Want to fix the North Korea problem? Don't forget about the South

Want to fix the North Korea problem? Don't forget about the South
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Ahead of Friday’s visit by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the White House, there are signs that the U.S. may be serious about diplomacy with North Korea. President Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE’s North Korea policy review, released late last month, indicated as much by using the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as opposed to “denuclearization of North Korea,” providing a starting point for peace between the U.S. and North Korea.

But talk of peace means little if the U.S. does not account for changes in South Korean policy as well. And Washington traditionally does a pretty good job of forgetting what happens south of the 38th parallel, as illustrated by the lack of mainstream U.S. news coverage of notable victories by conservatives in last month’s by-elections in Seoul and Busan — possible harbingers for a conservative win in next year’s South Korean presidential election. (South Korea currently has a liberal government.) Such a victory would be consequential for U.S. policy, since it would affect Seoul’s position on the inter-Korean peace process. American policymakers would do well to remember this when crafting policy toward Korea.

Though South Korean politics and the inter-Korean peace process are important to forming good Korea policy, there is little point wading into these matters if the U.S. maintains its longtime, counterproductive obsession with denuclearizing North Korea. This insistence on denuclearization ought to be abandoned. Pyongyang is unlikely to give up its nukes without a fight; forcing it to do so is unnecessary, as the U.S. has overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority that can continue to prevent North Korea from using its arsenal recklessly


The U.S. can thus choose between a North Korea assured that Washington accepts its nuclear status (and perhaps boxed in further by subsequent arms control with Washington) or a North Korea with its finger on the trigger, waiting to counter a U.S. first strike. The former certainly carries less risk for war and is therefore better for U.S. interests. The U.S. needs only to deter, not denuclearize, North Korea. 

Of course, it would be better if North Korea didn’t need to be deterred in the first place. Here, South Korea becomes an essential actor: Seoul can determine the success of efforts toward peace, normalization and perhaps reunification on the peninsula, all of which can improve U.S.-North Korea relations (all while deterrence holds, of course). Notably, Seoul’s partnering with Pyongyang at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea opened the way for two meetings between U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnNorth Korea open to another summit with South Satellite photos indicate North Korea expanding uranium enrichment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE, a visit by President Moon to North Korea, and a 2019 meeting of the three leaders at the demilitarized zone separating the Koreas. These initiatives, enabled by an eager Moon, did more to remove North Korea as an adversary than strategic patience or insistence on denuclearization. A South Korea focused on peace can serve U.S. interests well. 

Though Moon’s approach was a stark reversal of the previous decade of South Korean foreign policy, it recalled South Korean policy in the 1990s and 2000s, when both conservative and liberal administrations engaged with North Korea through economic cooperation and humanitarian aid transfer under the “Nordpolitik” and “Sunshine” policies — even while Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons drove Washington to take a tougher stance against the North. These cases illustrate that Seoul can operate independently of Washington and prioritize permanently resolving the inter-Korean conflict — dynamics increasingly apparent as the South has grown wealthier and thus less dependent on Washington. When Seoul is serious about resolving the inter-Korean conflict, real steps toward peace are possible.

However, while it takes all three parties to make peace, it only takes one to spoil it. This is where South Korean politics become important. Recent diplomatic progress was only enabled by all of the three parties having bought into diplomacy: Kim, because North Korea had achieved a basic nuclear deterrent capability; Trump, because he desired a breakthrough and dismissed the orthodox Korea playbook; and Moon, because he prioritized peace more than his hardline predecessors. So, even if Biden (or a more denuclearization-skeptical successor) drops the maximalist denuclearization demand, after next year, a conservative South Korean government could theoretically limit peace efforts (presumably since denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula seems to require not only that the North surrender its nukes, but also that South Korea drop the U.S. security guarantee cherished by conservatives). Without the right partners in Seoul, working toward formal peace will be difficult, if not impossible.

The drivers of liberal electoral losses in Seoul and Busan may endure, presenting conservatives with an opportunity to seize the Blue House next year. Recent mayoral elections are a reminder that South Korean politics play a big part in advancing U.S. diplomatic efforts in Korea — whether Americans realize it or not.

Ethan Kessler is a Marcellus Policy fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society, where he wrote a policy report on the US-South Korea military alliance. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan.