With Py­ongyang, UN role is crit­i­cal

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Stephen Costello Stephen Costello is a pro­ducer of Asi­aEast, a web and broad­cast-based pol­icy roundtable fo­cused on se­cu­rity, de­vel­op­ment and pol­i­tics in North­east Asia. He writes from Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He can be reached at scost55@gmail.com.

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.

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