With Pyongyang, UN role is critical
LIMA, Peru — Two mornings ago, my daughter and I climed Huayna Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. This is the steep mountain often pictured behind Machu Picchu. I feel lucky to have survived. The trail is unforgiving, and there are no guardrails. Now safely in Lima, we’ve been talking with our hosts about political legitimacy, tragic histories, and the responsibility of governments. The American president is a laughingstock here. The only story from Asia in the local paper is about China’s refusal to follow U.S. demands regarding Corea Del Norte.
Governments in South America have a tragic history of political corruption. As the U.S. seems to be repeating this trend under the Trump administration, the new South Korean president’s democratic legitimacy is striking. That legitimacy is also conditional, based on specific policy changes, and unmistakable, in contrast to many other elected leaders.
If North Korea is just one of several priorities needing attention from the U.S. administration, it is a first priority for the Moon Jae-in government. After a decade of trying to ignore or deny this, South Korea is once again focused on its central responsibility. This leaves the U.S. as the main actor treating urgent DPRK nuclear, development, and security issues as domestic and ideological rather than peninsular, regional and strategic. Japan, too, continues to leverage regional insecurity, caused mainly by Washington, for domestic political goals.
This isolation of the U.S. was becoming clear 10 months ago, even before the U.S. presidential election. At that time, the next Seoul government was already expected to correct for the Lee and Park terms, during which DPRK issues were disastrously mismanaged and used for shallow ideological symbolism. In the U.S. election, both main candidates indicated they would most likely follow the counter-productive Bush/Obama direction rather than the relatively successful Clinton achievements of the 1990s.
With that context, Moon’s relentless and increasingly detailed outreach to the North is courageous, and instantly makes Seoul the logical leader in the new, regional and multi-party approach that will follow. The roadmap being developed in Seoul is exactly what is needed, but should also be open and flexible. It cannot go far without input from the Kim Jung -un government, which is why all North-South meetings should be pursued now, leaving only the actual summit subject to “the right conditions.” Even those conditions should be determined by South Korea, with appropriate notification of allies and other governments.
A four-step process might be emerging, based on the U.S. and ROK elections and on the statements and policy initiatives of all parties over the past six months.
In the first step, the Blue House was captured by Moon and the progressives, who clearly embraced the Kim/Roh framework. This change makes forward movement possible after 10 years of ROK neglect and 16 years of U.S. neglect. Capture of the White House in the previous November by Trump and the Republicans, with their predicable embrace of the Bush/Obama worldview toward Korea, meant that this time, in contrast to the 1990s, a new and more sophisticated approach by Seoul would be necessary. At the China-U.S. summit, President Xi Jinping failed to confront Trump with the impossibility of his North Korea views, and instead promised to help him do what is neither desirable nor possible.
In the second step President Moon, during the U.S.-ROK summit and in subsequent meetings with fellow leaders, began to rebuild the coalition for multilateral management of the North Korea issues. Chinese and Russian strategic interests cause Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to remain supportive of his initiatives. Germany, France and others support him, but are not yet asked to reconcile the contradiction of inter-Korean engagement with the U.S.’ isolation and pressure campaign.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged the practicality of the South Korean approach on July 19, and hinted at its necessity if tensions are to be lowered and agreements are to be struck. UNSG Deputy Spokesman Haq, noted that “Reopening and strengthening communication channels, particularly military to military ones, are needed to lower the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding and reduce tensions in the region.”
Here the U.N. can be a key actor. It need not be the main convener of meetings, but its critical organs will again be needed, at every step, to ratify and certify denuclearization, security and development aspects as the roadmap is implemented. This is truer today than it was 20 years ago.
U.N. legitimacy has become measurably more valuable as U.S. legitimacy and competence have steadily eroded, particularly since 2016.
In the third step, President Trump must be urged, directly and by fellow leaders, to freeze the global campaign to isolate and economically hurt North Korea. Advantages to the U.S. of the alternative multilateral engagement initiatives must be made clear and convincing. The change in U.S. tactics could be made politically acceptable, but this confrontation with Trump is inevitable. In the fourth step, a North-South Korea summit would be arranged. Careful stepped and parallel initiatives would address big outstanding issues. All the economic, political, human rights and strategic gains which are linked to pending solutions on the peninsula will come into view, and should continue to inspire and drive the process.
Two points stand out: One, the fourth step is probably impossible without the third step. Two, the capacity of the U.S. to be helpful has largely evaporated.
Moon and his fellow leaders may still be unable to change the U.S. position. But they must try. Like our mountain walk, events related to North Korea are taking us toward an unguarded precipice. In case they cannot convince the U.S. to alter its course, the coalition should be able to temporarily circumvent it. They would continue to develop the roadmap, provide assurances to the DPRK, and implement those parts that are possible without the U.S. No one has time to wait for the U.S. to get up off its knees and come to its senses, a process that will probably take years. There is just too much at stake.