Inter-Korean relations take a hit after Trump tests positive for COVID-19

Posted on : 2020-10-05 16:44 KST Modified on : 2020-10-05 16:44 KST
Pompeo cancels scheduled visit to S. Korea
US President Donald Trump works from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Oct. 3. (offered by the White House/Yonhap News)
US President Donald Trump works from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on Oct. 3. (offered by the White House/Yonhap News)

US President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis has observers speculating on its potential impact on North Korea-US relations and the political situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula. A scheduled South Korea visit on Oct. 7 by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was abruptly canceled in the wake of Trump testing positive. With many having hoped that Pompeo’s visit might be a starting point toward resuming dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, the US presidential election is poised to arrive on Nov. 3 without any additional progress having been made in North Korea-US relations.

In an Oct. 3 press release titled “Update to Secretary Pompeo’s Travel to Asia,” the State Department said, “Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will travel to Tokyo, Japan on October 4 to 6. Planned meetings with the Quad Foreign Ministers in Tokyo will focus on pressing issues of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Shortly afterward, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) issued its own statement announcing that the South Korean government was “disappointed that Secretary Pompeo’s South Korea visit has been postponed due to unavoidable circumstances,” adding that it had “received a prior explanation regarding this from the US.”

A diplomatic affairs source explained that Pompeo had revised the schedule for his Asia visit amid the emergency situation with Trump testing positive for COVID-19 and being hospitalized on Oct. 2, adding that he had notified the South Korean government and asked for understanding through diplomatic channels around midday on Oct. 3. As recently as Oct. 2, the State Department had been attempting to forge ahead with the schedule, with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell holding a video briefing on Pompeo’s East Asia itinerary. In the end, however, it was forced to revise its schedule. According to the original schedule, Pompeo would have visited Tokyo on Oct. 4-6, Ulaanbaatar on Oct. 7, and Seoul on Oct. 7-8.

With the surprise development of Trump’s diagnosis derailing Pompeo’s South Korea visit, the South Korean government faces another major stumbling block in its efforts to reignite North Korea-US dialogue. Seoul had been making particular efforts to encourage Pyongyang and Washington to resume their dialogue by means of the issue of a declaration ending the Korean War, which President Moon Jae-in raised during a speech before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23.

Speaking with reporters after a Sept. 28 meeting in the US with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon said the two had discussed “creative ideas” on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and establishing peace and called on North Korea to “participate.”

Following the recent exchange of well-intentioned correspondence with the South, North Korea had Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) First Deputy Director Kim Yo-jong -- considered its “window” for communication with the US and South Korea -- accompany her brother, leader Kim Jong-un, on an Oct. 2 visit to the site of flooding reconstruction efforts after a two-month period in which she had been absent from the public eye. The following day on Oct. 3, it continued its apparent gestures at responding to South Korea and US efforts to resume dialogue, with the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) publishing a message of sympathy from Kim Jong-un to Trump.

Pompeo may visit Asia again this month, but schedule uncertain amid election campaigns

The US Statement Part said in its update on Oct. 3 that Pompeo “expects to be traveling to Asia again in October and will work to reschedule visits on that trip.” But with the presidential election just around the corner, it remains uncertain whether this will actually come to pass. This means that North Korea-US relations are likely to remain in their current deadlock until late January 2021, when the winner of the US election is inaugurated as president.

A bigger issue concerns what happens next. While Democratic Party candidate Joseph Biden continues to hold a slim lead, the possibility of him claiming a decisive victory in the wake of Trump’s diagnosis would mean an inevitable fundamental readjustment in the next administration to the “top-down” methods that Trump has been adopting in his North Korea strategy. If North Korea responds to this with nerves and provocation, the clock on the Korean Peninsula’s political situation could end up turned all the way back to its 2017 state.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent, and Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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