Korean issues have often been edged out of the headlines in the past few months by a plethora of other global issues but they remain far from being resolved. “War War” been replaced by “Jaw Jaw” at least for the moment. Much is still simmering along largely beneath the radar. And much has been clouded by the chaotic US domestic scene – not only surrounding President Trump’s own governance problems but equally his relations with the US intelligence and defence establishment. So where do things stand right now?
The Korean Problem continues to be as complex as ever, given the several different sets of relationships involved. To start with the fundamental relations between the US and the DPRK, nothing much concrete seems to have been achieved since the Singapore summit and there have been some worrying signs of possible regression. Despite Trump’s continuing apparent optimism about Kim’s commitment to denuclearisation it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was outmanoeuvred by Kim in Singapore into accepting wording of dubious value. The two were – and still are – far apart on what “denuclearisation” means, let alone when it might be achieved. Efforts so far by Secretary of State Pompeo to resolve this crucial question have been unsuccessful and are not likely to improve much through his imminent visit again to Pyongyang.(This has now been cancelled) Apart from the continuing absence of DPRK nuclear or ICBM testing and the destruction of a few test sites (which could easily be replaced) the North has yet to produce a reward for Trump’s surprise halting of joint US/ROK military exercises.
Meanwhile Kim has been appealing to both China and Russia to wind back economic sanctions, evidently with some success. Kim’s visit to Beijing several months ago clearly was associated with this issue. Trump has responded by announcing further sanctions action on a Chinese/Singaporean company and a Russian company. At the same time there has been some debate about just how effective the sanctions have been and on whom in the North – including reports of the plight of coal miners since coal exports from the DPRK have been affected. While there is no direct connection, the US/China trade war is bound to have some impact on US efforts to prevent China (far and away the DPRK’s major trading partner) from loosening the sanctions. All of which has been complicated by debate within Washington about retaining “maximum pressure” through sanctions – with Secretary of Defense Mattis sometimes taking a tougher line in public than Trump.
There remain very few signs of what game plan Trump has in mind to move things ahead. He has been singularly quiet on Korea in his deluging twitter campaign on tariffs, Iran and his mounting domestic challenges but he must recognise that his post-Singapore optimism has drawn a line in the sand. He had managed to sideline National Security Advisor Bolton, who has long been anathema to Kim and the DPRK, but Bolton recently sought to heap blame on ROK President Moon for Bolton’s earlier remarks that denuclearisation will be achieved within a year. Bolton claimed that is what Moon had conveyed to Trump after the Moon/Kim summit. In response, Moon had to organise hastily a well-publicised meeting with other ROK political leaders to rebut Bolton but also to reassure them that negotiations on denuclearisation by the US and the ROK were continuing quietly but well.
In parallel with the above there has been cautious optimism and hope in the ROK about the widening relationship with the DPRK. Moon has assembled an impressive team, with roots back into the early days of Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy”, who are committed to doing all possible to build an intra-Korean relationship. They are not without critics in the ROK, understandably among those with extensive experience in repeatedly failed negotiations with the North in the past. The intra-Korean agenda is growing quickly from family reunions, military dialogue, technical cooperation and the sporting arena with combined Korean teams in the Asian Games now underway in Jakarta. The next Moon/Kim Summit will be in Pyongyang next month although an effort by President Jokowi to invite both leaders to Jakarta for a summit around the Games was fobbed off by both. The ROK Government has also announced a significant sum to develop a Liaison Office in Kaesong just across the border.
While these developments have been well received in the ROK there is some concern that the changed environment, from that over a year ago when war loomed, may lead to complacency. Last week’s highly emotional family reunions will only add pressure from the ROK public for more with thousands of families clamouring to be included. Meeting these aspirations will not be without political challenge for Moon. More importantly it remains unclear just how far Trump will allow Moon to travel along the reconciliation track with Kim before he decides that much of what is going on amounts to sanctions busting (which technically it would seem to be).
A new and potentially difficult factor in the Seoul/Washington scene is Trump’s actions against Iran. Iran is a very important economic partner for the ROK. Korean construction companies particularly have a very strong presence in Iran and the ROK relies on Iran for nearly 20% of its oil imports. The ROK has been lobbying hard to protect its interests from the punitive actions Trump has threatened on foreign companies doing business with Iran. Incidentally there may also be some impact of this on Australia as we import significant amounts of refined oil product from the ROK.
Only time will tell what will emerge on the crucial denuclearisation issue from the next Pompeo visit to Pyongyang or the second Moon/Kim summit, but the likelihood is that any progress is likely to be modest and incremental. More problematic is how long Trump will deal with his inability to claim concrete success and who he will then blame and in what terms. That would risk cascading the whole issue back into crisis mode where either side could unleash hysterical statements which would inflame the situation. While the DPRK refrains from further nuclear of ICBM testing, threat and counter threat scenarios should be manageable but an ill-timed or extreme comment from Bolton will remain a risk. But all that leaves an eventual resolution of the denuclearisation issue still a long way off.
Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.