June 24, 2019

The Key to Success with North Korea: A ROK-Solid Alliance

By Kristine Lee and ​Neil Bhatiya

When President Trump meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in after the G-20 Summit next week, he will have a golden opportunity to jump-start diplomatic engagement with North Korea. But Trump’s meeting with Moon can only be declared a success if the two leaders telegraph their countries’ continued vigilance with regards to joint military cooperation, sanctions enforcement, and curbing Chinese influence on the peninsula. Successfully managing the North Korea threat hinges not on Trump-Kim bilateral negotiations, but rather on a tightly choreographed U.S.-South Korean approach.

The alliance between the United States and South Korea has, for the past six decades, been a pillar of the U.S.-led security architecture in Northeast Asia – but in the past year, the bilateral relationship has approached a new inflection point. In 2018, the breakneck pace of inter-Korean rapprochement and the failure to reach a timely agreement on the United States and South Korea’s military cost-sharing framework, the Special Measures Agreement, spurred fresh debate about burden sharing and alliance sustainability. Further, after the collapsed Trump-Kim talks in Hanoi last February, at a time when vigilance could not be overstated, the United States and South Korea announced that they would again suspend annual large-scale exercises. Then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan reinforced this at the Shangri-La dialogue earlier this month, stating that the resumption of major joint-military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea are not “necessary,” negating his broader point that North Korea “remains an extraordinary threat.”

Beijing has been quietly strengthening its hand while ensuring North Korea remains within its sphere of influence.

The cancellation of major military exercises with South Korea creates fundamental risks for the United States as major powers jockey for influence in Northeast Asia. Beijing has been quietly strengthening its hand while ensuring North Korea remains within its sphere of influence. Xi Jinping visited North Korea last week, the first Chinese president to do so in more than a decade. In the past year, China has loosened restrictions on trade with North Korea, casting the Kim regime a lifeline while weakening the United States’ diplomatic toolkit. Joined by Russia and North Korea, China has also pushed for an easing of multilateral sanctions on North Korea.

As the Trump administration prepares for a meeting with Moon and a third summit with Kim, the two allies must maintain readiness in anticipation of North Korea’s continued probing of their resolve. The United States should view the potential reinstatement of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Vigilant Ace combined military exercises with South Korea both as essential readiness maintenance tools and as levers to shape Kim’s risk calculus for provocations.

Additionally, the United States should head up a dual-track strategy for managing North Korea sanctions. Trump damaged the administration’s messaging on the prospect for future designations in tweets that suggested they were no longer necessary. A much more reasonable approach would focus on finding new avenues for building technical capacity in high-risk jurisdictions, particularly in Southeast Asia, while insisting that other countries continue to enforce U.N. sanctions. The United States’ formal complaints in the United Nations against North Korea for its blatant violation of sanctions on oil imports, as well as its recent designations of Chinese entities are just a starting point for productive messaging.

The United States should head up a dual-track strategy for managing North Korea sanctions.

Simultaneously, the United States and South Korea need to develop more concrete contingency plans to build confidence with Kim if negotiations happen to proceed more amicably in the future. Well-timed and appropriately phased tension-reduction measures will yield a number of decidedly positive outcomes. Diplomatic exchanges between the two Koreas and discrete infrastructure projects authorized by both the United States and the United Nations, such as the much-heralded inter-Korean railway, could chip away at the Cold War dynamic that has, for decades, ensnared the peninsula and prevented any wider diplomatic breakthrough. Most of the sanctions would remain in place, but individual projects could ensure momentum toward further steps.

Shifting perceptions have already positioned North Korea for growing diplomatic and eventually economic ties with major actors in Northeast Asia – including China and Russia – even as Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities remain unchanged. North Korea’s deft regional diplomacy demands that Washington walk a tightrope between an economic, diplomatic, and military pressure strategy and the promise of furnishing tangible economic benefits to Pyongyang should negotiations once again progress in a more positive direction. The only way the United States can pull this off is by returning to the basics: refurbishing its alliance with South Korea.

Kristine Lee and Neil Bhatiya are researchers at the Center for a New American Security.

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