Sea Young Kim (Research Associate, East Asia Institute)
The United States and North Korea both share a desire to achieve a breakthrough, but to different ends.
The Trump administration has clarified such a breakthrough could be North Korea providing a roadmap for denuclearisation or disclosing a comprehensive list of its nuclear facilities.
On the other hand, the Kim Jong-un regime sees a breakthrough based on its long-standing demands for sanctions relief and other concessions such as the reduction of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.
However, North Korea’s nuclear problem is not one that’s likely to be easily resolved by either the U.S. or North Korea, alone. Judging by the history of U.S.-DPRK engagement throughout Trump’s presidency, an important element that will allow the U.S. to achieve its objective is not unilateral power, but the collective power it draws from its decades-long alliance with South Korea.
In January 2020 at a Central Committee meeting of the North Korean Worker’s Party, Kim Jong-un reaffirmed Pyongyang’s commitment to a position of self-reliance on its own economic development and defence capabilities to achieve a “head-on/frontal breakthrough” of domestic and international obstacles. The declaration, while it
may have broken the still water in U.S.-DPRK bilateral engagement, is relatively consistent with North Korea’s continued efforts to maintain and develop its nuclear arsenal while utilising diplomacy to acquire concessions including sanctions relief.
The declaration and numerous short-range missile tests by North Korea in 2020, however, call to question the overall effectiveness of Trump’s North Korea policy, including his three “historic” meetings with Kim Jong-un at Singapore in June 2018, at Hanoi in February 2019, and at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in June 2019. While Trump’s foreign policy strategy may have been a subject of critical debate by both U.S. and South Korean experts, optimists had maintained that his unique leadership style of acting individually, from a top-down approach that engaged Kim directly and in an unplanned manner, may help move North Korean denuclearisation talks forward.
Despite his success in re-opening summit-level talks with North Korea, Trump has been domestically criticised for leaving key positions vacant and failing to communicate with those within his administration. In an interview in December 2019, former national security adviser John Bolton admitted that Trump’s North Korea policy of “maximum pressure” has morphed into something more “rhetorical” than substantial without a set agenda and definition on denuclearisation.
Such loopholes within Trump’s North Korea policy may have left the door open to further negotiations with Pyongyang but are unlikely to yield tangible outcomes.
In addition to domestic liabilities, Trump’s regional strategy toward North Korea undervalues communication with allies in creating incremental and coordinated changes. An important ally that the Trump administration has increasingly neglected and mismanaged is South Korea. This was most evident when Trump unilaterally announced the suspension of large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea following the Singapore summit in June 2018, without prior discussions with his counterparts in Seoul.
In fact, suspension of joint military exercises has done very little in pushing North Korea towards actual denuclearisation. General Robert Abrams of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) confirmed in early 2019 that “little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities” since the Singapore summit.
However, Trump maintains that joint military exercises are too expensive for the U.S. and is looking for opportunities to downscale or have South Korea pay more for them, even with the fall-out of the Hanoi summit in February 2019.
Trump’s unilateral statements and actions reflect how he views South Korea more as an economic “free rider” than a security ally for addressing the North Korean threat. When commenting on the costliness of allied cooperation to the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), Trump specifically demanded that Seoul pay up to 5 billion USD to Washington, annually. Yet disagreements over the SMA are also largely based on Trump’s misinformed and overestimated understanding of the exact costs borne by the U.S. in maintaining its troops on the Korean Peninsula.
What is more concerning is that Trump’s individual cost analysis of the U.S.-South Korea bilateral alliance could fundamentally impair the level of trust shared by the two allies, even amongst their citizens.
For instance, in an October 2019 survey by the East Asia Institute (EAI), 88.9 percent of the Korean public perceived U.S. cost-sharing demands as excessive. These demands by the U.S. carry the potential to raise anti-U.S. sentiments within South Korea and damage bilateral public relations.
Similarly, further suspension or consequent termination of joint military exercises could reduce alliance readiness capabilities, embolden North Korea, and erode South Korean beliefs in deterrence. In the same EAI survey, twice as many Korean respondents (61.1 percent) stood against the termination of joint military exercises than those in support (30.5 percent).
Ultimately, North Korea gains from declining U.S.-South Korean ties as it has been one of the Kim regime’s strategic goals to decouple and break this alliance by forcing the U.S. to withdraw its military presence from the Korean Peninsula. Currently, both U.S.-DPRK diplomatic
engagements and U.S.-ROK joint military exercises rest at a standstill, providing North Korea insufficient pressure other than sanctions to step up denuclearisation efforts.
With likely improved capabilities, North Korea has ramped up a series of ballistic missile tests in early 2020 and sent an ultimatum to South Korea that it would remove the inter-Korean Mt. Kumgang tourism facilities.
In order to facilitate tangible outcomes in successive negotiations with North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea need to mend their bilateral alliance. This means that before returning to working-level negotiations, Washington and Seoul must coordinate their steps through the joint U.S.-ROK working group by pursuing compromise over disputed issues such as burden sharing talks and inter-Korean economic cooperation.
This also means that Seoul needs to be willing to reciprocate Washington’s hand in shaping the North Korea policy, which will also be impacted by the respective level of South Korean public support towards the United States. Public support in both countries is a critical variable considering the outcome of the April general election in South Korea, and the upcoming November presidential election in the United States. The U.S. should seek to resolve the North Korea problem through a jointly coordinated effort with its allies including South Korea, and not just on its own.
The article represents the author’s views and does not reflect the position of her employer, East Asia Institute.