[Interview] Don’t think Trump’s erratic dealings will stumble Korea into peace

Posted on : 2024-03-07 17:21 KST Modified on : 2024-03-07 17:21 KST
Former Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul shares his insights into the precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula, and how a return of Trump may affect the situation
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits with US President Donald Trump during their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019. (AP/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits with US President Donald Trump during their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019. (AP/Yonhap)

When Donald Trump was president of the US, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was turbulent, to say the least.

During the first year of his term in 2017, the hair-trigger situation had many fearing that a war was imminent. After an inter-Korean summit in 2018 was followed by a first-ever North Korea-US summit that same year, expectations grew for a potential end to the Cold War system and a new peace regime.

But when the North Korean and US heads of state met again in Hanoi in February 2019, they ended up leaving without any agreement to show for it. North Korea’s relationships with South Korea and the US rapidly cooled — to the point where those fears of war have been making a reappearance of late.

What changes lie in store for the Korean Peninsula if a second Trump presidency comes to pass?

“There are people who are tired of the absence of ‘stable discussions’ under the Joe Biden administration, and they’re hoping that the unpredictability associated with the Trump presidency could change the situation,” said Inje University professor and former Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul in a recent interview with Hankyoreh 21.

“The reality is nothing like that. When it comes to foreign affairs and national security, the most important thing strategically is to increase predictability,” he continued. “Increased uncertainty is a threat to security in and of itself.”

Kim also observed that the “international order surrounding the peninsula has completely changed from before.”

“If Trump comes back to office, the situation will be very different from his first term,” he predicted.

He went on to stress that the current moment “calls for careful efforts to prevent any unintended clashes.” The interview took place on the afternoon of Feb. 26 at the Yeouido offices of Korea Peace Forum, where Kim is chairperson of the board.

Kim Yeon-chul served as minister of unification under President Moon Jae-in. (Kim Jin-su/The Hankyoreh) 
Kim Yeon-chul served as minister of unification under President Moon Jae-in. (Kim Jin-su/The Hankyoreh) 

“Gray area” between N. Korea and Russia, economic cooperation between N. Korea and China

Hankyoreh 21: North Korea has been talking about South Korea recently as one of “two countries” in a hostile relationship. We haven’t seen this kind of thing before.

Kim Yeon-chul: At the moment, all dialogue channels between South and North have been cut off. Even when inter-Korean relations soured badly during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, they still had civilian channels and indirect dialogue between authorities.

This is the first time since the announcement of the July 4 Joint Statement of 1972 that all avenues for contact have been blocked, including not only back channels between government institutions but all civilian, Red Cross, military, and government channels too.  The channels for the international dialogue — including between North Korea and the US — are similarly cut off.

When North Korea talks about “two hostile countries,” it’s a reflection of that situation. It’s saying that it now views the Military Demarcation Line not as a “small dividing line” between South and North, but as a “big dividing line” within East Asia. This is qualitatively different from before.
Hankyoreh 21: The international situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula has also been shifting rapidly.

Kim: In a narrow sense, it’s the end of the era of US-China cooperation. In a broader sense, it’s the end of the so-called Yalta regime, referring to the postwar order created in the wake of World War II.

It’s also true for the situation in the Middle East with the war in Gaza, but the system for reaching a consensus among the five permanent UN Security Council members on issues relating to North Korea has broken down.

We’ve reached the point where the five UNSC permanent members won’t reach a unified conclusion no matter what North Korea does. That means the international joint response and approach with regard to North Korea policy are no longer operational.

The breakdown that happened at the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi coincided with a period when the strategic competition between the US and China was intensifying.  If it hadn’t been for the failure to reach a deal in Hanoi, Korean Peninsula issues would have remained as a space allowing for minimal cooperation even amid the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

North Korea ultimately made the decision to pursue its survival in the “north,” not just in diplomatic and military terms but in economic ones as well.
Hankyoreh 21: North Korea’s cooperation with Russia and China has also been rapidly intensifying.

Kim: When it comes to UNSC sanctions, there’s quite a large gray area on the border between what’s illegal and legal. Different countries have the discretionary power to make their own interpretations in that area.
Since Russia is facing sanctions like North Korea, it’s likely to be proactive about interpreting the gray area. Also, when the UNSC is unable to play its part, that has a negative impact on how people view the implementation of sanctions.

The economic cooperation between North Korea and Russia — which have grown much closer since Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia in September 2023 — is likely to have taken shape around that gray area.

In contrast with North Korea-China trade, there’s an element of comparative advantage to trade between North Korea and Russia. Russia’s Far East needs workers, and North Korea needs energy and food. They both have things they can exchange, so economic cooperation benefits both sides.

Vladimir Putin appears likely to visit Pyongyang once the presidential election in Russia on March 15 to 17 is over. Since both sides are facing sanctions, they could also cooperate in ways that help them sidestep those sanctions.

But trade between North Korea and China is essentially different. China seeks to replace the US as the guardian of international norms, so it refrains from illegal activity when possible. Nevertheless, China could also actively exploit these gray areas. Trade between North Korea and China basically consists of family visits and trade across the border, without much of a commercial foundation. Since the two countries share many of the responsibilities for the border, they’re certainly capable of arranging trade such that it wouldn’t be reflected in the statistics as official trade on ships and trains is.
What’s next after the “strategic patience” of the Obama and Biden administrations?
Hankyoreh: You’ve recently emphasized the need to examine the three bilateral relationships that constitute the North Korea-China-Russia triangular relationship.

Kim: North Korea took full advantage of conflict between China and the Soviet Union in their triangular relationship during the Cold War. That was a distinct example of a small, weak country trapped between major powers gaining strategic advantage from the conflict between those powers.

The current situation is completely different. Given the US’ intensifying strategic competition with Russia and China on the global stage, the three bilateral relationships between North Korea, China and Russia have entered their first virtuous cycle. That’s a new wrinkle in Korean Peninsula affairs.

In particular, cooperation in the military area is likely to accelerate. I think that North Korea, China and Russia will strengthen military cooperation through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to the same extent as South Korea, the US and Japan increase their own military cooperation. There are already signs of China and Russia expanding joint military exercises around the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea becomes an active participant, then military cooperation could expand both in scale and frequency.

Hankyoreh: Trump has basically clinched the presidential nomination for the Republican Party.

Kim: In terms of the big picture, there has been considerable disappointment about two seasons of “strategic patience,” the first in the Obama administration and the second in the Biden administration. So some are arguing that the uncertainty brought by a second Trump term would actually be more advantageous than a more stable lack of negotiations.

But that’s not the case at all. In the areas of foreign policy and national security, increasing predictability is of immense strategic importance. Increasing uncertainty is itself a threat to national security. An important factor in US policy toward North Korea policy is South Korean policy toward North Korea. One of the major reasons for the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” was that South Korean Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye both adopted a hard-line stance on the North. In other words, the Yoon administration’s hard-line policy toward North Korea means that things are unlikely to change very much even if Trump returns to power.

We need to refresh our memory about why the Hanoi summit ended in failure. An important part of dealing with problems is coordinating the two sides’ positions. That’s how you build trust and improve relations. It’s not a matter of choosing between top-down and bottom-up diplomacy. National leaders may get a good photo op out of a surprise meeting, but they won’t make an inch of progress without working-level negotiations to follow up on that meeting. In that respect, Yoon’s approach to diplomacy is similar to that of Trump. Without a change of course, everything is sure to end up just like the Hanoi summit.
Trump administration likely to push for more defense cost-sharing
Hankyoreh: If Trump is actually reelected, do you think we’ll see the kind of adventurous dealings between the US and North Korea that we saw in his first presidency?

Kim: When it comes to diplomacy, it’s in your interest to have more options at your disposal. So I think the two sides could arrange a “political meeting.” Depending on the circumstances, the two leaders might even have another handshake.

One of North Korea’s distinctive negotiating practices is for the leader to make grandiose displays of authority. There were serious consequences in North Korea for the Hanoi summit ending without a deal. If the North Korean and American leaders were to meet again, North Korea would take a much more rigorous and principled approach to the negotiations. And since the Hanoi fiasco is seared into his brain, Kim wouldn’t agree to negotiations at all without some kind of definite guarantee.

At the time of the Hanoi summit, the US was more concerned with the political advantage that could be brought by the negotiations. That’s also why Trump thought no deal at all was better than a small deal involving North Korea closing a nuclear facility.

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is much more advanced now than it used to be, and North Korea, China and Russia’s triangular alignment is humming along in the diplomatic, military and economic domains. For the US, negotiating with North Korea would be much more challenging than it was back in 2019.

South Korea and the US need to coordinate their policy toward North Korea, but that won’t be easy because of the Yoon administration’s fixed stance. That said, I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of the situation under US President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam where North Korea-US relations improved but inter-Korean relations did not.

Ultimately, Trump in a second term would likely approve of a hard-line policy toward North Korea while making even tougher demands on South Korea related to defense cost-sharing and the cost of extended deterrence and deploying strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. The same would go for the cost of joint military exercises.

Trump could also ask for South Korea to share the cost or burden of the US’ international initiatives. What if, for instance, he asked for the operational scope of the South Korean Navy’s Cheonghae Unit, which is currently stationed off the coast of Somalia, to be expanded to conflict zones such as the Red Sea or the Strait of Hormuz? While the Cheonghae Unit deployment was approved by the National Assembly, such an additional request would surely stir up trouble in domestic politics.
Economic impact must be borne in mind
Hankyoreh: People are talking once again about a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim: The main problem with North Korea’s claim that inter-Korean relations amount to a relationship between two hostile states is the term “hostile.” That needs to be replaced with “peaceful.” North Korea claims to be a nuclear weapon state, and the US provides South Korea with extended deterrence. What that means is that both sides have a nuclear deterrent, which implies mutually assured destruction — i.e., that everybody dies — in the event of an all-out war.

The longer that military tensions are prolonged, the greater the likelihood of an accidental clash. When both sides are armed with nuclear weapons, neither side can respond to a local clash by launching an all-out war. That means that conventional warfare is likely to increase, as we’ve seen with India and Pakistan.

That brings us to the most crucial logical error in the argument that South Korea should acquire its own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s. We must remember that nuclear armament can actually create an environment that provokes local clashes with conventional arms. That’s why the most important thing is decreasing the likelihood of accidental clashes.

Rather than thinking solely of the domestic political benefits of taking a rigid line on North Korea, politicians need to bear in mind the economic impact. The longer that military tensions continue and the slimmer the chance of negotiations, the greater the impact on the financial market.

Even amid the nuclear crises of the past three decades, we've never witnessed a true “Korea discount.” That’s because rising tensions have always been countered by diplomatic efforts. But that’s not true anymore. And in addition, the macroeconomic indicators don’t look good. The government needs to realize that there’s a good chance that a genuine “Korea discount” may be on the horizon. 

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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