South Korean President President Moon Jae-in has long voiced a conciliatory tone with North Korea and gone on record saying it is time for Seoul to start saying “no” to Washington. For this reason and more, Seoul has said it will consider scaling back its military exercises with the U.S. in exchange for Pyongyang suspending its nuclear weapons program.
In other words: South Korea, which has remained officially at war with North Korea long after the U.S. declared it over, wants to deal with its belligerent neighbor less and less with America’s help and intervention.
Moon Chung-in, President Moon’s special advisor on unification, foreign affairs and national security, told a gathering at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. that the possibility existed, according to NK News:
The president has made two proposals. The first is that we and the US can discuss reducing the South Korea-US joint military exercises if North Korea suspends its nuclear weapons and missile activities,” Moon said on the topic of North Korea’s nuclear program. “The president was thinking that we could even decrease the American strategic assets that are deployed to the Korean Peninsula [during the exercises].
Of course, he added that Pyongyang would likely reject the proposals but that they at least “need to try.” The fact that South Korea is openly floating the idea ahead of its summit with the U.S. in June is a big deal.
(Note: Seoul has since distanced itself from Moon’s comments, but did not outright deny the proposals were discussed)
But with today’s announcement of the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, the college student who was captured for stealing a North Korean propaganda poster in a hotel and recently returned to the U.S. in a coma, may complicate these proposals. Trump almost certainly cannot take Warmbier’s death lightly, so the idea of the White House taking a backseat on North Korea may prove tougher now than when Moon made his remarks in D.C. Friday.
But Moon has made clear he wants Seoul in the driver’s seat with North Korea. Indeed, Washington legitimately fears Pyongyang will eventually develop an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that can reach the U.S. This, alone, won’t allow them to disengage that much from any talks with the north.
On the other hand, South Korea clearly would have the most to lose if a war does break out on the peninsular. The initial onslaught of North Korean munitions and ground attacks would hit South Korea the hardest, killing potentially millions of South Koreans. Also keep in mind that Washington taking the international lead on Pyongyang has not gone all that well. Attempts by President Obama’s administration to reach a peace agreement with the North failed, and George W. Bush had little luck either. And President Trump is too unpredictable to count on in this arena. So, the South would be wise to take their national security into their own hands in a publicly forceful way to show Pyongyang it is not the Washington lapdog its propaganda machine projects them to be.
And at the same time, while South Korea is a commercial and strategic ally, how much should the U.S. involve itself in a conflict it fought decades ago now that the Cold War is over?
Recently, the North accused the South of conspiring with the U.S. to kill its leader, Kim Jong-un. So, while it is not clear if any friendly gestures would thaw Pyongyang’s posture towards South Korea, the need to try is pretty evident.
Of course, Seoul would be risking a lot by challenging Washington’s position in the region. Insisting that it remove THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) out of its territory will not go over well with the Pentagon and could be seen as betrayal for the U.S., which sees itself as South Korea’s main protector against the North. Scaling back U.S. military exercises in any way could also been taken similarly. Or, more directly, caving in to Pyongyang’s tyranny.
But is Seoul really in a position to hang its regional security on every qualm Washington has with the North? I would argue it is not. Isolating North Korea has lead to more missile testing, not fewer.
The reality is that the U.S. and North Korea’s grievances are so entrenched it appears almost hopeless that the two will come to a resolution any time soon. Meanwhile, South Korea is the nation waiting in the middle with the most to lose. Yes, the North is building weapons that are a threat to the entire world, but South Korea has less time to wait on Washington to decide its next move than most.
And the death of a young college student, tragic as it is, is likely not a good enough reason for South Korea to slow its own course of action now.