US and North Korean diplomats attended the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in Beijing on 22 June. Despite having talked at dinner, the US State Department insisted they did not ‘meet’ with North Korean officials. Also in June, Han Song-ryol, Director-General of the department of US affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, reportedly met with retired US ambassador Thomas Pickering in Sweden. So do these diplomatic movements mean we should expect some change on the Korean peninsula? Unfortunately, they do not.
To see why, the political atmosphere surrounding Northeast Asia issues and US policy needs to be more central to understanding policy. There is a profound deficit of consequential leaders with a vision and a realistic plan for progress in Northeast Asia, just when tensions are growing. Much discussion — even among government and policy experts — is dominated by assumptions and policy alternatives that are fundamentally political and short term. Any breakthrough before the US presidential election seems unlikely.
After the US election there may be a short window for a policy re-think, but the most important window will open 13 months later, when South Korea elects a new president. At that time, the country’s next leader could decisively change policy, signaling the beginning of a realignment of players that would see strategy more closely match power and interests.
Only South Koreans can lead this. China’s leaders cannot force the United States to provide acceptable channels for North Korea to evolve. And, since Bill Clinton, US presidents have lacked the insight or capabilities to return to the great Korea regional project of the 1990s. After North Korea, the country with the most at stake is South Korea.
China is in some ways the most predictable of the key players. It has never made sense for Chinese leaders to encourage or allow real instability in North Korea. Meanwhile, the United States has not matched Chinese cooperation on UN Security Council resolutions by re-engaging North Korea on broad strategic issues. And those, rather than oil, food, or secret promises, are the only issues that matter. The US has also not suggested any endgame after squeezing the North through sanctions and isolation, except the fantasy of its capitulation.
South Korea, for its part, is winding up a decade of post-democracy conservatism. It has been a divisive lost decade for politics, ideology and North–South interaction. Democratic institutions have been undercut and freedoms have been curtailed. Yet broader recognition of the multiple mis-judgements of President Park Geun-hye has created the possibility for a newly ambitious leader.
The United States must be part of the solution to the destabilizing pattern of statements, policies and politics surrounding the Korean peninsula. It controls much of the economic machinery required to integrate North Korea into global systems. North Korean leaders for at least 30 years have logically seen formal (as opposed to close or good) relations with the United States as the key to their regional security. And the United States has diplomatic tools that — when wisely used — can induce cooperation or overcome stumbling blocks among China, Japan and the Koreas.
But there are limitations to US diplomacy that have grown since the 1990s. The Republican Party increasingly lacks interest in governing and problem solving, as the rise of Donald Trump demonstrates. The practical collapse of a Democrat foreign policy in Northeast Asia under President Barack Obama has also reduced, if not eliminated, the potential for Washington to attempt anything like another Iran nuclear agreement.
The delays hampering the nuclear agreement with Iran one year after it was signed are revealing. James Durso argues that the US should either ‘put up or shut up’ and do more to help the promised economic aspects of the deal to go forward. The US administration’s timidity in making the deal work means that, at a minimum, the next US president will have to establish a full-time, multi-agency group that would have to work for at least the next three presidential terms for it to succeed.
The political and institutional dynamics of the Iran deal are directly relevant to any US–North Korea diplomacy. What Durso calls the ‘Sanctions Industrial Complex’ built by the Bush and Obama administrations for Iran was also used for North Korea, and it will confound all but the most adept and prepared president. Hillary Clinton is very capable. But there has been no indication that either she or her presumptive foreign policy advisors are as good as Bill Clinton was at grasping the potential opportunities with North Korea.
Former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Bill Clinton put extensive planning, commitment and personnel into the achievements of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 1998–2008 North–South Engagement. The lack of any similar overarching policy approach by either government has crippled discussions since. Discussions have remained exclusively transactional since 2001. This, combined with the electoral calendar, means that recent meetings are unlikely to deliver a change in positions.
Still, there have been openings that the United States and South Korea could explore in the future. If the next South Korean and/or US leader does the necessary planning, then negotiating structures should not be a problem. The Six-Party Talks are overdue for retirement. Their best aspects actually pre-date their creation in 2003: the US Agreed Framework and North–South Engagement projects already included robust regional consultation. They were replaced, in the Six-Party Talks, by a flashy substitute born of ideology, confusion and hubris.
Most policy assumptions about what motivates the current North Korean leadership are highly speculative and badly analyzed. As the North continues to advance its weapons development in a state of increasing isolation, new thinking is needed about how to open dialogue channels. Unfortunately, United States and South Korean administrations are going in the opposite direction, as is North Korea.
This assessment is not encouraging. There are two elections and at least 18 months to get through. But, for now, a change in leadership in South Korea offers the most likely opportunity among the key regional players for any serious return to diplomacy with North Korea. Just possibly, the next US leader can help. But don’t count on it.
Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant and the producer of AsiaEast. He was formerly director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council, director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation, USA, and Vice President of Gowran International.
This article first appeared at the East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.