Recently, North Korea broke off working-level nuclear talks with the United States hours after they began in Stockholm.1 Kim Myong-gil, the chief North Korean negotiator, placed the blame entirely on American officials for coming “empty-handed.”2 Observers may be quick to conclude that this is a diplomatic déjà vu in the making: North Korea manufactures a crisis and pleads for sanctions relief, only to negotiate in bad faith and spurn American benevolence. This dreaded trope, skeptics may argue, proves the futility of US diplomacy with North Korea and undercuts Seoul’s charm offensive toward Pyongyang. But a pessimistic forecast misses the larger picture, which remains unchanged: the unprecedented convergence between Seoul and Washington on engagement with North Korea continues to sustain the probability of a US-DPRK compromise and, by extension, inter-Korean peace.
To start, the future of inter-Korean affairs depends on US-DPRK relations. There is no universe in which a progressive government in South Korea could unilaterally improve ties with the North against the will of the United States when the US-ROK alliance, born out of the Korean War, presupposes the North to be a mortal security threat. The US alliance fundamentally constrains Seoul’s capacity to fall out of lockstep with Washington’s war posture toward Pyongyang. To the extent that the inter-Korean relationship is restrained in this way by Seoul’s own security arrangement, prospects for substantive progress in inter-Korean relations hinge ultimately on a breakthrough, first, between Pyongyang and Washington.
The Naysayer’s Case
Based on this premise, it is easy to see how the breakdown of diplomacy in Stockholm might bode ill for inter-Korean relations. Beyond Stockholm, there are several legitimate reasons for anxiety. First is the increasing vulnerability of South Korean diplomacy under President Moon Jae-in. Moon rose to international acclaim as the master negotiator,3 credited for putting Seoul back in the driver’s seat of Korean affairs and walking Pyongyang and Washington back from the brink of “fire and fury.” But South Korea’s diplomatic footprint has waned since 2018.
Most notably, Stockholm highlights the helplessness of South Korea’s spectator diplomacy. It is a reminder that Moon’s desire for stronger ties with Pyongyang remains a pipe dream without corresponding progress in US-DPRK relations. South Korea’s ongoing trade war with Japan has also escalated into a political feud that undermines Seoul’s diplomatic credit with Washington. Moon’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo is a strategic misstep that punishes the US trilateral alliance and incentivizes Washington to take sides with Japan in a battle over wartime atrocities that Washington may otherwise have viewed through the prism of universal human rights. Meanwhile, South Korean diplomacy toward China has been equally unproductive: While Chinese president Xi Jinping personally traveled to Pyongyang in June to see North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the fifth time in fifteen months, Xi has not visited Seoul once in over five years.4 As a result, Seoul has now become fragile: It is at risk of diplomatic isolation and political irrelevance, which reduce its leverage to persuade relevant stakeholders to remain invested in engagement with Pyongyang.5
Second is the resurgence of North Korean belligerence toward Seoul. It does not help the case for inter-Korean collaboration that Pyongyang has actively sabotaged it. In June, North Korea announced it would “never go through” South Korea again in negotiations with Washington and that “South Korean authorities [should] mind their own business at home.”6 One North Korean outlet called South Korea “presumptuous” for attempting to mediate US-DPRK talks.7 After 522 days8 without a single ballistic missile test, North Korea resumed missile launches in May and has since fired at least 18 missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on October 2.9 Meanwhile, on the cultural front, North Korea has refused to broadcast an inter-Korean World Cup qualifier taking place in Pyongyang and banned South Korean media from the event.10 The Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang resort, both symbols of inter-Korean cooperation, remain tightly shut despite pledges by both Korean leaders to reopen them.11 The return of North Korean aggression not only complicates South Korean hopes for improved ties, but also exposes Seoul to diplomatic whiplash if it does not move in tandem with the United States.
Third is the vulnerability of Moon Jae-in himself at home. His domestic stature has collapsed dramatically with ongoing scandals involving the appointment of the divisive justice minister Cho Kuk. Moon’s approval rating has dipped to 41.4 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2017.12 His Democratic party, polling at 35.3 percent, is barely ahead of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, at 34.4 percent, with parliamentary elections looming in 2020.13 Meanwhile, South Korea’s export-driven economy has faltered under Moon, with growth slowing due to the ongoing conflict with Japan and the US-China trade war.14 The declining domestic support for Moon further squeezes the capacity of his administration and party to preserve the political clout necessary for sustained inter-Korean engagement.
The case for optimism
All of these reasons are legitimate variables that complicate the big picture of inter-Korean relations. But they do not change the picture. For all of his idiosyncrasies, President Donald Trump and his “fire and fury” rhetoric eroded American willpower to maintain a rigid hardline against Pyongyang. The threat of catastrophic war exposed the realistic limits of a hawkish approach, leaving engagement as a more palatable exit from the trap of strategic patience. The bipartisan sigh of relief that followed months of brinksmanship between Pyongyang and Washington was a tacit endorsement15 of the engagement policy that ensued. At the time, a Pew Research Center poll showed more than 70 percent of Americans supporting “direct negotiation” with North Korea.16 Despite increasing criticism from the left, the Washington establishment as a whole still remains noticeably farther from hawkism than from continued engagement.17 In February 2019, for instance, it was the Democrats who formed a coalition to submit House Resolution 152 in Congress demanding legislative action to end the Korean War.18 Trump’s most vocal opponents including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, joined the resolution, enabling bipartisan support for a détente with North Korea. It is meaningful that this “paradigm shift”19 toward pragmatism occurred under a Republican administration traditionally opposed to engagement with rogue states like North Korea.
But beyond an increased propensity for engagement with North Korea, the current moment in Washington is truly unique for four substantive reasons. The Trump administration has demonstrated an unconventional willingness to: 1) provide sanctions relief in exchange for fewer concessions;20 2) downplay North Korean military provocations including ballistic missile launches; 21 3) suspend joint US-ROK military drills;22 and 4) scale back long-term American military commitments on the Korean Peninsula.23 All four stem from the basic Trumpian philosophy of putting America first and questioning Washington’s commitments around the world. They also stem from the political reckoning, forged under “fire and fury,” that the alternative to a deal is the resumption of North Korean nuclearization and open hostility between Washington and Pyongyang. Critics may be alarmed at the ease with which Trump is willing to negotiate away American power, but with respect to inter-Korean affairs, this unconventional flexibility significantly decreases the threshold for a diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang and facilitates an unprecedented convergence toward continued diplomatic engagement with it.
This matters for inter-Korean relations, based on the starting premise that inter-Korean progress depends on a US-DPRK breakthrough. A helpful diagram from a recent paper by Choson Exchange illustrates the overarching thematic picture of South Korean strategic thinking toward North Korea.24 For the first time since President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea is pursuing diplomacy with North Korea on the basis of peaceful co-existence and inter-Korean unity. The last time South Korea’s Sunshine Policy coincided with an engagement-minded American administration was twenty years ago under President Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework, which faced severe opposition from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Congress. In fact, not once until now has a progressive South Korean government overlapped with a conservative Republican administration in Washington that was seriously open to engagement. And never before Trump has an American president been amenable to downplaying North Korean provocations or rethinking the security apparatus on the Korean Peninsula.25 The return of American isolationism under Trump creates new space for Washington to converge with Pyongyang in unprecedented ways. Trump’s unconventional criticism of free-riding allies, coupled with North Korean opposition to American military activity, has led to the suspension of multiple joint US-ROK military drills since January 2018.26 The unique leadership configuration in Washington and Seoul further reinforces this convergence. In other words, the tectonic plates have aligned beneath the Korean Peninsula to produce an extremely rare window of opportunity to overcome the threshold for compromise.
And despite complications, there are numerous indications that the plates will remain aligned. South Korean conservatives have yet to fully recover from the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye and must overcome internal factional strife before they can pose a serious threat to Moon. Meanwhile, both the US and South Korea continue to downplay North Korean provocations in a concerted effort to keep alive the flame of engagement.27 The South Korean Defense Ministry, for instance, went to great lengths to emphasize that North Korea’s recent SLBM launch was not a violation of the letter of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of 2018 and the September 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement. 28 The South Koreans are joined by Trump, who has called North Korean ballistic missile testing “very standard.”29 The removal of national security adviser John Bolton and the reported upcoming nomination of Stephen Biegun, the special representative for North Korea, to become the next deputy secretary of state further signal continued US commitment to diplomacy.30
North Korea, too, despite its uncooperative behavior, has refrained from conducting nuclear tests or launching long-range intercontinental missiles in nearly two years. Its self-discipline in that regard should not be taken for granted and suggests a basic commitment to sustaining diplomacy. As Andrei Lankov points out, even as North Korean officials broke off talks in Stockholm, they still indicated that negotiation channels would remain open as long as the United States agreed to greater concessions.31 North Koreans continue to reiterate their stance from April that they will wait until the end of the year for negotiations to bear fruit before considering an alternative “new path.”32 This indicates Pyongyang’s cautious commitment to preserving the current engagement mood at least until year’s end. In other words, recent hiccups are better interpreted as an ongoing power struggle toward a potential compromise, rather than as indication that all hope is lost. The larger overarching theme of convergence among Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang remains unchanged. All three parties understand that the current state of limbo is unsustainable. And all three have strong incentives to find a compromise that will allow them to walk away with even a “small deal.”33
Ultimately, at the heart of a debate regarding the future of inter-Korean affairs is a deeper question about whether the United States can reach a deal with North Korea. There are legitimate reasons for anxiety, but none yet for despair. The shift in US policy toward engagement with North Korea was earned partially by the idiosyncrasies of an unconventional US president, but also from the stark realization that a sanctions-driven period of strategic patience had ultimately failed to stop North Korean nuclearization and the subsequent realization that a military strike would be too costly. If the rhetoric of “fire and fury” produced anything, it was the political urgency for a deal. This reckoning was reinforced by the rare convergence of leadership configurations in Seoul and Washington toward engagement. And this big picture has not changed. Without a more fundamental challenge to this tectonic alignment, optimism for a breakthrough between Washington and Pyongyang, and by extension, the two Koreas, remains legitimate as ever.
1. Johan Ahlander, et al., “North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden,” Reuters,October 5, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-sweden/north-korea-breaks-off-nuclear-talks-with-u-s-in-sweden-idUSKCN1WK074
2. Choe Sang-Hun. “North Korea Rules Out Quick Resumption of ‘Sickening’ Talks with U.S.,” The New York Times, October 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/06/world/asia/north-korea-us-nuclear-talks.html
3. Charlie Campbell, “The Negotiator,” Time, May 4, 2017, https://time.com/4766618/moon-jae-in-the-negotiator/
5. President Roh Moo-hyun’s “peace and prosperity” policy is perhaps another example of when South Korea overestimated its own strategic leverage and isolated itself diplomatically by falling out of step with Washington and neglecting relations with Japan.
6. “North Korea criticizes South Korea for meddling ahead of Moon’s meeting with Trump,” Associated Press, June 27, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/north-korea-south-trump-moon-1.5192053
7. Ji Dagyum. “North Korean leader dismisses South Korean attempts to mediate nuclear diplomacy,” NK News, April 13, 2019, https://www.nknews.org/2019/04/north-korean-leader-dismisses-south-korean-attempts-to-mediate-nuclear-diplomacy/
8. Ankit Panda, et al., “Why North Korea is Testing Missiles Again,” Foreign Affairs, May 16, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2019-05-16/why-north-korea-testing-missiles-again
< 9. Adam Mount, “Why Trump should press pause on North Korea,” CNN, October 4, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/03/opinions/north-korea-slbm-launch-intl-hnk/index.html
10. Simon Denyer, “North and South Korea soccer teams draw 0-0 in Pyongyang to an empty stadium,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2019,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-and-south-korea-soccer-teams-tie-match-in-pyongyang–in-empty-stadium/2019/10/15/83bfdf1e-ef1b-11e9-bb7e-d2026ee0c199_story.html
11. Lee Seung-hyun. “금강산관광, 개성공단 재개는 남북관계 개선 시금석,” Tongil News, October 7, 2019, http://www.tongilnews.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=130127
12. Jang Yeon-jae. “문 대통령 지지율 41.4%, 취임 후 최저치…” Dong-A Ilbo, October 14, 2019, http://www.donga.com/news/article/all/20191014/97858207/2
14. “S.Korea likely to miss growth target: finance minister” Yonhap News,October 2, 2019, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20191002000738
15. Michael Fuchs, et al., “The Time is Right for a Deal with North Korea,” Center for American Progress,June 10, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/06/10/470868/time-right-deal-north-korea/
16. “Pew Research Center May 2018 Political Survey,” Pew Research Center,May 1, 2018, http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2018/05/10094104/05-10-18-foreign-policy-topline-for-release.pdf
17. Bae Minju, et al., “Democrats Must Stop Dismissing Diplomacy with North Korea,” Truthout,September 18, 2019, https://truthout.org/articles/democrats-must-stop-dismissing-diplomacy-with-north-korea/
18. Rep. Ro Khanna, “H.Res.152-Calling for a formal end of the Korean War,” House Committee on Foreign Affairs, United States Congress, February 26, 2019, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/152/text
20. Cho Ki-weon, “Japanese paper reports US offered to partially lift UN sanctions on N. Korea,” Hankyoreh News, October 15, 2019. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/913277.html; Alex Ward, “Exclusive: Here’s the nuclear proposal the US plans to offer North Korea this weekend,” Vox News,October 2, 2019, https://www.vox.com/world/2019/10/2/20894979/north-korea-trump-nuclear-talks-deal;
21. David Sanger and William J. Broad, “North Korea Missile Tests, ‘Very Standard’ to Trump, Show Signs of Advancing Arsenal,” The New York Times, September 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/02/world/asia/north-korea-kim-trump-missiles.html
22. Helene Cooper, “Pentagon Again Suspends Large-Scale Military Exercises with South Korea,” The New York Times, March 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/world/asia/us-military-exercises-south-korea.html
23. Robert Kelly, “Will a Re-elected Donald Trump Withdraw the US Military from South Korea?” The National Interest, September 8, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/korea-watch/will-re-elected-donald-trump-withdraw-us-military-south-korea-78906
24. Bryan Tan, “Capacity Building for Peace and Economic Integration,” Choson Exchange, October 12, 2019, https://www.chosonexchange.org/our-blog/capacitybuildingnorthkorea?fbclid=IwAR3H9Oh-_6RmA3_UXdqGX_U4NKdvsppnP7rre87gmEt-U8fPTbM2e780pnA
25. One of the reasons that the Agreed Framework failed was the resumption of North Korean ballistic missiles launches, which was interpreted to have violated the spirit of the deal.
26. Helene Cooper, “Pentagon Again Suspends Large-Scale Military Exercises with South Korea,” The New York Times, March 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/world/asia/us-military-exercises-south-korea.html
27. Amanda Macias, “Trump downplays a series of North Korean ballistic missile launches,” CNBC News, August 2, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/02/trump-defends-kim-jong-un-downplays-north-korean-missile-launches.html
29. David Sanger and William J. Broad, “North Korea Missile Tests, ‘Very Standard’ to Trump, Show Signs of Advancing Arsenal,” The New York Times, September 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/02/world/asia/north-korea-kim-trump-missiles.html
30. Josh Rogin, “Trump is expected to tap North Korea envoy for deputy secretary of state.” The Washington Post, September 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/09/17/trump-is-expected-tap-north-korea-envoy-deputy-secretary-state/
31. Andrei Lankov, “Why, in talks with the U.S., North Korea can now afford to play hardball,” NK News, October 8, 2019, https://www.nknews.org/2019/10/why-in-talks-with-the-u-s-north-korea-can-now-afford-to-play-hardball/?c=1570520196001
32. Oliver Hotham, “North Korea-U.S. talks in Sweden fail to reach a deal, chief DPRK negotiator says,” NK News, October 5, 2019, https://www.nknews.org/2019/10/north-korea-u-s-talks-in-sweden-fail-to-reach-a-deal-chief-dprk-negotiator-says/?c=1570497537839&t=1571074489414
33. Oliver Hotham, “North Korea, U.S. to begin high-stakes preliminary working-level talks in Sweden,” NK News, October 4, 2019, https://www.nknews.org/2019/10/north-korea-u-s-to-begin-high-stakes-preliminary-working-level-talks-in-sweden/?c=1570497537839&t=1571074489414