He also argued that “North Korea might be willing to move forward” with inter-Korean contacts as well. Indeed, while officials in the Moon Jae-in government affirmed that relations with Washington remain solid, their impatience with U.S. policy was evident. One presidential assistant dismissed the idea that “South Korea should sit back and wait for U.S.-DPRK relations.”
The diplomatic approach still might fail, of course, but that can’t be known until after Washington makes the effort. Another presidential aide observed that “it is my sense that the North Koreans do not want to lose this opportunity.” Moreover, “we have a golden opportunity with the three leaders. They have met each other more than once.” This opportunity warrants making an extra effort.
An ancillary benefit would be smoothing relations with Seoul. One presidential aide complained about his nation being excluded from the negotiating table even though, he said, the issues “affect our national security and national well-being.” All the ROK government can do is try “to facilitate the process.” If diplomacy collapses and the peninsula moves backward to the confrontation of 2017, then the Trump administration will receive much of the blame in Seoul. A concerted effort today to revive negotiations with the North would help defuse current fears and potential hostilities.
President Trump’s peculiarities are obvious. Nevertheless, he has created a unique opening with the North. It would be foolish to let it close without making another effort to push forward. Doing so might require talking about more than denuclearization. Ambassador Harris suggested a way forward. The president should expand and make the initiative his own.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.