The recent White House meeting between President Biden and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea produced a comprehensive and substantive joint statement emphasizing cooperation on climate change, global health, sustainable development, and democracy in Myanmar, among other issues.
Of course, the central task of this decades-long alliance remains to defend against the threat posed by North Korea. That country’s nuclear and long-range missile program is aimed at the United States, and recent reports suggest the regime of Kim Jong-un may have dozens of nuclear warheads in its arsenal.
But the lofty language that flowed from the White House meeting was worrisome, indicating that the United States and South Korea were on a path that could put both countries at greater risk from the North.
The text of the joint statement suggests that Mr. Moon has convinced the United States to renew its commitment to “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” to affirm the 2018 accords Kim Jong-un signed with Mr. Moon and with former President Donald Trump, and to endorse the establishment of “permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” It is carefully written language aimed at appeasing Mr. Kim and enticing him into dialogue on a détente that he hasn’t yet agreed to.
The flaw in Mr. Moon’s attempts at engagement is that Mr. Kim is unappeasable. His revisionist regime accepts only propositions aimed at weakening the enemy state in the South and breaking its ties with its American protector.
The diplomatic winks at engagement embedded in the Biden-Moon statement — and by extension, seemingly, in Mr. Biden’s North Korea policy — are intended to please Pyongyang, which seeks to make the world safer for the Kim regime and more dangerous for Seoul and Washington.
During Mr. Biden’s first months in office, he and his North Korea team sometimes blurted out that their objective was “denuclearization of North Korea.” But Pyongyang agrees only to discuss denuclearizing the entirety of the Korean Peninsula. By declaring their goal as denuclearization of the peninsula rather than of North Korea, Mr. Biden and Mr. Moon reflect Mr. Kim’s preferred language for redefining the nuclear crisis.
It conveys that the crisis is not about North Korea’s nuclear programs but about the nuclear shield of “extended deterrence” with which the United States guards South Korea. Under this framing, the U.S. shield must be dealt with before North Korea takes steps toward denuclearizing.
To Mr. Moon and his entourage, it may count as a triumph that they got their U.S. counterparts to agree with their positions and language. But it empowers Mr. Kim to thwart diplomatic pressures to denuclearize and to press the United States to disengage from South Korea while his arms program marches forward.
Similar troubles lurk in the Biden-Moon call for “establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.” North Korea sees a “peace treaty” as a step on the road to unconditional reunification through one-sided demilitarization by the South.
For decades North Korea has favored declaring “peace” because securing a formal termination to the Korean War deprives the U.S.-South Korean military alliance of its raison d’être and could undermine the continuing American military presence in Korea.
No “peace mechanism” for the Korean Peninsula can be negotiated and ratified without Pyongyang’s approval. Thus Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Moon’s musings about permanent peace in the peninsula would actually devolve into real-world wrangling about the timetable for the U.S. troop exit the moment Pyongyang joins such a conversation.
There is also the question of endorsing the 2018 agreements Mr. Kim signed with Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump. From the North Korean point of view, those documents are highly satisfactory. But as road maps for the Biden-Moon alliance in dealing with the North Korean threat, both agreements are cringe-worthy embarrassments.
In his eagerness to secure a “historic” summit with the North Korean leader, Mr. Moon agreed to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other,” including the “scattering of leaflets” along the Demilitarized Zone.
Now we have the grotesque spectacle of the Moon administration in South Korea censoring South Korean citizens, with the police cracking down on human rights activists in the South sending message balloons to the North. Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s propagandist in chief, Mr. Kim’s sister, Yo-jong, slanders Mr. Moon as “a parrot raised by America” and “a frightened dog.”
In his own misbegotten first meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump was schooled in the art of the deal, North Korea-style. He made promises that the United States would establish “new relations” with the North and would join Pyongyang in a “peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Mr. Trump also agreed to Mr. Kim’s preferred language about the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The redeeming virtue in Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Moon’s declarations with Mr. Kim is that they are unenforceable wish lists. But the Biden-Moon joint statement would have our alliance go back and bind itself to these awful commitments all over again.
Conspicuously missing from the Biden-Moon policy on North Korea is any hint about how to protect our two countries from the North Korean threat if Mr. Kim does not agree to play nice and denuclearize: Missile and civil defense? Economic sanctions? Interdiction of sanction violators? Operations against North Korea’s overseas crime revenues, including those from Iran and the greater Middle East terror bazaar?
Apart from its demand for fully carrying out relevant U.N. resolutions, the Biden-Moon declaration leaves us all guessing.
Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Moon’s approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis is doomed to failure because it effectively places Mr. Kim in charge of nonproliferation negotiations. Thirty years of dealing with the Kim family should have taught us that Pyongyang uses talks only for diplomatic cover in its race to build an ever more powerful arsenal.
To reduce the North Korean threat, we will need a program we can undertake on our own, with like-minded international friends, that does not depend on Mr. Kim.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a founding director of the United States Committee on Human Rights in North Korea.
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