While the US and DPRK are at very early stages in working forward from the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore on 12 June 2018, a wide range of practical steps have taken place between the ROK and DPRK and China and Russia are involved too.
While upheavals in American political perspectives are possible, there is orderliness in security discussions and arrangements between the US and ROK.
In the ROK these activities mesh with sustained progress in reform.
Local elections and national by-elections in the ROK on 13 June saw overwhelming support for the reformist party of President Moon Jae-in. While Moon’s popularity had slipped to 67% in January, it was back to 83% in May.
The commander of US Forces Korea said on 27 June that he recognises the need to suspend joint exercises: “visible exercises that are right up front that may cause unnecessary irritation at a time when the need for trust building is so important.”
On 26 June, US and ROK delegates meeting in Seoul agreed to suspend discussion of changing the ROK contribution to the presence of US forces in Korea. The ROK meets ‘stationing costs’ while the US had, reflecting President Trump’s campaign demands, been seeking contribution to deployment costs, the costs of the forces themselves.
US Secretary of State Pompeo met with Japanese and ROK foreign ministers in Seoul on 14 June and in an interview with CNN on 25 June, Pompeo said he does not plan to “put a timeline” on North Korea’s denuclearization. However, there are staffing problems. No person is now in charge of this in Washington, nor in Pyongyang.
In Japan, there is a little debate over which way forward, whether to put aside the issue of abductees that Prime Minister Abe has focused on (while obstinate on the ‘comfort women’ issue), or seek normalisation of relations with the DPRK first. In a lecture on 13 June, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, father of the present Foreign Minister Taro Kono, said that:
“Japan’s colonial rule of Korea is one of the original causes of the division of the peninsula into North and South. Japan, South Korea and North Korea must declare that they will create a denuclearized region and renounce the possession of nuclear weapons.”
The single greatest obstacle to Abe’s approach is that it won’t work. Japan risks being left out.
Moon paid a state visit to Russia and met with President Putin on 22 June, the first visit to Moscow by a president of the ROK. They agreed to support efforts to establish complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. They also agreed to joint research in the fields of electricity, gas and railways in order to advance cooperative projects between North Korea, Russia and South Korea.
The details of ROK-DPRK interaction and shifts in tone are difficult to keep up with. Loudspeakers no longer blare north from South Korea. Aggressive anti-American postcards are no longer on sale in Pyongyang. Discussion is proceeding on rail and other infrastructure plans. Civil society organisations are planning joint events. There will be an inter-Korean basketball event in Pyongyang in August. In Russia on 24 June, President Moon expressed to FIFA president Infantino his desire for South and North Korea to host the World Cup. This has drifted into discussion of joint hosting by the two Koreas plus China and Japan.
China will not be left out. A Japanese press report says that at their second meeting, before Singapore, President Xi asked Chairman Kim not to agree in Singapore to formal ending of the Korean War. China wants to be part of any ending process, almost three million Chinese soldiers having fought in the war, with a total of 180,000 dead. While small steps have been recently taken with repatriation of remains of a small number of Chinese troops from South Korea, there is now consternation over the broader issue, with the ROK Defence Ministry’s Institute for Military History on 25 June 2018 releasing a US Army report of May 1951 concerning the bulldozing into a dam storage (still providing water to Seoul) of the bodies of 24,000 Chinese soldiers in the last week of May 1951. War crimes issues. Similarly in recent months public discussion of new revelations of the massacre of thousands of alleged ‘leftists’ on Jeju Island before and during the Korean war, by both US and South Korean forces, under American command. Jeju a beautiful island south of the Korean mainland. A reminder that contrary to popular imaginations there was initially no simple north-south division. These matters come to debate in a political environment that encourages release of history, debate of history and decency rather than suppression of rights as in the past.
ROK-China relations were tainted by the installation of THAAD missile systems in South Korea in 2017. The Chinese well aware that the capability of these systems to defend against the North was slight, their capacity to see into China very great. China reacted angrily: massive losses, factory and dealership closures for Hyundai in China, similar problems for Lotte with its supermarkets in China and evaporation of Chinese tourist travel to the ROK.
That crisis is being put behind. It has to be put behind for progress in North Asia.
China is intent on restoring infrastructure with the DPRK and positive about North-South developments. There is no necessity for zero sum thinking as regards Korea-China-Russia-Japan. A meeting of Australian heads of mission from China, Japan, the USSR and Hong Kong in 1980 concluded that this region contained huge prospects when differences resolved. The inclusion of Russia in processes towards sanity and infrastructure improvement is essential given that Russia is the land bridge between North Asia and the EU.
A large question is what the Americans will do about the trade embargo of the DPRK. We should have in mind some of the sinews, as follow.
- In the period between the impeachment of (now incarcerated) President Park and the inauguration of President Moon, the US secured the agreement of the interim ROK president to the THAAD project. This project greatly contributed to the 2017 US-DPRK missile crisis, though presented in the west as a response to provocation.
- President Moon was inaugurated on 10 May 2017. On the same day the CIA announced in Washington the establishment of a Korean Mission Center in Seoul. Pompeo as CIA Director had been in Seoul for meetings with US civilian and military people on 1 May, but not with any Koreans.
- Andrew Kim, career CIA, was appointed head of the CIA Mission Center. Kim accompanied Pompeo to Pyongyang in May 2018 and was alongside Trump in Singapore. Andrew Kim is related to the head of one of the ROK intelligence organisations, went to high school with another (a point not to be overdrawn, Pompei and Obama both studied law at Harvard).
It seems likely that Pompeo knows every step of what the ROK and DPRK are doing and will seek to avoid derailment by Trump or others. There is a tolerance of a liberal administration in Seoul, something new. Defense Secretary Mattis has also now been in Seoul. Command perspectives seem harmonised. The guys in the barracks as well as in high places in Washington need to be kept calm.
Dennis Argall has been an observer of North Asia since 1970 and was ambassador in Beijing in the 1980s.