WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETTS - New Year’s traditions differ across the Pacific. Americans break out bottles of champagne and wake up with headaches and fuzzy memories. Koreans try to maintain sobriety in order to bow to family elders on Jan. 1 and receive blessings for the peace, prosperity and health of their entire clan. Such cultural differences, as superficial as they might seem, might offer a lesson in foreign policy.
On New Year’s Day, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un addressed a very large political “family,” telling members that 2019 was “full of hope” and that all Koreans “should make greater strides in our efforts to boost inter-Korean relations, achieve peace and prosperity and reunify the country.” South Korean citizens, for the first time able to watch his annual address on television simultaneously with their northern kin, received a similarly optimistic message from their own president, Moon Jae-in, who promised in his national greeting: “I will make sure the peace will be irreversible.”
The coming year indeed promises continued warming of relations between the two Koreas and efforts to pave their own paths toward peaceful cooperation while U.S. President Donald Trump tries to denuclearize Pyongyang on his own terms. However, the 2-1 lineup bodes ill for the Washington-Seoul alliance — currently under pressure over the expiry of the cost-sharing deal for the U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula and concerns over a growing gap in North Korea policy — unless the Trump administration puts other items on the negotiating table. The White House also needs to work with Seoul on reconciliation and confidence-building measures in tandem with denuclearization efforts.
Moon and Kim played the leading roles in last year’s diplomatic drama and will continue to direct attention-grabbing action, such as their three summits from April to September; demilitarization measures along the DMZ; military-to-military communication; establishment of a joint diplomatic liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea; breaking ground to connect railway and road networks; and preparing for another historical marker, Kim’s 2019 visit to Seoul, which Kim himself promised in his Dec. 30 personal letter to Moon.
In contrast, there has been no substantive progress on denuclearization between Washington and Pyongyang since the Trump-Kim Singapore summit last June. Although Trump declared afterward that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat, the North continued to produce fissile material and tested a new “ultramodern tactical weapon” in November.
In his New Year’s speech, Kim called for an end to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, some of which Trump agreed to suspend to facilitate the inter-Korean summit and called on Washington to “suspend” the positioning of “strategic assets from the outside.” These two demands, uttered publicly by Kim for the first time, are non-negotiables from the perspective of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.
It might be that Pyongyang is loading on demands in preparation for giving up some nuclear assets and information. On the other hand, it could mean that Kim has no intention of giving up the nuclear program but is trying to weaken the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.
Washington might be able to break the current dispute with Pyongyang over sequencing the steps to denuclearization — accounting for weapons, test sites and verification versus sanctions relief and a “peace regime” — by offering to remove the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense) antimissile batteries which the United States placed in South Korea in 2016 in spite of opposition from North Korea, China and even its own allies in Seoul.
American troops and armaments, together with the highly competent South Korean military, are the bedrock of deterrence against any type of military adventurism, conventional and nuclear, by Pyongyang. Putting THAAD on the negotiating table would be a bold gesture by the U.S. toward constructive engagement, which much of the world — including South and North Korea — are seeking.
Even if all three parties want to continue diplomatic engagement and solve the nuclear standoff — still a big “if” even though Kim uttered “complete denuclearization” as a national intention for the first time during his Jan. 1 broadcast — it is unclear whether the Trump White House would have the negotiators or the clarity of diplomatic vision to coordinate constructive strategies.
Another confidence-building move would be for the U.S. (and the United Nations Security Council) to facilitate the resumption of humanitarian aid funding and activities inside North Korea while preserving some of the hard-core sanctions, especially around dual use technologies and equipment that could be diverted for military use. Since 2018, many aid workers have been blocked by U.S. measures from traveling to North Korea to provide help like medical and food assistance. Unilateral American sanctions against any financial or commercial organizations that engage in transactions with the North have led to what humanitarian organizations say are inaccurately restrictive interpretations of some U.N. sanctions and forced groups like Save the Children and The Global Fund to suspend their work there.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun began exploring such a measure last September when he said he planned to meet humanitarian representatives early in 2019 to discuss delivering “appropriate assistance.” With about 40 percent of the North’s 25 million people undernourished, including 20 percent of children under 5 stunted by malnutrition, the urgency is obvious.
The U.S. can also choose to replenish the anemic flow of funds to humanitarian war chests. International humanitarian funding plans for North Korea fell dramatically, from $103.9 million in 2012 to $26.4 million in 2018 in response to sanctions.
People who are hungry or sick have no capacity to improve their personal or national plight. Offering packages of food and medicine as “gifts from the people of the United States” and having Americans on the ground in North Korean clinics, classrooms and farms can have lasting impacts for both North Koreans and U.S. policy.
Although skeptics fear that goods and funds might end up in the hands of the military or other government officials, experts with experience in North Korea find such worries to be minimal.
Distrust among leaders is natural if their only shared experience is war. South Korea is trying to build a foundational footing past the grief and hatred of the 1950-53 Korean War, which still has found no formal end. Americans and North Koreans lack basic knowledge and understanding of one another. Before substantive denuclearization can progress, the U.S. needs to adopt measures toward reconciliation with both Pyongyang and the North Korean people. Small steps may pave a more certain path toward peace than unrealistic, giant leaps of faith.
Katharine H.S. Moon is a political science professor at Wellesley College and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution..