The president of SK will meet with Obama tomorrow. Given the rapid growth of tension with NK, here are a few things they need to nail down and say publicly. (For my further thoughts on the NK mess, try here and here.)
1. A standard reaffirmation of the alliance is necessary, especially because the alliance is actually weakening and NK can see that. Also, a standard outreach to NK for talks is necessary. Obama should spin his magic about talking to those will unclench their fist. Of course, the DPRK will not respond, but it is important to establish the moral high ground by outreach first. Obama’s particular skill at diplomatic outreach will bolster the case and legitimacy for future tougher action in a way W never could after he put NK on the axis of evil.
2. It may be time to formally extend nuclear deterrence to SK. US nuclear weapons were removed from SK in the early 1990s. The Cold War had ended, and the US was trying to convince NK that it wanted the denuclearization of the peninsula. It is pretty obvious now, that NK is not really serious about giving up its nukes. Without them, it is impossible to justify so much suffering to its people. They have become existential legitimating props for this brittle regime that is about to become even more brittle. Hence it is probably time to formally state that mutually assured destruction now applies in Korea.
3. Obama should give an oblique hint that the US might tolerate SK nuclearization. Some sort of vague language about ‘understanding that the ROK must defend itself by all necessary means, now and in the future’ would be a useful signal to the North that creeping nuclearization will eventually be meet in kind. This would also signal to China that it needs to really start cooperating on NK, rather than just obfuscating. If it doesn’t seriously try to help, then the democracies will feel compelled to go their own way.
4. Both should make an overture to Japan, to 1) restrain itself vis NK, and 2) cooperate more with the the US and SK. 1 is because Japan is far more likely to go nuclear first in response to NK provocation. 2 is because only with more serious coordination among the democracies out here (Japan, SK, US) can NK be further isolated. Yes, China has the most influence over Pyongyang, but China is simply not cooperating. It would rather overawe a poor, weak NK than face a unified, US-allied Korea. So we (US, SK, Japan) should stop complaining about the PRC and hoping they’ll fix this, deus ex machina. Instead, let’s do what we can on our own, which means forging a unified front and joint response strategy.
5. However China should not go unpunished for its dithering, so Lee and Obama should formally declare the 6 party talks dead. They didn’t help much anyway. China and especially Russia used them as a vehicle for global prestige-taking, not to actually work much on the issue of NK itself. So let the Chinese realize that free-riding for prestige purposes is irrelevant to the US, SK, and Japan on this question. They had their chance, proved to be insular and grandstanding instead of serious, so now is the time to walk away.
6. Commit publicly to passing the free trade area between the US and South Korea ASAP. It will send an important signal to China and NK that the US and Korea are committed allies, it will reduce consumer prices, especially in over-protected Korea, and most importantly, it will bring down the price of Sam Adams at my local grocery store here ($2/bottle!).