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Korea lobs ball back into Trump’s court

A wider breakthrough remains possible and that could see the peninsula eventually becoming a central part of the US president’s foreign policy legacy

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US President Donald Trump speaks to the UN General Assembly tomorrow in which he is expected to showcase last week’s diplomatic ‘breakthroughs’ in Korea. While he has asserted these as “very exciting” developments, he now faces some difficult dilemmas ahead as Seoul and Pyongyang have put the political ball back in his court to respond with reciprocal measures.

Perhaps the highlight of recent days of diplomacy was the pledge to an era of “no war” on the peninsula by South and North Korean leaders, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. The announcement, which will potentially see the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and the Yongbyon nuclear site closed down, has been greeted as “very exciting” by Trump.

Yet, after the cancellation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip last month to Pyongyang, the North is now calling — beyond the halting of joint Washington-Seoul military exercises — for the United States to “create situations [on the ground] in the peninsula where [Pyongyang] would feel the decision to denuclearise was a right move”. In recent days, Trump has promised to “see what’s he looking at”.

One big move Kim appears to be angling for is Trump giving his support to formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War. On the face of it, this seems a simple (albeit very symbolic) step, but US officials and conservatives in South Korea are concerned this would weaken the Washington-Seoul alliance and remove the rationale for the 28,000 US forces stationed on the peninsula.

While there is remaining resistance in Washington to this, both Seoul and Pyongyang were encouraged by Trump’s response to Kim’s recent letter to him which the US president declared “said some terrific things about me”. Trump’s self-absorbed reaction underlines that a second meeting with Kim remains a significant possibility.

Yet, despite Trump’s remaining investment in the talks, there is growing White House frustration with Pyongyang which will not have been much eased by recent Korean pledges. National Security Adviser John Bolton has said, for instance, he is “still waiting” for significant unilateral action from Pyongyang post-Singapore, including a detailed declaration over the size of its ballistic and nuclear arsenals.

Expectations gap

What this underlines, despite Wednesday’s news, is the significant expectations gap that emerged out of June’s Singapore summit. That session was no more than a start to a sustained strategic dialogue, despite the hype put on it by both sides.

“A wider breakthrough remains possible which could see Korea eventually becoming a central part of Trump’s foreign policy legacy”
-Andrew Hammond
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Trump, for instance, declared that the “nuclear threat from North Korea was over”. And one might have been forgiven for thinking that he had already completed the immensely complicated process of de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier.

Instead, the potential for further future complexity and the tough nature of the talks is as high as those conducted by the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal which took years. Indeed, the final round of these talks alone — between Tehran and the P5+1 — in Lausanne in March and April 2015 lasted well over a week, which was the longest negotiation at a single site by a US secretary of state since, at least, the 1978 Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Key task

Even today, however, it is still not clear that the Trump team has a comprehensive, clear or coherent strategy towards Korea, which continues to contain much complexity for the president around US alliances, the non-proliferation regime, not to mention what exactly would constitute “denuclearisation” on the peninsula. And this will therefore be a key task in coming weeks for Steve Biegun, the new US Special Representative to North Korea.

As before, the chief issue for the Trump team to resolve is what sequencing will be necessary to move the process forward. While this is still unclear, Biegun will have been encouraged by Kim’s reported remarks this month to Moon’s envoys that North Korea wants to move significantly on denuclearisation before the end of Trump’s first term in early 2021.

Moon has in recent days sought to build on this statement, apparently the first time that Kim has talked timeframes, and will be pleased with the outcomes of his most recent meetings with him.

Wary of concrete commitments

The South Korean leader is acutely aware that his counterpart in Pyongyang is still very wary about making concrete commitments, as he wants to win economic and political concessions before any further significant reductions in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearisation”.

As Biegun begins his role, a wider breakthrough therefore remains possible, which could see Korea eventually becoming a central part of Trump’s foreign policy legacy. Yet, unless the president’s team raises its game and shows much greater diplomatic skill, it is as likely to emulate others who have failed to bring a sustained, peaceful outcome to one of the key foreign challenges facing Washington.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at the LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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