In Historic Korea Talks, Trump’s Leading From the Sidelines

The U.S. and South Korea may have lofty Olympic dreams, but Kim Jong Un’s vision is decidedly grubby.


Over the weekend both North and South Korea exchanged, over their newly reopened hotline, the names of the two five-person delegations to the first official talks between them since December 2015. Tuesday’s discussions will take place at the Peace House in the South Korean portion of Panmunjom, the “village” in the always tense Demilitarized Zone.

Don’t expect to find Donald John Trump, who has taken credit for the event, at the table. As the New York Times observed, “the president, so accustomed to being the center of attention, must now watch from the sidelines as these longstanding enemies open a dialogue.”

Americans, used to driving events on the Korean peninsula, look uncomfortable being excluded from the negotiations, and there is considerable hand-wringing in Washington over what will happen when Koreans talk among themselves on Tuesday. American anxiety, however, looks a bit too high because Trump—because of his policies and in spite of his petulance—has constrained both Pyongyang and Seoul.

Inter-Korean talks are inherently dangerous for everyone else.

On the one side is Kim Jong Un. “We need to assess every statement from the Kim Family Regime from an understanding of its decades-old strategy, which can be simply expressed in two interrelated and mutually supporting parts: survival of the regime and unification of the Korean peninsula under northern control to ensure regime survival,” David Maxwell of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies told The Daily Beast. The North, he says, has a “threefold” strategy for unification: “subversion, coercion, and, if necessary, force.”

To accomplish its paramount goal, the regime has to first break the South’s seven-decade-old mutual-defense treaty with America. Unfortunately for Washington, Kim faces a South Korean president who could be a Kim ally. Moon Jae-in was chief of staff to the South’s most leftist leader, Roh Moo-hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008.

Roh and Moon, reflecting the deep-seated anti-Americanism of the time, believed South Korea could adopt a “balancing role.” The South, they thought, could determine outcomes in Northeast Asia by switching sides, depending on the issue, between the “northern alliance” of China, Russia, and North Korea and the “southern alliance” of the U.S. and Japan.

Kim may think 'he can repeat his father’s feat to extort hundreds of millions of dollars from the Republic of Korea in return for a photo op.'
David Maxwell, Georgetown University Center for Security Studies

Moon, as president, would never say such a thing today, but he often approvingly recalls Roh’s policies, as he did in his landmark address in Berlin last July. Moreover, since taking office last May he has acted like Roh, sometimes adopting policies fundamentally inconsistent with the South’s alliance with the U.S. If given the chance, Moon would distance Seoul far from Washington.

Trump, however, is giving neither Korean free rein. He has constrained Kim, the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by bolstering the alliance with South Korea and severely restricting the flow of cash to Pyongyang’s coffers.

And he has constrained Moon, the president of the Republic of Korea, with a mix of tactics. Trump has, uncharacteristically, ignored obvious acts of disloyalty, like Seoul giving the “Three Nos” assurances to China in October, and has, not surprisingly, issued warnings, such as the one threatening the termination of Korus, the bilateral free-trade agreement.

Moreover, the American leader has acted with flexibility, such as permitting the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle joint military exercises to begin later than usual in order to “de-conflict” them with the Winter Olympics and the associated Paralympics, to be held in South Korea. The PyeongChang Games start February 9, and the Paralympics end March 18.

The de-confliction—what some term a “postponement”—has been called a “win” for the Kim regime, which has always abhorred joint drills between South Korea and the U.S. Yet the delay is only a small victory, and a temporary one at that.

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For the small price of the postponement, Trump has bought good will from a South Korean government desperate to avoid a Kim provocation during the Olympic period. That good will also reduce the possibility that the North will be able to drive a wedge between South Korea and its only security partner, the United States.

Moreover, Washington, by delaying the drills, also makes it less likely that the North is able to drive wedges between Washington and each of Pyongyang’s two big-power backers, Moscow and Beijing.

In these circumstances, Trump’s comment, at Camp David on Saturday, that he would be willing to talk by phone with Kim Jong Un is another demonstration of an administration making rhetorical concessions to prevent Pyongyang from breaking out of its self-imposed isolation. Kim may be trying to portray himself as a statesman, as the Los Angeles Times suggested Friday, but Trump is making that as difficult as he can.

Many are hoping the PyeongChang Games lead to a general peace for Korea, which Moon in Berlin called “the last divided nation on this planet.” The South Korean president said the Olympics could be “an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace.” Trump Saturday said the talks might be “a great thing for all of humanity.”

The grubby reality is that the North Koreans see PyeongChang as way to get cash. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation points out that Seoul made secret payments to the North to obtain its cooperation for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. And Georgetown’s Maxwell, who served five tours with the U.S. Army on the peninsula, is concerned that Kim may think “he can repeat his father’s feat to extort hundreds of millions of dollars from the Republic of Korea in return for a photo op.”

That probably won’t happen this time as most of the items Kim wants from Moon with regard to the Olympics are prohibited by U.N. sanctions. Obama administration officials told Moon soon after his inauguration last year that most of his inter-Korean plans ran afoul of U.N. sanctions, and Trump is bound to do the same thing with regard to the Olympics.

Things can always go wrong when Koreans conspire among themselves, but the Trump administration, building on the sturdy work of predecessors, has erected a sanctions framework that boxes in both Moon and Kim.

Yes, Trump is on the sidelines, but that is where he should be, at least at this moment.