We are at a dangerous moment in the Korean peninsula. The immediate threat does not come from North Korea, though that peril remains. Rather, it comes from our allies in South Korea, who are determined to pursue engagement with the North.
Senior officials from both Koreas will meet Tuesday in the Demilitarized Zone, potentially leading to serious talks that could prompt Seoul to break ranks on the tough sanctions imposed against Pyongyang. Already, the South Korean government of Moon Jae-in has won reluctant American assent to postpone joint military exercises that would have overlapped with the Winter Olympic Games next month, meeting a condition set by the North Koreans.
Senior Chinese officials have rushed to Seoul, presumably to encourage Moon to seek deeper engagement with Kim Jong-Un in the North, but clearly also eager to diminish American presence in Korea.
The Moon administration eagerly embraced the opening to dialogue provided by Kim in his New Year’s address, despite the obvious intention of Pyongyang to exploit differences among its foes. For Moon, this is not surprising. He campaigned on a platform of engagement with the North, though he won mostly by promising economic and political reform at home. His popularity remains high but he faces a challenge in governing with a divided parliament. A peaceful and successful Olympic Games, good relations with China (which can aid economic growth), and a lessening of tension are high on a list of Moon’s goals.
Yet, Moon is well aware of the consequences of allowing a rift to develop in relations with the United States. He was chief of staff to the previous progressive government of Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), whose public battles with the Bush administration were unpopular at home. But like Roh, Moon worries greatly about the threat of American military action against the North, and shares the public perception of American unreliability, fueled by President Donald Trump’s careening tweets.
Moon has asserted solidarity with U.S. policy toward the North. Until recently, his limited overtures to the North were rebuffed. Now Kim Jong-Un has rather cleverly changed the game, undoubtedly seeking a way to relieve pressure on his regime.
It is important to understand that gaps in our relationship and approach to the North are hardly new. There are numerous historical examples of divergent paths, usually when either or both Koreas fear abandonment by their great power allies. When the United States signed the armistice to end the fighting in Korea in 1953, the South Korean regime of Rhee Syngman refused to join us, believing that only continuing the war and ending the North Korean regime would ensure a lasting peace.
In the early 1970s, a United States mired in Vietnam unilaterally withdrew one of two infantry divisions from South Korea. China and the United States suddenly embraced each other in a budding strategic partnership. Both Koreas, fearing abandonment, made secret contacts, leading to the North-South Joint Statement issued on July 4, 1972 (note the date), setting out three principles for reunification and establishing a hotline.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union moved to normalize relations with South Korea, and China retreated to deal with internal unrest, the two Koreas signed a far-reaching agreement that, among other things, pledged denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In the late 1990s, as the North struggled to overcome a famine triggered by the cutoff of aid from Russia and China, Kim Dae-jung’s progressive government announced the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North, resulting in joint tourist and industrial projects, food and fertilizer aid, and a historic summit in 2000. The two Koreas marched together into the stadium at the Sydney Olympic games that year.
During all these moments, no matter who held power in Seoul or Washington, it was a challenge to manage our alliances. American administrations had to learn to accommodate Koreans’ desire for greater control over their destiny while reminding them that alliance requires close coordination.
The ability to understand and to communicate effectively with our ally should be at a premium. So far, the Trump administration has made sound choices on Korea policy. The request by Seoul to delay our joint exercise was an unwarranted concession to Pyongyang but the president, perhaps thanks to his senior advisors, wisely conceded to Moon, for now, with the broader goal in mind of maintaining a united front on the pressure campaign. Trump seemed to lend backhanded support to the idea of North-South talks, while expressing skepticism about their outcome.
Conducting foreign policy via Twitter is a perilous path. Governments are compelled to read between the few lines of a tweet to find meaning. The United States needs diplomats who are knowledgeable and empowered by the president to manage what will be a messy, and potentially very dangerous, situation. Neither condition exists — even if a new ambassador arrives soon, at long last, to Seoul, the State Department is profoundly weakened. The White House has no depth of expertise in the National Security Council on Korea, including the national security advisor, whose background lies in the Middle East.
Ironically, the strongest team when it comes to Korea probably sits across the river in the Pentagon. The American military has long and deep experience at alliance management with Seoul, beginning with the U.S. command there and extending back to the Pentagon. There are top-flight civilians in place in the Defense Department. The best course is to rely on the inter-agency team, including State, Defense and the intelligence community, to run Korea policy on a daily basis.
The goal must be, as always, to hold our alliance together, particularly on the public level, while giving South Koreans freedom to explore opportunities for dialogue that can reduce tensions without undermining the campaign on Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons. We cannot afford to let Pyongyang, and Beijing, find the room to accomplish their common goal of driving the United States off the Korean peninsula. That begins with making it clear that the United States is not in retreat from its interests and obligations in Northeast Asia.
Daniel Sneider is a lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News with long experience in Northeast Asia. He is currently based in Tokyo.