SEOUL MATES

With Trump’s Help, North Korea’s Divide and Conquer Strategy Is Working

Kim Jong Un believes the government in South Korea cares more about his proposals for a lasting peace on the peninsula than about his nukes.

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SEOUL—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s disastrous mission to Pyongyang has left the U.S. grasping for leverage in its dealings with both North and South Korea.

The Americans now have to figure out how to deal with long-time allies who are talking about the need to “consult closely” with North Korea—not just with the U.S. as in the past. And it’s clear the North Koreans, yielding nothing to Pompeo, have deepened the wedge between Seoul and Washington. A ritualistic show of unity on Sunday between Pompeo and the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan couldn’t disguise that.

After Pompeo's visit to Pyongyang, North Korea’s foreign ministry had pilloried the Americans for their “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” and for “just calling for CVID,” which is to say complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. (Interestingly, these are terms not previously mentioned in Kim’s media even though they've been repeated like a mantra by the U.S.)

Pyongyang accused the Trump administration of ignoring its calls for a “peace regime” and a “declaration on the end of the [Korean] war,” which are tempting goals for the government in Seoul.

Can’t put enough lipstick on this pig to make it look good.
Victor Cha, former Korea advisor to President George W. Bush

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, a one-time student activist, supported by a chief of staff who once led a nationwide leftist student organization, remains dedicated to dialogue—and wants to portray the Pompeo debacle as a minor setback.

A spokesman for Moon promised the South would “closely consult with the U.S. and North Korea for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace.”  Note that the statement puts the U.S. and North Korea on an equal footing. Moon’s spokesman hailed the talks as “the first step in a journey” in which they will reach what they set out to achieve if “both sides continue their dialogue in good faith.”

That circumlocution conflicted sharply with the annoyance reflected by Pompeo in Tokyo after he, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono locked arms in a photo-op affirming that sanctions imposed by the U.N. after North Korea’s tests of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles would remain in place.

Pompeo, in his first comment on the North’s lengthy statement, said, if the “requests” made at his talks in Pyongyang were “gangster-like,”' then “the world is a gangster, because there was a unanimous decision at the U.N. Security Council about what needs to be achieved.” There is, however, no real unanimity among allies while all of them wait for the next treacherous step.

"This is a wake up call to the administration that NK [North Korea] has not changed its basic playbook from 10 years ago despite a meeting of the two leaders and a signed document," says Victor Cha, White House adviser on Korea during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"The U.S. is trying unsuccessfully to use Kim’s words in the Singapore statement about denuclearization as a way to push for implementation," Cha, now a professor at Georgetown, said in an email.  "Can’t put enough lipstick on this pig to make it look good."

Going forward, he said, "We can’t give away any more on the alliance in order to entice NK. No more suspension of exercises, no troop drawdowns."

On that note, analysts here saw trouble ahead between the United States and South Korea.

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“The U.S. may want strong cooperation with South Korea,” said Choi Jin-wook, former director of the Korea Institute of National Unification, “but South Korea’s speed for reconciliation with North Korea may weaken U.S. leverage.”

The core problem is obvious from the nature of the demands in the North Korean statement. “The declaration of the end of war,” it said, would be “the first process of defusing tension and establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and at the same time constitutes a first factor in creating trust between the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and the U.S.”

Americans, however, view North Korean pressure for a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War 65 years ago this month as designed to bring about the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, leading to the withdrawal of some if not all the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

Whether by coincidence or design, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, a retired admiral who previously commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific and is known for his hawkish views, arrived here shortly after Pompeo had left Pyongyang for Tokyo.

Harris read a statement affirming that "President Trump and his administration have made clear strengthening even further America's alliance with Korea is one of our top priorities.” Trump and Moon, he said, would “work together to persuade North Korea to chart a new course.”

Shim Jae-hoon, long-time correspondent for the old Far Eastern Economic Review and contributor to Yale Global, predicted Harris would make clear the relatively firm U.S. position to Moon and members of his liberal government. “We have great expectations of Harris,” he said. “He is an old Asia hand. He has a clear vision of the U.S. role.”

Shim feared, however, that Trump may have yielded too much in his June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. “He lost a valuable chance to pursue CVID,” said Shim. “Since then everything is downhill.”

One option the U.S. definitely does not have now is to go back to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which were shut down by President Donald Trump after his summit in Singapore with Kim Jong Un on June 12.

There was no doubt the North Koreans not only deeply appreciated Trump’s role but also expected more of his generosity.

The North Korean statement said Kim Yong Chol, the point man in negotiations, handed Pompeo a letter in which “Chairman Kim expressed his expectation and conviction that good personal relations forged with President Trump and his sentiments of good faith... would be further consolidated through future dialogues…” Trump himself had said “he would move towards resolving... the issue of denuclearization in a new way.”

There was no telling just what “new way” the North Koreans might envision, but the statement got almost sentimental when it came to how much Trump had meant to them: “We still cherish our good faith in President Trump.”

Judging from the North Korean statement, Shim believed Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol had had “a testy confrontation” in which the secretary, on his third visit to Pyongyang, his first since the summit, “failed to achieve anything,” including a meeting with Kim Jong Un, whom he had seen on two previous visits before the summit.

There was, however, one possible dividend. Pompeo did persuade the North Koreans to agree to a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom on Thursday to talk about transfer of remains of Americans missing from the Korean War. Trump more than two weeks ago said 200 sets of remains had already been returned – but in fact that hasn’t happened yet. The Americans have set up wooden coffins on trestles in Panmunjom in which to receive them.

There is speculation the North Koreans may return the remains on July 27, the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The inference would be plain: what is left of the bodies of American fighters would be a kind of bait luring the Americans into the declaration Pyongyang wants that would put a formal end to the Korean War, while leaving the nuclear issue open.

This article was updated July 9, 2018 at 5:30 a.m. EDT to include quotations from Victor Cha.