by Richard Sindelar
A potentially momentous opportunity that could beget a once-in-a-generation resolution of a seemingly intractable conflict still seems in play on the Korean peninsula. Progress since the initial President Trump summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been uneven, but the halting process might unfold into some form of win-win agreement.
However, the United States may not have the right team to take advantage of this historic opportunity. Washington may be fielding an over-muscled, heavy-handed football team to address a complex problem needing the finesse of a nimble and fleet-footed soccer team. Moreover, can the quarterback properly read the signals from the other side and respond with an appropriate play?
When Nixon opened to China, he and Henry Kissinger were adept at reading the positive signals from Beijing and savvy when engaging Mao in what Kissinger referred to as an “intricate minuet.”
In the U.S.-China dance of 1,000 steps, small positive signals emanated from both sides—looser travel restrictions, fewer naval patrols in the Taiwan Straits, mutual remarks about China emerging from isolation and engaging the United States. Periodic misunderstandings were overcome, as both parties intently focused on their larger strategies and interests, which both believed would be advanced by meeting and talking. For example, as depicted in the film Nixon’s China Game, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew made anti-China remarks at a sensitive moment in the exchanges and was promptly told to “shut up.”
Since the Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, all major parties to the nuclear dispute have engaged in a number of confidence-building steps. There have also been derailments, such as the postponed visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But overall a generally less belligerent and more open atmosphere has evolved among Washington, Pyongyang, and Seoul. The absence of ICBMs in North Korea’s seventieth anniversary military parade was another small signal that Kim Jong Un wishes to lower the temperature, as is the North Korean leader’s latest letter seeking a follow-on meeting with President Trump.
Going Beyond Denuclearization
But if talks are to advance into something more meaningful than the brief, generic Singapore communiqué, then Washington policymakers must adjust their perspective from the narrow fixation on denuclearization. They must stop insisting that North Korea first engage in meaningful denuclearization before the United States will consider reducing sanctions and other moves.
Kim repetitively declares that North Korea is open to denuclearization, as he did again at his recent Pyongyang summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But he continues to provide few details. Denuclearization is an existential issue to Kim’s regime, so Kim is unlikely to make meaningful compromises until the endgame.
Instead of pushing the one-note denuclearization-first policy, perhaps the White House and Pompeo’s State Department should take a step back, like Nixon and Mao before, and reexamine the subtler messages coming out of the quickening North Korea-South Korea dialogue. The Pyongyang summit offers another new window onto the thinking of both Korean nations, another chance to monitor and analyze the messages and signals coming from each leader.
Over the past months, while the United States and North Korea have focused almost solely on the denuclearization and sanctions issues, the separate Moon-Kim channel has built inter-Korean confidence and featured discussions on potential alternatives. The players on the outside, both China and the United States, have almost entirely dismissed or ignored a series of statements that suggest that both Koreas may be open to an endgame that subsumes both denuclearization and sanctions removal and requires significant buy-in from each of their opposing allies.
Both Koreas over recent months have taken symbolic steps toward an ambitious and perhaps overly optimistic solution—Korean unification.
Few if any U.S. policymakers think today that the two Koreas can be unified. But then, neither did most policy wonks in the late 1960s believe that the United States and Mao’s China could find common ground.
The Unification Option
Unification, after more than a century of occupation and division, lies deep in the DNA of both Koreas, and any U.S. policymaker who dismisses unification dismisses a key potential negotiating avenue. Kim Jong Un has referred repeatedly and openly to unification as a possible goal—the people of South and North are “one people, one blood” he stated in his Singapore summit remarks, where President Trump had a front-row seat. Joint athletic teams have been fielded, and President Moon wears a unification-colored tie and dresses his honor guard troops in uniforms from an era when Korea was unified.
Such hints and suggestions should not be dismissed. They should be deeply mined in backchannel discussions not only by the two principal players—Kim and Moon–but also by the United States and China.
Granted, Kim’s remarks might simply be a ploy, left deliberately vague, to appear amenable as talks unfold with President Trump, to lessen the press of sanctions, to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Negotiating unification as the endgame of the full peace sought by all parties on the peninsula would not be easy. Facing any number of potential derailments and non-starters, such a process might stall in the end.
The form such unification would take would equally be a massive challenge. It might involve a confederal structure, with a gradual drawdown of military forces on both sides. The peninsula would be denuclearized because the North would no longer face a belligerent threat from the United States. A phased drawdown of U.S. forces would include withdrawal of the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system that China considers a direct threat.
This old-but-fresh unification approach does not have a serious downside if actually achieved, and could be over time a win for all parties—the two Koreas, China, and the United States.
The United States would resolve a major threat to homeland security and minimize one potential flash point for Asian conflict. By withdrawing forces actually deployed to Korea, the Pentagon would save billions in support costs for U.S. forces in Korea, fulfill a Trump-era promise to pull the United States out of foreign entanglements when possible, and makes a new united Korea pay more for its own defense.
South Korea would experience some dysfunction as it absorbs the North, as happened in Germany, but Seoul would win vast new labor resources for its vibrant economic engine. Kim Jong Un would have to surrender sole sovereignty, but would tie his northern region’s confederal fortunes to the South’s prodigious economy.
For China, a regional irritant would be marginalized and over time eliminated, and a unified Korea would minimize the danger of Korean refuges fleeing the starvation and oppression of the Kim regime. Having an economically strong unified Korea, with a vested interest in peace and stability as a platform for economic growth, would quiet a previously unstable border and enhance China’s prestige as regional leader.
Is this unification option worth exploring? Can the Trump administration read the signals and react in a positive, enabling manner in backchannel talks? The other options—no agreement at all, continued conflict, and a renewed North Korean nuclear weapons program—suggest that it is, as does the successful antecedent German model.
Richard Sindelar, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as assistant professor of international studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international security, among others.