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Hope, fear and pragmatism

May 11,2018
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Stephan Haggard
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog.

The North-South summit should rightly be hailed as an important diplomatic achievement, and the Moon Jae-in administration deserves an ample share of the credit. Yet there is a long way to go before we know what the Panmunjom Declaration means. Peace is not achieved by declaration. It depends on the intentions of the actors, which in Kim Jong-un’s case, remain opaque. Has he made the strategic shift that would assure a meaningful détente or not?

Yet in both South Korea and the United States, we are seeing skepticism and fear that are no less warranted than the current bubble of optimism. Rather than denigrating the summit, we should take a pragmatic stance, waiting to see what the negotiations around the Kim-Trump summit reveal about both Kim and Trump’s thinking.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the good news. The Olympic truce has already extended into a de facto pause in both nuclear and missile tests. North Korea did not use the resumption of U.S.-South Korean exercises as an excuse to backtrack, and even went so far as to suggest an acceptance of the alliance. While Kim’s conception of denuclearization remains unclear, he was at least willing to utter the words and the goal is now enshrined in the North-South statement.

Where American analysts are concerned is the sequencing of concessions. The Panmunjom Declaration is aspirational. North Korea has much to gain from abandoning its nuclear and missile ambitions and should be reminded of those benefits. But if South Korea and China relax their stance toward North Korea prematurely, we could find ourselves in endless negotiations in which North Korean maintains its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Put differently, the meaning of the Panmunjom Declaration rests on whether the four parties — the two Koreas, United States and China — can agree on a process that will move toward denuclearization and the construction of a peace regime.

To be sure, this is a process in which the two Koreas will play a central role, and there is certainly no harm in a bilateral declaration of intent to replace the armistice. But the problem is larger and warrants a multilateral response involving not only the four parties, but ultimately Russia and Japan and the UN Security Council as well.

What would a good deal look like? First, it should be ambitious both with respect to the substance, the timeline and verification. In an ideal world, the Trump-Kim summit would generate a statement of principles that included phased deadlines on a path toward complete and verifiable denuclearization and the replacement of the armistice with a peace regime. The United States has been focused on its demands, but such an agreement will ultimately require a UN resolution to provide sanctions relief and the normalization of North Korea’s relations not only with the United States but with Japan as well.

What would a bad deal look like? A bad deal would lack clarity with respect to the negotiation process and remain open-ended with respect to the timeline for achieving goals. Interim goals, such as a freeze, would take precedence over a wider vision that includes a more permanent peace. Vague, feel-good claims would lull China, South Korea and the rest of the international community into premature sanctions relief. Kim would effectively stall, perhaps permanently, while making just enough modest but ultimately meaningless concessions to keep hope alive.

Perhaps the most dangerous dimension of this bad outcome is if Kim successfully stokes suspicion between the United States and South Korea, long a North Korean objective. South Korea blames the United States for throwing cold water on the Moon initiative. The United States becomes impatient with Moon’s idealism and drifts back to the unproductive language of “fire and fury.”

The only way to avoid this eventuality is for tight coordination among Seoul, Washington and Beijing. All three parties — and particularly the Moon administration — deserve credit for getting us to where we are. Trump may wish to take credit for these achievements, and Moon was clever in playing to his ego in this regard. But the process can only succeed if differences among the three parties are minimized through close consultation.

The Moon administration will not only need to work its relationship with the new secretary of state for the United States but with the Chinese government as well. Leading on this issue is not only a question of North-South relations but orchestrating a broader consensus among the three parties on how to move forward. For this reason, I am more favorably disposed toward declarations that include China, even if North-South relations advance on their own track.

Everyone knows that the prospects for a grand bargain remain tenuous. This is particularly true given North Korea’s long history of deception, but also given Trump’s mercurial nature and the legal and moral tangles that continue to consume him. Steady hands are needed in Beijing and Seoul to keep this process on track.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled an understanding of the complexity of the issues and expressed at least some optimism that a deal can be reached. The pragmatic thing to do at this moment is to suspend judgment but remain hopeful that the Trump-Kim summit can maintain the momentum from the Olympic truce.