Obama-Lee Summit: Good Enough


Amidst all the Iran hubub, the US and Korea had their first head of state summit this week. Here are my thoughts on what needed to be said. It seems to have been a wash, which is good enough.

The Good:

Obama affirmed a US nuclear commitment to SK. That is probably the biggest gain for the South. Given NK behavior in the last year, this was necessary. It also helps delay a possible nuclearization by SK. The SK conservative press is edging closer to this position.

Lee also seems to have gotten Obama to declare publicly that NK flim-flams in negotiations – obfuscating, demanding favors, giving little and then backtracking later. Everyone already knows this, but it is a blow for Obama who has stressed negotiations with US opponents. On the other hand, it reflects Obama’s realism. The reality of NK is that deals are, at least at the moment, not on the regime’s mind. It seems to want to prove to the world that it is a nuclear power and get acceptance of that.

Finally, Obama agreed to a upgrade of the US-ROK alliance to a “comprehensive strategic alliance.” Who knows what that means, but it is a good signal against the reality of a weakening US defense commitment.

No-so-Good

Obama seems cool to idea of shutting down the six party talks. Lee wants five party talks (i.e., without NK). NK has said it won’t return to the six party talks, and they seem to have done little but buy time for its nuclear program, and given China and Russia an opportunity for international grandstanding. So, sure, let Obama try more. Maybe his Cairo magic will work here, but I doubt it.

Nothing was said about Japan, and little about a united democratic front (SK, US, Japan) toward NK. Instead the idea seems to be building a 5 party front toward NK; “then the four nations will give the U.S. ‘bargaining rights’ after working out a joint plan what price the North should pay unless it abandons its nuclear weapons.” This would be ideal, but Russia and the PRC will almost certainly hedge and obfuscate and can hardly be expected to cede negotiating rights (like power of attorney or something) to the US. The democracies really shouldn’t be held hostage to Russian and Chinese opinion on NK.

Lee’s major concession seems to be that the US may directly negotiate with NK. The wisdom of this is hard to judge. NK desperately wants this – for prestige purposes and hopefully to hang onto its nukes. And NK will certainly push for a deal over SK’s head and to its disadvantage. This is risky, as the SK right will flip out if it looks like the US is unilaterally seeking a separate peace at SK’s expense.

As for the trade deal, nothing much happened – more arguments about beef and cars. Silly.

So all in all, it was a wash. Not much new was said. Nothing that really changes the game. But given how dangerous NK is, that is probably wise. All these talks are driven significantly by NK’s unpredictable behavior. The next big flap that will certainly throw all this into confusion again is NK’s upcoming ICBM launch, over which the US in turn will flip out.

Bonus NK lunacy: a WaPo story on how NK defrauds insurance, sells drugs, and counterfeits dollars. NK’s government is so uniformly awful, they seem like the bad guy out of comic book movie.

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