongyang would be widely perceived as premature and misguided.
South Korea and the United States share a vital interest in North Korea’s denuclearization, but South Korea faces disproportionate existential risks that would result from a military conflict between Washington and Pyongyang. At the same time, North Korea refuses to talk denuclearization with South Korea, holding that discussion in reserve for the United States as a fellow nuclear state. Thus, Seoul has a compelling interest in averting the growing likelihood of a U.S.–North Korean conflict by seeking to build diplomatic channels between the United States and North Korea and by convincing both sides to pursue peaceful denuclearization.
But South Korea’s diplomatic mission is fraught with peril. Moon must avoid either entrapping or enabling Kim, while persuading a skeptical Trump that only the United States can make a lasting deal with North Korea. It may seem like an impossible task, but it may be the only way for South Korea to avoid once again falling victim to tragedy.