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Why not tell Trump the truth?

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By Stephen Costello

It is easy to see why many policymakers in Korea think the regional and global environments are not supportive of President Moon Jae-in’s increasingly detailed engagement overtures to DPRK leader Kim Jong-un. US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular seem dead-set against tension reduction and diplomatic initiatives. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who could be helpful, is instead committed to using economic warfare against Seoul over the THAAD deployment.

President Moon pushes ahead, seemingly convinced that his best play is to line up with the Trump “maximum pressure” campaign and hope that his offers are significant enough to attract Pyongyang. If he had not embraced Trump’s doomed campaign, Moon’s Berlin speech would go down as possibly his most bold and important yet.

How did we get here? And how might President Moon extricate himself from the strategic dead-end in which South Korea now finds itself? Pretty soon, the mistakes of past US and ROK leaders will be forgotten, and the president will be fully responsible for actions taken and not taken during the next five years. There is great resistance to lowering expectations for Korea’s new democratic government, particularly after the amazing candlelight demonstrations, the impeachment drama, and the snap presidential election last year.

One clue is that none of his fellow leaders has told Trump the hard truth about his Korea policies. For different reasons, all three East Asian leaders have told him what he wanted to hear, rather than what he needed to hear. Abe, a fellow nationalist conservative, told Trump he would fully support Trump’s extreme measures. He did not need to say that this position has solid support within his party and that it supports his signature efforts to clamp down on the press and expand the military. It also continues to put China on the defensive, which may be appealing.

Xi Jinping, a fellow grandiose and boss-centered leader who knows that only putting the US together with DPRK leaders will begin to resolve tensions on Korea, chose instead to humor Trump, apparently convinced this was a more fruitful way to handle him. Xi’s gamble has not lasted long, since Trump finally discovered the emptiness of his promise to pressure the North. A foreign ministry spokesman declared on July 10 in unusually harsh terms that, “Asking others to do work, but doing nothing themselves is not OK. Being stabbed in the back is really not OK.” The most remarkable aspect of this war of words may be that President Xi thought this was somehow better than telling Trump the truth: that his pressure campaign will not force Kim Jung Un to back down, will ensure further advances in DPRK weapons, and will perpetuate instability and lead to dangerous confrontation.

And Moon Jae-in, faced with the prospect of joining the club of middle power democratic leaders who have had to face-off with Trump over basic issues, decided instead to do the easy thing: support US pressure and pursue ROK engagement. Both. So he too neglected to tell Trump the simple truth about the Korea issues. Moon knows those truths better than any other leader, and is in the best position to make this case. We don’t know why he did this, or whether he believes some of the myths that support the “pressure without diplomacy” and “China responsibility” theories.

What we do know is that, surrounding the G20 Summit last week in Hamburg, Germany, French, German, Canadian and other leaders clearly disagreed with the US president. Canadian PM Trudeau told Trump he should lead on tackling climate change. Angela Merkel sharply criticized Trump’s “winners and losers” view of the world, and said the G20 meeting would instead strengthen multilateral cooperation. Importantly, this is what leadership will look like in the Trump era.

What we also know is that US specialists continue to loudly proclaim Trump’s Korea policy counterproductive and direct diplomacy with North Korea urgent. One of the best and most detailed proposals for changing US policy comes from the Nautilus Institute, authored by some of this issue’s best and brightest thinkers: Morton Halperin, Peter Hayes, Chung-in Moon, Thomas Pickering, Leon Sigal. Yes, that Chung-in Moon, president Moon Jae-in’s friend. Statements from top officials at the Arms Control Association, editorials in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, former officials, and many others, join in their effort. I’ve been watching these issues from Washington for over 25 years, and I do not remember another time when efforts to change US policy were so articulate.

Korean policymakers, trying to navigate this tricky territory, should always review the premises that support policy. Logic and good analysis demand it. Many of these are demonstrably false. For instance, this moment is not uniquely difficult for South Korea. Things were worse for Roh Moo Hyun and for Kim Dae Jung’s last two presidential years. North Korea is not the “land of bad options.” Rather, regional engagement with it will unlock needed security and infrastructure mechanisms. The China-US-South Korea THAAD issue can be addressed.

Other premises don’t hold up. North Korea’s interests have not changed much despite its nuclear and missile programs. The key sticking point in northeast Asia is US policy intransigence, not DPRK threats. The nature of those threats is primarily the threat to defend itself against the US. The proposal by China and Russia to begin with a “dual freeze” is logical, has worked in the past, is supported by a growing clamor of senior US experts, and should be supported. And most importantly during these years, it is South Korea, rather than any other state, that could lead successful engagement with the North.

President Moon and his team will discover that pursuing two policies toward North Korea, each contradicting the other, will not work. When that is clear, they could privately and intensively present their alternative to the Trump national security team, stressing its greater chance to achieve US objectives, beginning with denuclearization. This should have been their first and only priority in Washington two weeks ago.

If Moon will not do that, then his team could try to work around Trump by enlisting other countries to embrace the Korean proposal for broad engagement. This coalition could include the UN, World Bank, and even the new AIIB to support the plan. But they must have a plan. In this case, ambiguity reveals weakness and leads to irrelevance.

Confronting bullying behavior by Beijing and Washington can be done – successfully and with minimum public discomfort – if they have many allies, and have a plan that appeals to US and ROK shared interests. The Moon administration is not there yet. But they don’t have forever to get this right. A long list of US experts is waiting for them to take the lead, along with Korean experts, European experts, businesses, and the North Korean public.

Stephen Costello is a producer of AsiaEast, a web and broadcast-based policy roundtable focused on security, development and politics in Northeast Asia. He writes from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

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