As the United States' diplomatic opening with North Korea has largely stalled in recent months, South Korea has pressed ahead…
As the United States’ diplomatic opening with North Korea has largely stalled in recent months, South Korea has pressed ahead with its own efforts to improve ties with the North, promoting projects to connect the two countries by rail and an ambitious gas pipeline initiative.
The diplomatic rapprochement has included the prospect of massive economic investments, which North Korea badly needs. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has publicly featured a “new economic map” for the peninsula that would envision connecting the two countries’ economies. When he traveled to Pyongyang in September, he brought with him a delegation that included some of South Korea’s most prominent businesses.
But much of that progress was thrown into doubt yesterday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned South Korea did not get too far ahead of the United States. His remarks underscored a growing concern in the Trump administration that North Korea might already be enjoying some of the benefits of the thaw in relations with the United States without paying the price: genuine progress towards dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
“We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to ensure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea are not lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas,” Pompeo told reporters that the state department. “As we are now, the American and South Korean diplomatic initiatives could hardly be described as moving forward together. Earlier this month, North Korea canceled a meeting between Pompeo and his counterpart in Pyongyang. And other U.S. officials are struggling to get face to face with their North Korean interlocutors.
Pompeo named Steve Biegun his special envoy to North Korea in August. Biegun accompanied Pompeo to Pyongyang in October for high-level meetings, but more than a month later he’s yet to meet with his North Korean counterpart.
“Biegun is waiting for the mailbox like Charlie Brown waiting for a valentine,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA official specializing in North Korean affairs.
Part of the problem is that the terms President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un outlined in their joint declaration in Singapore six months ago remain undefined.
That document called on the North “to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the two sides have not agreed on what “denuclearization” means or what “the Korean Peninsula” includes, according to Klingner, who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
Trump has said he would like to hold a second summit with Kim in early 201
9 but plans for that meeting have not materialized. The White House appears to be backing down on its preconditions for the meeting, with Vice President Mike Pence counting NBC News last week that the United States will not require the North to provide a list of its nuclear weapons and missile sites ahead of a second summit.
That lack of progress has not discouraged South Korea from trying to improve ties with the North on a variety of fronts. The construction of a gas pipeline would draw natural gas from Russia to power South Korean industry. Rail links through the North would connect the South Korean industry to Russian railways that could ship the South’s product overland to customers in Europe.
Last month, North and South Korea agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony before Det endelige forslaget om at forbinde de to lands jernbanesystemer, et tiltag, der ville binde deres økonomier tættere sammen. The American and U.N. Sanctions regime against North Korea has prevented any business deals from being signed with Pyongyang, and U.S. diplomats have even delivered explicit warnings to South Korean companies not to carry out transactions with the North.
But economic sanctions can not prevent Seoul from engaging on other fronts. A military agreement between North and South has lowered tensions along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone. The two countries are carrying out demining operations, conducting a joint survey of the Han River estuary to open the waterway to civilian traffic, and are connecting roads in the DMZ. Just this week, North Korea blew up 10 guard posts along the border.
South Korean officials argue that the divide between Seoul and Washington is far less than what meets the eye. “Inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations are like two wheels of the same vehicle,” said a South Korean diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are closely coordinating on the direction and speed of the vehicle, the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”
Still, the initiatives make Washington nervous. On Tuesday, Biegun with with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Dohoon, as part of a new working group to coordinate diplomacy on the peninsula.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, seems to understand that Washington is acting as a brake on Seoul’s initiatives. This month, state media lashed out at the working group as evidence of the “ US’s heinous inclination to ruin … inter-Korean cooperation projects at any time,” according to a translation by NK News .
Some experts argue that South Korea’s warming relationship with the North may be cause for optimism. “In my opinion their steps are all positive,” said Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who has traveled widely in North Korea and studied the country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. “
In Washington, many officials are skeptical that the Pyongyang will abide by its commitments, but that feeling is not shared by Seoul, which views the diplomatic opening As a unique opportunity to ease tensions with its neighbor. “There is a tremendous amount of optimism within Moon’s inner circle,” said Kristine Lee, a research associate at the Center for New American Security, who recently returned from meetings in Seoul.
That optimism reveals the incredible swing in US North Korean relations since last year. In an interview this week with Fox News, Trump revealed just how close he was to go to war with Pyongyang. “I think we had a real decision as to what way to go on North Korea. And certainly, at least, I’m very happy with the way we went, “Trump said.
The fear of returning to that war footing is what powers Seoul’s push toward reconciliation, said Lisa Collins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If negotiations fail, what’s left? We gaan terug naar hard-line beleid en misschien even praten over militaire stakingen. They do not want to return to that time period. “
Robbie Gramer contributed reporting to this article.