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U.S. experts assess Pyongyang’s invitation

Feb 15,2018
American experts weighed in on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a summit with President Moon Jae-in, delivered by his younger sister and special envoy, Kim Yo-jong, with many expressing skepticism over whether it could lead to talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

JoongAng Ilbo on Saturday conducted a survey of eight Korea experts who were asked about the likelihood of this leading to U.S.-North Korean contact and if there would be any friction between Washington and Seoul over engagement with Pyongyang.

Washington has indicated some level of openness to engagement with the North, while continuing to enforce its maximum pressure campaign.

“I doubt very much that the White House will endorse President Moon’s moves, especially if he argues for an additional delay or reduction in U.S. exercises planned for the spring,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center and Center for East Asia Policy.

Pollack added that the latest developments “reveal looming contradictions” in U.S. and South Korean policies toward the North, saying, “The immediate question is whether Washington and Seoul will be able to prevent a serious rupture in the bilateral relationship.”

“Engagement should be encouraged, but unilateral concessions should be discouraged,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), voicing concern about “hidden costs.”

He continued, “Those costs include increasing the danger of nuclear war, spreading criminal economic activity, eschewing basic human rights, and on top of these, Kim hopes to extract sanctions relief, break the [South Korea]-U.S. alliance and double down on nuclear weapons.”

A few experts advised that denuclearization should be on the agenda in the case of an inter-Korean summit.

Scott Snyder, a director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “The U.S. will want an explicit DPRK commitment to denuclearization at a minimum prior to a Moon-Kim summit. Without evidence of progress toward denuclearization, it would not be wise for Moon to go.”

DPRK refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.

“The degree to which an inter-Korean summit impacts the bilateral US-South Korea relationship and the international pressure campaign on North Korea depends on the manner in which Moon Jae-in pursues it,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “If he insists on an agenda that includes denuclearization, the North’s defiance of the international community, and threats to its neighbors while emphasizing that sanctions will continue as long as the triggering behavior continues, then there won’t be a problem with Washington.”

Klingner, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. ambassador to Seoul, warned against the “naive engagement policies of his progressive predecessors,” adding, “Moon should realize that offering economic benefits for symbolic North Korean gestures is not only ineffectual but would themselves risk being violations of UN resolutions.”

Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said that Washington may oppose any trip to the North unless “strict conditions” are met first.

“What I think is plausible might be something like the following: North and South Korean officials pre-discuss a number of possible agreements that could be made at a summit, as is normal pre-summit diplomatic practice. They agree to some modest steps designed to ease tensions,” which could include improving communications between the two sides and military-to-military contacts.

The trick, he said, is “if Seoul and Pyongyang can thread the needle with enough progress to make the summit a meaningful event even if it stops short of beginning the total denuclearization of the North.”

He added, “North Korea will surely want them removed, but this is an area where President Moon can hold firm, offering some modest ROK initiatives in other areas but making clear that the world community will not ease the isolation of North Korea until the process of nuclear disarmament is seriously underway.”

Larry Niksch, a fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS), said, “If the military talks take place prior to a summit, the Trump administration will watch closely whether North Korea makes hard military demands such as a cancellation of the two big annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States, an end of South Korean air force participation in the exercises of U.S. heavy bombers and South Korean prohibition of the United States deploying forces and advanced weaponry into South Korea on a rotational basis.”

Should North Korea make such demands at the military talks or at a summit, he continued, “President Moon’s responses will determine whether the United States could accept Moon’s diplomacy toward North Korea.”

He added, “There always can be adjustments to ROK.-U.S. military exercises. However, keep this in mind: If the limitations on exercises keep the U.S. Army and Air Forces from training adequately to carry out their multiple missions to help defend South Korea, then the Army and Air Force will consider withdrawing from South Korea to locations where they can train adequately.”

“We should all be clear-eyed about what Kim Jong-Un would want in return for improving ties to South Korea,” said Jung Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “A reduction or another postponement of military exercises, without any movement from North Korea on denuclearization, will send the wrong message to Pyongyang.”

Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at RAND Corporation, said, “I think President Moon should invite Kim Jong-un to come to Seoul, saying that the 2000 and 2007 South-North Summits were in Pyongyang, and that it is Seoul’s turn to host such a summit.”

He added, “The United States has expressed a willingness to talk with North Korea - I think the U.S. would prefer to have peace with the North, but with a more moderate North.”

BY KIM HYUN-KI, JUNG HYO-SIK [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]