Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a Levermore Research Fellow at Adelphi University. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
After only five days, the PyeongChang Olympics have already brought us some amazing athletic feats, including Red Gerard’s gold medal-winning slope-style run and Evgenia Medvedeva’s record-breaking figure skating.
But these feats have been overshadowed by the presence of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who delivered a letter from her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, inviting him to Pyongyang for talks.
This invitation could not have been unanticipated, but it nevertheless puts South Korea in a difficult position. It is likely impossible for President Moon to decline, but there are major risks involved in any talks with North Korea.
Ironically, there has never been a better time for talks between the two Koreas. They both share a primary interest – preventing the US from launching a preventive strike against the North. But their secondary interests are diametrically opposed – the North hopes to break the US-South Korea alliance, while the South hopes to strengthen it.
The Washington Post reported that the US would support inter-Korean talks, without preconditions, as long as the campaign of maximum pressure is maintained. US support may help alleviate concerns about “decoupling,” the North Korean strategy of splitting South Korea from its American ally, but there are still major risks that could make the situation on the Korean Peninsula more tense.
The major risk is that talks are held but fail to reach an outcome acceptable to the US. And if the US continues its insistence on denuclearization, talks will inevitably fail. The failure of talks will make it easier for administration hawks – including President Trump – to argue in favor of a so-called “limited strike” against North Korea. The failure of talks could be perceived as the exhaustion of every alternative and may make the conditions for preventive war more favorable.
The other risk is that talks succeed and a “freeze for freeze” is agreed: Pyongyang agrees not to test any more missiles or nuclear devices and Seoul agrees to halt US-South Korean military exercises. This outcome would confirm the worst fears about President Moon in the US – that he is naive about the threat posed by Kim Jong Un.
Historically, it would be hard to imagine Washington allowing this outcome, but in addition to President Trump being hawkish, he is also skeptical of American alliances and has repeatedly questioned the US-South Korea alliance. The “freeze for freeze” would also cost Seoul support in the Pentagon, and right now the Pentagon is crucial both for maintaining the alliance and for preventing a conflict.
President Moon must agree to talks in such a way that both shows the world that he favors peace and is willing to talk without preconditions and shows that he is keenly aware of the North Korean threat. His government should coordinate closely with the Pentagon as talks proceed and make sure that there is buy-in from US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. As long as Mattis assures the President – and the public – that war is unnecessary, it is unlikely that Trump will have the political capital to pursue one.
Because the American insistence on denuclearization is likely to be maintained, the best outcome is neither success nor failure. The best outcome will be no outcome at all.
President Moon should delay his affirmative response for as long as possible, then the inevitable protocol discussions should be dragged out for months, and finally the talks should be continuous and never adjourn without a date for resumption.
Maybe at some point the Trump administration will drop the insistence on denuclearization and a legitimate arms control and limitation agreement can be reached. But until then, because both sides have a mutual interest in preventing the US from starting an unnecessary war, the shared but unstated goal should be to get through the Trump administration unscathed and to reassess the situation under the next US president.
It may yet be that inter-Korean talks are harmful, but President Moon must pursue them anyway. If he does not, President Trump may learn the wrong lesson – that even Seoul thinks talking to the North is pointless. That should not make war inevitable, but with a President unable to see shades of gray, talks may be the least bad of bad options.