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Why The United States Should Follow South Korea’s Lead On North Korea


South Korean President Moon Jae-in traveled to Pyongyang Tuesday to meet again with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. It was his third summit with Kim this year, and the first time in more than a decade a South Korean president has visited the North. Given our close ties to South Korea and pursuit of peace on the peninsula, this will be a meeting for the United States to watch.

Moon’s administration expressed high hopes in advance of the trip. “We will not let this heartfelt opportunity slip through,” said his Defense Minister Song Young-moo at a defense forum in Seoul Thursday. “Returning to our 70-year history of conflict and hatred is not an option.”

The aim, as South Korean National Security Council Director Chung Eui-yong put it, is to work with the international community to “provide North Korea with all the support and encouragement to make the right choices for itself.” Hawks and hardliners have demonstrated their approach to be a “total failure,” Moon’s administration argues. Now it is time for a gradual tack, a pragmatic effort to coax Pyongyang slowly but surely into some semblance of normalcy and peace.

One possible concrete outcome of this latest Moon-Kim summit is a “liaison office” between Seoul and Pyongyang, the first such permanent communication link between the two governments in more than half a century. It’s not denuclearization, but it’s a start.

Moon’s patient approach may be politically risky, but it is strategically safe. An unprovoked attack from the Kim regime is deeply implausible given Kim’s survivalist aims and the powerful deterrence provided by U.S. military might. Those factors combine to put time on Moon’s side: North Korea already has nuclear weapons but almost certainly will not use them unless attacked. This means negotiations from this point can only make South Korea (and her ally, America) more secure.

Whether or not the diplomacy is “heartfelt,” as Song put it, it is certainly an opportunity that must be seized. The alternative—the horrors of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare that an invasion of North Korea would unquestionably entail—is unthinkable. However halting and frustrating negotiated progress will be, returning to conflict is indeed not an option.

On the other side of the globe, the Trump administration would do well to follow Moon’s lead and reject the dangerously dramatic “last change” rhetoric we hear from creatures of the Washington establishment, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Graham was beating a familiar drum on the Sunday talk show circuit in advance of this week’s summit, claiming on “Face the Nation” that the present moment is “the last best chance for peace” on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to North Korea,” he said, but “we have some time. Are they playing us? I don’t know. If they’re playing [President] Trump, we’re going to be in a world of hurt, because he’s going to have no options left.”

This line of argument makes for a snappy soundbite, but it is reckless in the extreme. Kim may well be playing Trump, but that is no reason to stop talking. Although he has made a meaningful gesture of goodwill in returning U.S. troops’ remains from the Korean War, the evidence that Kim has begun the denuclearization process in earnest is messy at best. Pyongyang has significant disincentives to proceed with denuclearization, and rushing Kim to a Libya-style surrender of his nuclear arsenal may be the quickest way to ensure he will never give it up.

The more eager the United States appears—the more we indulge in imprudent “now or never,” “last chance” language—the more likely Kim is to hang on to his nukes to ward off the perceived threat of forcible, external regime change. South Korea’s tactic of using the time provided by conventional deterrence to nudge North Korea toward keeping its denuclearization promises is the only viable course, and one trigger-happy politicians in Washington must not disrupt.

None of this is to say North Korean denuclearization is an impossibility, or that we may not see advances more dramatic than the liaison office soon. Kim reportedly told South Korean diplomats at a meeting in early September that his aim is to denuclearize by the end of Trump’s first term in 2021.

“That is a very meaningful and important statement,” former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan told The Washington Post. “North Korea never talked before about a specific timeline. If another U.S.-North Korea summit occurs and Chairman Kim Jong Un confirms this statement to President Trump, that will be meaningful progress.”

A two-and-a-half-year timeline for denuclearization is precisely the sort of “right choices” Moon’s summit will hopefully encourage. But even if Kim won’t publicly commit to that plan, that is no cause to abandon diplomatic headway on the grounds that he must be “playing us.” A longer route to peace is not ideal, but as long as North and South Korea stay friendly, nuclear warheads won’t fly. Peace is possible, and Korean-led diplomacy—not endless sanctions, and certainly not preventive war—is the best way to attain it.