[Kim Tae-kyoon] Lack of diversity in dealing with North Korea in Washington
At last, the PyeongChang Olympics began in the face of all the uncomfortable comments on North Korea’s sports diplomacy. Although South Korea labeled the PyeongChang Olympics the “Peace Olympics,” the Trump administration and almost all think tanks in Washington en masse shared skeptical responses to the peaceful phrase. They commonly evaluated Pyongyang’s participation in PyeongChang as strategically planned gestures to gain time and drive a wedge between South Korean President Moon Jae-In and US President Donald Trump.
No doubt, such a shared concern deserves careful consideration. The heightened nuclear crisis created US-led strong sanctions against North Korea. Washington keeps on highlighting that much stronger alliance among US, South Korea and Japan, in tandem with China’s close cooperation, should be reinforced to press down Pyongyang’s ambitions as a nuclear power.
Two critical issues, however, need to be reconsidered seriously. First, the White House dropped Victor Cha as a candidate for ambassador to South Korea after he criticized the idea of a US pre-emptive strike, or “bloody nose” strategy, on North Korea. Given that Washington might estimate how big a void it is not to have an ambassador in Seoul, the sudden withdrawal of Cha has led Seoul to fear that Washington might press ahead with military action without Seoul’s consent after the PyeongChang Olympics. This is in the same line with the White House’s immediate denial of Rex Tillerson’s new diplomatic overtures, which he offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without preconditions in December.
Second, Mike Pence sent firm signals to Pyongyang and Seoul with the aid of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Olympic opening ceremony. Pence skipped a dinner at which he was due to sit at the head table with North Korea’s head of state figure, Kim Yong-nam. He threatened not only the toughest US sanctions ever against North Korea, but also to refocus on North Korea’s human rights violations by bringing along Otto Warmbier’s father to PyeongChang. The Trump administration’s interest in engagement with North Korea while at the PyeongChang Olympics has been absolutely zero. This is quite opposite to actions taken by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, considering they all welcomed inter-Korea talks at the PyeongChang Olympics.
More careful attention should be given to the negative situation in which most think tanks in Washington have made cutting remarks against Moon’s diplomatic brokering efforts. They commonly warn that this ongoing detente between the two Koreas certainly makes Washington nervous, and the inter-Korea talks would be meaningless unless the principle of denuclearization is accepted by Pyongyang. Excluding the option of direct talks from the list of policy choices, think tanks in Washington, regardless of their political orientations, seem to stay in tune with the Trump administration. Comments from various think tanks in Washington hardly emphasize the importance of US talks with North Korea, thereby prompting laymen to border on the madness of war preparations.
Washington’s think tanks can contribute to the White House’s decision-making by displaying various opinions and different voices. Unanimous agreement -- although slight differences are noticed -- to negative feedback on strategic values of peaceful talks could mean direct talks must be an absolutely unthinkable choice, or the external atmosphere surrounding think tanks hampers them to air a different voice. If the latter is the case, such identical opinions might provide tacit endorsement to the Trump administration in exercising a pre-emptive strike if necessary, even though they don’t agree with it at all.
Unsurprisingly, it is impossible to expect that direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang take place without preconditions. However, it would be surprising that a good deal of think tanks in Washington shift their policy weight toward peaceful talks for denuclearization. Although Kim Jong-un hides his wicked calculations behind the charm approach to the PyeongChang Olympics, the inter-Korea summit, followed by the Winter Olympics, would be the last chance for thawing the ice caps of nuclear deadlocks between Washington and Pyongyang. If it fails, a positive exit ramp for the US-North Korean nuclear confrontation might end in a mirage.
Cooling measures need to be undertaken by both sides of nuclear confronters. For Pyongyang, the summit might be a contributing factor. We all agree that the summit should take the issue of denuclearization as the top of talking points and Seoul should tighten vigilance against Pyongyang’s trial to magnify differences between Moon and Trump. For Washington, it is high time to gear direct talks with North Korea towards a necessary step of the long journey for denuclearization. Washington can design the option for its talks with Pyongyang, simultaneously holding tight joint sanctions against North Korea. A different voice, hopefully, would go viral across think tanks in Washington, thereby saving the forthcoming momentum of the summit for both sides.
Kim Tae-kyoon is an associate professor at International Development Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. -- Ed.