Who would have thought that seating arrangements in a skybox at the Olympic opening ceremony could have generated such drama?
The photos from the Olympics that have gotten by far the most scrutiny in the U.S. are those of Mike and Karen Pence sitting next to Moon Jae-in and Kim Jung-sook, one row—an arms-length—in front of Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong.
On one level, the seating arrangement captured the political reality that the American and North Korean guests were the most politically consequential for the Moon administration.
And some reporting has suggested that Pence made the choice to plant his flag near the North Koreans rather than to sit with the American delegation. Yet it is hard to avoid the speculation that Moon Jae-in—who greeted the North Koreans warmly at the ceremony—would have welcomed even the slightest gesture from the Vice President.
Rather, Pence stuck to script by studiously avoiding any contact. But could the visit have gone differently? And what next?
To be clear, the Vice President was put in a difficult position. Given the paucity of North-South contact during a near-decade of conservative rule in the South, it was inevitable that the North Korean delegation—politicos, minders, cheerleaders, and athletes—would dominate the headlines.
And the messages that Pence was sent to carry—most importantly a reaffirmation of the alliance—are not exactly breaking news.
Yet Pence did make a strategic choice with a political edge. After the Trump administration had effectively cooperated behind the scenes to make the Games a success, Pence staked out his main role at the games as countering North Korean propaganda.
He did this by making human rights, North Korean bellicosity, and continued pressure on the regime the leitmotif of his visit. This started with the invitation to Fred Warmbier to attend the Games as his guest; Warmbier has proven a sympathetic spokesman for the memory of his son, who effectively died in North Korean custody. It continued with his visit to a memorial to the Cheonan and in still-cryptic comments about imposing the “toughest ever” sanctions on North Korea.
Pence staked out his main role at the games as countering North Korean propaganda
But it was Pence’s actions at and around the Olympics that have received the most mixed reviews. He avoided a dinner where he would have had to share a table with the North Koreans, studiously ignored the North Koreans at the ceremony, and he was probably the only individual that remained seated as the combined Korean delegation entered the venue.
While it might have played to hawks in both Korea and the U.S., the strategy largely appears a self-referential flop. Yet these moves are easy to over-interpret and the North Korean public relations victory at the Olympics could prove short-lived.
First, it is misleading to see North Korea operating from a position of strength. Rather, the initiative in the New Year’s Speech was clearly coupled with an acknowledgment that sanctions are biting. The fact that stories about smuggling and sanctions circumvention are on the rise is exactly what you would expect if sanctions were working, not failing.
Second, the risks of a fundamental divide between Washington and Seoul are overplayed, as the Vice President himself was at pains to point out. There is little risk that Moon Jae-in will fundamentally depart from the “maximum pressure and engagement” script, and he has in fact been quite clear on this point.
The sanctions regime is now robust and multilateral; there is not much scope for the kind of open-ended engagement once pursued by the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Moreover, public opinion has also shifted in the South. While Moon’s approval rating is still over 50%—something American analysts routinely overlook—there is more skepticism about giveaways across the political spectrum. Options such as reopening Kaesong, which would violate multilateral sanctions, seem highly unlikely.
And finally, there is the other pillar of the “maximum pressure and engagement” approach, which Pence’s visit also studiously avoided. Secretary Tillerson has been saying publicly since last April that U.S. strategy involves a diplomatic component. Well, where is it?
There is not much scope for the kind of open-ended engagement once pursued by the Roh Moo-hyun administration
None of the Vice President’s on-the-record remarks in Korea made reference to talks. But it is hard to imagine that the subject wasn’t broached, and a briefing on background on the Vice President’s return acknowledged as much.
More significantly, the Washington Post‘s Josh Rogin reports that Pence explicitly expressed a willingness to engage in talks during an interview on Air Force Two. One possible sequence that would keep the allies aligned would involve Moon Jae-in carrying this message directly to Kim Jong Un at the North-South summit.
Such talks would clearly not be paid for, for example with sanctions relief; sanctions and engagement were always meant to act in tandem. Given that Moon himself has repeatedly said that progress on North-South relations ultimately depends on progress on the nuclear and missile front, it is hard to see the risks with respect to preliminary talks either.
The central source of anxiety at the moment centers on the resumption of joint military exercises. We can easily predict a game plan in which North Korea will seek to make the exercises the price for the summit or any subsequent meetings. But this issue could easily be finessed by dialing the exercises back, as long as President Moon has the fortitude to stick to principle on the point.
Much hinges on the perception that Moon—for personal more than political reasons—needs the summit more than Kim Jong Un does. But that is far from clear. The United States and Japan would be well-served by not lecturing a democratically-elected ally on how to conduct its foreign policy. If the summit flops, President Moon will pay the political price.
But given that we are over 15 years into the nuclear crisis, it is hard to see how the U.S. and South Korea would be fundamentally worse off than we currently are.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Vice President Mike Pence
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