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View more articles by Mintaro Oba
Mintaro Oba is a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
Just over a week ago, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – a man who won’t have dinner with a woman without his wife present, left an American football game because players were kneeling in protest, and received a personal lecture from the cast of “Hamilton” – looked more uncomfortable than he ever had before.
The reason: as he watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, he was sitting just a few feet away from Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong.
Pence stood stiffly in the U.S. Olympics team’s signature red, white, and blue jacket – eyebrows furrowed, lips tight, staring straight ahead and avoiding so much as a glance at the North Koreans nearby. And as the unified Korea team marched, the VP remained seated while President Moon and the North Korean VIPs stood.
It’s an image that aptly captures the depth of U.S. discomfort with the current inter-Korean rapprochement, and Pence’s seeming willingness to appear at odds with South Korea.
That makes the most recent news — that Vice President Pence and President Moon have agreed on a path where inter-Korean engagement continues and the United States can talk with North Korea without preconditions — all the more surprising.
It comes shortly after Kim Yo Jong relayed an invitation from Kim Jong Un for a summit meeting in North Korea with President Moon.
So where does all this leave the U.S. campaign for “maximum pressure” on North Korea? The short answer is that not much has changed.
In the run-up to Pence’s visit to the Olympics, multiple media reports highlighted the U.S. intention to use the Pence visit to “disrupt” what the White House sees as a propaganda coup for North Korea. Pence repeatedly emphasized the United States would continue its maximum pressure campaign — and he made clear that, should the U.S.-North Korea talks occur, the pressure would continue unless North Korea made concessions justifying sanctions relief.
“The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify,” Pence told the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, “But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
But in the long run, several factors could complicate the pressure campaign.
One is sanctions enforcement: if there’s a process of dialogue going on between the two Koreas as well as the United States and North Korea, the resolve of China and others to enforce existing sanctions might weaken.
Another factor: who takes the blame for when rapprochement fails. Pence made clear the U.S. wants to “intensify” the pressure campaign, but further cooperation at the UN Security Council from China and Russia may be hard to come by if it appears that tightening pressure will harm ongoing dialogue — or if there is a perception that the United States is responsible for a failure in engagement.
U.S. efforts to actively discredit inter-Korean relations stand in stark contrast to the approach of the past
If, for example, the United States breaks off talks because of North Korean requests to end South Korea-U.S. military exercises, Washington likely won’t get much help from Beijing if it then tries to secure new multilateral sanctions.
For these reasons, Pence’s promise to continue the pressure campaign even if there are North Korea-U.S. talks might mean the United States has to emphasize unilateral sanctions over multilateral.
At the moment, however, there’s little real sign of impending change; despite Pence’s recent comments, the prospects for Pyongyang-Washington talks remain dim — and the inter-Korean rapprochement may well fall apart in the coming months.
The maximum pressure campaign — for now, at least — is here to stay.
President Trump’s tough comments on North Korea in his annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress and meeting with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office also served the goal of advancing a counter-narrative and demonstrating the United States won’t waver in its pressure campaign.
U.S. efforts to actively discredit inter-Korean relations stand in stark contrast to the approach of the past. As the U.S. diplomat managing the inter-Korean portfolio on the State Department’s Korea Desk during then-President Park’s “trustpolitik” efforts to advance inter-Korean ties, I briefed senior officials privately on my analysis of the implications. Sometimes we thought the approach made sense; on other occasions we were skeptical.
But in public, our talking points for the press were always the same: we support improved inter-Korean relations, and we referred further questions to the South Korean government. Later, the Koreans asked us to add that there was “no daylight” between our two countries on inter-Korean relations. We obliged.
The reason for this approach was simple: South Korea is a sovereign, independent state. It has a special interest in ties with North Korea and it is more affected by North Korea’s actions than any other state. As an ally with a formal treaty obligation to defend South Korea, the United States, naturally, expects Seoul to consult us closely.
But at the end of the day, South Korean leaders exercise their independent judgment about their country’s interests and how to deal with the North. That is how mature and mutually respectful allies conduct themselves.
The Trump White House, it seems, doesn’t see it that way. Its recent actions show the White House has few qualms about publicizing U.S. discontent and actively undermining President Moon’s efforts.
DO THE RIGHT THING
But far from countering North Korean propaganda, the current U.S. approach plays right into Pyongyang’s hands. It shows North Korea that the United States and South Korea are not united and weakens Seoul’s credibility as an independent actor.
Most significantly, it allows North Korea to blame the United States if inter-Korean relations go downhill. In fact, recent North Korean state media pieces calling for a permanent end to South Korea-U.S. military exercises and painting American actions as harmful to inter-Korean rapprochement suggest Pyongyang is laying the groundwork to do just that.
Respecting South Korea’s sovereignty is a pillar of our diplomacy and our public message
If the United States wanted to undermine North Korea’s charm offensive, it should have stayed out of the way and let Pyongyang’s own actions take center stage. History tells us that inter-Korean talks don’t last for long due to the North’s behavior. But when the United States actively fights inter-Korean progress, that becomes the story – not North Korea.
There’s also a broader strategic cost to a U.S. approach to North Korea that publicly undercuts our ally. Our alliance has come a long way over several decades, and today we value South Korea as a strong global and regional leader in its own right.
Our relationship is not perfect, but respecting South Korea’s sovereignty is a pillar of our diplomacy and our public message.
It’s a key reason why the United States has a better standing in Korea than China, a country that blatantly treats Seoul like an errant child and uses economic coercion to punish Seoul when it takes actions China doesn’t like.
But if we become just another big, condescending power that doesn’t treat Korea with the respect it deserves as a sovereign state, we may well lose the ground we’ve gained over the years.
A Korean diplomat once told me that “when the White House sneezes, there’s a typhoon in Seoul.”
It’s a clever way of describing how much U.S. words and actions can matter to our allies, especially in uncertain times. Too often, we’re not fully aware of the impact of our public posture on our allies.
For the sake of effectively handling North Korea and maintaining the strength of the alliance, I hope we learn -and fast.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House