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[Park Sang-seek] Changing tripartite relationships among Koreas, US

Lately the North Korean nuclear issue has affected the tripartite relationships among the two Koreas and the US: North Korea and the US have become the direct parties for the nuclear negotiations with South Korea as a third party providing good offices or playing the role of a mediator. It is very difficult to understand why the country which will become the primary target of North Korea in case of military conflicts on the Korean Peninsula is not the main party to nuclear negotiations.

Some argue that the reason is too obvious because North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons to use them against the US, not against South Korea and it has already conventional military forces superior or equal to South Korea’s. This reversal of the view of the tripartite relationships has serious implications for the security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

Until North Korea succeeded in developing the nuclear weaponry, South Korea has been the main enemy of North Korea. Now the US has become the main enemy of North Korea. This was exactly the purpose of North Korea’s development of the MDW. This change has important implications for the security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

First of all, North Korea has now become a nuclear state which contends with the most powerful nation and the guardian and main protector of South Korea on the equal basis and does not need South Korea even as an intermediary between North Korea and the US. The forthcoming Kim-Trump summit in Singapore on June 12 demonstrates this reality. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s all-out efforts to consolidate a rapprochement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not be so attractive and necessary for the latter because Kim is much more interested in dealing with American President Donald Trump than with President Moon. North Korea’s nuclear weaponry plays the role of a magic wand because he can gain more and greater things from Trump than Moon. Therefore, the North Korean leader may not need President Moon as an intermediary.

What he needs right now is to get out of the economic clampdown by the US and the international community under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397 (Dec. 23, 2017). The economic sanctions under this resolution are the most comprehensive and strict among all the UN economic sanctions imposed on North Korea and most countries, including China, are adhering to it. More importantly, the US is imposing comprehensive and strict economic sanctions of its own.

Under the circumstances, North Korea has no choice but to seek direct contact with the US and South Korea can play the role of a provider of good offices or of a mediator. But in view of the fact that Kim will meet Trump face to face soon, South Korea’s role is likely to be very limited. I wonder whether the North Korean leader wants to discuss any things related to the US-North Korea relations with the South Korean leader open-mindedly.

Moreover, the US President would prefer to communicate directly with the North Korean leader who would be more than happy to talk directly with him. All the above-mentioned developments reveal that direct talks between North Korea and the US can take place more often. The most important and urgent task for the US President is to denuclearize North Korea. For this purpose he is willing to normalize relations and conclude a peace treaty with North Korea if North Korea abandons its nuclear program completely.

It seems that Kim Jong-un is more interested in North Korea-US talks than inter-Korean talks, mainly because if it normalizes relations with the US, it will become much easier to normalize relations with South Korea and it can gain more from the US than from South Korea. One example is the question of withdrawal of US troops in South Korea. It will be much easier and realistic for North Korea to negotiate with the US than with South Korea on that issue. In this context, it is ironic that President Moon is working very hard to make the forthcoming US-North Korea summit talks successful, because North Korea is most likely to demand a partial, if not a total, withdrawal of the US ground troops from South Korea as one condition of North Korea’s denuclearization at that meeting.

There is no guarantee that the US will reject such a proposal outright. North Korea has already included this demand in the peace treaty it has proposed. Another condition is that the US should guarantee the safety of the Kim regime. The US has already made that pledge. President Moon also has promised that South Korea will never try to overthrow the North Korean regime. As to the second issue the South Korean president is not likely to agree to a partial or total withdrawal of the US troops in the short-term.

Since North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power, it has been trying to deal with the Korean Peninsula security issue almost exclusively with the US rather than South Korea. The US has responded accordingly. Dealing with the US exclusively, North Korea has gained an equal status with the US, making South Korea more subordinate to the US. The more South Korea becomes subservient to the US, the more equal North Korea becomes to the US. Consequently, the tripartite relationship has changed from the triangle of South Korea and the US against North Korea to the triangle of two Koreas and the US. Some conservative observers believe that the tripartite relationship has already become the two Koreas against the US relationship. But this is a too far-fetched view of the present tripartite relationship. If South Korea moves too close to North Korea at the sacrifice of the South Korea-US relationship, it will not only create a serious political turmoil in South Korea but also damage seriously the iron-clad ties between the two allies. No Korean government, conservative or progressive, will dare to go to that extreme.

As the relationship between the two Koreas improves, the tripartite relationship will become more complex and delicate. The only solution to the dilemma is that the South-North Korea relationship should move in tandem with the US-North Korea relationship. In this case, South Korea should carefully watch how the US and North Korea approach each other. The forthcoming Trump-Kim summit will become a testing ground for the dynamics of the tripartite relationships.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former chancellor of IFANS (now the National Diplomatic Academy, Foreign Ministry) and the author of Globalized Korea and Localized Globe). -- Ed.