The U.S. maintains its aggressive posture and enforces sanctions on North Korea, which it atavistically defines as a “rogue state,” repeating, like a broken record, that this will continue until North Korea makes a clear and unquestionable strategic decision to take steps toward denuclearization. After the North Korea-U.S. summit, the U.S. has interpreted the meeting’s outcome unilaterally. The Trump administration is once again wandering the road of its old failures.
It has been more than three years since the inauguration of Moon Jae-in’s administration. Two years remain in his five-year term, and his government has the power to enact the policies it desires in the time that remains. Since the ruling party’s landslide victory in the 21st general election, the National Assembly will confidently support the government. Public support has also risen to the highest level in generations. There is no indication of a lame duck presidency.
However, North-South relations remain unchanged. Unification Minister Yeon-chul Kim has described the possibility of tours to Mount Geumgang, and also several people have proposed North-South cooperation on the pandemic. Former Unification Minister Jong-seok Lee has even said that the South “should make a big effort to lend all medical devices and medicine” for the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital, on which the North has recently been focused. However, the North hasn’t budged an inch. Rather, it continues to raise the level of criticism over issues such as the South’s military drills or the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Why have things turned out this way? Why has Moon Jae-in’s government been unable to realize peace on the Korean Peninsula?
To find the answer we must look to the United States. From 1950 until now, as one of the main belligerents in the conflict and with a powerful military arsenal, including actual nuclear weapons aimed at the North, along with numerous sanctions, this country has had them by the neck. They are the most relevant country to the North’s survival. Despite its overwhelming dependence on foreign trade with China, because of the U.S., the North cannot trade with other countries – deprivation is the only situation possible. Therefore, the U.S. is a core element in understanding the actions of Kim Jong Un’s regime. So one should ask: After President Donald Trump promised Chairman Kim that the U.S. would establish a new North Korea-U.S. relationship at the Sentosa, Singapore, summit in June 2018, what has he done? Having promised to put effort into building a system of continued stability and peace on the Korean peninsula, what efforts have there been?
Half a year after the summit, President Trump presented a report on the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Review in January 2019. There had been sufficient time to implement the American president’s agreement. However, this report defined the North as a “rogue state.”
This was no new relationship; old relations were being dragged out again. Including the review of missile defense systems, this new policy document, although termed a report on defense, described offensive operations that do not match its title. There are not only active missile defenses and passive missile defenses, but systems equipped with “offensive capabilities that can repel offensive missiles before firing [enemy missiles].”
This specifically refers to F-35 fighter planes, which can be used to intercept enemy ballistic missiles during the launch stage, and have “offensive capabilities to destroy enemy ballistic missile support infrastructure” in advance.
Also, it even proposes the placement of interception capabilities with space-based missile detection systems “to destroy offensive missiles within enemy territory.”
This is how the U.S. Defense Department understands “peace on the Korean peninsula.”
This can easily be understood in the context of what South Korean experts refer to as the North’s “fourth generation of new weapons” missile systems. As the U.S. develops its preemptive offensive operations capability, the North feels the need to consolidate its position by developing weapons systems with enhanced concealment and mobility and minimizing the required launch window. There is also a growing desire to establish weapons systems that can eliminate American weapons systems capable of incapacitating their own weapons systems. They can do nothing more than gradually lose interest in discussions with the U.S. If South Korea focuses on integration with the U.S. for military operations and weapons systems, Moon Jae-in’s government must also abandon its dreams of diplomacy. Thus, little by little peace on the Korean Peninsula will become an empty dream.
In June 2019, the U.S. Defense Department revealed its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, and reverted to an originally hostile relationship. Not only did the North remain defined as a “rogue state,” the U.S. played its old tune by maintaining an aggressive posture and sanctions “until North Korea makes a clear and unquestionable strategic decision to take steps towards denuclearization.”
Since the North Korea-U.S. summit, the U.S. government has unilaterally interpreted the outcome: the North must preemptively and unilaterally denuclearize, and only then can the dilemma be peacefully resolved and the North enjoy its “bright future.” The Trump administration is back on the old road to failure.
Therefore, for there to be peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, Moon Jae-in’s government must open its bold “engagement policy” with the U.S. It should steer the U.S. toward a peaceful future on the Korean Peninsula, rather than revert to the old hostility of the past. This is the way to get the North to move. It will also maximize South Korea’s share of the defense costs. If you want peace, get the United States to engage.
Jae-jeong Seo is professor of Political Science and International Relations at Japan International Christian University.