Much has been made of the theatrical stand-off between North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. But most signs show that the two could quickly reach a deal on how to move forward with DPRK denuclearisation and economic development. The real tension is between Trump, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on one side, and White House figures, department secretaries and the US Congress on the other.
This has been the case since May 2018, when Trump abandoned the hollow pretence of threatening military action and agreed to a summit with Kim. Authoritative reports released in August suggested a White House consensus to prevent Trump from meeting Kim again. It may seem shocking to see the US president, together with the leaders of the two Koreas, lined up against most senior US officials and most of the Washington policy community on crucial policy choices. But in today’s Washington, things are happening every day that are far more surprising.
A further irony is that, for personal reasons, Trump has broken with 17 years of counterproductive bipartisan US policy on the Korean peninsula. His new direction is better for the United States, better for South Korea and better for Northeast Asia. While that fact may not be hard to figure out, a large majority of legislators, scholars and journalists cannot accept it.
The significance of the three North–South Korean summits — themselves surrounded by meetings among the United States, China, Russia and the two Koreas — is impossible to overstate. The Pyongyang Summit involved military agreements to pull back forces and reduce the risk of conflict, as well as increasingly detailed plans for corporate and infrastructure investment in the North, if UN sanctions can be suspended. And one simple detail stood out: there were no translators. Body language, facial expressions and small talk took on added significance compared to other international meetings. Small video excerpts have gone viral in South Korean media.
Such developments would not be so important were it not for the context: the evolution in governments in the three key capitals. Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington have all undergone seismic shifts in the past few years, for separate but equally decisive reasons.
North Korea’s Kim has turned out to be more decisive and self-confident than his predecessors. South Korea’s Moon is returning the country to the roots of its post-authoritarian, pragmatic, modern progressivism of the 1990s. And Trump, even while he exposes the weaknesses of broken US political and policy-making systems, happens to see a deal with North Korea as perhaps the only foreign policy success he could claim.
The United States threw away the enormous leverage it had to influence North Korea and regional progress when it destroyed over a decade of careful multilateral agreements back in 2001. The greatest contribution it can make today is to get out of the way. Promises of US military action, US economic support, or even US diplomatic leadership are at this point not credible. And getting out of the way is what Trump has already partly delivered. His breakthrough delivery would be allowing some UN sanctions to be relieved.
The relieving of UN sanctions is now the central requirement for both real progress toward denuclearisation and meaningful economic development in North Korea. This issue dominated the 73rd UN General Assembly because it indicated that control over Korea policy in the White House will determine the US’s sanctions position.
The centrality of UN sanctions explains why entrenched interests in Washington hold onto them so dearly. The same political party — and many of the same people, including National Security Advisor John Bolton — who destroyed previous US–North Korean agreements, are at the peak of their power now. Sanctions and coercion were their solutions then. They are all they have now. Once some sanctions are relieved, it will be all but impossible to reimpose them, particularly if there is progress capping and rolling back North Korea’s weapons capabilities.
The other reason for the importance of the White House split is that Moon has not brought the UN to Korea’s side in this contest, at a time when his US ally is weakest. His logical allies, with whom he could more effectively help Trump succeed in internal battles, are not with him. In a remarkable demonstration of US success and commitment, South Korea is now ready to assume greater responsibility while protecting the enduring interests of its US ally.
Judging by a statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, he has — for now — been captured by the John Bolton wing of the White House and will not help Moon until he is directly asked to do so. Guterres continues to say that complete denuclearisation is the key, when the key is really the US decision to support the Koreas through sanctions relief.
He implies that the US could successfully stand alone in the way of UN sanctions being relieved, which would prevent North–South economic engagement and prevent denuclearisation. It should be remembered that the last time Bolton and the Republicans did this they provoked the creation of nuclear weapons in North Korea that did not exist before they took power.
The economic and security leverage required to capture the weapons programs in North Korea is being brought to bear mostly by South Korea. The measure of that leverage held by China and Russia is also being dangled in front of Kim. The final, decisive influence that could be enforced through the UN and in the White House is being held back.
If the hold of the sanctions supporters prevails, then Moon will face a major decision. Will he push to suspend UN sanctions based on progress that only South Korea can induce from the North? Will he carefully arrange wide support at the UN behind an exchange of North Korean actions for a vote at the sanctions committee? Or will he allow the divided and incapacitated United States — once again — to slow down or prevent a historically and regionally decisive turn toward peace in Northeast Asia?
Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant and the producer of AsiaEast. He was formerly director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council and director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation-USA.
This article first appeared on East Asia Forum