by Daniel Jasper
The recent signals from North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) that it is willing to talk to the United States about denuclearization have illuminated a major problem in Washington: the lack of a diplomatic game plan with the DPRK. Regardless of the reasons for the DPRK to express a willingness to talk, the fact is that they have. So, what will the US do next?
Understanding the Trump administration’s approach to the DPRK has been a challenge for the most seasoned foreign policy experts. Mixed messages, from a willingness to talk without preconditions to “fire and fury” threats, have come from the administration. Recently, when Vice President Mike Pence was asked what the DPRK would have to do for the US to remove or soften sanctions, he replied that he didn’t know. A strange reply considering just days before he announced the U.S. would place even tougher sanctions on the DPRK. Whether the White House doesn’t have a plan or is just acting like it doesn’t have a plan, Washington now needs to articulate a clear and realistic roadmap to improve relations or the U.S. risks losing a rare opportunity to make a deal.
On the night of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, a stadium of over 30,000 people from every corner of the world sat in freezing temperatures to mark the beginning of the games. As a member of the audience, I noted that the crowd, despite being on the verge of hypothermia, was in a pretty good mood. Between the complimentary “survival kits” strapped to every seat (which included everything from hand warmers and hats to LED torches and drums) and the upbeat atmosphere maintained by the North Korean cheerleaders, the plans for the opening ceremonies made the best out of a very difficult situation.
In a sense, the thaw in Korean relations was on display that night of the Opening Ceremonies. The entrance of the unified Korean delegation was the highlight of the evening, and nearly everyone stood as the delegation was announced. The moment was the result of quick but careful planning, and the world witnessed an exercise in reconciliation that didn’t seem possible just a few weeks beforehand.
Seated in the section to my right were the heads of state and official delegations. Behind me were the trailers for the DPRK cheerleaders. To my right, I could make out handshakes and formalities. Behind me, I saw fast-paced coordination and people-to-people engagement. From where I was seated, the Opening Ceremonies looked like the diplomatic equivalent of a military exercise: a practice run for diplomacy and a demonstration of “diplomatic readiness.” Although some pundits have remarked that the DPRK is somehow trying to trick the rest of the world into a peaceful period, the planning and cooperation that went into the unified Korean delegations was not a charade. It was an exercise in peace.
The success of the Opening Ceremonies and the inter-Korean meetings has had a cascading effect for relations on the peninsula as things progress. The DPRK’s expressed willingness to talk about denuclearization is a success in and of itself, and that success is owed to the engagement between the two Koreas. Had the DPRK not been invited to participate and had talks not started between the North and South on small but meaningful exchanges such as the combined women’s hockey team, the DPRK may not have offered the diplomatic window to the US on denuclearization.
The Olympics, then, showcased that power of engagement. As talks continue between the North and South, the U.S. will have to become involved at some point to truly begin untangling this conflict. Fortunately, the U.S. has a lot of options to start its own “diplomatic exercises” with the DPRK. As I’ve argued elsewhere, reuniting Korean American and North Korean families as well as repatriating the remains of U.S. servicemen left in the DPRK after the Korean War offer low-risk, high-reward starting points for engagement. Further, the State Department has a suite of programs such as the International Visitor Leadership Program that can serve as mechanisms for people-to-people exchanges and lay the groundwork for future cooperation. I have personally conducted a feasibility assessment of conducing these types of exchanges and, even with the Trump administration’s travel ban in place, exchanges are possible through exemptions written into the ban.
By pursuing the options above, Washington can begin alleviating some of the security concerns on the part of the DPRK. If the U.S. refuses to engage at this point, it will restart a vicious cycle of humiliation that leads to a vilification of the other that ultimately serves to justify policies of non-engagement.
Congress, too, must begin recognizing that it has a role beyond implementing new sanctions. Although foreign policy is the responsibility of the administration, Congress has a responsibility to hold the administration accountable. In this moment, accountability means ensuring that the administration now has a clear plan to get from this opening to a diplomatic solution to the crisis. If, on the other hand, Congress pursues reasoning the reasoning of Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that somehow a war in Korea would be worth the short-term sacrifice for the long-term gains, Congress will share in the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands or, more likely, millions of Koreans and U.S. citizens, a global economic depression, and even a nuclear disaster that could result in a nuclear winter. A choice to march blindly toward these devastating outcomes will not sit well with U.S. voters.
One more lesson from the Olympics should not be lost, however: the power of citizens to hold their leaders accountable. The bid to host the Olympics in South Korea was won by the previous Park Geun-Hye administration. Her administration relinquished power after a corruption scandal that sparked extraordinary candlelight protests that lasted for months and brought the government to a standstill. South Koreans demanded a change of course from their government and exercised democracy in creative, non-violent, and effective ways.
Instead of the Olympics being one more symbol of a corrupt government, the Moon Jae-in administration turned the event into a peacemaking exercise. The U.S. public could learn a lot from the candlelight protests and should seek to hold the Trump administration and Congress accountable for a realistic and comprehensive diplomatic game plan.
Daniel Jasper is the Asia Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. Photo: Two Koreas marching under a single flag at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics (Andy Miah via Flickr).