The Skeptics

Four Ways President Trump Could Take Charge of the North Korea Debacle

Moreover, bilateral and multilateral sanctions against the DPRK have been greatly strengthened over the last decade, which would make it even more difficult to expand inter-Korean economic cooperation. If South Korea flouts the restrictions, Seoul won’t be able to press China to pressure the North.

Prospective president Moon’s sharpest conflict with the United States might come over deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. Moon originally opposed the decision, which triggered Chinese government commercial retaliation and popular economic boycotts. His party has called for suspension of deployment and review of the policy.

However, with elections nearing he has become more circumspect, emphasizing that the decision should have been left for Park’s successor. Said Moon: “I cannot understand why there should be such a hurry with this. I suspect that they are trying to make it a fait accompli, make it a political issue to be used in the election.”

He also offered a lot of diplomatic-speak, suggesting that he might want to shift the center of gravity of the South’s international relationships. Although “we have mutually beneficial relationships,” including with the United States, said Moon, the South had to “prioritize national interests.” Moreover, he declared: “Since we can have more bargaining chips in negotiations and dialogues, there is an assessment that we can have a reciprocal and progressive negotiation.”

However, there are more radical contenders on the left, such as Seongnam mayor Lee Jae-myung, who gained notoriety in the campaign for Park’s ouster. Lee portrayed himself as the ROK’s Bernie Sanders, challenging the South Korean traditions of corporate power and economic privilege.

More dramatically, Lee recently complained that U.S.-ROK ties had “degenerated into a subordinate relationship where we give whatever amounts of money they ask us to give.” He argued: “The U.S. should be begging us for the defense of East Asia.” Unsurprisingly, he wants to talk with the North, reopen Kaesong and block THAAD. He also advocates sending America’s nearly twenty-nine thousand troops home and renegotiating the free-trade agreement with the United States—seemingly channeling President Donald Trump. Lee is likely to lose his party’s primary to Moon, but, like Sanders, may drive the debate leftward.

In the midst of these developments, Washington has done little other than affirm the importance of the alliance after the candidate’s sharp criticisms of Seoul’s dependence on America. The Trump administration says it is conducting a policy review but it’s not clear who is doing so, since the State Department’s upper reaches remain largely vacant of political appointees.

The Obama administration largely abandoned any effort to engage the North, seemingly hoping it would go away, but that approach was viable only because the last two Korean governments, which largely overlapped with President Barack Obama’s time in office, were equally committed to isolating Pyongyang. Alas, the result is a better armed, more volatile and less predictable North Korea. No one wants a repeat with the Trump administration.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is going to Asia for discussions “to try to generate a new approach to North Korea,” according to the State Department. But the policy options sound like more of the same: more demands, sanctions, deployments and threats—none of which have worked in the past.

Candidate Trump indicated a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un, but UN ambassador Nikki Haley seemed to foreclose any such outreach, denouncing Kim as irrational. She went on to hint of possible military action, stating “I can tell you we’re not ruling anything out, and we’re considering every option.” However, the whiff of gunpowder doesn’t go over well in Seoul, which is within reach of North Korean artillery and missiles.

Rather than wait for President Moon, or whoever else wins the May election, President Trump should take the initiative. First, he should set as his ultimate objective turning South Korea’s conventional defense over to the ROK. Any future augmentation in military forces should come from the South, which retains an overwhelming economic, technological and population advantage over the DPRK. It’s time Seoul used those advantages. If the South Korean people perceive no serious security threat from the North, there’s no need for American troops to stick around.

Second, the Trump administration should offer to talk with the North. While the objective should remain denuclearization, Washington should be practical. Agenda items should include a missile/nuclear freeze, conventional arms reduction, peace treaty and diplomatic recognition. While North Korean promises should be treated skeptically, the United States should be prepared to take steps which address DPRK security concerns.

Third, Washington should challenge the People’s Republic of China to back America’s diplomatic effort with economic muscle. Beijing has urged the United States to engage the North. After following the PRC’s advice America could insist that China press for a positive North Korean response. Beijing’s frustration with the DPRK is obvious: the United States should address Chinese fears about a possible North Korean collapse and attempt to build a common front.

Finally, Washington should allow South Korea to take the initiative in addressing the North. At the same time, however, the administration should insist that Seoul bear responsibility for its own decisions. For instance, if the ROK wants to restart the Sunshine Policy, then so be it. However, the South should not expect American troops to play guardians while South Koreans send money to the North to build nuclear weapons. If Seoul perceives a threat, better to spend that money on defense.