SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments that it may be too late to strike a deal to halt North Korea’s advancing nuclear program, advocates for engagement argue that Trump is uniquely positioned to reach a breakthrough toward resolving the increasingly tense security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
“I have some kind of hope that President Trump, that he would come up with a quite unimaginable deal with North Korea that could really bring peace to the Korean Peninsula,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor emeritus at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Trump this week emphasized bolstering U.S. military capability in the region, including deploying the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea to counter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to accelerate the country’s nuclear and missile development capabilities.
In an interview with Reuters Thursday Trump said, “It’s very late. We’re very angry at what he’s done.”
In the last year, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests, a satellite launch using banned intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology, and fired numerous short and midrange missiles from submarines and mobile land based launchers.
Before taking office in January Trump sent out a tweet saying, “It won’t happen!” in response to the North Korean leader’s public message saying his country is prepared to conduct an ICBM test. And in February the U.S. president stood alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to condemn a North Korean midrange missile test.
Losing strategic patience
On Thursday Trump again put the onus on China to restrain its economically dependent ally in Pyongyang and said his predecessor, President Barack Obama, should have resolved the issue of North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities.
Beijing’s recent ban on all North Korean coal imports brought a rare rebuke from Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency Friday that said China “is dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
The Trump administration has called on China to apply more economic pressure, but few think Beijing is ready to abandon its ally.
“The mistake will be to say, ‘Oh, great, the Chinese are shutting down the border. They’re going to solve the problem for us.’ That’s the wrong way to understand what’s going on,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, which relied on increasing sanctions and diplomatic isolation, failed to pressure Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear program.
Critics say the policy failed, in large measure, because Beijing will not enforce harsh measures that might result in instability at its border, the collapse of the Kim government, and the increased power and influence of the United States and South Korea in the region.
Breaking the cycle
This stalemate has accelerated a cycle of North Korean provocations in defiance of United Nations resolutions banning the country’s nuclear and missile programs, followed by international condemnation and further sanctions that so far have had only limited impact.
Pyongyang’s relentless efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland add new urgency to devise a strategy against this threat to U.S. security.
Analysts say there are no good military options to take out the North’s nuclear and missile facilities without triggering a deadly counter attack on allies South Korea and Japan, and even possibly starting a full scale war.
Thus, engaging North Korea is the only realistic way to reach a peaceful resolution. But that would require the Trump administration to take the initiative.
“If the U.S. does not move, Pyongyang will not move, and the stalemate will continue and a stalemate could become more risky and dangerous,” Moon said.
China’s ban on North Korean coal along with informal talks that are being organized between former U.S. officials and North Korean representatives could offer Trump an opportunity to open a new channel of dialogue.
Trump, who sees himself as a dealmaker and who has been critical of his predecessors, could be willing to break with the past and try a more unconventional approach.
“Donald Trump is uniquely positioned to move on that and he is strangely immune to criticisms that would stop a Democrat or a Republican dead in their tracks,” Delury said.
Any deal to get even a temporary nuclear freeze from Pyongyang will require real concessions that could include the suspension of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises and later more incentives like a formal peace treaty and other security guarantees and economic assistance to reach the ultimate outcome of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
The political winds in South Korea also seem to be changing with liberal pro-engagement forces gaining popular support in the wake of conservative President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment amid a corruption scandal. If the country’s Constitutional Court rules in favor of the impeachment, a new presidential election will follow soon.
Of course negotiations would require time and intense coordination, and could be undone by North Korean provocations and violations, as has happened with past agreements, but advocates say it may be time to try again.
Under a 2005 “six party” joint agreement with South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid, security guarantees and improved diplomatic ties.
But Pyongyang failed to live up to its commitment and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.