It’s not just the North Koreans who are fed up with the glacial pace of their bilateral negotiations with President Trump over nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Many South Koreans are too. And they are starting to make their voices known.
On November 5, 71 members of South Korea’s National Assembly signed on to legislation calling on the two Koreas and the United States and China to declare a formal end to the Korean War and sign a peace treaty. To many Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, that’s a necessary step to kick-start the denuclearization talks and, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “help to usher in peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The timing was significant. The week before, on October 31, Kim Jong-un had set off alarm bells in Washington when his military conducted another “test fire” of a short-range missile. His intent was to add pressure on Trump “to meet an end-of-year deadline for a new proposal on exchanging the regime’s nuclear weapons program for economic and political concessions,” South Korea’s Yonhap reported.
The missile test received the usual blanket coverage in the mainstream US press. It has been contemptuous of Trump’s negotiations with Kim since they began in Singapore last year, and has adopted a story line pushed by the foreign policy establishment—that North Korea is rearming while Kim’s talks with Trump flounder.
“North Korea launched two more short range missiles and nobody seems to care anymore,” Josh Rogin, a hawkish commentator for The Washington Post, said in a tweet about the test. But they certainly care in South Korea, where people have lived with the threat of war for 70 years and are anxious to find a way toward a permanent peace.
In the week preceding the missile test, a group of progressive activists from South Korea was in New York and Washington pleading for a change in US policy to break the deadlock so the two Koreas can move forward on their own plans for reconciliation.
Tired of the impasse in the US–North Korean talks and impatient with what they see as President Moon Jae-in’s acquiescence to US demands on maintaining sanctions, the 22 delegates, representing South Korean churches, labor unions, academia, and agriculture, spent five days on the East Coast to warn that, without US concessions on sanctions, the peace process in their country could be doomed.
“We are on the cusp of a dangerous time in which a standstill between these countries that extends into 2020 could escalate to the extremes of military action and even war between North Korea and the United States,” Pil-young Shin, the chair of the June 15 Committee for the Reunification of Korea, said in his opening remarks to an October 26 conference at the United Nations in New York (I was invited to address the conference as an independent journalist).
Unlike the US skeptics, who dominate discussion of Korea in the media and cable news, the South Korean progressives view American policy itself as the prime obstacle to progress in the Korea peace process.
“We have emphasized repeatedly that the basic problem threatening peace in the Korean Peninsula lies in the US’s long-lasting hostile policies towards [the] DPRK,” Chongbok Lee, a veteran organizer and the chair of the peace delegation, said at the UN conference, using North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That term—“hostile policy”—is also at the core of North Korea’s demands of the United States.
Lee continued: “The US must come back to the spirit of June 2018 Singapore summit and should release blockade and oppressive measures against [North] Korea, making efforts to normalize relations. As the result of such processes, we ensure that the stable peace regime as well as denuclearization can be achieved.” He pointed out that the June 12, 2018, declaration in Singapore by Kim and Trump “asserted a commitment to end the long hostile relations between the DPRK and the US,” adding that “the US government must devote effort into uprooting the war mechanism deeply embedded into the Korean Peninsula.”
It was Trump’s hard line on maintaining sanctions until full denuclearization, he and other South Koreans argued, that led North Korea to walk out of its last meeting with US negotiators in Sweden on October 5. Ten days later, Kim Jong-un was pictured in state media riding a white stallion in the snow to Mount Paekdu, the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula and a symbol of North Korean nationalism, power, and invincibility. “Kim Jong-un sends message of self-reliance and perseverance to N. Korean people,” the progressive Hankyoreh declared in its headline about the event.
But most US observers interpreted the visual, which was widely ridiculed on social media, as a sign that he’s about to take dramatic action—perhaps “bigger and badder” missile tests, suggested analyst Harry Kazianis—unless the United States meets the deadline set earlier this year. Coming from the right, The Daily Beast’s Donald Kirk predicted that Kim’s ride on Mount Paekdu was “all about projecting the image of a hero in a campaign of intimidation aimed at both the U.S. and South Korea in a climactic drive to get [Trump and Moon] to yield at last to his demands.”
That’s certainly not how the visiting Koreans see it.
In their meetings with UN diplomats, US lawmakers, and peace groups in the last week of October, the delegation stressed that Trump’s refusal to lift sanctions as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign to force Kim’s immediate denuclearization has driven the North to display its conventional military might with its recent missile tests (24 launches this year, according to one observer).
Worse, they said, the sanctions have made it impossible for the two Koreas to move forward on the economic projects Kim and Moon agreed to at their own historic summit in Pyongyang in September 2018. One of the most important of those projects was the reopening of the Mount Kumgang tourism site in the North that was the focus of bitter recriminations by Chairman Kim in late October. When South Korea offered to discuss the project in face-to-face talks, the DPRK rejected the offer.
The South Korean delegation blamed US sanctions for the impasse. “We beseech our US friends: the US keeps imposing restrictions that stop the Mount Kumgang project,” Shin told a group of US Korea watchers at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. “We wish to work with you to overcome this obstacle.” Without a warming in inter-Korean ties, he warned, the prospects for a US and South Korean agreement with North Korea on nuclear weapons grow dimmer by the day.
The sanctions have also made it difficult for badly needed humanitarian aid to flow. In a meeting with the staff of Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, the delegation said, they discussed the possibility of exemptions on sanctions for such items as medicine and water filters.
The serious impact of sanctions on ordinary North Koreans was underscored by a report from an international panel of independent experts that was released on October 30 by Korea Peace Now!, a coalition led by Women Cross DMZ. The report was covered widely, including by The Wall Street Journal, and includes some sobering statistics.
“There is already evidence of irreparable damage,” the report states. “It is possible to estimate with reasonable certainty that there may have been more than 3,968 deaths in 2018 (with 3,193 of those being children under age 5, and 72 of them pregnant women) as a result of sanctions-related delays and funding shortfalls impacting specific UN humanitarian programmes.” (A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.)
The June 15 Committee that visited the United States was formed in 2000 to support the spirit of the first-ever summit between North and South, where the Mount Kumgang project began (it was shut down in 2009 during a period of high tensions between the two sides). The committee was a key part of the broad coalition that organized the massive candlelight rallies in 2016 and 2017 that led directly to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye and the subsequent election of President Moon in May 2017.
Since then, the South Korean progressive forces have been the backbone of popular support for President Moon. As I witnessed from Gwangju in 2017, he campaigned for the presidency pledging to restore the “Sunshine Policy” of political and economic engagement initiated in the late 1990s by his predecessors, Kim Dae-jung—who made that first trek north in 2000—and Roh Moo-hyun. Since Moon took office, those in favor of his peace initiative are a majority; while he has slipped in popularity in recent months, most polls show that 60 percent support him on his outreach to North Korea.
But the hard-line US stance on the North has greatly troubled the Korean left and even the Moon government. They have watched with growing apprehension as the US-run United Nations Command in South Korea has blocked South Korean officials from participating in a survey of North Korea’s rail system and continued strict controls on people from the South crossing the border for discussions with their Northern counterparts. (Some of the controls are petty: One group that convened at Mount Kumgang last February was prohibited from bringing laptops or cameras with them, members of the June 15 delegation said.)
While publicly supportive of the UN Command, the Moon government has expressed reservations about its policies. On October 21, Moon’s Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-chul, said at a National Assembly hearing that the UNC was using “inadequate legal grounds” for denying certain permits to cross the border, and said that “institutional remedies” are needed so people can cross the DMZ for nonmilitary purposes (in a rare rebuke, the UNC responded with a press statement calling such reports “inaccurate”).
South Korean progressives have also been shocked by US criticism of the Moon government’s response to its trade dispute with Japan over a Supreme Court decision that Tokyo should pay compensation to Korean victims of Japanese forced labor during World War II. Even as the June 15 delegation was in New York and Washington, a senior US official, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, was in Seoul asking the Moon government to rejoin an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Japan it had canceled in retaliation for Japanese export sanctions.
The distance between Seoul and Washington on this issue was very clear at a conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a military think tank that receives major funding from Japan and US arms exporters. “The country doing the most damage to itself” in the dispute “is the Republic of Korea,” said Michael Green, a CSIS senior vice president who worked on Korea issues for the George W. Bush administration. “I don’t know what the Moon government is doing with Japan. Japan is winning this tactically.”
The hostility from official Washington is so intense that Lee Su-hyeok, Moon’s new ambassador to the United States, told reporters a few days ago that South Korea’s policies toward the North are inviting criticisms that they are “pro-Pyongyang.” And Trump, whose outreach to Kim has been applauded by the South Korean left, has raised the stakes himself by demanding a five-fold increase in Seoul’s financial support for US forces in Korea.
According to a recent book by an aide to former secretary of defense James Mattis, Trump called South Korea a “major abuser” of the United States and characterized the alliance as a “losing deal.” He allegedly added that if Seoul “paid us $60 billion a year to keep our troops overseas, then it’s an okay deal.” The statements have sparked some protests in South Korea. On October 18, a group of progressive university students used ladders to enter the grounds of the residence of US ambassador Harry Harris and denounced the 500 percent increase in costs for the bases (“Leave this soil, Harris,” their banner read).
On the issue of US forces in the country, South Korea’s progressive forces seem to reflect mainstream thinking. While recent polls have shown that most South Koreans support a military alliance with the United States, there is considerable ambiguity about the future of US bases in the South and sharp disagreement with the US demands that Seoul increase its payments. Last January, for example, the Korean firm Realmeter found that nearly 60 percent of Koreans opposed paying a greater share of the costs for US bases, as Trump has demanded, while 52 percent were against the idea “even if” it means the United States scales down its forces or withdraws from the peninsula.
Trump’s recent statements, too, sparked anger from many South Koreans. “I hope against hope that Americans will get over with the Trumpian diversion and put things back to where they were,” Oh Young-jin, an editor with the centrist Korea Times, wrote in a commentary titled “Why Trump hates Koreans.”
The Trump administration also came under criticism after a Pentagon official suggested—during talks about returning wartime operational control of US-Korean forces to Seoul—that the South Korean military should become an auxiliary force for the United States in such places as the Middle East. “Reports that we may have to send our troops to overseas areas of conflict determined to be a threat by the United States after the Opcon transfer are not true,” a spokesperson for the defense ministry told reporters.
Back in Washington, members of the June 15 group explained that the differences over sanctions underscore the need to redefine the meaning of the US–South Korean alliance, which was formalized in 1954.
“We need to move from a hierarchical to a more equal relationship,” Lee, the chairman of the delegation, said. “Until the alliance is transformed, inter-Korean movement will be limited.” Moreover, “so long as the United States maintains a hierarchical alliance over South Korea, North Korea will not change its relationship” with the US government, he pointed out.
Their solution, he continued, is to “achieve South Korea’s sovereign voice within the US–South Korean alliance so South Korea can advocate for itself on the Korean peninsula.”
That’s a tall order for Trump, who is mired in an impeachment investigation and totally unpredictable in foreign affairs. But it also presents some rethinking by the Democrats, whose senior leadership (including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) has disparaged Moon’s negotiations with the “tyrant” (Joe Biden’s words) Kim Jong-un and, like CSIS, openly sided with Japan in the dispute over World War II compensation.
So what might happen over the next year before the US elections? Trump, ever optimistic and desperately seeking a foreign policy win to offset his blunders, continues to predict success on the denuclearization front with Kim Jong-un; but he adds that he’s in “no rush” to get a deal completed.
The DPRK leadership seems to see it that way, too. Even after fierce criticism of the US position by lower-level officials, Kim seems to believe Trump will pull it off. Trump and Kim still have a “special” relationship, but “Washington political circles and DPRK policy makers of the U.S. administration are hostile to the DPRK for no reason, preoccupied with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice,” Kim Kye-gwan, a top adviser to Chairman Kim, wrote in a commentary carried by the state wire service KCNA. “There is a will, there is a way. We want to see how wisely the U.S. will pass the end of the year.”
Since then, Trump has appointed Stephen Biegun, his nuclear envoy to the DPRK, to the number-two position in the State Department, deputy secretary, where he will “keep his North Korea portfolio,” CNN reported on October 31. He has been busy with a schedule that has included, surprisingly, reaching out to humanitarian and peace groups focused on North Korea. Last week, for example, he met with Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, along with members of the campaign Korea Peace Now, for the second time. (Reached in Geneva, Ahn confirmed the meeting with Biegun and said “he was in good spirits.”) And in a sign that US and Korean pleas for a peace agreement are being heard, Alex Wong, the deputy special representative for North Korea, told a Washington audience on Tuesday that the state of war on the Korean Peninsula “should not and cannot be permanent.”
Meanwhile, the Moon government has been sending its own signals that it wants North Korea back in the talks with the United States. In contrast to the American concern about the DPRK’s October 31 missile test, Chung Eui-yong, President Moon’s national security director, downplayed the danger to South Korea last week. “I don’t think the missile capabilities the North is developing now are a grave threat to our national security,” he told the National Assembly, noting that the South’s military budget is much larger than that of North Korea and that the South Korean military also tests short-range missiles (the government’s stance drew sharp criticism from conservatives). On November 4, Moon’s intelligence director, Suh Hoon, sounded another note of optimism, telling lawmakers that US and North Korean negotiators are expected to hold another round of bilateral talks “no later than early December.”
In a sign of pre-negotiation flexibility, the US and South Korean militaries have agreed to skip an upcoming combined air exercise called “Vigilant Ace” that in 2017 mobilized around 270 US and Korean aircraft, including advanced F-22s and F-35s, to demonstrate their joint capabilities against the DPRK. Instead, they will hold separate drills, as they did in 2018. The decision reflects a bilateral effort “to support ongoing diplomacy for the denuclearization of North Korea,” Yonhap reported.
Suspension of these exercises—as well as a peace treaty to end the Korean War—were also key demands of the South Korean peace delegation that came here. As one of the delegates said after his meetings on Capitol Hill on sanctions, “small steps at a time.”