US policymakers can’t seem to figure out how to deal with South or North Korea
The U.S. faces a near-impossible mission with South Korea in a diplomatic minuet that’s sorely trying the cliché of U.S.-Korean diplomacy, “There’s no daylight between us.” American diplomats may still use that term, but we’re hearing it far less than when it seemed as though every Secretary of State or Defense secretary or assistant secretary included it in every hail and farewell on arrival or departure from Seoul.
Now U.S. negotiators are more restrained in their choice of words as they spar delicately, and privately when possible, with their South Korean interlocutors. But daylight shows through cracks in the glue they would like to believe cements the relationship. The plain fact is, the White House simply does not agree with the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in on what to do about North Korea. Nor is it just that Moon would like to be remembered as a North-South peacemaker when he steps down next spring at the end of five years. He can’t run again, under a “democracy” constitution adopted in 1987 after the worst protests since the country’s birth as the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1948.
Another wave of protests, the Candlelight Revolution, in which hundreds of thousands turned out nightly five years ago carrying LED candles along the broad avenue leading to the restored Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, led to the arrest, jailing, impeachment and ouster of Park Geun-hye. Daughter of the long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, assassinated in 1979, convicted of corruption and abuse of power, she remains in prison. Moon, having failed to reform a system in thrall to the conglomerates that dominate the economy, still yearns to be remembered for North-South Korean reconciliation.
Americans and Koreans now must consider Moon’s final bid for greatness: affirmation that the Korean War is over. An agreement to that effect would update the armistice that ended the war in July 1953 but never was replaced by a formal peace treaty. The end-of-war agreement would serve as a major step on the way to a peace treaty that, in theory, would mean the military forces facing each other on either side of the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula no longer pose a threat — and might not be necessary.
Moon, intent on persuading the United States on the beauty of an agreement, has had his top aides engage in one-on-one talks with their American counterparts in a full-court press. If Lee Jae-myung, the leftist governor of Gyeonggi Province surrounding Seoul, nominated to succeed Moon by the ruling Democratic Party, is elected in March as president, pressure will intensify for coming to terms with the North and reducing U.S. military presence, already down to 28,500 troops.
Neither the U.S. nor the Korean government wants to confront each other in open outbursts, but Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, was hard-pressed after a recent visit to Seoul to think of ways to paper over the differences after talks with his counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk. The best he could summon was an artful expression of “continuing to work” with Noh “on different ideas and initiatives,” among them the “end-of-war proposal” put out by the ROK.
The fact that Sung Kim carefully attributed the end-of-war agreement to South Korea shows the U.S. distaste for an idea that’s denounced privately by voices within the Pentagon and, more politely, the State Department. No sooner had Kim arrived in Seoul than the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was telling news media that the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) “remain in effect and all UN member states are bound by their obligations.” As for humanitarian aid, he argued, “The simple truth is that the DPRK regime itself is responsible for the humanitarian situation in the country.”
The statements came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile that conceivably could be fired from a submarine approaching any number of likely targets in the U.S. The test hardly posed an immediate threat. It’s unlikely North Korean physicists and engineers have figured out how to attach a warhead to such a missile, and it’s also not certain if the missile was test-fired from a real sub.
Still, Kim Jong Un clearly thinks he can contribute to the sense in Seoul and Washington that the U.S. must come up with concessions, possibly an easing of sanctions. The U.S. response, so far, has been to say “we’re ready to talk any time but the North isn’t answering the call.” Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of State, said in a speech to a Korea Society anniversary dinner in New York that the U.S. is “ready to meet” the North Koreans “without preconditions” and “does not harbor hostile intentions.” However, she made clear that its missile tests “violate multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.” The U.S. must “chart a path” with its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” she said. That wording did not exclude a deal before denuclearization but was tougher than Seoul’s turn toward appeasement.
Others at the dinner decried the rift between the U.S. and South Korea. One U.S. diplomat acknowledged the Americans and South Koreans “don’t see eye to eye,” but doubts the U.S. would be taken in by an end-of-war declaration.
At another dinner in Washington, marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the mention of an end-of-war agreement inspired concern. Nicholas Eberstadt, economist and North Korea watcher with the American Enterprise Institute, told me he’s worried that President Biden, having received Moon at the White House in May and otherwise paying little attention to Korea, might fall for persistent demands by the South as well as Korean leftists in the U.S.
North Korean commentaries often defend missile tests as necessary for defense and do not single out the U.S. or Japan as targets. Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, has called an end-of-war agreement “interesting and admirable,” while urging the U.S. to drop its “hostile policy” — meaning, no doubt, the end of sanctions and U.S.-South Korea war games followed by a withdrawal of U.S. forces. Kim Jong Un, focusing on the North’s grave economic issues and COVID-19, presumably is waiting for the U.S. to show signs of yielding before agreeing to talks. China, a signatory to the Korean War truce along with the U.S. and North Korea, has endorsed an end-of- war agreement but isn’t pursuing it.
Interestingly, while the U.S., China and North Korea all signed the truce, South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, stayed away, refusing to sanctify a deal that he believed would justify permanent division of the Korean peninsula. He had to submit to the terms of the armistice, but an end-of-war agreement indeed would represent the South’s first formal affirmation that the Korean War is over. That’s one reason for Moon to keep pleading his case while the Americans think of ways and reasons to avoid the whole annoying topic.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a Washington Star correspondent on Asia and Chicago Tribune correspondent on the Far East. He currently is a freelance correspondent for several magazines and newspapers, covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.