America’s small but symbolic diplomatic victory in Korea
That the recent Security Council resolution, which imposed the most stringent set of sanctions ever imposed on Pyongyang, has had a positive impact on the trilateral US-South Korea-North Korea relationship is evident, as representatives from the two Koreas have committed to meet at the border village of Panmunjom. The two sides will discuss next month’s Winter Olympics, which South Korea is hosting, as well as how to improve the bilateral relationship overall.
According to various Western media reports, the resumption of bilateral dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul — the first of its kind since 2016 — was partially made possible by Washington’s decision to delay the annual US-South Korean military exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle until after the Olympics.
It would, however, be a mistake to interpret Pyongyang’s decision to come to the negotiating table as part of a wider effort to divide Seoul and Washington by driving a wedge between their stances on the sanctions on North Korea.
Given that US relationships with South Korea and Japan are strategic in nature, coupled with the fact that Pyongyang’s expanding ICBM program poses existential threats to Seoul and Tokyo, there is no daylight between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo over how to deal with the North Korean threat.
If anything, the North’s swift decision to reopen negotiations with Seoul underscores that the modus operandi that has governed the fragile diplomatic process between the two Koreas for decades is working again, and that Pyongyang is susceptible to international diplomatic pressure.
Despite these positive developments, it would be a mistake to equate Pyongyang’s rapprochement-in-the-making with Seoul as an indication of its willingness to negotiate the future of its ICBM program with Washington.
Washington’s strategic objective is not a peace agreement with Pyongyang per se, but rather its denuclearization, while the North wants the opposite — a deal that allows it to maintain its nuclear program.
As I argued in a previous column for Arab News, North Korea considers its nuclear and ICBM programs its ultimate security guarantees for regime survival. Within this context, and despite the apparent thaw in relations between the two Koreas, a bilateral agreement between Pyongyang and Washington remains elusive at best.
However, despite recent US and North Korean dueling statements over who has “the biggest nuclear button,” US President Donald Trump’s diplomatic strategy is working as Washington has achieved a small — but symbolic — diplomatic victory.
While the North Korean threat triggered by its expanding ICBM program is perhaps the most significant crisis the international community faces, it would have to be resolved incrementally, as a US-North Korean peace agreement could lead to an imagined “grand bargain” that would formally end the Korean War.
Washington’s strategic objective is not a peace agreement with Pyongyang per se, but rather its denuclearization. The North’s objective, however, is the opposite: A peace agreement with the US, but one that allows it to maintain its nuclear program.
On a positive note, the recent thaw in inter-Korean relations suggests that, despite US media hysteria over an impending war with North Korea, the trilateral diplomatic process between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang is producing its desired results, which is first and foremost to reduce tensions so that further talks can proceed.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington. Twitter: @SigiMideast.
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