Donald Trump loves to talk about war.
Last year, Trump was ready to invade Venezuela, until calmer heads in his inner circle persuaded him that it wasn’t a good idea. He has recently escalated his threats against Iran, and his secretary of state has explicitly endorsed regime change there. After his meeting with NATO leaders, he even broached the subject of a World War III started by the “very aggressive people” of Montenegro.
The current U.S. president is the most bellicose-sounding leader in modern American history.
Not that long ago, Trump was also talking about war with North Korea, promising to rain “fire and fury” down upon Pyongyang. But in recent months he has changed his tune. In fact, North Korea is one of the few longstanding adversaries of the United States that Trump hasn’t threatened recently. The contrast between Trump’s rhetoric toward Iran (which has no nuclear weapons) and North Korea (which does) is quite stark.
After his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump remains committed to pursuing détente and denuclearization with Pyongyang. He has disputed media accounts that he is disappointed with the pace of negotiations. He has also tweeted his appreciation of North Korea for beginning to dismantle its satellite launch site at Sohae.
North Korea has not pushed forward with denuclearization as quickly as some observers hoped. It hasn’t taken any steps to reduce its nuclear arsenal. In fact, according to a recent U.S. intelligence assessment, North Korea continues to produce highly enriched uranium for additional nuclear weapons. Nor has North Korea even provided a list of all its nuclear-weapons-related sites or an inventory of its nuclear weapons.
Still, North Korea has given several indications that it is serious about de-escalating tensions. It has maintained a moratorium on all missile and nuclear tests. It at least partially destroyed its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri (it may only have destroyed the entrances rather than the tunnels themselves). And most recently it began the partial dismantlement of its satellite-launch station.
None of these moves is irreversible. But given the Trump administration’s tendency to renege on deals – like the Iran nuclear deal – North Korea would frankly be crazy to do anything yet that it can’t later reverse.
South Korea has also taken some important steps forward on conflict reduction. Most recently, it reported that it will reduce the number of guard posts along the DMZ and withdraw some military equipment as well.
The United States, however, has not made any reciprocal moves. It canceled the summer military exercises with South Korea. But it hasn’t shown any flexibility on the issue of economic sanctions.
Indeed, the Trump administration has pushed for stricter implementation of sanctions at the UN, citing North Korean violations of petroleum imports. The United States has upped the pressure on China and Russia to enforce these sanctions. And last week, several U.S. government agencies sent out an advisory that reminded businesses and individuals of the penalties of engaging economically with Pyongyang.
Seoul has officially requested exemptions to the sanctions that would allow it to pursue certain economic projects with Pyongyang. It will likely have the support of both Russia and China for such exemptions.
The ball is in the U.S. court. If Trump truly wants to move forward with the deal he struck with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, then he has to put his money where his mouth is.
The U.S. government can grant these exemptions while still maintaining an otherwise strict sanctions regime. It can still prevent U.S. businesses and individuals from engaging with North Korea. It can still push for the tighter implementation of sanctions connected to critical resources, like petroleum, that North Korea needs.
What South Korea is looking for, however, are exemptions that would permit the restart of joint economic programs like the Kaesong industrial zone and inter-Korean tourism operations.
The Moon Jae-in government, which did so much to nudge both sides toward the Singapore summit, is now feeling pressure from both sides on the sanction issue. North Korea wants the U.S. ally to produce some evidence of U.S. flexibility. And Washington wants its Korean ally to hang tough on sanctions until North Korea produces more results on its nuclear program. It’s an unenviable position for Seoul.
South Korea is also facing a demand from the North to repatriate several North Korean workers from a restaurant in China who “defected” in 2016. It turns out that the manager of the restaurant had tricked the women into leaving for South Korea, and at least some of them now want to return to the north.
One other major challenge is the desire of both Koreas to put an official end to the Korean War. Washington has traditionally shown a good deal of resistance to signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the war in 1953.
These are not insuperable problems. But they do require that all sides sit down and talk. It doesn’t help when North Korea skips a meeting, as it did in mid-July on the repatriation of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War. It also doesn’t help when the United States shows up and makes uncompromising demands, as it did when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last visited Pyongyang.
Donald Trump confounded the foreign policy elite by making the bold move to meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore. It’s time for him to make another bold move to get negotiations back on track. Granting Seoul an exemption on sanctions against North Korea could be just such a gesture.
Hankyoreh, July 29, 2018