Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Divide and conquer? North Korean 'charm offensive' likely to exacerbate fissures in U.S. alliance

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Divide and conquer? Maybe not, but North Korea’s “charm offensive” and leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang “in the near future” will exacerbate existing fissures in Washington’s alliance with Seoul as Pyongyang seeks to further chip away at the relationship.

Kim, using the grand stage of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, was behind Saturday’s offer to host Moon for talks in the North Korean capital, setting the stage for what would be the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than a decade. The personal invitation from Kim was delivered verbally by his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, during talks and a lunch Moon hosted at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Any meeting would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a policy of engagement with the isolated North while pursuing a diplomatic solution to the standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

Kim Jong Un wanted to meet Moon “in the near future” and would like for him to visit North Korea “at his earliest convenience,” his sister told Moon, who had said “let’s create the environment for that to be able to happen,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom was quoted as saying.

Highlighting the North’s deft diplomatic moves, the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Sunday reported that the delegation had an “honest and open-minded” discussion with the South Korean side on improving relations, and described talks with Moon as “sincere and warm.”

Moon remained mum on the offer Sunday, but media reports quoting another Blue House official said he had “practically accepted” the invitation.

Analysts said his acceptance was assured.

“A Kim-Moon summit will certainly happen and we can expect Seoul and Pyongyang to make sure it does,” said Kim Duyeon, a senior visiting fellow with the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum. “Moon has always wanted an early summit and Pyongyang has its own political reasons for reviving inter-Korean cooperation.”

But, she said, Moon will have some “tough decisions” to make.

“The process going forward will be a delicate, complicated and risky one because he has to achieve his own objectives for Korean peace while keeping the alliance in mind,” Kim added.

Still Moon — wary of both North Korean attempts to “decouple,” or separate, the U.S. from the South, as well as the regime’s history of reneging on deals — offered some clear caveats in response to the summit proposal.

The South Korean leader insisted that the North more actively seek dialogue with the United States, saying that “early resumption of dialogue (between the two) is absolutely necessary for developments in the inter-Korean relations as well.”

South Korea said the two sides on Saturday had held “a comprehensive discussion … on the inter-Korean relations and various issues on the Korean Peninsula in an amicable atmosphere,” but did not say whether the North’s weapons program had been mentioned.

Washington has long insisted the North must show a willingness to denuclearize before any negotiations — something Pyongyang says it will never do.

If the envisioned Moon-Kim summit were to be held, the North Korean leader would find himself in an advantageous position.

North Korea, having conducted an astounding four nuclear blasts and 86 missile tests under Kim, including tests of an apparent hydrogen bomb and of a missile capable of striking most of the continental U.S., now boasts a formidable array of weapons. And although it remains some distance away from possessing a credible nuclear arsenal — CIA Director Mike Pompeo has said Pyongyang is “a handful of months” from being able to strike the U.S. — it is well-placed to achieve that goal.

“Pyongyang has bested everyone so far,” said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense. Seoul, he said, “looks like it’s taken its eye off of the big picture and may be willing to sell out the alliance for temporary political points.”

Washington, meanwhile, “looks like the bad guy to some, and has no plan for how to prevent alliance decoupling,” he added.

The U.S. has pursued a strategy of piling “maximum pressure” on North Korea through tough sanctions, military muscle-flexing and, at times, fiery rhetoric, including from President Donald Trump.

But amid the thaw on between the two Koreas, and the ensuing calming of tensions on the peninsula, Washington’s has taken a hit, appearing almost obstinate.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, for example, faced a barrage of criticism over the weekend for sitting stone-faced in his seat as Moon and North Korean officials stood together with much of the stadium to applaud their joint Olympic team.

White House officials stressed that Pence had applauded only for the American team, but some observers said the vice president’s refusal to stand could be seen as both divisive and disrespectful to the hosts.

In an attempt to head off these concerns, Pence was quoted as he departed South Korea on Saturday as saying that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo remained in complete agreement on isolating the North over its nuclear weapons program.

“There is no daylight between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile program,” the U.S. vice president said.

Some experts, however, have said that while South Korea and the U.S. have publicly maintained that they are on the same page in regards to their North Korea policy, Kim’s summit offer could set a dangerous precedent.

“It was a really smart move for the North Koreans to go ahead and propose a big summit between Kim and Moon,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “It raises expectations for success [and] makes the North Koreans look like they are driving cooperation, but puts pressure on Seoul to show more flexibility than Washington is likely comfortable with.”

Moon, South Korea’s first liberal leader in a decade, has walked a fine line with the U.S. in ramping up his North Korean diplomatic entreaties, managing to finagle out of the U.S. a postponement of annual military exercises that helped create the atmosphere for Saturday’s meeting.

While some concessions — including an at least partial scaling back of the U.S.-led pressure campaign — could be a bridge too far for Washington, any failure of the current inter-Korean rapprochement would also likely be seen as a win for Pyongyang.

“The North Koreans can turn around and say, ‘Well, we offered a summit and you stood in the way by being inflexible,’ ” said Oba.

Ultimately, balancing a North-South leaders’ meeting with a robust support by South Korea for the U.S. alliance could mean pursuing what Oba called a “good cop, bad cop” strategy that would allow Moon’s “efforts on inter-Korean relations to compliment the U.S. focus on pressure and vice versa,” he added.

Such an approach would let Washington “get the most possible flexibility out of these two lines of effort,” Oba said.

And while Trump’s unpredictable nature is likely prove a challenge going forward, Oba said the U.S. leader’s capriciousness could in the end prove to be a blessing.

“It means he doesn’t necessarily have to hold to the hard-line comments he’s made in the past,” Oba said. “Here, too, the important thing to do is coordinate with South Korea.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5