Don't Push Your Ally into a Corner

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    January 12, 2022 12:03

    Earlier this month during a summit trip to Australia, President Moon Jae-in stated that the United States, China, and the two Koreas have agreed "in principle" to declare a formal end to the Korean War. He added, however, that North Korea's pre-condition for dialogue is the end of the U.S. "hostile policy." Moon further added, "And because of that, we are not able to sit down for a negotiation on the declarations between South and North Korea, and those between North Korea and the United States."

    There is something in alliance politics known as "boxing in your ally," -- that is when one party makes public statements that pressure the other into a position of both blame and responsibility. In its last weeks in office, the Moon government appears to be doing this to President Joe Biden with regard to a peace declaration.

    First, it is entirely unclear whether the statement by Moon in Canberra was coordinated in advance with Washington. While Washington and Seoul have been working hard on the language of a peace declaration over the past few months (largely at the latter's urging), these discussions seem not to be finalized, making the statement by Moon a bit premature. Experts in Washington received no signals from the Biden administration that it was ready to roll out such an announcement.

    Second, even if North Korea's condition for peace talks is an end to U.S. hostile policy, then rather than putting the ball in the U.S. court, Seoul should have defended how often the United States, in fact, has provided assurances of non-hostility to North Korea over the years. Here is a sample:

    • In a June 1993 joint communique between the U.S. and North Korea, President George H.W. Bush provided "assurance against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons."

    • In the October 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreed framework, President Bill Clinton agreed to provide "formal assurances to North Korea, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S."

    • In Clinton's second term, the 2000 U.S.-North Korea joint communique stipulated, "The two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward each other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity."

    • In February 2002 in a joint press conference with President Kim Dae-Jung, Bush stated, "We have no intention of invading North Korea."

    • In the September 2005 six-party joint statement, the U.S. affirmed "that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons."

    • With President Roh Moo-hyun in November 2006, Bush further stated that "if [North Korea] gives up its weapons -- nuclear ambitions, that we would be willing to enter into security arrangements with the North Koreans."

    • During his summit meeting with President Lee Myung-bak, President Barack Obama stated, "There is another path for North Korea -- a path that leads to peace and economic opportunity."

    • Obama added in November 2009, "The United States is prepared to offer North Korea a different future… instead of increasing insecurity, it could have a future of greater security and respect."

    • After the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un in July 2018, President Donald Trump stated, "Yesterday's conflict does not have to be tomorrow's war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can become friends."

    From 1989 to 2021, U.S. presidents, secretaries of states, and national security advisers have offered assurances of non-hostile intent on at least 40 separate occasions. Based on this research I can say with confidence that the United States has provided more security assurances to North Korea than to any other non-ally; moreover, it has provided more explicit language of non-hostile intent to the North than to any other country.

    After Moon's statement, Unification Minister Lee In-Young stated a few hours later that a peace declaration could be a "turning point" for resuming dialogue, and that the U.S. should take advantage of this opportunity because North Korea "hasn't made the situation deteriorate severely by raising tensions to a high level." 

    Again, this statement appears aimed at boxing in Washington. First, it seems to have relegated denuclearization to a lower priority as the word is used infrequently in the Moon government's statements about North Korea. Second, it again puts the ball in the U.S. court to supplement the peace declaration with concessions to bring North Korea back to talks (i.e., removal of sanctions on the regime without any corresponding denuclearization steps). Third, the statement about North Korean quiescence badly misleads the public because the absence of ballistic missile tests does not mean a cessation of Pyongyang's nuclear programs. Recent satellite imagery from the Center for Strategic and International Studies using heat signatures shows that the Yongbyon reactor and the reprocessing facility have been fully operational, which means the production of many more nuclear bombs.

    As hard as Seoul and Washington work on a peace declaration, North Korea will accept it as no more than a piece of paper and demand even more concessions including sanctions relief, suspension of joint military exercises, withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan, and the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In the meantime, Pyongyang will see such a declaration as de jure recognition that peace on the peninsula was achieved through the everlasting strength of North Korea's nuclear deterrent.

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