I was part of a small fact-finding delegation to South Korea immediately after President Trump’s Nov. 7-8 visit. The message we received in Seoul was universal: President Trump’s visit was a success; his presentation at the National Assembly was well-received. To a person, all were appreciative of the president’s comments, juxtaposing a vibrant liberal democracy in the South and an authoritarian and capricious regime in the North.
For someone who has been involved with developments with North Korea for over a decade, this was a welcome message from our South Korean allies. Prior to the president’s visit, there was concern that the U.S. would not closely collaborate with South Korea on policy approaches for dealing with a belligerent North Korea. This has been an understandable concern of South Korea, dating back to the crisis in 1993 when North Korea threatened to quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and make Seoul a “sea of ashes.” Fortunately, the 1994 Agreed Framework defused that tense situation.
Since that time, a number of South Korean presidents, definitely including Kim Dae-jung, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to normalize relations with North Korea, have invested considerable resources and credibility in efforts to improve relations with North Korea. Sadly, none had succeeded. What has been constant, however, during this 25-year period, was the U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea. This U.S.-South Korea partnership has proved inviolable since the Korean War and the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty on Oct. 1, 1953.
Some of our discussions in Seoul involved China, and the sense that Beijing could and should do even more to get North Korea to halt missile launches and nuclear tests, and return to negotiations. We were told that South Korea welcomed China’s decision to lift sanctions imposed on the South for its decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Thus after 16 months of imposed sanctions, Chinese tourism would resume and Hyundai’s and Lotte’s business pursuits in China would resume. Indeed, this is a positive development for South Korea.
The only concern we had was the reported “Three Nos” that South Korea agreed to: no additional THAAD deployments in South Korea; no participation in a regionwide U.S. missile defense system; and no establishment of a trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. Hopefully, this will be a subject of further discussion with the U.S., given the nuclear threat from North Korea and South Korea’s sovereign right to defend itself from an aggressive North.
The visit of China’s International Liaison Department Director Song Tao to North Korea and meetings with North Korea’s senior diplomat, Ri Su-yong, and Choe Ryong-hae, reportedly the second-most-powerful leader in North Korea, was significant. It shows that China, in addition to implementing U.N.-imposed sanctions on North Korea, is trying to use its unique leverage with the North to improve bilateral relations and, hopefully, get Kim Jong-un to stop escalating tension and provoking a U.S. response. No doubt, this recent initiative was in response to President Trump’s request to President Xi Jinping to do more to get North Korea to halt its escalating and provocative behavior, and return to negotiations.
The Global Times, a daily Chinese newspaper that focuses on international issues, downplayed Song Tao’s visit to North Korea, noting that he isn’t a magician, and any change in the dynamics of the Korean peninsula impasse must come from the U.S. side, which holds the most important card: Providing North Korea with the security it covets. Indeed, the U.S. offered these security assurances to North Korea in 1994, with the Agreed Framework, and in 2005 with the joint statement from the Six-Party talks, hosted by China. In both instances, North Korea decided that the pursuit of nuclear weapons was more important than security assurances and a more normal relationship with the U.S. And currently, it’s the North Koreans who are unwilling to enter into talks with the U.S., while they race to build even more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems of greater range.
A few days ago, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said that only through talks that addressed all sides’ legitimate security concerns could there be a peaceful resolution. He went on to say that the “dual suspension” (proposed by China and Russia) is the most feasible and sensible plan in the present situation. The U.S. had made it clear, as had South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that this so-called “freeze for freeze” was not acceptable.
Indeed, asking South Korea and the U.S. to halt joint defensive military exercises that have been ongoing for decades, since the tragic Korean War and the numerous attacks from the North that followed — like the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan and the death of 46 seamen — is unacceptable. To equate these legitimate defensive military exercises between two allies and North Korea’s illegitimate nuclear tests and missile launches, all in violation of United Nations resolutions is asking too much. What China and Russia should be proposing is that North Korea return to unconditional talks with the U.S. This shouldn’t be too hard.
• Joseph R. DeTrani is the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not those of any government agency or department.
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