While you’d be forgiven for thinking deals and freezes between the U.S. and North Korea were more likely to be supported by liberals in Washington, John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, says the emerging domestic situation around President Trump could lead to the opposite outcome: a rejection of any potential deal by Democrats hoping to damage the administration.
In an extended interview at the 12th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, Delury said the default reliance on sanctions and pressure on North Korea by Congress might see Democrats oppose a potentially productive agreement by Trump, his recently elected South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, and Pyongyang.
“There could be the knee-jerk ‘anything Trump does is dumb, bad and wrong,’ and so they go ballistic, attacking something that’s actually a good deal,” he said.
In the interview, Delury also said that while Trump had – in effect – drawn a red line on North Korea testing an ICBM, North Korean decision-makers might feel they could likely get away with it, looking at the way the U.S. President has u-turned on so many other issues.
And Delury said that unilateral sanctions imposed by the former Park government would be likely easy for the Moon government to reverse, meaning that international sanctions from the UN, not domestic measures, will presumably be the biggest stumbling block to any major rapprochement.
NK News’s participation in the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity was assisted financially by its organizers
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: With Congress recently, we’ve seen quite hard-line bills emerging in recent times, all focused on building pressure on North Korea. What level of patience may Congress consequently have for South Korean ‘appeasement’ of North Korea under President Moon Jae-in?
John Delury: Let’s take the best-case scenario from an engagement position: I can see a scenario where Moon is able to break some of the ice and open up a path, there is good coordination in the alliance, and Trump authorizes people working closely with the South Koreans to break through that hole and get a deal. It is not going to be a great deal, it is going to be some kind of freeze like many have been talking about, but it will at least be a good preliminary something.
Yet you can imagine a Congressional backlash, which would probably mostly be from Democrats who have been uneducated into simply thinking all you are supposed to do is be hard-line on North Korea. On top of that, and maybe more importantly, there could be the knee-jerk ‘anything Trump does is dumb, bad and wrong,’ and so they go ballistic, attacking something that’s actually a good deal.
And so a deal that a liberal and more progressive government might otherwise fully support, you envision it being undercut by Democrats in the House. You can see that kind of scenario emerging, and anyone who knows how to head it off in Washington should pound the pavement. It would be another tragic irony in this ongoing saga of failed diplomacy on North Korea: Trump makes a smart prudent deal and Democrats in Congress undermine it.
“There could be the knee-jerk ‘anything Trump does is dumb, bad and wrong,’ and so they go ballistic, attacking something that’s actually a good deal”
I was recently part of a Congressional Delegation visit (in South Korea) and it awoke me to the importance of Congress’s role in all this. The delegation included very smart people. However, on North Korea, there is frankly some bi-partisan ignorance of the complexity of the issue.
There is a default hard-line position of ‘we should just sanction them to kingdom come’. Congress therefore needs a lot of educating on the issue to understand where America’s interests lie and where their constituents’ interests lie, because just sanctioning North Korea is not going to do it. It just seems like an easy vote.
There are no lobbyists on either side, except people focused on human rights, for example, who mostly say ‘sanction them harder’. But even on human rights, there is a strong human rights argument that on-the-ground improvements will come through engagement, not through endless sanctions.
Then there is another whole scenario here, where Trump, late night, decides maybe missile strikes are the way to go with North Korea. And that is the place where you need a well educated Congress to talk about that being ‘not in our interests’.
Overall, Congress has an important role to play on both ends of the spectrum, but I don’t know how you solve this problem of the need for some appreciation that there has got to be more than just votes on more sanctions and on human rights condemnation.
NK News: If North Korea tests an ICBM in the face of Trump’s warning that it “won’t happen,” do you think that it’d be an event he can just ignore? Or will we have a situation where, due to his personal involvement and priority of the issue, that there is potential for irrational responses and emotions coming through?
John Delury: I’m hypersensitive to charges of irrationality, but I think what you are getting at is there is an implicit red line that it won’t happen and then if the North Koreans cross it, there is a loss of face – a real factor in international relations. When honor is at stake, states do all kinds of things, which could mean a scenario in which we’ll have to worry about everything from dumb to catastrophically tragic military options being considered.
Trump though has this other side; he is sensitive to face and to honor, but then he also has an extraordinary capacity to turn around and achieve bon ami with someone who was his darkest foe.
NK News: Such as Trump going to Saudi Arabia after slamming them on the campaign trail, or saying he would move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, then walking away from that? Can you envisage those kinds of flip-flops with DPRK?
John Delury: Precisely. I say this is a virtue, but it is also a vice of his style. And so with Trump, North Koreans might calculate:
“We can do this because look at this guy. Let’s do the test and that will be the culmination for now of this amazing period of testing and proving our capabilities. Let’s get that one test out, if it is good enough things will really spike and we’ll be right up on the edge, there will be six aircraft carriers in the East and West Sea. That will be good too, we can play that up. Then Trump will blink at us. At the end of the day Trump is rational, and rationally there is no war option, so let’s do that one test and then that will be the moment we’ll start working on a deal.”
So from the North Korean perspective, an ICBM test is maximum leverage. You always want to go into a deal with the maximum leverage. And I’m not saying this will happen, but you can imagine the argument by some of Kim Jong Un’s advisors saying: “the capstone of this testing period; let’s do the ICBM and bring it all the way up and then let’s make a deal.”
However, it seems this kind of single dreaded test is not going to be ‘the test’. It is not going to be the test that gives them a credible ICBM that they can then launch any time and take out Seattle. It will be like all these other tests where you pick it apart, where something will have succeeded and something failed. There will be a whole debate among experts about what they were trying to do and how.
In that sense, there will still be a reason to get a freeze. It will still be a prudent negotiation, because you don’t want it to be the first of twenty ICBM tests, right? And it could be a good moment for the North Koreans to say: “Okay, this is pretty good, we’ve got a pretty good deterrent here, so now let’s negotiate on that basis.”
The other argument, and hopefully the people around Kim Jong Un are already making this argument, is: “We are already there, let’s not take it to the cliff; we can get a deal now with what we got, so let’s go from there.”
“From the North Korean perspective, an ICBM test is maximum leverage”
But this whole thing is predicated on Trump and the people around him being ready for a deal and serious about it – and that’s quite a hypothesis too, it’s not at all something we can bank on.
NK News: Earlier this year we saw South Korea implementing unilateral sanctions against North Korea, for example against Air Koryo, which mirrored what Treasury did, and also a designation on the entire Korean Workers Party. There are also the May 24 Measures, which have for long required the DPRK to apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do incidents to be lifted. How will President Moon be able to pursue goals surrounding the Kaesong complex and tourism to Kumgang-san in the face of these measures?
John Delury: I think those measures are probably easier because they are unilateral, they didn’t go through a National Assembly process. As such, they are akin to Blue House Imperial Presidency decrees, meaning Moon can simply re-decree as he sees fit.
I think those are less problematic than the sanctions that are somehow embedded in a UN process or the alliance with the United States – those are trickier. There’s been criticism piling up on the May 24 Measures for a long time. There were calls, not just from the left, but from the center, for Park to get rid of the May 24 Measures and there was frustration in quarters that she didn’t do so. I think those can be lifted whenever Moon wants without a huge amount of trouble.
NK News: The issue though, is the optics of lifting them with the ongoing missile tests…
John Delury: Absolutely. But I don’t think the optics around the timing of lifting the May 24 Measures actually have much to do with Cheonan and Yeonpyeong.
While in the past I have heard Cheonan compared to 9/11 in the Korean psyche, I don’t think this is a common view now and I don’t think that there would be an outcry of ‘how can you do this when they never apologized for Cheonan’?
There is thin skin like you can’t believe over history between the two Koreas. Cheonan and Yeonpyeong have a certain place within that, but I don’t think it is a defining place. So, with sanctions on Air Koryo and the KWP – again especially because there was no National Assembly process – those should be easy to lift.
But, I think you are right about the recent relentless missile testing.
For Moon to just suddenly say ‘I’m lifting all the sanctions’ would make no political sense at this time. I don’t think even the North Koreans would expect that. But that is a different problem than him being constrained by history and memory and public opinion.
Moon was elected with people fully aware of his approach to North Korea and now they are waiting to see how he does it. Hard-line conservatives are going to oppose it from the get-go and liberals and progressives are going to support it, and be hopeful, sometimes wishful. The big medal is going to be seeing what the outcomes of it are.
“For Moon to just suddenly say ‘I’m lifting all the sanctions’ would make no political sense at this time”
But that’s just to say that I don’t see any powerful domestic constraints coming from, say the origin of the May 24 sanctions or the legal factor of these sanctions. I think Moon can lift those based on a political decision he will make.
NK News: With North Korea, do you see any evidence at all that they are even interested in engagement with Moon and some of the proposals he’s outlined? There seems to be an assumption that Pyongyang will be open to Moon’s strategy.
John Delury: Yes, that’s right. I would say in general there is a mistaken assumption that the North Koreans are salivating over the prospect of a liberal in the South. That’s never been the dynamic. And if you look back at the decade of the Sunshine Policy era, there were all kinds of problems, including military conflict between the two Koreas at that time.
The liberal approach is the basic posture of engagement and doing it proactively, not passively as some reward for good behavior. But it doesn’t get rid of conflict or tension and in certain ways, it adds stress for the North Korean system.
And there are certain parts of the North Korean system that are especially opposed to it and are unhappy at the prospect of a friendlier posture from the South. Basically, the internal security people don’t really want to see this happen because for them it is a negative, it is a threat – it doesn’t bring in any resources, it just brings in problems that they may end up being responsible for solving – subversive threats and all that stuff. Some other parts of the North Korean system, however, have more to gain and are more interested in it, not just materially, but also in terms of their meaning in life, in terms of their prestige, in terms of their institutional interests.
But the point is it creates a systemic conflict and tension with North Korea – and then the tension continues between the two Koreas even as you are doing it. So, it is not surprising that we are not singing kumbaya here.
Kim Jong Un resumed the missile testing program well before Moon was elected and I remember visiting Washington and seeing people saying ‘Kim won’t do any tests until Moon gets elected’. That was totally wrong. And then other scholars thought ‘once Moon gets elected then they will stop’. That was wrong as well.
They are holding off on a sixth nuclear test and we could be seeing a measure of restraint there, but you can’t even put much money in that bank because the nuclear program in particular is directed at the U.S.-DPRK relationship, not at the inter-Korean relationship.
“…it would be a classic North Korean move to drop the sixth nuclear test right in the middle of (any inter-Korean deal), just to throw everyone off and to make the point that the nuclear issue has nothing to do with inter-Korean relations.”
But how might the North respond if, gradually, we could see some breakthroughs and improvements in inter-Korean relations of the kind that would help Moon build a domestic consensus here? While conservatives will oppose such policies, the middle will prefer it because there will be less conflict. And so Moon could build some momentum there and maybe he could get something on the missile program – nothing perfect, but something.
But within this scenario it would be a classic North Korean move to drop the sixth nuclear test right in the middle of that, just to throw everyone off and to make the point that the nuclear issue has nothing to do with inter-Korean relations.
They might say: “Inter-Korean relations are going well and that’s great, we are going to keep supporting that, but it doesn’t solve the basic problem from our perspective, which is the ongoing unremitting hostile policy of the United States, and until Trump starts to engage and do a deal then, of course, our nuclear program continues.”
So, you can anticipate these things as well.
NK News: What do you think were the biggest achievements of the Park Geun-hye administration on North Korea?
John Delury: I don’t think there are any achievements. I would argue that while she had some successes in foreign relations overall in the first few years, there was no real significant achievement vis-à-vis North Korea. And then her administration undermined the achievements they did have across the board in the last year or so, with some implications on North Korea.
I think there is a mistaken narrative though; I see her described as a hardliner on North Korea, but there are really two distinct periods in terms of her approach to inter-Korean relations. She ran successfully on a very different approach than Lee Myung-bak. She distanced herself from what was at that point a truly hard line: the May 24 sanctions, the ‘no interest in anything kind of approach’.
And then of course she introduced Trustpolitik. While maybe at the end of the day it was a more rhetorical strategy than a grand strategy, but still it was significant because it was not hard-line rhetoric, which is meaningful.
“There is a mistaken assumption that the North Koreans are salivating over the prospect of a liberal in the South”
A lot of inter-Korean relations are rhetorical and Trustpolitik borrowed some of the liberal positions. If you look at the Dresden speech, however much Choi Soon-sil wrote or didn’t write, at Dresden it was this weird mixture of liberal and conservative positions. I think Trustpolitik was at least rhetorically a search for a third way, some kind of hybrid of the Sunshine Policy and the then hard-line, both of which had ended with low popularity ratings.
So until late 2015, Park’s approach could be described as Trustpolitik, and in fact it was much more open to dialogue. I will take the case of the mine incident at the DMZ as an example; a hard-line view would have just been, ‘great, the North Koreans hurt some of our guys, we can now cut off even more’. Instead, she authorized high-level contact and there was a round of dialogue that resulted in a fairly constructive framework of the Six-point Agreement. But I’d say that was a turning point.
If you look at August 2015 and what I anticipate Moon is going to do, both him and Park would have both come up with a similar kind of agreement. But Moon would want to implement all the South Korean commitments, whereas the Park administration really didn’t want to. So they dragged their feet on implementation, as they had been dragging their feet on a whole range of ways in which they could have started to rebuild the relationship with North Korea.
I think the North Koreans gave up on her in that period, in the wake of that agreement. I think for them that was the point at which they said, ‘okay, there’s nothing here, there’s nothing to Trustpolitik’.
Then there was the fourth test and she responded by becoming a classic conservative hardliner, which really doesn’t make any sense to me. She came into office right after the third test and yet Trustpolitik made sense after the third test. If it made sense after the third test, why did it no longer make sense after the fourth test? And it’s not like she’d achieved so much that was jeopardized. Nothing had really happened yet, there was all this preliminary stuff.
But again, I think at that point the North Koreans weren’t interested either. So whatever marginal openings had been created by Trustpolitik were then shut down. And of course then she shut down Kaesong, which was a big mistake, then she imploded and we had regime collapse in the South, not the North. So the net result is no achievements.
There was the fourth test and [Park] responded by becoming a classic conservative hardliner, which really doesn’t make any sense to me
I mentioned that there were these reversals across the board.
The first reversal was closing down Kaesong, which then constrained Moon’s ability to maneuver because he doesn’t have that platform anymore and it is much harder to restart it from scratch. The conversation would have been, ‘how can we expand this’, which is a totally different conversation than the one now, which is, ‘should we, when and how to reopen it’.
The other decision prior to the fourth test was the ‘comfort women’ deal which Moon, like Houdini, underwater, handcuffed, is trying to somehow get South Korea out of. And then there is the THAAD deployment, which he is also trying to somehow Houdini-like deal with. All three of those major decisions she made in the space of December 2015 and early 2016.
Featured image: Uriminzokkiri
Edited by Oliver Hotham and Kevin Search
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