As President Donald Trump seems to have hit a wall in his efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the country’s neighbor, South Korea, continues to make small — yet historic — strides in de-escalating tensions at the long-militarized border.
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that North and South Korean soldiers have engaged in a cross-border operation that saw them verifying the removal of some of each other’s frontline guard posts.
The removal and inspection of the 22 posts — 11 from each of the Koreas — was largely symbolic, but nonetheless significant, given that this time last year, North Korea was testing weapons and threatening South Korea and the United States.
South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, called the efforts “a new milestone” in in the history of the two countries, saying that such cooperation would have been “unimaginable in the past.”
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focusing on the Koreas told ThinkProgress that Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang won’t lead to denuclearization, nor is it intended to.
“But they do help keep the Korean Peninsula more stable and secure. That is a worthy goal because it helps protect our U.S. forces in the region, reduces the likelihood we’ll have to intervene to defend our ally, and allows us to focus strategic resources elsewhere,” said Oba.
He added that the de-escalation also helps create a stable atmosphere for negotiations on denuclearization, opening another channel “to help gauge North Korean intentions and relay messages.”
“As long as Seoul is not giving up leverage that could help in denuclearization talks, North-South engagement is largely a good thing,” said Oba, answering questions via e-mail.
Has Trump fallen out of love?
While North and South Korean soldiers engage in these remarkable operations, the Trump administration seems to have been left in the cold with respect to its negotiations with the diplomatically-isolated North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
On Monday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on North Korean officials involved in human rights violations, censorship, and the death of American student, Otto Warmbier, who was detained and beaten by authorities while on a tourist trip to North Korea. Pyongyang, predictably, bristled, issuing a harsh statement calling the sanctions an “intolerable political provocation” and a “hostile act.”
Although there is little debate that North Korea is involved in severe rights abuses, these issues did not seem to trouble President Trump in the past (in fact, he commended Kim for being “strong”). The sanctions come at a low point in the Trump administration’s attempts to negotiate with North Korea on its ballistic and nuclear weapons.
This, said Oba, is a move made by a “frustrated” administration, one that is looking for ways to maintain pressure on North Korea.
“But one key reason we haven’t seen so much progress is that the Trump administration hasn’t been particularly flexible or creative in how it deals with North Korea, instead hoping that sanctions will push North Korea to make big concessions,” he said, adding, “While it makes sense to maintain pressure so we have the greatest possible negotiating leverage, the sticks don’t work if you’re not putting the carrots on the table, too.”
Indeed, the path to where we are has been uneven, to put it mildly.
While there were no solid takeaways from the meeting — although the president insisted otherwise — Trump came away from that meeting deeply impressed with Kim, and continued to sing his praises, to the dismay of human rights advocates.
The months following that meeting have seen both contentious and canceled meetings, more heated rhetoric, Pyongyang’s continual building of its nuclear program, possibly testing new weapons, and, finally, an admission from National Security Adviser John Bolton that things are going well.
“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” Bolton said last week. “That’s why I think the President thinks that another summit is likely to be productive.”
Just what the North Koreans will make of an offer to meet following these latest round of sanctions remains to be seen.
“We don’t know how exactly North Korea views the Trump administration, but we can be sure they have studied President Trump and his subordinates closely,” said Oba, when asked about how Pyongyang might view the U.S. at this point.
“President Trump’s unusual style is a double-edged sword. He is willing to take a big chance on personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, something we probably wouldn’t have seen from a more typical president,” said Oba.
While this might be a good thing, in terms of jump-starting talks, it won’t necessarily take us across the finish line because, “On the other hand, [Trump] doesn’t have the intelligence or attention to detail to really take advantage of his unusual style and turn it into concrete progress with North Korea.”