Asan Washington Forum Synopsis Part 2: The Alliance and North Korea

In this second and final part of the synopsis of the June 24-25 discussion, we focus on the triangle with North Korea. This summation may be read in conjunction with Topics of the Month, in which we are following the ROK-US alliance closely, and the Special Forum in this issue of The Asan Forum, which is devoted to analysis of how five countries are thinking strategically about North Korea. The foremost priority of the alliance through its sixty years has been preventing another invasion by North Korea. When the chances of an invasion were perceived as diminishing, new strains buffeted the alliance. Discussion often came back to the theme of changes in North Korean behavior and their possible impact on the alliance. In this synopsis of the discussion most relevant to that theme, we look closely at the range and substance of coverage, reflecting the views of US and Korean speakers, some former officials.

In the nearly three months between the Asan Washington Forum and publication of this synopsis, North Korean foreign policy has shifted away from confrontation and refusal to talk to the South. The two sides agreed both on reopening the Kaesong industrial park and on a reunion of elderly relatives. Yet, the early summer Asan discussions remain relevant. The security situation is essentially as before. US policy to negate North Korea’s ability to coerce South Korea and Japan with its growing missile force and nuclear weapons stockpile has not changed. Indeed, in calling for a punitive US mission in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, US officials indicated that if a red line is not drawn in this case, then North Korea as well as Iran would feel empowered to act with impunity. Japan’s sense of urgency about how to deter North Korea as well as China has further deepened, gaining new momentum, as discussed in this issue’s Country Report: Japan, with Abe’s success in the elections to the Upper House. A recent meeting between US and Chinese defense officials was seen as a good step forward, but also as falling well short of the strategic stability dialogue desired by the US side. Even as Japan-ROK relations remain troubled at the political level, at the working level defense officials working with the US Office of the Secretary of Defense are expanding convergence on issues such as extended deterrence. None of these developments substantially alters the strategic environment seen in June. Even the North-South dialogue, more business-like than before, has achieved no breakthrough that is raising much hope.

Events in the summer of 2013 have demonstrated the polarization of positions in a clearer fashion than appeared the case in June when Xi Jinping was signaling to both Obama and Park in summit meetings and, presumably, to Kim Jong-un by refusing to hold a meeting, his displeasure with the North Korean stance and China’s interest in denuclearization. In September, US Special Representative for North Korean Policy Glyn Davies toured the region and made clear that China’s interest in restarting the Six-Party Talks without prior North Korean affirmation of denuclearization as a goal is a non-starter. The alliance is being tested by the alternative strategy of China with the backing of Russia in the shadow of a similar showdown over Syria’s August 21 use of chemical weapons. Park’s “trust-building” puts the focus on Seoul’s policies.

The alliance has experienced its most serious trouble when Seoul and Washington have not agreed on how to respond to Pyongyang. In the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter treated the process of normalization with China as an opportunity to withdraw US troops from South Korea, as if the threat no longer needed to be taken seriously. In the mid-90s, Bill Clinton was more positive about the Agreed Framework and subsequent status of North Korea than was Kim Yong-sam, straining relations. The situation was reversed in 2001-2008 when George Bush took a harder line toward North Korea than either Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun. In each case, one side feared that Pyongyang would detect weakness and take a more aggressive posture, leading to tense talks on how to right the ship of the alliance. In 2013-2014, with US attention on Syria and Iran while the ROK is talking to North Korea and also

One concern in the June dialogue of ambassadors was how the process of managing the alliance was damaged in the 2000s and what lessons were learned that could be applied to the challenges ahead. It was found that when troubles arise support on both sides may slip more rapidly than hardly anyone expected. To prepare for another troubling period it was deemed important to draw clear lessons, anticipate the challenges, and strengthen what is now called a “comprehensive strategic alliance.” One lesson is to heighten sensitivity on both sides to symbols of US-ROK equality or public diplomacy in the age of the Internet.

In order to renew the alliance, what approach to North Korea is suitable and how likely is it to be able to overcome different threat perceptions? There is no challenge more important for the alliance than coordination in dealing with North Korea. Opinions on how to do this varied, reflecting different notions of what the overall policy direction should be. One option that was aired was to adopt a strategy of forcing change in the North. Another was to delay and contain the North. A third was to concentrate on China by searching for a shared vision of the future of the peninsula. Reviewing some differences among these approaches offers us an entry point to appreciate the nature of the extended discussion.

Forcing change is an option raised on the American side to reservations from some of the Koreans. It fills the vacuum in US policy after the battles fought among Bush’s aides and what some perceive as the absence of a plan in the Obama administration, recognizing that over time an incident may spark a dangerous escalation, exposing the limits of what was depicted as passivity. The first step is to step up diplomacy to find agreement apart from North Korea on the path to a reunified Korea and how to manage North Korea’s military. A second step is to intensify the pressure on human rights, demonizing North Korea in a manner that changes the terms of debate, strengthening the case for absorption as the pathway to reunification. Third is an information campaign to turn the public in North Korea and even the elite against the regime, exposing the disastrous nature of its policies. However angered Kim Jong-un and his administration may get, the fourth step must anticipate that through increased military deterrence the regime will be weakened. The example of late 2010 was cited as proof of how tougher deterrence works effectively. This perspective was aired as one train of thought, but it was not echoed widely in June.

The delay and contain strategy starts with the clear assumption that there can be no diplomatic solution without a new calculus by China. Given its attitude, this must be a gradual process, starting with reaffirmation of the September 2005 Agreed Statement as a signal that denuclearization remains in the forefront. The alliance goal should be to find interim measures to constrain the North’s nuclear and missile build-up at a relatively low cost. Clinton and Bush both agreed to interim measures. Now these must extend beyond the Yongbyon reactor with the objective of a full declaration of the North’s enrichment program backed by intrusive verification if the North is to receive substantial rewards. Should this prove unacceptable, much more limited steps, including dropping some sanctions, can be exchanged for agreement to stop nuclear and missile tests. Even if the agreement is very likely to fail eventually, the freeze has technical value and buys time for changing China’s position on the issue. This is more cautious than forcing change. It depends heavily on China, but indications remain that it is not acceptable to that country.

A variant on this strategy for avoiding another cycle with North Korea is to broaden talks with it on economic reforms, recognizing that a decade may be required for Kim Jong-un to be strong enough and convinced of this need. Avoiding the rut of confrontation and buying time, this approach calls for temporary sanctions if new missile or nuclear tests occur, which will sunset after a period if such behavior ends. In the meantime, what is seen as an intermediate arrangement calls for a freeze in the production of fissile material to ensure that North Korea does not become a nuclear arsenal state, while clarifying the Agreed Framework in a manner that clearly explains what giving up the nuclear weapons would mean and even allowing for a flexible definition of denuclearization. This stance is closer to what China is seeking, although many on the US side as well as South Koreans did not endorse it. It was a recurrent strain of thought but not the dominant one in June.

Views on how to manage North Korea ranged widely, although the participation of many with experience serving in the US government and staying well informed of its realist concerns left idealism largely on the sidelines. There were optimists who repeated the familiar refrain that guaranteeing security to the North Korean regime in a far-reaching manner will enable the United States to open the door to economic reform and achieve consensus with China useful for success in the Six-Party Talks. This is essentially the position of mainstream writers in Beijing and Moscow, that Washington is the source of the problem and has the responsibility to resolve it. At the opposite extreme were some purists who see no need to compromise owing to the force of allied pressure, the internal forces of change in North Korea, or the second thoughts of China about North Korea’s value as a buffer state. This viewpoint, long associated with American conservatives was also only occasionally volunteered. Intermediate positions were the most prevalent.

Two intermediate positions were more widely aired, although it was not always easy to delineate the line separating them. One holds that military pressure, registering more in Beijing than in Pyongyang, is the best path forward without excluding the potential of diplomacy and positive incentives as evidence of US reasonableness. In early 2003, late 2006, late 2010 and early 2012-2013, US military exercises or show of force, coordinating with South Korea and moves to bolster the alliance with Japan, caught China’s attention. When China has pressured North Korea, it has been in response to such moves. Recent signs of such pressure include closer inspections at the border, closure of bank accounts, critical articles in the press, and contrasts in the receptions given to visiting South Korean and North Korean officials. Relaxing the pressure on China, as some expected after the agreement, if left vague, at the June Obama-Xi summit on the priority of denuclearization is deemed counterproductive without a change in China’s strategy as opposed to just in its tactics. This line of argument reflects a close reading of Chinese thinking, skeptical of self-serving arguments, and cognizant of interest groups still defensive of North Korea.

The other intermediate position is what many believe Park Geun-hye is pursuing in her visit to Beijing and trustpolitik. It starts from the principle of zero tolerance for further North Korean provocations and insistence that the North respect previous agreements, including those of September 2005 and February 2007. More than Lee Myung-bak, Park is striving for a path to engagement without losing balance from security concerns. It is a realignment policy, patient about dialogue and encouraging to China even as it reassures the United States, obliging North Korea to agree to the objective of denuclearization from the start. A sequence is assumed of less sensitive issues at the outset, then more serious ones as the “Seoul process” keeps in mind human security discourse aimed at reducing the suffering of the North Korean people. This process seeks to balance the two pillars of US deterrence and Chinese cooperation. At the time of the June plenum, this balancing act seemed more possible than in September, when the Sino-US divide has sharpened over North Korea’s unwillingness to commit to denuclearization and steps in support of it.

Park has won the confidence of Washington by leaving no doubt that denuclearization (or at least acceptance of it as the objective with concomitant actions) is the prerequisite for advancing relations with Pyongyang. She was clear on this priority when she met China’s leaders in late June, urging cooperation between the two sides in assisting North Korea’s economic transformation once this essential condition was met and asking China to help to deliver her message to Kim Jong-un. Park’s dual summits with Obama and Xi as well as the Obama-Xi summit, where US support for Park’s initiative was affirmed, put her at the center of what has the possibility of becoming a new diplomatic process should the new North Korean leadership relent and China persist in applying pressure to that end. In reality, however, China is positioned to steer this process through its application of both carrots and sticks, but it will not have this chance if Park remains firm on the prerequisite.

Although the United States has not drawn a “red line” beyond which it will not tolerate North Korean behavior, recognizing that to do so would invite the North to venture as close as possible to the edge, there is agreement with South Korea that another attack across the border would cross the line. Certain forms of proliferation would do so as well, leading to moves to deny Kim Jong-un certain of his valued assets. While US-ROK differences on what should trigger retaliatory action could test the alliance, there is every indication at present that the two countries are on the same page. With its advanced technology on uranium enrichment or in some other way, the North could aid Iran, as it has in missile technology, leading, if detected, to repercussions from the United States. Without being attacked, South Korea might be hesitant to support the increased risk. In the showdown over chemical weapons use by Syria, there is also potential for spillover.

The future of the alliance may be tested in ways directly and indirectly involving North Korea. US defense cutbacks could lead to a loss of confidence in US capabilities as well as will, challenging ROK reliance on the alliance and, perhaps, its calculus toward North Korea. Growing ROK dependency on a rising China, not only for trade but for managing the threat from North Korea, could shake the alliance. After all, South Koreans already feel closer to China than Americans do, and the gap may widen as Sino-US relations are changing. Another possible source of tension in the alliance is the cumulative effect of failure in the face of North Korea’s nuclear weapons build-up, resulting in quite different conclusions by the two allies, and eventually South Korean acquiescence to North-South talks that reduce the pressure for denuclearization. Finally, the abnormal situation of US-Japan military ties growing stronger, notably if Abe succeeds in revising the Constitution and giving new missions and resources to an army no longer obfuscated as “Self-Defense Forces,” and Japan-ROK military tensions rising, could do harm to the alliance. Already, opinion in South Korea does not think US handling of Japan is fair and seeks more US pressure on it. While Washington invokes the danger from Pyongyang as justification for its support of Tokyo’s military normalization, many in Seoul are inclined not to make this linkage. Of course, there are also distinctly alliance issues, such as burden-sharing and the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which might play a role in derailing the alliance, but speakers generally treated them as less likely to become inflammatory in the next years.

There is potential for disagreement also in affirming what the alliance is for in a new era. For the United States, another priority has been the defense of Japan. To the extent it is beleaguered by North Korean threats as well as maritime pressure from China, one may wonder if South Korea places similar priority on its defense. For both South Korea and the United States an additional goal has been to turn South Korea into a showcase for economic development, proving its superiority in competition with the North. Originally, the alliance seemed necessary also in order to persuade Syngman Rhee to accept the armistice agreement rather than to march north. During the Cold War the alliance served as a check against communist expansion as well, gradually becoming a model for support of an ally’s integration into a dynamically transforming Asia-Pacific system. With the rise of China and the reemergence of Russia as an opponent of the existing order, the United States is again attentive to maintaining checks and balances among the major powers. It is less clear, however, that South Korea agrees on the priority of either defending Japan or sustaining the balance of power in today’s circumstances.

The ideal of a future alliance sounds promising, but its realization was left in doubt at the forum. Instead of unilateral dependence and security still in the forefront, a more equal relationship is envisioned with South Korea serving as the key partner of the United States in the role of a middle power in regional and global affairs. Although this shift was portrayed as a result of mutual convergence, its main thrust is to give Washington the responsible state it has been seeking in support of universal values, such as human rights, women’s rights, and mutual security through an international community. Yet, missing in these aspirations is how to counter China’s opposition (and use of North Korea’s threat capacity) to this sort of alliance, more in conflict with its goals than with the current form of the alliance. After all, given more than two millennia of living with China, Koreans have learned to keep a low profile, not to become outspoken champions of an agenda that would antagonize its strong neighbor. Another concern is that what might appear to be promising for a dynamic Asia rising as a group in the international community looks more dubious for an Asia troubled by demographic, nationalistic, and maritime rivalry challenges, which limit Seoul’s room to maneuver. To realize the ideal, moreover, agreement on how to proceed on reunification is needed, as South Korea’s leading role enhances its regional and global standing. Continued strife between the two Koreas and a different Chinese approach limits alliance revitalization. Indeed, if polarization occurs between Beijing and Washington, Seoul will find it difficult not to make a clear choice.

The future was put in starker terms with warnings that either the alliance expands to cover a broad range of diplomatic challenges or contracts, endangering its future. The status quo will not do. While there has been creeping expansion of missions, especially as Seoul has assumed greater international responsibility, global leadership is not easy to coordinate with a rising regional role in the face of Chinese and Japanese caution, and with avoidance of peninsular distractions, given North Korea’s brusque reminders. One speaker warned that just as Japan failed to become Asia’s Great Britain, so too must it be understood that South Korea will not fill that role for the United States. A different model is needed for conceptualizing what a closer alliance would mean in the regional context.

One interpretation of recent events is that Pyongyang has been belligerent even while it was preparing to change direction in order to secure the best possible deal for preserving the regime. In the last few months it has made a fumbling start to a more diplomatic approach, but it is now more urgent for the allies to reach beyond deterrence in order to coordinate their diplomacy closely. In this context, Washington should make clear its firm support of reunification, as well as of diplomacy to entice the North. One step is to endorse Park’s proposal for an exchange of offices in Seoul and Pyongyang to speed denuclearization talks and show the North that it is not so isolated that it has nowhere to turn but China. As a good ally, the United States can support South Korean regaining centrality in talks with North Korea, advocates of this position propose, but left vague is what would be the balance of rewarding the North and demanding a change of direction.

A related argument foresees eventual success in the US rebalancing toward Asia allowing increased leadership by Seoul. This essentially comprehensive US strategy has bipartisan support at home and with progress in TPP is opening the door for South Korea, with its rapid transformation of industry and finance and its strong presence in Chinese markets, to seize the initiative as the United States avoids either decline or retreat and China slows its economic march. With Washington obliged to turn much of its attention to turbulence in the Middle East, as the impression is corrected that rebalancing is predominantly of a military nature, Seoul can show its statesmanship in at least three ways: 1) demonstrating that trustpolitik is not just passively waiting for others to prove trustworthy, but it means taking an active role in narrowing differences, including inviting Japan also to pursue this goal; 2) engaging China in joining in a rules-base regional and global order; and 3) not least important, rebuilding channels to North Korea, anticipating its growing interest.

Pessimists about the prospects for denuclearization called for patience, a response made necessary during the Cold War as South Korea eventually pulled ahead of North Korea in development and afterwards too, as use of force proved too dangerous. Loss of patience in the late 1970s had a destabilizing effect on the Korean Peninsula, although a different response in 1993-1994 might have been possible in conditions that cannot be recreated. The only hope is to break the family monopoly on power, since there is no prospect that Kim Jong-un would agree to a formula such as 70 percent good, 30 percent bad, which China used to separate a new regime from Mao’s legacy. In the interim, some marginal change may be possible with modest reward in order to show the way forward, but the primary response must be deterrence, including expanded missile defenses, with close alliances. Without expecting a lot from China, hope might center on it playing a role in assisting the rise of other leaders in North Korea, who take economic reform seriously, which would be the starting point for intensified diplomacy to begin to address denuclearization.

Disagreements between pessimists and those grasping for some reason to hope arose in a number of panels. Consistent with the argument above denying the prospect for reform was the assertion that North Korea is built on a structure of lies and myths, which this third-generation leadership has no space to reconstruct without a collapse in legitimacy. In response, it was argued that in this new period, a combination of nuclear weapons and China’s rise makes a new deal possible. Holding up a vision of a grand bargain if it were to abstain from further aggression, even if nuclear weapons remain, could, with a balance of carrots and sticks, calm the situation. Kim Jong-un could turn into a reformist, it was suggested, if the balance was well calibrated. Humanitarian assistance is not the same as “buying the same horse again,” while sanctions and trade restrictions could be relaxed or tightened, depending on incremental changes. If North Korea used or transferred nuclear weapons, it would know that the policy response would be regime change. Even if there is doubt that the North would reform, this strategy allows for it, while increasing the chance of Chinese cooperation. For substantial aid, including energy, the North would have to grant access to see its centrifuges dismantled in this approach aimed first at the growth of North Korea’s threat potential before tackling some additional objectives.

Some panelists found promise in Park Geun-hye’s strategy, especially in light of China’s changing calculus toward North Korea. Arguing that Beijing now considers a nuclear North Korea as its worst nightmare, a South Korean suggested that Xi is recalibrating, which corresponds to Park’s initiative to take advantage of this shift. This means that in the coming period Park does not need to see relations with Beijing and Washington as a zero-sum dilemma. With this starting point, South Korea seems to be free to criticize the human rights abuses of North Korea with impunity rather than to have to take care about crossing a line that Beijing would see as threatening its old priority, the North’s stability.

A clear-cut position raised by some Americans with experience dealing with Pyongyang is to engage in no discussions with it that it could construe as confirming it as a nuclear power. In this situation, the preferred option is for the alliance partners to make clear to China the costs of its enabling assistance to North Korea. In 2010-2011 that happened, not least of all in the upgrading of ROK-Japan relations. In the past year that message to China has been garbled. While some discount the impact with the argument that, at last, Beijing is pressuring Pyongyang, advocates of coordinated pressure to send the right signal to both Beijing and Pyongyang worry that Park’s leaning to China and away from Japan sends the wrong message. They would wait and see China’s actual intentions.

Much of the discussion centered on the North Korea factor and alliance prospects. One dimension is the gap in public opinion toward North Korea and its degree of threat. The two allies have different emotional investment in North Korea and see threat in different ways. As seen in South Korean responses to the inter-Korean summit of June 2000, the alliance can be put in jeopardy by reduced threat perceptions. After all, there has been a tendency to see the alliance only as a counterweight to North Korea. A breakdown of South Korean thinking suggested that one-third firmly support the alliance, one-third are at least dubious about it and amenable to seeing a tradeoff if North Korean ties improve, and the remaining one-third could be swayed. Right now both the government and public in South Korea have a relatively favorable view of the alliance and on synchronization of policies toward North Korea. The US image is not of a power keeping the two Koreas apart. It is not pressuring Seoul to change course. There is no Roh Moo-hyun optimistic about Pyongyang and blaming Washington for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its refusal to reach a deal in multilateral negotiations. Few South Koreans view North Korea as a victim, and, correspondingly, criticism of US policy has diminished. Yet, that could change if Pyongyang shifts course or China was trusted for taking a different approach.

Forward-looking discussions explored ways to strengthen the alliance not just by settling existing bilateral problems, but by deepening ties while giving substance to the goal of a “strategic alliance.” Several favorable conditions were noted. First, Park and Obama are admired leaders in each other’s country, complementing the positive mutual images of each other strategically, culturally, and economically. Second, partnering in multiple settings already has built considerable momentum. In economic ties, the financial crisis coupled with completion of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement has spurred closer coordination, as in the G-20. As China’s economy enters uncertain times and there is some sign of resurgence in the United States, a successful outcome for TPP with South Korea joining a little later may give a boost to relations. Third, North Korea’s threat is unlikely to diminish to the point that South Koreans would reconsider this anchor for the alliance. Yet, such forces were not considered to be sufficient to give a big boost to the alliance. Suggestions were made for a new stage of “rebalancing” toward Asia, in which Obama would articulate a regional strategy, tough on North Korea if it continues on the current path, and dualistic toward China, open to greater cooperation but conditional on its conduct, especially in the face of the North’s provocations. North Korea would continue to boost the alliance.

At the root of different interpretations offered on the various panels were three, distinct futures for South Korea, the alliance, and management of North Korea. One viewpoint pictures an Asia-Pacific region, in which South Korea is the anchor (or co-anchor with Japan) for the US presence. The security alliance remains solid, universal values stand in the forefront in line with South Korea’s image as the “leading democracy in Asia,” and a shared desire for high-standard FTAs promotes economic understanding. Persuading China to look favorably on the international community and to pressure North Korea to cooperate would be a cornerstone of bilateral ties much stronger than Sino-ROK ones. A second viewpoint envisions South Korea in the role of a bridge between two communities in the Asia-Pacific and East Asia. The Sino-ROK-US triangle would be more equilateral. In addition to supporting universal values, South Korea would show understanding for some values espoused by China for a regional community. It would see itself active in an idealistic quest for regional peace building, and as having gained more equality with the United States. Ties with North Korea would improve on terms seen skeptically in the United States, weakening the alliance. A third viewpoint places South Korea as a driver in East Asian regionalism, requiring more cooperation in the Sino-ROK-North Korea triangle and more trust by China. This thinking was least represented at the conference. Rather than a regional leader, the two options in the forefront were South Korea as the leading outpost of the international community or as its bridge to a China-led regional community. Although much depends on China and on Sino-US relations, a major thrust of the two-day discussion was that much also depends on North Korea and ROK-US coordination in dealing with it not only in the face of aggressiveness, but also at times of intensified diplomatic maneuvering, when Beijing is urging Seoul to change direction.