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In Kim’s Neighborhood: Regional Actors and US-DPRK Relations

Co-authors: John Ashley and Jonathan Stutte

In three previous Charged Affairs articles, we argued  North Korea’s pursuit of a “new strategic weapon,” a unilateral approach to denuclearization, and a lack of trust challenges American efforts to secure an effective denuclearization deal with North Korea. Now, we turn to the role of regional actors–specifically South Korea, Japan, and China–in dealing with North Korea.

South Korea

South Korea, a key American ally in the region, is well positioned to coordinate diplomatic engagement between Pyongyang and Washington. However, the Trump administration has done little to coordinate diplomatic outreaches with South Korea, effectively sidelining the Moon administration. In June 2019, when Trump met with Kim Jung-un in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, was not included in the hour-long discussion. Conservative and center politicians in South Korea argue against unilateral diplomatic efforts as it restricts Seoul’s ability to make informed diplomatic decisions.. It is unlikely that diplomatic engagement with North Korea will succeed without a coordinated effort between the United States and South Korea.

South Korea maintains a strong interest in ensuring that diplomacy on the Korean peninsula continues and is effective given South Korea is one of the most threatened nations by North Korea’s belligerence. If hostilities resume on the Korean peninsula, North Korea has a variety of conventional military instruments–artillery and soldiers–which can be employed to wreak havoc on South Korea early in a conflict scenario. Also, North Korea is capable of complex cyber attacks against South Korean infrastructure.

Independent of the United States, the Moon administration has gained demonstrable concessions from North Korea through inter-Korean diplomacy. In September 2018, Moon and Kim agreed to set up a joint liaison office “in order to ensure close consultation between the authorities and to satisfactorily facilitate civil exchanges and cooperation” between the two Koreas. Between October and November of 2018, North and South Korea took two major steps to limit the military presence close to the border, including demining of the DMZ and the removal of guard towers close to the border. These agreements and actions de-escalate inter-Korean tension and lay the groundwork for further cooperation.

To further regional security, President Trump should coordinate South Korea’s interest in continued diplomacy and its push for de-escalatory concessions with America’s push for denuclearization. Trump can push South Korea to offer stronger inter-Korean concessions–such as a peace deal or reduction in American troop presence at the border–for demonstrated steps toward denuclearization. After all, South Korea has a vested interest in the success of such a deal and strong coordination will assist in negotiating an effective deal.

Japan

Japan does not have the best relationship with either Korean state; an enduring legacy of Imperial Japan’s occupation and subjugation of Korea and the Japanese government’s attitude towards addressing war crimes committed in its Imperial past. However, specific to Japan-North Korea relations, is the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. The Japanese government has “identified 17 abductees” as abducted by North Korea, as well as 883 other disappearances in which North Korean involvement “cannot be ruled out.” Adding fuel to the fire is North Korea’s habit of test-firing missiles into the Sea of Japan, usually in the direction of the Japanese home islands. In May 2019 Prime Minister Abe sought a no-precondition summit with North Korea, but the offer was rebuffed and North Korea has continued to antagonize Japan.

When it comes to dealing with North Korea, Japan is able to find common ground with both the United States and South Korea regarding missile tests. Continued missile tests by North Korea are unacceptable to all three governments, and Japan considers resolving the issue as linked to the larger issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. With that in mind, resolving some of the differences between Tokyo and Seoul will be critical to progress towards denuclearization. After South Korea, Japan is in the most immediate danger from North Korea’s missiles, whatever their payload, and a united front is the best way to deal with a shared threat. Any squabble between South Korea and Japan could give the impression to North Korea that the united front is not-so-united.

This is, of course, easier said than done, but Japan’s involvement is critical not only for Japan’s security, but also because President Trump appears to get along better with Prime Minister Abe than with President Moon. With that in mind, if President Trump is re-elected, Japan can act as a bridge between Seoul and Washington when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Regardless of the veracity behind rumors surrounding Kim Jong-un’s health, making sure Washington and Seoul are on the same page will be imperative to dealing with any leader in Pyongyang. However, for this to be effective, Tokyo and Seoul must work towards ironing out some of their differences, as described previously.

China

Conventional wisdom has long held that China, being almost the sole trade link to the world for North Korea and main benefactor of the Kim regime, holds significant influence over North Korea and thus is key in pressuring North Korea into successful negotiation.  North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s involvement on harsh but unsuccessful sanctions regimes have put that notion to the test, revealing that North Korea acts solely in its own regard and without total deference to China.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons have created a significant area of cooperation for the United States and China.  Beijing does not want to see nuclear conflict breakout so close to its border, so despite some backsliding on sanctions there’s still opportunity for a future Trump administration to convince China to apply pressure again. However, the Trump administration’s aggressive China strategy has mostly diminished those chances. From trade to Taiwan to missiles, Washington has tried a variety of coercive tools to get cross-issue concessions from China, especially on North Korea, with limited success. With the global economy in disarray over pandemic responses, a return to this approach has already diminished.

American plans for future deployment of intermediate range conventional and nuclear missiles to the region will not improve its hand vis-a-vis China, only providing Beijing with more reason to hedge on nuclear negotiations with North Korea until the United States is ready to actually concede something.

Chinese-U.S. cooperation has always been fraught with distrust, and the Xi-Trump era has only deepened that while misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis has poisoned the well of public opinion in both countries towards each other. These erect more obstacles for successful cooperation on North Korea as Trump will need to appear appropriately forceful against a China which Americans increasingly view with marked suspicion.

Lastly, as China’s economy continues to falter, South Korea–whose tourism sector is heavily dependent on Chinese business–may feel less pressure to concede cultural or military capital in exchange for support on North Korean initiatives.  

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Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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