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Foreign Policy

Olympic Spirit and the Koreas

Mar 13 , 2018

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Can the Olympic spirit lead to a diplomatic process that will effectively promote peace and development in Northeast Asia? Hopefully the answer is yes, but there are many challenges.

The world saw both Koreas standing together in the glow of the recent Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea. The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, made a significant positive personal gesture in sending his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend.  

The sophisticated and upbeat South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, appeared the perfect host.  Kim Yo Jong appeared the perfect guest. There is no doubt that substantive conversations were held which could point the way toward a diplomatic process. Follow up visits by the South Korean side to Pyongyang and to the U.S. may advance the process in a step by step manner.

Denuclearization is, of course, at the top of the agenda. The international community strongly values non-proliferation as a fundamental international norm and this is reflected in the consistent actions of the United Nations. North Korea’s nuclear weapons development has led to widespread concern that this could trigger a breakdown in the international non-proliferation regime. Such a breakdown, for example, could lead to Iran and Japan developing nuclear weapons capabilities.

Challenges to denuclearization in North Korea include the concept itself, as well as the prevailing Cold War mentality among U.S. foreign policy elites. So what is wrong with the concept?  Defining the issue narrowly as simply denuclearization avoids the broader issue of a necessary comprehensive settlement. Denuclearization is only one component of such a settlement. A comprehensive settlement would focus on the broader issue of regional peace and development. This regional context includes several factors in addition to denuclearization that must be addressed.

What about formal peace treaties to end the Korean War?  There are no such peace treaties between North Korea and South Korea or between the U.S. and North Korea. The diplomatic situation remains frozen in time, although the current tentative initiatives of the Koreas may begin to melt that.

What about regional economic development as a factor in a comprehensive settlement? Certainly bilateral economic relations between North and South Korea would improve with diplomatic progress, but the regional context must be considered. The economic interests of China, Russia, and Japan are bound up in Northeast Asia, and so is the economic interest of Mongolia. A comprehensive settlement would encompass the economic dimension, to promote stability engendered by peace and development.

China, of course has an important role to play in a comprehensive settlement. Naturally, there have been diplomatic interactions between Beijing and Pyongyang. But, aside from any diplomatic interactions, there also have been quiet interactions with the DPRK at the academic level, some of which have focused on the concept of regional economic development in Northeast Asia. Both sides, reportedly, achieved consensus that regional economic integration was an important goal. 

The role of energy in regional economic integration can be significant. The DPRK participates in the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asia Security which includes discussion of economic issues. Mongolia, which has good relations with the DPRK, has energy resources to put into the economic integration mix. Practical cooperation on energy can spur infrastructure and other regional development projects.

Thus, a regional picture of two Koreas— one peninsula, China, Russia, Mongolia, and Japan emerges. Economic integration between these countries, with energy cooperation playing a leading role, would deepen interest in and commitment to regional stability and cooperation.

Absent from all discussion of the North Korean issue in the U.S. is the concept of Northeast Asia and regional integration that includes North Korea. Neither the White House nor the State Department alludes to the regional context, and the corporate media in the U.S. with its near hysteria about Pyongyang also ignores the regional context. Just why the U.S. is apparently oblivious to the concept of a comprehensive settlement with a constructive regional vision is hard to understand. The U.S. has had a presence in the Asia Pacific region for over two centuries.  In the late 19th century, China took the initiative to facilitate U.S. relations with Korea.

Neither the Trump administration, Congress, nor the media have yet addressed the question of a comprehensive settlement. Has Washington lost the capacity for the creative diplomacy shown four decades ago in the U.S. opening to China or the détente with Russia?

Washington today is so saturated with an obsessive Cold War mentality that officials seem unable recollect the historical context of present day diplomacy.  For the assorted hawks and Neoconservatives, history seems to begin with a triumphalist post-WWII narrative. It has been hard for Washington to think conceptually outside the box. Some bold new thinking could contribute to an effective comprehensive settlement. This would include the concept of the neutralization of the Korean Peninsula. The formula would be Two Koreas, One Peninsula. Neutralization, creating a Switzerland of Asia, would require denuclearization of the North, no nuclear weapons in the South, the removal of THAAD systems, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and guarantees by the major powers and the UN of peninsula neutrality.

The ever mercurial and unpredictable President Donald Trump is a new, albeit controversial, factor in U.S. diplomacy. As a pragmatic businessman, his inclination is toward transactional relations involving negotiation. This runs counter to the ideological thinking (specifically Cold War mentality) of the hawks in the administration. One might expect Trump to lean toward the transactional approach, while experiencing pushback from hawkish elites.

Explaining the persistence of the Cold War mentality in Washington is not an easy task.  Certainly the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against a century ago plays a key role. Tensions in the Asia Pacific and Northeast Asia are a pretext for hegemonic policy and for the militarization of the area, which includes billions of dollars of profitable weapons sales, critics say. 

It is not widely understood that the so-called “pivot” policy of the Barack Obama administration resulted from a bipartisan elite consensus prior to the 2008 election. The consensus was in place whichever party won the election. In the event, the Obama administration implemented the consensus and the Trump administration has, so far, continued it. 

Can Trump, ever the bold disrupter, break out of the Cold War straight jacket that impairs U.S. diplomacy? It is possible that with the help of the leaders of China and Russia, a comprehensive settlement to the Korean situation can be made. Time will tell.

The Olympic spirit seems to have inspired a serious effort on the part of the two Koreas to find a constructive way forward on an initially bilateral basis. It is certainly logical for them to have direct talks without undue outside interference. Talks scheduled for next month between the ROK and the DPRK may well result in measured progress, judging from the present constructive tone emanating from Pyongyang and Seoul. A phased step-by-step diplomatic approach is prudent.

The U.S. side appears to have put aside its longstanding and counterproductive precondition for the DPRK to renounce nuclear weapons prior to talks. Such a U.S. position, of course, had the predictable effect of delaying much needed diplomatic interaction, although both sides have maintained channels of communication. The abrupt resignation of the highly regarded veteran U.S. diplomat and Korea expert, ambassador Joseph Y. Yun, is to be regretted.  Hopefully, his former colleagues at the State Department will carry on in his footsteps.

President Donald Trump aims for successful outcomes in business and that now carries over into his new role in diplomacy. The personal inclinations he developed during his business career suggest he prefers dealing with countries at the heads of state level. Despite his saber rattling, he has consistently said he is open to businesslike discussion with Kim Jong-Un.

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