[Column] Biden-Moon pairing can create new opportunities for dialogue with N. Korea

Posted on : 2020-12-04 18:18 KST Modified on : 2020-12-04 18:18 KST
Liberal parties will simultaneously be in power in Seoul and Washington for first time in 2 decades
Hwang Joon-bum
Hwang Joon-bum

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

The South Korean and American governments’ policies toward North Korea — typically a choice between toughness and engagement — have only been aligned for about half of the three decades from the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s until the present. During that time, there have only been about five years when the two governments both supported engagement with the North. The political orientation of South Korean and American administrations has often been at odds, and North Korean nuclear tests and other actions have strained relations between the three countries for most of that time.

Kim Young-sam, a conservative with the Democratic Liberal Party (the forerunner of today’s People Power Party), was inaugurated as South Korean president in early 1993, around the same time as Bill Clinton of the US Democratic Party.

Kim struck a conciliatory stance on North Korea in his inaugural address, during which he said that “no allied country can take preference to our own people.” But he took a harder line after North Korea’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty that March, a move that triggered the first North Korean nuclear crisis. Kim was dissatisfied by US-led talks with North Korea and quarreled with the Clinton administration, even voicing his displeasure with the Agreed Framework, reached in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1994.

Cooperation between Kim Dae-jung and Clinton led to first inter-Korean summit

South Korea’s next president was the liberal Kim Dae-jung (with the National Congress for New Politics, forerunner of today’s Democratic Party), lining up policies of engagement with North Korea during the first half of Kim’s presidency and Bill Clinton’s second term in office. Influenced by Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, Clinton unveiled the Perry Process, a comprehensive step-by-step plan for achieving peace and denuclearization, in 1999, moving toward engagement with the North.

Propelled by favorable winds, the first inter-Korean summit was held in June 2000. That October, North Korea and the US released a joint communique in which they announced plans for Clinton to visit the North within the year. Although North Korea and the US seemed close to normalizing relations, the victory of the conservative George W. Bush (with the Republican Party) that November froze relations once again.

There was bound to be friction between Bush, who described Pyongyang as part of “an axis of evil,” and Kim Dae-jung and his liberal successor Roh Moo-hyun, both advocates of engagement.

Obama’s strategic patience narrowed advocates of dialogue

While South Korean administrations led by the conservatives Lee Myung-bak (Grand National Party) and Park Geun-hye (Saenuri Party) had a different political bent from the liberal US administration under Barack Obama (Democratic Party), their views aligned about putting pressure on the North.

The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” or the idea that sanctions should be maintained on the North until it gives up its nuclear weapons, represented Obama’s acceptance of the Lee and Park administrations’ “blockade” against North Korea, based on the hope that the North would collapse. Pyongyang carried out four nuclear tests during that period, narrowing the options of advocates of dialogue both in South Korea and the US.

Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in (with the Democratic Party) and US President Donald Trump (with the Republican Party) ended a volatile period of North Korea-US tensions by arranging two North Korea-US summits and one summit bringing together all three leaders. But then negotiations ran aground, halting meaningful progress on North Korea’s denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s departure from the White House next month will bring together Moon, his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un, and Joe Biden, the next president of the US. South Korea and the US will see the first pairing of liberal administrations in two decades, since Kim Dae-jung and Clinton.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will opt for the engagement of the Clinton era or the strategic patience of the Obama era. But given criticism even from Americans that strategic patience only allowed the North to further develop its nuclear arsenal, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will simply repeat past mistakes.

Departure from Trump’s top-down approach and return to teamwork

Notably, we’re moving out of a time when US foreign policy can be moved by the chutzpah of a single individual (namely, Trump) and returning to a time of teamwork between experts equipped with practical experience and committed to America’s alliances.

All three parties — South Korea, North Korea and the US — need to act within the bounds of reason, in a manner acceptable to the international community.

North Korea should refrain from actions that inflame tensions until the Biden administration can review its North Korean policy and set up its Korea policy team.

The US should quickly signal to North Korea that it desires dialogue and respects the agreement reached by Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore in 2018.

Needless to say, South Korea should persuade the Biden administration to prioritize Korea Peninsula issues while building a consensus about South Korea’s leading role in inter-Korean affairs.

The three countries need to minimize the exploratory period and quickly forge a new relationship with each other.

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

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