There’s been a lot of chatter over the past day or so about President Moon of the ROK stating that the President should get the Nobel Peace Prize. This isn’t exactly what President Moon said:
Blue House confirmed this straight translation into English: “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing we need is peace.”
— Elise Hu (@elisewho) April 30, 2018
Here it is in Korean:
노벨상은 도널드 트럼프 미 대통령이 받아야 하고 우리는 평화만 가져오면 된다
And again, he was responding to a letter from Kim Dae Jung's wife, which said Moon deserves a Nobel for the successful summit
— Elise Hu (@elisewho) April 30, 2018
Leaving potential Nobel Peace prizes aside, what the President’s approach to foreign policy in general, and dealing with both the ROK and the DPRK in specific, has made the US superfluous to the process. I’ve read the joint statement from Kim and Moon a couple of times. While the language is nice and flowery and ambiguous, I think that section 2 and parts of section 3 are going to be what cause the US headaches. These sections read to me as the pretext for Kim to demand or require that 1) the Joint Multinational US-ROK annual military exercises stop and 2) the US drawdown its 28K personnel in the ROK as they will no longer be needed. This is in line with how Kim and the DPRK understands denuclearization, which always means getting the US off the peninsula, not that the DPRK necessarily gives up its nuclear weapons program, or, now, the fruits of its program.
I also think that aside from the meeting between Kim and the President, the US is now superfluous to the reality on the ground. And that Kim is manipulating the President into a diplomatic and strategic trap where Kim and the DPRK looks like the good guys here and the President, and by extension the US, look unreasonable and become the bad guys. This would also make Xi and the PRC, as well as Putin – another Kim patron – very, very happy.
Part of the problem is I don’t think the President or anyone on his team really seem to understand where President Moon is coming from. Moon is from the center-left/left of center party in the ROK that seeks an opening with the DPRK. His parents were also refugees from the DPRK to the ROK, so reaching a rapprochement that allows for families to be reunited is very important for him.
SKorean Pres Moon Jae-in's approval rating is at 86 percent, up 12 points since before the summit
88% of SoKorean respondents support the Panmunjom deal w/North Korea (link in Korean) https://t.co/38jf3Ae6gD
— Elise Hu (@elisewho) April 30, 2018
Moon clearly wants to reach a new normal on the Korean Peninsula. Kim, in the DPRK, wants what he’s always wanted:
- the removal of the US, specifically of the US military, from the peninsula
- the reunification of the peninsula
- under Kim family control
- preservation of the Kim family regime
When you hear or read Kim or other DPRK officials calling for denuclearization, part of what they mean is for the US to remove the nuclear umbrella that it provides to Japan and the ROK, if not the removal of the US military from the Korean Peninsula. Not giving up the DPRK’s nuclear deterrent. Sue Mi Terry, formerly a senior Korea analyst at the CIA, provides an explanation of what denuclearization means to Kim:
She said it’s significant that Kim spoke not of removing nuclear weapons from North Korea, but rather of the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” as a whole. That formulation by the Kim government is “not new,” Terry told me, and has been accompanied in the past with demands for measures to preserve the regime’s security such as the signing of a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, and the end of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, which in turn would terminate the protection the United States extends to South Korea through its nuclear weapons. Hence, talk of a nuclear-free peninsula despite the fact that South Korea doesn’t have nuclear weapons. (In this respect, Kim was right to assert that he was simply echoing the policies of his father, who was also quoted by Chinese media as committing to the denuclearization of the peninsula even as he persisted in developing the nation’s nuclear-weapons arsenal.)
What Kim is talking about is not what the President or anyone on his team is talking about when they talk about denuclearization. Before US-DPRK negotiations have ever begun we have a fundamental mismatch of what the key term means. This will make negotiating more difficult if there is no agreement to what the key terms mean and key issues actually are. There is little doubt that President Moon knows exactly what Kim means when he talks about denuclearization. Moreover, President Moon is no doubt very clear about the President not wanting to keep US military personnel in the ROK. The President, per his longstanding belief dating back to 1987, sees this as a waste of money and another example of America’s allies and partners taking advantage of it and playing the US for suckers.
In one heated exchange between the two men before February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, Kelly strongly — and successfully — dissuaded Trump from ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, according to two officials.
That the President wants the US troops out, as the “or else” portion of the Trump Doctrine, because he doesn’t believe the US is being treated fairly by the ROK in terms of trade, is not exactly a state secret.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to threaten to withdraw US troops from South Korea if he can’t get a better trade deal with Seoul.
In a fundraising speech in Missouri, Trump told donors South Korea had become rich but that American politicians never negotiated better deals, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed to CNN by an attendee.
“We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military.”
“We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens,” Trump said.
The President went on to argue, “Our allies care about themselves. They don’t care about us.”
On Friday, South Korean Finance Minister, Kim Dong-yeon, appeared to hit back at Trump’s remarks.
“We don’t think it’s ideal to link an economic issue with such an issue [the withdrawal of US troops],” said Kim, while speaking on South Korean TBS radio.
“The South Korean government, with national interest of South Korea as priority, will consider striking a balance in the national economy and among multiple industries,” said Kim.
“We have many issues to take into consideration dealing with the United States as well.”
As the ROK’s finance minister’s response indicates, the South Koreans know exactly where they stand with the President. So it should not be surprising that President Moon is going to pursue the ROK’s interests and get the best deal he can get with Kim if there is a deal to be had regardless of what happens between the DPRK and the US. Moon has essentially recognized that there are two separate, though somewhat related, diplomatic tracks going on. The first he controls and is bilaterally between the ROK and the DPRK. The second involves the US, is sort of multilateral and at the same time sort of bilateral, and may or may not be anything more than a show.
From the perspective of the DPRK’s Kim, he’s already gotten what he wants from the US: agreement to the meeting. This elevates Kim and the DPRK from pariah status to worthy of direct negotiations with the US and the President. While the President and his team don’t seem to realize this, or if they do, acknowledge it publicly, this is a key concession from the US to the DPRK. And it was provided without Kim having to do much of anything.