Korea’s Year of Living Diplomatically

South Korea probably endured more political turbulence than almost any other country in 2018. On the domestic front, the new liberal government of President Moon Jae-in forged ahead with measures to address entrenched corruption, and implemented progressive (and hotly debated) economic policies to help low-income people. But these important changes were dwarfed by the wave of disruption from abroad.

Few South Koreans had expected that US President Donald Trump would show such determination in undermining the post-war liberal international order. That order has served as a foundation for Korea’s economic growth and democratic development since the 1960s. Now that it is under threat, South Koreans are anxiously wondering whether Trump will be a one-term outlier or an agent of permanent change.

After Trump’s April 2017 threat to “terminate” the “horrible” free-trade agreement which for a decade has backstopped a strategic alliance with the United States that has lasted for more than half a century, South Koreans were relieved to see Trump and Moon sign a revised deal in September. Still, the Trump administration’s trade war with China is certain to strike a severe economic blow to South Korea.

“It will be one of the hardest-hit economies in the world if an all-out trade war breaks out,” a senior trade official warned – and this when the economy is already slowing. If Moon fails to address the challenges of a shrinking working-age population and rising inequality, South Korea could end up with a Trump of its own.

On a more positive note, fears of a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula have subsided. In November 2017, some US foreign-policy experts put the chances of a war with North Korea as high as 50%. Yet today, the US and South Korea are working with the North to find a viable formula for denuclearization and a lasting peace. In this regard, 2018 was a pivotal year. The transition from crisis to diplomacy began when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un responded favorably in a New Year’s address to overtures from Moon; but it owes much of its momentum to Trump’s bold political approach.

Moon had been signaling his openness for dialogue with North Korea since taking office in May 2017, even inviting North Korean athletes to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February 2018. This set the stage for inter-Korean dialogue. During a visit by a South Korean special envoy to Pyongyang, Kim indicated for the first time that he might give up his nuclear program, and that he wanted to meet with Trump to discuss it. Since then, Kim has said that he will depart from the “byungjin line” – the parallel development of nuclear weapons and the North Korean economy – to focus solely on economic development.

After three rounds of inter-Korean summit meetings, Moon and Kim signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration on September 19. Both sides committed to turning the Korean Peninsula into “a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats”; and North Korea promised that it will dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform. Both sides have also agreed “to expand the cessation of military hostilities in regions of confrontation,” including the demilitarized zone on the border and the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. All told, the joint declaration represents meaningful progress toward lowering the probability of a conventional military confrontation, which is actually more likely than a nuclear war.

Meanwhile, at the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12, the US and North Korea reached a four-point agreement expressing “the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” But while this joint statement marked an important shift in US diplomacy, it was criticized for lacking details about the timeline and method of denuclearization. To address these issues, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has continued to meet with the North Koreans, visiting Pyongyang four times over the course of the year.

After returning from his last visit, when he met with Kim for three and a half hours, Pompeo reported that unspecified progress had been made toward denuclearizing the North. But many specialists and observers are skeptical. The Kim regime, after all, has yet to take any serious action despite the flurry of talks.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But even skeptics in the US would agree that continued diplomacy is preferable to the saber rattling of 2017. Looking ahead, much will depend on US policymakers’ willingness to be pragmatic in dealing with the Kim regime. Addressing the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea is as much a matter of perception as deterrence. A small, isolated, and economically devastated country that is surrounded by major powers will feel insecure under any circumstances.

As such, Kim will not give up his nuclear weapons until he is sure that his regime can prosper without them. But while many US policymakers already know that addressing the regime’s security concerns is a prerequisite for denuclearization, there has not been any real action on this front. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the Trump administration can mobilize the necessary support from Congress to move the process along.

For example, the US might consider a declaration of peace to end the Korean War. Barring that, it could establish a liaison office in Pyongyang, or extend humanitarian aid to the North (outside of economic sanctions). Or, it could invite North Korean sports teams, performers, bureaucrats, and students to participate in cultural events or pursue educational opportunities in the West, thus exposing them to liberal democracy and a market economy. None of these options weakens sanctions, which can remain in place until the Kim regime follows through on denuclearization.

Kim has already allowed Moon to address 150,000 North Koreans, decided on an unprecedented visit to Seoul, and invited Pope Francis to Pyongyang. These gestures suggest that he may want to become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping. Yes, one cannot be too careful when dealing with the Kim regime; but nor should one be surprised that a young leader might pursue a different strategy from his father’s.

Deng was able to concentrate on economic development only after diplomacy with the US had created a more favorable external environment for China. If there is even the slightest chance that Kim is serious about moving toward a normal state and a twenty-first century economy, the international community must not stand in his way. In that case, 2019 could be a year of continued progress toward a nuclear-free, peaceful Korean Peninsula.

Yoon Young-kwan, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Seoul National University.