Who’s Sitting in the Driver’s Seat Now?

Written by: Robert Ryu

On March 5, 2018, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea dispatched an envoy led by Chung Eui-young, South Korea’s national security adviser, to North Korea. The envoy followed Kim Jong-un’s sister’s visit, Kim Yo-jong, to South Korea for her attendance at the Olympics opening ceremony. During her visit, she delivered Mr. Kim’s message to President Moon, looking to find a right time and place for a summit and to find ways of de-escalating tensions due to a series of missile tests over the last year. The South Korean envoys held meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the first time and returned from the two-day trip to Seoul with news that signaled a new phase in the hostile standoff on the Korean Peninsula. According to Mr. Chung in a press briefing in Seoul, Mr. Kim signaled a “clear intent to pursue denuclearization” if the security of North Korea and his regime are guaranteed by South Korea and the United States. North Korea further agreed that while dialogue was ongoing there would not be any additional missile tests and nuclear tests. The South also announced plans for an inter-Korean summit sometime in late April. This clearly indicated Mr. Kim’s willingness to improve the relations instead of continuing missile tests. Mr. Kim further signaled that he may extend this willingness to have serious dialogues with the United States in near future.

Is this really a breakthrough or merely another empty hope? 

President Moon might be satisfied to hear from the envoy’s briefing because that was what Mr. Moon had dreamed of: taking a driver’s seat on resolving North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs. When President Moon was running for president, he emphasized that the South should be a leading facilitator by calling both North Korea and the US to the negotiation table to make real progress for peace. In addition, his efforts to take the driver’s seat seemed to be working this year, seen by the diplomatic efforts during the Olympics. As a result, he should be given some credit for setting the stage for talks between the United States and North Korea. 

However, when considering why Mr. Kim dramatically changed his stance on both the U.S and South Korea from hostile to favorable, we must acknowledge the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions led by the President Trump that have pushed North Korea to the economic brink by curbing the country’s access to funds and fuel, thereby forcing its leader to reconsider its nuclear ambitions. 

Mr. Trump also threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea when the North test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and its nuclear test. American officials in the administration see these tests as a sign that Mr. Kim is getting dangerously close to achieving the ability to strike the US with nuclear tipped missiles. When Mr. Trump said “all options are on the table,” this was not just a futile statement. The U.S strategic assets are circulating in and out near the Korean Peninsula; the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson arrived in Guam recently, while two F-22 stealth fighter jets from the U.S. arrived at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The U.S also brought three B-2 and six B-52 long-range strategic bombers to Guam last month. These actions must be interpreted as real threats to North Korea because, in the last month, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres to completely stop the U.S. from provoking a nuclear war. Ri stated in a letter that the U.S. is “seeking to intentionally aggravate the situation by introducing the strategic assets including nuclear powered aircraft carrier strike groups into the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula.”  From this example, it seems that North Korean authorities do not want the situation getting any worse. Meanwhile, in his New Year’s address, Mr. Kim expressed its interests to send North Korean Olympic teams while wishing South Korea the best in hosting the Winter Olympics. President Moon considered this remarks as cues to intervene and looked for ways to include North Korea in a list of participating nations at the Winter Olympics. North Korea’s proposal followed a rapid series of diplomatic overtures. After hosting the Olympics successfully, an opportunity to open up direct talk between two Koreas and the U.S seems plausible.

Regardless, it is still too early to celebrate. North Korea’s pivot towards denuclearization is not the first time that the regime has made this type of promise. That is why the US administration retains a very cautious stance despite complimenting North Korea’s display of favorable gestures. Vice President Mike Pence commented shortly after Mr. Chung’s briefing in Seoul, saying that “all options remain on the table, and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization.” 

Here is a reason why. In the past, the U.S and South Korea had previous rounds of negotiations with North Korea, some lasting years, that have all failed to persuade Pyongyang to change course as it has worked to advance its ability to strike the U.S with nuclear weapons. Thus, many in Washington believe that Mr. Kim simply may hope to loosen tight sanctions held against North Korea and to buy more time to develop its nuclear capacity. The Trump administration says it is determined not to repeat what it calls the mistakes of its predecessors, who tried both dialogue and sanctions but failed to stop the North’s nuclear program. The administration says it will enter negotiations with North Korea only after it commits to discussing denuclearization. And, on March 8, 2018, President Trump accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation- delivered by the South Korean envoys- to hold a summit after confirming that Mr. Kim has willingness to suspend nuclear tests. 

This is just the beginning of a monumental change. There are still many steps to go, as the Trump administration hasn’t confirmed an ambassador to South Korea or a permanent assistant secretary of state from Asian affairs. The State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy just resigned, and the military commander in charge of Pacific forces soon will leave, to be replaced by an officer inexperienced in Asian affairs. In addition, a real problem remains: nobody is quite sure what Mr. Trump’s bottom line is on North Korea. 

Now it’s time for the U.S to take action. President Trump has now taken over the driver’s seat from President Moon. Mr. Trump, welcome aboard.