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The Trump administration’s inflexibility on sanctions, an apparent turn inward by North Korea, the global threat from the COVID-19 virus, and the political imperatives of the upcoming presidential election have diminished hopes for progress in the Trump administration’s denuclearization negotiations with Kim Jong-un this year.
But a year after those talks collapsed in Hanoi, the pundits and lawmakers who dominate US policy in Northeast Asia have become divided on tactics, particularly over Trump’s exorbitant demand that South Korea pay more for hosting US military bases on its soil. Disagreements extend to the administration’s stance on humanitarian aid to Pyongyang and the way it is handling diplomacy with both Kim’s regime and the government of Moon Jae-in in Seoul.
The mild critiques are hardly a breakthrough, but they do indicate that conservative forces in Washington understand and appreciate South Korea’s agency in the peace process—an important shift in the policy debate. “Alliances are not valued in dollars and cents, and they shouldn’t be seen as money-making operations for the United States,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer who directs Korea programs for the Heritage Foundation, warned last week on two occasions about the US insistence that South Korea increase its financial support for US Forces Korea.
That may not sound like much of a leap, but it marks a change from two years ago, when I heard Klingner accuse Moon of cozying up to China and downgrading South Korea’s ties to the US-Japan military alliance. And, to be sure, there is no split among foreign policy elites over the need to confront Pyongyang about its weapons program. Like Klingner, many of the voices questioning Trump’s policies toward Korea want an even harder line against the North, including greatly expanding sanctions and resuming full-scale US–South Korea military exercises that have antagonized North Korea for years.
Yet their concerns about process reflect an uneasiness that the diplomacy led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is backfiring, and may be alienating South Korea, a key US ally in the Pacific that is determined to find a negotiated peace with Pyongyang. There’s also a sense that the slowdown in negotiations is giving Kim too much time to perfect his growing conventional deterrence force against US forces in Asia and Guam. And in the view of some activists involved in the peace process, these trends could be paving the way for a more pragmatic approach toward North Korea in the future that might involve tradeoffs between sanctions and security that have until now been rejected by the administration.
“It does feel like the winds are shifting toward a stance that we want to find a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Dan Jasper, the public education and advocacy coordinator for Asia at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker agency that has been providing humanitarian aid to North Korea for many years, told The Nation. “The tectonic plates may be shifting.”
Those shifts, in turn, come as the American public has concluded that North Korea no longer poses the strategic threat it once did. According to a poll conducted in January by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, only 13 percent of Americans believe that North Korea presents the world’s “greatest threat” to the United States, a huge drop from 59 percent at the height of the crisis in 2017.
Hyun Lee, the US national organizer for the peace group Women Cross DMZ, explained that the current discussion in elite circles is likely due to a pragmatic realization that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear and rocket advances. “I think the recognition is creeping in that North is now a nuclear state and that the strategic calculations have become very different for the United States,” she said in an interview. “There’s a whole different discussion going on now because there’s not many good options.”
The state of play on the Korean Peninsula was clear on Monday, when Kim’s military test-fired two short-range missiles from the country’s east coast. They were the North’s first weapons tests since last November and took place a few days after it conducted a “joint strike” military drill in the same area. The tests were in line with North Korea’s pledge in January “to continue to build its defense capabilities” and were “not helpful to the efforts to ease military tensions,” South Korean national security officials said. North Korea’s official KCNA news service explained that the tests were a “long-range artillery firing drill” that highlighted the importance of a “powerful military force and a war deterrence.”
Then, on Tuesday, Pyongyang’s news service published a blistering response to Moon’s criticism by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and a top official in the ruling Workers Party. “The drill was not aimed to threaten anybody,” she said in her first official statement carried by KCNA. “Training is the basic mission of the army responsible for the defence of the country and is an action for self-defence.” Kim added, in taunting terms, “As far as I know, the south side is also fond of joint military exercises and it is preoccupied with all the disgusting acts like purchasing ultra-modern military hardware.”
That must not have been pleasant for Moon to hear; the famous sister had been among the high-ranking North Korean guests he greeted when he began his peace diplomacy at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. But he and his generals are undoubtedly aware of what she was talking about: South Korea’s latest purchases of advanced weaponry, including a Global Hawk, the giant surveillance aircraft made by Northrop Grumman, and stealth F-35A attack planes made by Lockheed Martin, as I recently noted on this site.
Back in Washington, the latest clash among US hard-liners took place last week, when the Senate held its first hearing on North Korea since the Hanoi summit of 2019. Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, opened the hearing by expressing his “sincere disappointment” in the State Department for refusing to allow Alex Wong, Trump’s newly designated nominee for chief negotiator with North Korea, to testify.
“This committee has the lead oversight role on the conduct of our nation’s foreign policy and the administration is obligated to testify in a public setting in order for us to effectively fulfill our constitutional duties as a co-equal branch of government,” he said, using words similar to those uttered by Senate and House Democrats during Trump’s recent impeachment trial.
Gardner separated himself from the administration’s demand for Seoul to increase its payments for the US bases in South Korea. “Now is not the time for excessive demands that only serve to exacerbate tensions and uncertainty within the alliance, which only benefits our adversaries,” he declared. His assertion was backed by Klingner. Seoul, Klingner told the subcommittee, “paid 92 percent of the $11 billion cost for building Camp Humphreys, the largest US base on foreign soil, and over the last four years, South Korea has purchased $13 billion in arms from the United States.”
In the question-and-answer period, Klingner and another former CIA officer, Sue Mi Terry, who manages Korea issues for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said under questioning from Democratic Senator Ed Markey that a preventive attack by the United States should be off the table. “I don’t think we should do a military attack to prevent a program they have already completed,” Klingner said, with Terry in agreement. North Korea, Klingner added, “wants to be the Pakistan of East Asia.”
Both witnesses seemed to take the position of the Moon government that the United States could, in certain circumstances, drop some sanctions in return for partial concessions from North Korea. That could happen, Klingner argued, if Kim went beyond his promise in Hanoi to dismantle North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility—something it has offered in four previous negotiations—and agreed to the kind of language found in arms control agreements with Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Klingner said that would involve defining terms and “having a very extensively detailed verification protocol” that would identify the location of weapons systems and the responsibilities of both sides. “And then, on the sanctions relief, I would see a distinction between the UN sanctions and the US sanctions.”
He pointed out, correctly, that the UN sanctions—imposed in 2007 after the North’s testing of long-range ICBMs that could potentially hit the US mainland—are “more easily undone” because they are strictly limited to nuclear and missile activity. That makes them “more tradable” in terms of trade restrictions, he said.
So “you could have parameters of, for every five nuclear weapons they give up, they get to export another 100,000 tons of coal or something like that,” Klingner told the panel. On the other hand, US sanctions imposed over the years require much deeper changes in North Korean behavior, including improvement in human rights and an end to money laundering. As a result, they “are much harder to undo” because Congress would have to approve them.
Terry, who often appears with Klingner at congressional hearings, added that US negotiators might consider lifting sanctions that South Korea has sought to soften so it can proceed on tourism and economic projects with the North—something so far rejected by the Trump administration. South Korea, for example, might get exceptions in order to restart a joint project with Pyongyang to rebuild the railroad lines linking North and South. That “would be the easiest way to start something,” she said, even if it meant “there would still be a violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
But, she added, “it is just very difficult to get there right now,” because, in her view, Kim has refused to make meaningful concessions. “North Korea has made it crystal clear that what it cares about is sanctions relief.” She also argued that successful US diplomacy was important to stop proliferation in general in Asia. “South Korea will not always have a progressive government, and conservatives there are talking about building a nuclear capability,” she said.
One notable sign of a shift in Washington is the embrace by conservative groups of the need to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea, not only to help its dilapidated health care system cope with the threat from COVID-19 but also to provide basic needs to its population. That issue came to the fore a few weeks ago, when the Treasury Department launched an investigation into whether the AFSC’s operations in North Korea were out of compliance with US sanctions.
“When [the Treasury] investigation came to light, we heard from conservatives who support our work and say that was not a good use of resources to go after NGOs,” the AFSC’s Jasper recalled. (The AFSC provides assistance to four cooperative farms in North Korea as a way to support “sustainable” agricultural practices.)
Among those speaking out against Treasury’s action was Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which is led by a board of some of the most prominent neoconservatives in Washington. “We must be supportive of humanitarian efforts in North Korea and the only way to proceed is to factor in vulnerable groups,” he said at a US Institute of Peace conference on January 31 while Jasper sat next to him.
Meanwhile, in response to COVID-19—which led North Korea to close its borders with China and, over the weekend, send most foreign diplomats home—the Pentagon last week canceled its upcoming military exercises with South Korea. “South Korean military chief Park Han-ki proposed the delay out of concerns for troop safety and Robert Abrams, the commander of the U.S. military in South Korea, accepted Park’s proposal based on the severity of the virus outbreak,” the AP reported.
At the same time, the State Department recently agreed to expedite humanitarian aid to the North to help agencies like the AFSC work with Pyongyang to cope with the virus.
That is critical because “U.S.-led economic sanctions against North Korea have contributed to a weakened healthcare system inside the country,” Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in an op-ed on February 26. While saying Pyongyang “should be more open and transparent” about the impact of the virus and “be willing to accept aid,” Lee added that US policy should change, too.
“Washington needs to be more creative and ensure that sanctions and North Korea’s isolation does not prevent it from receiving medical aid or hamper its ability to respond to that pandemic,” she wrote. “After this ordeal has ended, a public debate on the impact of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the North Korean healthcare system is in order, as the status quo clearly is not serving U.S. national security interests.”
These discussions, in turn, could open the door toward a more humane and realistic approach to Korea by the United States no matter who wins the presidency in November. And they have given impetus to US peace, religious, and humanitarian groups to seize the initiative and press the case internationally for a peace process that would help the two Koreas alleviate Asia’s worst health scare in years, sign a peace agreement, and move toward reconciliation.
Later this month, several advocacy groups led by the Korea Peace Network coalition will convene in Washington for a three-day national gathering to call for an official end to the Korean War, “now in its 70th year.” It will include a rally at the White House and advocacy in Congress to press for passage of House Resolution 152, which calls for ending the war with a formal peace agreement.
That shouldn’t be a hard sell in Washington: In late January, John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, told a House hearing that a long-term peace agreement with North Korea is a “desirable” goal and noted that the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting was never intended to “survive decade after decade after decade.” A long-term peace agreement “would be another subject of the negotiations that could be worked out with the North,” he added.
The second day of the national gathering will be devoted to a conference involving community and advocacy groups from around the country (just before publication, organizers announced that the gathering has been postponed because of COVID-19 and rescheduled for late July). It will include a keynote address by Bruce Cumings, the foremost historian of the Korean War, who has been writing about North and South Korea—including for The Nation—for decades.
In a statement distributed by Women Cross DMZ, Cumings, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, placed the war in the context of the broader struggle for peace and justice. “The Korean War was responsible for quadrupling U.S. defense spending and inaugurating the U.S. military industrial complex, so when we talk about stopping U.S. endless wars, we must first address the Korean War,” he said.