On January 16, 2018, the US and Canada co-hosted the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver. Foreign ministers and representatives of 20 countries attended the meeting and agreed that “a diplomatic solution is both essential and possible.”In order to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, they committed to maintaining the pressure on it, while remaining open to a political solution.
This implies a subtle adjustment in US policy towards North Korea. On 19th December 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the aim of the meeting was to exert “maximum pressure”, without any hint of engagement with North Korea.
This meeting was the result of several Trump administration desires.
(1) To watch and test North Korea. Since the beginning of 2018, North Korea has made peaceful gestures towards South Korea, by agreeing to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, reconnecting military hotlines, and resuming high-level talks. The US took these as signs that international pressure on North Korea had taken effect. The US wants to see what concessions North Korea might make on its nuclear and missile program. At the same time, the US wants to strike whilst the iron is hot, increasing pressure to drive North Korea to change its course and take decisive, irreversible steps to denuclearization.
(2) To disperse domestic panic. Inside the Trump Administration, there are two main schools of thought on how to deal with North Korea. One school, represented by National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster, stresses a military response, whilst the other, led by Tillerson, favors a political solution. In 2017, when Pyongyang became extremely aggressive with its nuclear and missile program, President Trump accepted more of McMaster’s ideas for military option. But this did not prevent North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, and made Americans more and more concerned about a potential nuclear war with North Korea. On 13thJanuary, a false ballistic missile alarm in Hawaii was a sign of this deep panic among the Americans. If the Trump Administration continued its war threats, it might have further stimulated domestic panic and brought more serious criticism on the Trump Administration. It became necessary for Trump Administration to try to reduce tensions and show some kind of willingness to engage.
(3)To consolidate the US-ROK Alliance. According to an opinion poll, more than 70% of South Koreans supported North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. President Moon Jae-in also wanted to resume the North-South dialogue, restart the US-DPRK talks and the six-party talks on denuclearization. If the Trump Administration continued its hard policy without any flexibility, it would block President Moon’s efforts and weaken the US-ROK alliance. If the Trump Administration supported inter-Korea dialogue, however, it would endear the US to the South Koreans and strengthen the alliance, which would prevent North Korea from driving a wedge between them. What’s more, they could also join together to figure out how to fit South Korea’s bilateral channel into the bigger multilateral effort to constrain North Korea. When North Korea returned back to brinkmanship, it would be more persuasive for Trump Administration to attract South Korea to take the same policy with the US.
(4) To pressure China and Russia. China and Russia provided huge support on the North Korea nuclear issue, but the US is concerned that China and Russia would not voluntarily realize full implementation of Security Council’ resolutions. It is also concerned China and Russia will make use of the issue to further their own interests. The US is determined to build another mechanism beyond the Security Council, or “a coalition of the willing” without China or Russia.
How will this meeting affect the regional situation?
(1) It will temporarily stabilize the situation. The Korean Peninsula will probably be peaceful before and during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Games. South Korea, with the US’ support, will try to enlarge inter-Korea exchanges, such as recovering humanitarian aid and the reunion of families, or proposing a third summit meeting. North Korea will refrain from nuclear and missile tests. The US will then scale down its military exercises, and more tone down its war threats.
(2) It will increase the challenges for nuclear negotiation. North Korea has declared itself a non-negotiable nuclear weapons state while the U.S. insisted Pyongyang must first commit to denuclearization. It also refused China and Russia’s “dual suspension” proposal, but did not come up with any other plan for resuming negotiations. With the US continuing its “pressure before talk” strategy, North Korea will become intransigent. Pyongyang may resume missile and nuclear weapon tests when the US resumes its “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” military exercises after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
(3) It will intensify power struggles. The “coalition of the willing” implies that the US not only distrusts China and Russia on denuclearization, but also wants to increase pressure on China and Russia after the deployment of THAAD system in South Korea. This would definitely weaken its cooperation with China and Russia on the North Korea nuclear issue, and decrease mutual trust.