MACK WILLIAMS. Korea: Still many challenges ahead

Oct 23, 2018

Despite President Trump’s exchange of “love letters” with the North Korean leader, from the public record it seems that Secretary of State Pompeo’s last discussions with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang failed to achieve any significant breakthrough on denuclearisation. But there have been several important developments in the Korean scene over the past few months which impinge directly on Australian national interests.

President Moon has continued to walk a tight rope between Washington and Pyongyang – though the wire is getting higher and tighter.  His summit with Kim Jong-un reached new levels of cordiality and raised measurably expectations in the ROK about the prospects of a real warming in inter Korean relations and concrete steps towards greater economic cooperation. High level discussions between the two militaries have also seen some as yet token but symbolic agreements aimed at reducing military tensions along and inside the DMZ.

More importantly, Moon undertook a trip to Europe last week to seek to persuade some key leaders that Kim is genuinely prepared to make concessions as long as Trump follows suit  – that is soften the UN position of CIVD on sanctions (“complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation” though the “d” sometimes gets confused in translation for “dismantlement” or even “disarmament” !). Moon argued that the U.N. Security Council needed to play an “active role” in helping convince Kim to completely denuclearise. “They need to feel confident that they have made the right choice in accepting to destroy their nuclear weapons”.  At  a joint press conference with Macron  in Paris, Moon stated that France had “a major role to play.” He also told Le Figaro  that, during their recent talks, Kim Jong-un had “expressed his frustration at the continued scepticism ( ed. of North Korean intentions) of the international community”. Macron reportedly rebuffed Moon’s attempt to persuade France to deviate from the CIVD position on sanctions and appears not to have evoked much support from the EU and other leaders.

Moon also took the initiative to suggest to the Pope that he might consider a visit to Pyongyang should Kim offer an invitation for him to do so. Moon, himself a Catholic,  would have well understood the unique situation which exists between Pyongyang and the Vatican – quite different to the relations the Vatican has had with Beijing and Hanoi. The Catholic Church survived in Korea since the days of the Hermit Kingdom when the early Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and their followers were subjected to  horrific oppression– Korea has more than 200 beatified saints. Today Catholics comprise a little over 25% of the ROK population who claim to have a religion.

A very small token “Catholic” church has persisted in Pyongyang since the early days of Kim Il-sung whose parents are reported to have had Protestant ( probably Presbyterian) connections. From my discussions with the then Cardinal Kim in Seoul 20 years ago it was clear that the ROK Catholic Church sporadically had very covert contacts with this “church” in third countries – sometimes arranged by the Carter Foundation with “minders” present. The Seoul Cardinal’s main aim was to try to get a properly ordained Catholic priest into Pyongyang each month to preach to the group numbering around 3000.

The media not unexpectedly has embellished reports of Moon’s discussions with the Pope but there would need to be some pretty quick footwork to tackle some of the policy and bureaucratic challenges such a visit would pose. It was also revealed that the Pope had met a representative of the North Korean “Christian” community at a World Council of Churches (WCC)meeting in June. The ROK National Council of Churches (NCC) also has maintained unpublicised but more regular contact with its so-called North Korean counterpart through WCC auspices in Montreux in Switzerland. It would be difficult for the Pope to visit Pyongyang while the situation of Catholics in the DPRK and  the overall human rights situation there remain so dire. One suggestion is that he might first visit the ROK and some way be worked out where he could meet some North Korean “Catholics” either in the ROK or on the border. But watch this space for a White House reaction. If it is good enough for Trump why not the Pope?

Another significant development in the months since the Singapore Summit has been the definite change in the Chinese position to the North Korean issue. It has reverted to a policy that emphasizes geopolitical interests above denuclearization. This change has been of major concern for the ROK. As Scott Snyder in his Council of Foreign Relations blog has pointed out :

  • China’s influence over North Korea as its key strategic ally relieves pressure on North Korea to denuclearize
  • China’s reorientation toward the North may generate competition for economic influence within North Korea between China and South Korea as Moon pursues his vision of a revitalized inter-Korean economic relationship
  • Chinese cooperation with the United States on North Korea may be negatively affected by broader tensions in China-U.S. relations, especially in the context of a Sino-U.S. trade war.

Under a cartoon of a giant snail bearing a limp olive branch, Beijing’s Global Times has just reported that the vice foreign ministers of China, Russia and North Korea meeting in Moscow had agreed : “It is time to start considering the adjustment of the UN Security Council’s sanction regime against the DPRK. The three parties also oppose unilateral sanctions”. Just how much China’s policy change has been influenced by the rise in tensions over the “tariff war” is extremely difficult to compute but there can be no doubt that the two are directly connected in Chinese policy making. How the two such crucial issues will play out is virtually impossible to predict but that they are interrelated is certain.

At the same time, and not unexpectedly,  there have been some concerning signs of tension between Seoul and Washington about the pace with which Moon has been moving in his relations with Kim and the DPRK. It was widely reported that Pompeo rang Moon in mid September to give him a “tongue lashing” about a number of the actions Moon had taken with Kim allegedly without prior consultation with the US. Moon has maintained all along that he has been keeping Trump in the loop on his inter Korean dialogues. It is also surprising that Pompeo had not recognised earlier the implications of some of the bilateral actions between Seoul and Pyongyang especially on the maintenance of CIVD. As reported in earlier blogs, Moon is engaged in a very high risk venture with his efforts to promote better understanding between Washington and Pyongyang and reduce tension on the peninsular through developing more constructive relations with Pyongyang. All the more with the continuing reports of policy differences within Trump’s national security team. Has Moon yet overstepped the mark in Trump’s eyes?

This concern has been highlighted by some differences between the US and ROK military over arrangements which the ROK military has negotiated with their DPRK counterparts – especially in the DMZ and adjoining areas. The US Forces Korea (USFK) Command has argued that any military arrangements for these areas should have been cleared in advance with it as it controls the UN Command which is responsible for the DMZ. USFK claims that some of the arrangements the two Koreas have agreed have degraded the security of the whole DMZ and seriously limited the continuous training which is required to maintain military readiness. The ROK media has reported critical comments about this situation made by the incoming Commander of USFK in his congressional hearings. There has also been doubt cast over whether the ban on military exercises announced by Trump in Singapore will be modified to allow a return to some next year.

All of the above underlines once again how careful Australia needs to be in developing its own policy positions on the Korean peninsular. Moon’s coming visit to Australia offers an excellent opportunity to redouble our efforts to strengthen bilateral relations with the ROK without , of course, being drawn into the fray of any differences between Seoul and Washington. We now have a number of senior ADF officers embedded in the US military’s Pacific Command (PACOM) who will be intimately involved in discussions with USFK about the extremely sensitive military issues looming in the US/ROK relationship. Canberra needs to be able to ensure that they are not drawn into any US military policy conflict with the ROK and that the ROK is made aware of that position. Once again, we should be much more creative in our relationship with the DPRK which seemingly remains in suspense over a more formal exchange of diplomatic representation. It would be overwhelmingly in our national interest to be capable of assessing first hand the situation on the ground in the North as is the case for many of the European countries and our Asian neighbours. It is hard to accept that this could not be seen as a constructive step

Mack Williams is a Former Australian Ambassador to the ROK



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