[Editorial] South Korea needs to be the country preparing for dialogue with North Korea

Posted on : 2017-04-28 15:56 KST Modified on : 2017-04-28 15:56 KST
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford leave after a closed-door briefing on new North Korea policy
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford leave after a closed-door briefing on new North Korea policy

The Korean peninsula is at a crossroads with a number of situations, including the North Korean nuclear crisis. On Apr. 26, US President Donald Trump held a closed-door North Korea policy briefing at the White House for Senators. Afterwards, three of his officials - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats - issued a joint statement calling North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons “an urgent national security threat and top [US] foreign policy priority.” It’s considered unusual for the US executive and Congress to join in announcing North Korea policy.

The new focus in the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is summed up under the title “maximum pressure and engagement.” The idea is to apply as much as pressure as possible on Pyongyang to draw it into dialogue toward ending its nuclear program. The US executive has described its recent military pressure on the North as a means of achieving this. It’s worth noting the statement’s emphasis on “peaceful” denuclearization, and the omission of any reference to “all options,” which previously caused issues with its hints at possible military action against North Korea.

This means a greater chance that military confrontation, which reached its peak with the return of the USS Carl Vinson to waters near the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s threats of a nuclear strike, could at any moment give way to dialogue. It’s a positive sign in many ways. But at a time of governmental change in South Korea, it’s also worrisome in many ways.

Dialogue may be the stated aim, but there’s no question that military tensions could rise during the “pressure” process. And while the US and China may appear to finally be on the same page, it’s not clear to what extent Beijing is going to join in pressure on Pyongyang when its strategic interests are so different from Washington’s. That said, it is true that the possibility of suddenly shifting from the current crisis stage into a new one of dialogue is greater than before, now that the US has ruled out military action and brought out the negotiation card.

At a time when the peninsula’s situation is far more unpredictable than it’s been in the past, the role and commitment of the South Korean government as a stakeholder take on paramount importance. Seoul needs to talk to Washington and Beijing and help ease tensions on the peninsula, and it also needs to play the role of mediator, using inter-Korean dialogue to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. This may be the single most pressing task faced by the next South Korean administration.

But the US Defense Department and the transitional government of acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has just two weeks left in his term, have now leaped into action by locking down the THAAD deployment in an ambush-like operation. The announcement that the missile defense system will immediately become operational is worthy of censure, limiting as it does the range of options for the next administration. It’s also truly unfortunate that the South Korean Ministry of National Defense only belatedly confirmed the plans for practical operation after they were announced at an Apr. 26 House Armed Services Committee hearing by US Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris.

If Seoul keeps playing catch-up with Washington like this, it won’t be able to play any kind of leading role on Korean Peninsula issues even if negotiations do come to pass. Now that the Trump administration has announced its approach to North Korea policy, we need to get to work on concrete preparations for making dialogue happen with North Korea.

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