This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute. Basically, I am wondering if Moon can get a deal with North Korea by South Korea’s conservatives, especially in the press. I am skeptical.
It is worth noting in this regard that Moon and the Blue House have said almost nothing publicly about the talks with Kim Jong Un, specifically what the agenda might be or what proposals POTROK might make. Does anyone else find that vaguely alarming? Given all the big talk about settling the big issues of Korean, shouldn’t POTROK be floating some ideas out there for the public and analyst community to chew over? And Moon talked so much about improved transparency in government as a candidate.
It is worth remembering that when SK President Park Geun Hye negotiated the comfort women deal in a blackhole like this, she faced punishing public criticism when the deal was finally released. Moon will face the same backlash if he gives away a lot with little to no public input or warning. This is all very curious. I wish we knew a lot more about what Moon and Trump are considering offering up – USFK, the alliance itself, aid, sanctions relief, recognition? Everyone is guessing, because these two democratic governments aren’t telling anyone anything. Grr.
So below the jump are some ideas on how to get a deal passed Seoul conservatives who are increasingly suspicious of this whole thing.
Later this month, South Korean President Moon Jae-In will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This is the third inter-Korean summit since the days of the Sunshine Policy – an approach of opening and dialogue toward North Korea from 1998 to 2008. This effort earned a Nobel Peace Prize, but previous liberal governments in South Korea struggled to show real successes. There were widespread complaints, from the right especially, that the Sunshine Policy was all South Korean concessions in exchange simply for a provocation halt. All North Korea gave up was its willingness to attack South Korea, and in exchange it received somewhere around three to four billion US dollars over a decade.
Overcoming this conservative skepticism at home will be Moon’s biggest hurdle. Moon won with only 41% of the vote. As a minoritarian president, whatever deal he brings home will be dissected in the conservative press, and there will likely be much analogizing of him to Neville Chamberlain and ‘peace in our time.’ Moon has not floated any proposals or talking points unfortunately, so we can only guess what he might focus on or give away, but here are some suggestions to slip this by the hawks:
1. Do not get derailed by all the North Korean efforts to change the subject away from its nuclear and missile programs.
Perhaps the heart of the skepticism from analysts everywhere about these summits is that North Korea would ever give up its nuclear program despite forty years of effort to build these weapons and the obvious deterrent utility – no American-led regime change is possible now – of keeping them. It is easy to predict that Kim will seek to discuss anything and everything but the nuclear missile program. There will be lots of suggestions for joint projects like sports teams at international games, economic cooperation, rail through North Korea, training of North Korean technical staff, family reunions, and so on. And lots and lots of nationalism with the subtle dig that the Americans stand between the two Koreas. Moon must nevertheless hook any movement on these pleasantries to some kind of controls on the nuclear missile program.
2. If the North Koreans will not discuss denuclearization, try nuclear safety.
I have floated this idea for the last month or so because of the likelihood that the North will balk on denuclearization and possibly walk out. Our goal, however unlikely, is CVID: complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament. The North Koreans will likely not move on that much if at all. Or they will ask for a concession so outrageous – the end of the US-South Korean alliance, e.g. – that Moon will have no choice but to say no. (Moon himself might be open to such a swap, as Lowy’s own Sam Roggeveen has floated too, but I doubt 41% Moon could get that past the right back home.) Indeed, John Bolton may be hoping for exactly this outcome: Moon demands CVID; the North Koreans laugh and walk out; and the Americans have their casus belli.
An alternative that keeps the discussion in the nuclear space, and avoids the subject-changing problem I mentioned above, is nuclear and missile safety. North Korea, besides being a horrible orwellian tyranny, is also a grossly mismanaged semi-feudal state. One can only imagine how sloppy and careless it is with nuclear materials. We already know their main test site suffered a tunnel collapse which killed two hundred people. So why not talk with them about issues like waste disposal, storage, site access, missile command and control, and so on to avoid a Chernobyl-style meltdown? That is a legitimate concern, one North Korea (and China) probably share, and keeps the conversation focused on the nuclear program.
3. Map out a Trump-Kim summit as best as possible.
The possible May summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump is an enormous risk for the democratic camp. I have argued vociferously in print, Twitter, and on TV for weeks that it should be cancelled. Trump has neither the knowledge of Korea, the willingness to learn (i.e., to read), the attention span, nor a clear preference for democracy over dictatorship to negotiate on behalf of democracy with a tyrant Trump may well secretly admire as he does so many other dictators. I am amazed the Moon government thinks it is a good idea to put someone like Trump in a room with their existential competition. Were it up to me, I would cancel the summit immediately.
But if Moon insists, then he should do the very best to nail down specific items and issues for that discussion. Naturally Kim and Trump, fellow norm-breakers, will violate those guidelines. So Moon should broadcast those very publicly so that Trump faces a public backlash if he veers wildly. It is easy to see Trump gambling away South Korean security for some small-beer outcome which he can market as a ‘win’ back home to change the subject from his endless scandals so that the Republicans survive this fall’s midterm elections so that Trump will not be impeached next year. It should be pretty obvious to everyone now that Trump makes decisions based on his narrow interest; he is certainly not thinking about the American national interest, much less a small ally’s.
4. Get the details.
Deals with North Korea in the past have collapsed over sequencing, implementation wiggle room, delays, and other such deep-in-the-weeds specifics. Moon should try his mightiest to nail down very specific moves and timetables. US officials used to complain of ‘buying the same horse twice’ from the North. After twenty-five years of negotiating with the North on nukes, it should be pretty clear to everyone that they are canny negotiators who will take a mile if you give them an inch.
This is does not mean Moon should negotiate in bad faith. Democracies should not do that; that is one of things that makes democracy morally superior to places like North Korea. But there should be enormous skepticism. A big-bang deal – swapping US troops for nukes is the most obvious – is a huge risk. Go slow. Get the North Koreans to agree to some mid-level proposals which can be overseen in some detail, and then let’s see if they actually stick to them. There is little strategic trust between North Korea, and South Korea and the US. Moon will be pilloried as Neville Chamberlain if he naively hopes that Kim is not of the same ilk as his family predecessors. Seven years into his reign there is little to suggest that he is some manner of reformer. Indeed the most remarkable part of his reign is just how little North Korea has changed despite the shotgun succession and all the international pressure. The North is still a human rights disaster, still a tyranny, still belligerent, still a trouble-making international rogue, still promoting a cult-like ideology, and still threatening South Korea. And on top of that, it is a nuclear missile state.
These prescriptions are admittedly hawkish. Perhaps too skeptical. But they channel the response Moon will receive here if he takes a huge leap later this month. Moon surely sees himself as Nixon going to China, rather than Chamberlain going to Munich. We can always hope of course. But that is not a strategy, and in the midst of all this year’s pleasant atmospherics, note that North Korea has yet to float one meaningful concession. It’s all just talk so far. Maybe Moon can change twenty-five years of nuclear North Korean history, but I doubt it.