South Korea no longer an obedient US ally

By Zhang Yun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/31 20:03:40

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's unexpected meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong- un for the second time in a month astonished the world. Some experts are talking about the possible decoupling of the US-South Korea alliance. For me, the South Korean diplomatic charm offensive in recent months does not mean that the alliance is under threat, but shows the gradual process of transformation of the nature of US-South Korea relations, in which Seoul may change from an obedient ally to a proactive partner.

First, South Korea understands well that both North Korea and the US are keen to hold the historic summit. Despite a frantic period of international diplomacy with the flip-flop on the planned summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim, both sides are interested in holding the summit in the near future. North Korea clearly realizes that it is dealing with a US administration unlike any before and this chance must not be missed. Trump is going to be tested in the coming mid-term election in the fall, which could point to his future political destiny.

On the diplomatic front, North Korea seems to be a rare opportunity for the US leader to reap immediate dividends. He has pulled the country out of the TPP and the Paris climate accord, which angered even US allies, Japan and EU nations. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, worsening not only relations with Tehran but further alienating major world powers who took pains to get the agreement signed in 2015.

Trump's initial expectations for resetting relations with Russia seem to have hit a dead end due to allegations of collusion with the Kremlin during his election campaign. And US-China relations have been hit by a trade dispute. Therefore, a deal with North Korea could be a redeeming factor for a beleaguered Trump who likes to call himself a master of the deal, and highlight differences with his predecessor Barack Obama, who consistently took the line of "strategic patience" on North Korea. Therefore, South Korea's proactive diplomacy with the North will not offend the US as it serves Trump's interests.

Second, a successful US-North Korea summit depends on the management of expectations in which Seoul aims to be a critical intermediary. Trump has strong incentives for a global media attention-grabbing signature ceremony with North Korea's commitment of unilateral and unconditional denuclearization.

In this sense, he is expecting to finalize the deal in Singapore. In contrast, North Korea has long-term interests in mind - the summit opens the first page of a diplomatic negotiation for a phased and synchronized denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The huge gap in expectations between the two could lead to a dangerous situation if there is no accord. South Korea is well positioned to play a constructive role in narrowing the gap between their expectations. After Trump announced cancellation of the summit, Moon lost no time to say, "The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of permanent peace are historic tasks that can neither be abandoned nor delayed." It could have encouraged Kim to make a sudden offer for a second meeting with Moon at Panmunjom in the DMZ on May 26.

In his press statement, Moon also channeled North Korean concerns to the US. The South Korean president said that Kim expressed his willingness to end the history of war and confrontation, but North Korea had concerns about whether it could trust the US over its promise to end hostile relations and provide a security guarantee in exchange of denuclearization. Then he revealed that the US would not only offer the guarantee but also economic aid if denuclearization was implemented. As Moon has recently returned from Washington, this revelation brings US commitment in sight of the world.

Furthermore, the reassuring signal of North Korea on denuclearization in the second Kim-Moon summit also helped to provide a decent excuse to Trump to convince US hawks about sticking to the summit plan.

Third, South Korea's proactive diplomacy toward the North could provide a safety net for a breakdown in North Korea-US relations. If the Trump-Kim summit goes well, intimate North-South ties could further scale up the dialogue to a three-way summit of the two Koreas and the US. But the bumpy prospects must also be scrutinized carefully. Trump's interest seems to be closely connected with his domestic political agenda. If mid-term election results do not favor Trump, he might lose interest in dealing with North Korea in the way he is doing now. In that case, stable North-South relations and China-North Korea relations could be vital for maintaining the momentum for exploring alternatives.

By identifying an intermediary between the two adversaries, South Korea seems to be on the track of gradually transforming from a junior ally to a proactive partner of the US. The result is uncertain, but it is worth exploring for South Korea and for the sake of regional security.

The author is associate professor of National Niigata University Japan and senior fellow, Institute of Advanced Area Studies and Global Governance, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China.

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