International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

11 November 2015

The US-South Korea meeting did little to address the North Korea threat, writes Sung-Yoon Lee

A summit is the antithesis of a blind date. It is highly scripted and choreographed affair. All the planning and the give-and-take between the two sides precede the actual handshake, whether between friends or foes. Its sole commonality with a date is that the putative purpose of the meeting, which, unlike a date, is always expensive and symbolic, lies in advancing the interests of both parties.

The White House summit meeting between United States President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in October delivered much bonhomie but nothing new in addressing the greatest common interest of the two allies—North Korea’s growing lethality. The language of the “joint fact sheet” released on the very day of the meeting is long on bilateral achievements and common aspirations: from the recently concluded civil nuclear cooperation agreement and the close bilateral economic and trade relations, to the intention of exploring “new frontiers of cooperation” such as global health security, climate change, and cyber/space collaboration.

Notably, on the key question of deterring North Korea’s threat and de-nuclearising Pyongyang, the summit produced a separate “Joint Statement on North Korea,” which is a novelty. But one looks in vain in either document for any new resolve to address the 25-year-old saga that is the North Korean nuclear threat.

So, what was the purpose of the summit meeting? Surely, even a summit shorn of substance can have some symbolic meaning, but the two leaders have already met several times. Can a routine meeting between friends bring some tangible benefit?

Only if a new way to resolve an old problem is presented. Unfortunately, however, all the key points in the joint statement on North Korea are mere repetitions of previous US-South Korea statements, thick on rhetoric and thin on methodology. For example:

The resolve of the two allies to counter the threat to peace and security posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs; their resolve to “achieve” Pyongyang’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization”; their intent to “remain open to dialogue” with Pyongyang and “never accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state” (although it clearly is); US support for a “peacefully unified Korean Peninsula”; and the obligatory passing mention at the very end of North Korea’s human rights violations, the likes of which, according to the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report, have no “parallel in the contemporary world.”

In fact, one may even argue that the latest “show of resolve” against an ever-growing North Korean threat is a watered down version of previous ones. For example, the Joint Vision Statement of June 2009, signed by Obama and his previous South Korean counterpart, contains the US commitment to provide South Korea with an “extended deterrence, including the US nuclear umbrella,” which is absent in the current joint statement. On the other major issue of sensitivity, against which Pyongyang bristles, the 2009 statement pledges to “promote respect for the fundamental human rights of the North Korean people.” Admittedly, a pledge it is; but it was made nearly five years before the landmark UN report was published. The current statement, coming some 20 months after the UN report, is hardly an improvement, as it harbors no language that may remotely impel North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to rethink his extreme and systematic abuse of his own people.

More curiously, the current Obama-Park joint statement is on substance a repetition of that at the time of Park’s visit to the US in May 2013. The one substantive difference is that, whereas the previous statement contains the passage that the US is committed to providing South Korea with “extended deterrence and the full range of US military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear,” the latest doesn’t.

So, why did the meeting take place? In international politics, as in domestic politics, image counts. At times, optics may even trump reality.

President Obama accorded President Park a state visit and an address to the joint session of Congress in May 2013, two years before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the leader of another key US ally in Northeast Asia, was given the same honour this April. Further, President Xi Jinping of China, a potential crucial player in the North Korean nuclear threat, was greeted with a state visit just three weeks before, in late September. Both the Japanese and Chinese leaders’ latest US visits were ostensibly capped by a major advancement of their national interest. Abe’s visit coincided with a landmark defence agreement with Washington that may propel Japan out of its post-war quasi-pacifist cocoon. Xi’s visit came amidst another small step forward – jointly with the US – in addressing climate change and on the heels of negotiations on cyber espionage.

The South Korean leader’s visit, however, produced nothing new and came several weeks after her controversial visit to China – controversial because President Park was the only world leader from a constitutional democracy at China’s big military parade on 3 September, the 70th anniversary of China’s purported victory over Japan in World War II. The optics of the South Korean president, standing among dictators of various persuasions — flanked by President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to her left and Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov, respectively, the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, whose combined reign exceeds half a century — observing the Chinese military showcase its weapons of mass destruction, was less than optimal for the US-South Korea alliance.

In fact, the one novelty to arise from the summit was Obama’s uncharacteristically undiplomatic open admonition against Park’s pro-China stance. During their joint press conference, Obama cautioned that when China fails to “abide by international norms and rules,” he expects South Korea “to speak out on that,” just as the US does, because these postwar international norms and rules have been good for South Korea. To rub it in, Obama said to his guest, “Obviously, given the size of China right there on your doorstep, if they’re able to act with impunity and ignore rules whenever they please, that’s not going to be good for you – whether that’s on economic issues or security issues.”

Seoul may think it needs Beijing to rein in Pyongyang. But as long as Beijing remains Pyongyang’s enabler, Seoul’s best bet in addressing the pressing issues of Pyongyang’s growing security threat to the region and horrific treatment of its people would be to stand by its sole treaty ally, Washington, and its tacit ally, Tokyo. Reveling in summit pageantry and settling for optics are hardly an optimal option.

Washington should firm up as well, for North Korea’s lethality continues to grow. It should take the bold step of vastly tightening targeted financial sanctions against Pyongyang, which remain significantly weaker in both degree and kind than US sanctions against Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran, Russia, Burma, and Sudan. Seoul, for its part as the putative sole legitimate government in the Korean peninsula, should vastly increase funding for information transmission into North Korea, which remains paltry.

By blocking at least some of Kim Jong-un’s streams of revenue and highlighting, if only in part, Kim’s manifold crimes and information blockade against his own people, the US and South Korea may be able to induce Pyongyang to rethink its priorities and gradually change. That would be a North Korea policy worthy of the special US-South Korea alliance, one born in the unspeakable trenches of war started by Pyongyang 65 years ago. And perhaps a summit, in time, to remember.

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