South Korea Finds Itself in a Familiar Spot

6 MINS READMay 22, 2018 | 17:26 GMT
South Korean President Moon Jae In and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference outside the White House on June 30, 2017.

South Korean President Moon Jae In and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference outside the White House on June 30, 2017. Moon was back in Washington on May 22 to meet with Trump and to try to mediate between the United States and North Korea as tensions between the two countries are again on the rise.

  • South Korea finds itself once again mediating between the U.S. and North Korea to keep the diplomatic momentum going, just weeks before a planned U.S.-North Korea summit.
  • Despite hard-line U.S. and North Korean rhetoric, there are still signs the two sides want to hold their summit — and may compromise.
  • However, even if the summit fizzles, the United States cannot easily swing back to the maximum pressure tactics of 2017.

Things don't seem so great in the U.S.-North Korea dynamic — which puts South Korea in a bind. With Pyongyang ominously hinting it might scrap next month's much-anticipated summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae In's second visit to the United States has shifted its focus from last-minute summit coordination to something more like damage control. But Seoul has been here before — more than once.

The Big Picture

In our 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, we asserted that U.S.-North Korea tensions would rise as Washington refused to ease up on pressure without concrete steps toward full denuclearization and that this move would leave South Korea scrambling to arbitrate. President Moon Jae In's efforts to mediate between the United States and North Korea, even as Pyongyang lashes out at Seoul, fulfills this forecast. An uphill battle remains ahead of their planned summit as the United States and North Korea try to square their positions.

From Crisis to Hope

When Moon first visited the United States last June, he was facing two issues that looked as if they were about to get out of hand. The Trump administration was threatening to re-evaluate the U.S. trade relationship with South Korea as part of its "make in America" push. At the same time, the steady drumbeat of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and U.S. warnings raised the possibility of U.S. military strikes that would bring catastrophic blowback on Seoul. Less than a week after Moon's visit, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Fast forward to nearly a year later. The bombastic U.S. rhetoric on the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, or KORUS as it's widely known, has given way to a relatively minimal set of adjustments and South Korea's dialogue with the North has managed to pull the United States and North Korea back from the brink of war. And, though Moon's second visit to Washington comes at a time of dark speculation and possibility for renewed crisis in North Korea, it too brings a level of hope for South Korea that the Trump-Kim summit will proceed as planned and that it will keep, at the very least, the military option at bay.

South Korea's main goal now is to keep the U.S.-North Korea dynamic below the fever pitch of 2017 and lower the risk of military conflict. At the same time, South Korea wants to forge diplomatic and economic links to the North that, if the U.S. dynamic breaks down, it can use to ease tensions. There may be room for this goal. At the moment, the U.S.-North Korea dynamic is not as bad as it might seem given the recent rhetoric and speculation that the summit will be canceled. While Pyongyang's criticisms of U.S. and South Korean actions have indeed heated up, such tactics echo Pyongyang's cancellation of meetings and events surrounding this year's Winter Olympics in South Korea. North Korea, in fact, already has made numerous concessions to the United States. Notably, in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies during his June 2017 visit to the United States, Moon called on North Korea to lay the groundwork for dialogue with the United States by suspending missile tests and releasing three U.S. detainees. North Korea has since done Moon one better — by suspending tests and releasing detainees, and moving toward dismantling its nuclear test site.

And while the United States has responded to North Korea's threat to pull out of the Trump-Kim summit with predictably stubborn rhetoric, its actions have been different. Both Trump and members of his administration have specifically stated that they do not want regime change in Pyongyang — statements meant to assuage North Korean concerns. And despite official Pentagon denials that it would change its plans during joint military exercises with South Korea, the United States reportedly has adjusted the involvement of B-52 bombers in the exercises (which North Korea had criticized). And in terms of how far apart the U.S. and North Korean positions are on a denuclearization deal, it is also in question as to how seriously the Trump administration intends to pursue its hard-line stance. Here, the trade acrimony at the focus of the U.S.-South Korea relationship in 2017 is illustrative: The White House went in with a maximalist position, giving every indication it would kill KORUS, then shifted into concluding the talks with terms amenable to both sides.

Sustaining Diplomatic Momentum

Even if the U.S.-North Korea summit fizzles, or is canceled altogether, South Korea may find itself in a manageable position in terms of averting a sharp breakdown of the U.S.-North Korea dynamic into military crisis. While U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has warned ominously that the United States and North Korea have "kicked the can down the road for 20 years; there's nowhere else to kick it," the United States may just have to figure out how to keep kicking. Simply put, if the summit dies, then the United States will find it difficult to shift back to the maximum pressure it managed to build up by the end of 2017.

First, the United States will lose U.N. support behind maximum pressure. This fragile consensus was already difficult to achieve in the thick of 2017, when missiles were flying over Japan and North Korea was racing toward its nuclear deterrent. North Korea may not regain the ties with smaller countries across the global south that it needs to shore up its legitimacy and build its economy over the long term, but it will sustain the support of key allies needed to maintain a buffer in the United Nations. As long as Pyongyang can hold off on conducting high-profile test launches, China and Russia should be able to sustain their opposition to doubling down on sanctions. The U.S.-North Korean rapprochement made it plausible in the eyes of the international community that a peaceable solution can be reached, shoring up the China-Russia arguments in the international community.

South Korea, for its part, will work to sustain the positive momentum set in place by the inter-Korean summit. While it may be limited in doing so as U.S. and North Korean countervailing pressures come to bear on Seoul, it will work to put in place projects, meetings and lines of communication that will complement North Korean efforts to avert war. In this, South Korea would find strong support from China. Additionally, it will be more difficult for Washington to secure even European consensus around a pressure campaign (or military option) against North Korea given Washington's renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal. For this reason, while the United States might be thrown down a different track if the summit collapses, it could very much find itself isolated and unable to build a coalition around a military option — making its threats against Pyongyang all the more difficult to fulfill. This does not mean that the United States wouldn't go it alone; it just means that such a route would be costlier than otherwise would be the case.

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