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“We ourselves determine our own fate,”— Address by Moon Jae-in to the citizens of Pyongyang, September 20, 2018.
Heading into the second Trump-Kim summit, the pace of Inter-Korean talks is clearly outpacing the parallel U.S.-North Korea negotiations. Thus far, Seoul and Pyongyang have taken several concrete steps towards reconciliation—opening an inter-Korean liaison office; planning for road and railway system linkages; facilitating reunions of divided families; mutual removal of some DMZ military posts; agreement to eventually restart economic cooperation through the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang Tourist area; and a joint Olympic bid. By contrast, Washington and Pyongyang have not progressed much beyond the aspirational, but vague, language of the Singapore joint statement that set forth a peace regime and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as goals.
A successful Trump-Kim meeting would boost North-South talks, but the inverse is also the case. As a result, the least Trump should attempt to do is to not hamstring the ongoing Inter-Korean process. To be sure there are legitimate concerns that North Korea (and China) will exploit daylight between Washington and Seoul to drive a wedge though the U.S.-ROK alliance. This risk has increased slightly due to heightened tensions between Washington and Seoul resulting from Trump’s ill-timed recent demand that South Korea foot 50 percent more of the bill for U.S. military basing costs. Nevertheless, a primarily inter-Korean process is not necessarily the boon for Kim that many in Washington imagine.
North Korea, per Victor Cha, Sue Mi Terry and Michael Green, has long sought to “strike a grand bargain with the United States over the head of South Korea.” However, given the recent atmosphere of inter-Korean solidarity, the Moon-Kim bond, and the key role that South Korean diplomacy (starting with last year’s Olympics) has played in bringing North Korea in from the cold, this approach will be difficult, if not impossible, for Pyongyang to pull off. Secondly, it is key to note that deeper engagement with South Korea carries unique risks for Kim. Recall that it was not the armies of NATO, but the far greater economic dynamism and cultural attraction of West Germany that ultimately brought down East Germany. The gap between North and South is even greater than that between the two Germanys. Ultimately, South Korea's vastly greater wealth, much stronger institutions, technological prowess, robust civil society, and cultural attraction (or “soft power”) implies that over the long run, Seoul will be in the driver’s seat of any national reunification process. Now for the hard part, getting there.
John S. Van Oudenaren is assistant director at the Center for the National Interest.
Previously, he was a program officer at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a Research Assistant at the U.S. National Defense University.