South Korea nudges Washington, Pyongyang to step back onto path to peace

South Korea nudges Washington, Pyongyang to step back onto path to peace
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Peripatetic. Ambulatory. Pedestrian. Our diplomacy push-pull with North Korea is rife with the recurring imagery of our chief decision-makers ambling … somewhere.

One of the most indelible scenes from the April inter-Korean summit was that of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un conversing while taking a leisurely stroll atop the cerulean blue footbridge in Panmunjom. On New Year’s Day, Kim, sedentary in his capacious sienna leather armchair, warned that Pyongyang may be compelled to seek a new path (way) to defend its sovereignty and supreme interests should Washington fail to honor its promises.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE, too, invoked this perambulatory imagery at the Vietnam summit, repeating several times during his post-meeting press conference that he was prepared to walk away from a bad deal. The following day, in a hastily arranged press gathering, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui in retort questioned whether Pyongyang should continue talks with Washington, anchoring us back to Kim’s verbal fist-pounding that rang in the new year.

Washington and Pyongyang, the two main parties concerned, opted to walk away from a deal that, had it been inked, could have undercut their interests. Long before the dust dissipates to open a clear view, another party whose interests are suspended mid-air consequential to the Hanoi no-deal has resumed taking the initiative to promptly bridge this continental divide.

South Korea, not having been privy to Washington’s decision to curtail talks with Pyongyang, had expected a deal moving toward measures to enhance Seoul-Pyongyang ties. On Feb. 28, the presidential spokesperson issued a statement expressing regrets about the summit outcome while casting a rosy outlook for continued talks — “discussions raised to a new level.”

Had the United States and North Korea signed a deal in Vietnam, President Moon planned to unveil his inter-Korean economic engagement program during his speech marking the 100th anniversary of the March 1 movement of Korean resistance against Japanese occupation. In light of the Hanoi outcome, however, the speech likely had to be modified on short notice. Broadly akin to the Blue House spokesperson’s statement the day prior, Moon praised the meaningful progress made in Vietnam and nudged President Trump’s “commitment to continuing talks” with Kim. He also unfurled Seoul’s involvement as the mediator between the two countries to help the talks reach a complete settlement, “by any means.”

Moon’s opening remarks during the country’s first National Security Council (NSC) meeting of the year magnified the North Korea issue, emphasizing that Trump and Kim expressed unwavering trust in each other and their commitment to continuing talks. He equated Pyongyang’s dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility — if it had been followed through — with denuclearization entering an irreversible stage.

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We know, however, that Kim was not willing to shake hands with Trump on a Yongbyon dismantlement, ostensibly over the assumption and understanding of the geographical delineation of Yongbyon. We’ve also recently seen signs of Pyongyang preparing for a possible missile or rocket launch at the Sanumdong facility — where North Korea previously assembled some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. And satellite imagery suggests the North has restored normal operations of its Sohae satellite launch facility, which it had partially dismantled post-Singapore summit in a “good-faith” gesture.

Moon’s NSC remarks included a three-part homework assignment for advisers to preserve momentum for subsequent talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Of chief note was his voracious request for members to find “as many ways possible to assist U.S.-North Korea dialogues through development in inter-Korean relations” within the delineations of international sanctions.

Further, one week after the Hanoi summit, Seoul carried out a seven-person cabinet reshuffle, including a new unification minister to replace Cho Myong-gyon, who, in contrast to the ethos of the Blue House, stood for strict sanctions pressure on the Kim regime. The new designee, Kim Yeon-chul, described by some as one of the “successors” of former president Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy, stands clear in strong support for cross-border cooperation and advocates for using sanctions to build mutual trust between Washington and Pyongyang.

As Seoul continues to dart between Washington and Pyongyang in the spirit of fostering atmospherics for continued talks and securing tangible progress on building inter-Korean cohesion through joint economic ventures, so soon after the Hanoi walkaway, there is now a greater imperative for Washington to be discerning and stand judiciously observant of Pyongyang’s maneuvers.

The Seoul-Pyongyang gravitational pull toward additional talks will persist. South Korea, in an effort to smooth out the underlying bumps between the United States and North Korea — and consequently concretize its vision of a peaceful, prosperous Korean Peninsula — will continue to insert enhanced inter-Korean cooperation as a utile confidence-building solvent for progress on denuclearization.

In due course, the North will return to its delicate play of stirring apprehension via nuclear and missile readiness, reaffirmation of traditional alliances, and threatening rhetoric; this, counterbalanced with small, timely gestures indicating the door to talks remains slightly open. But the onus will be on Washington to knock when Pyongyang is ready.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.