A piece of surprising news came from the White House in Washington D.C. on March 8, local time. South Korea’s national security advisor Chung Eui-yong said that he relayed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s summit proposal to U.S. President Donald Trump, who accepted the offer right away. Chung was visiting Washington D.C. to brief the U.S. administration on the result of his visit to North Korea. With an unprecedented summit between North Korea and the U.S. taking shape, regional diplomacy surrounding the Korean Peninsula is facing a major turning point. Here is Professor Kim Jun-hyung from the School of International Studies, Languages and Literature at Handong Global University, who joined the so-called 1.5-track dialogue, or the semi-governmental, semi-private discussion between South Korea and the U.S. in January.
A positive development is being made at an incredibly fast pace that no politicians or social scientists have ever predicted. Until early this year, the Korean Peninsula was in a precarious state due to rising military tension. But North Korea grabbed the hand extended by South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government, and the dialogue momentum is also being created between North Korea and the U.S. as well. This is a surprising and amazing development, so far at least. Pyongyang and Washington have been in hostile relations, and North Korea is the only country on the globe that the U.S. does not recognize as a normal state. A meeting between the leaders of these two countries will be an epoch-making event in history.
Relations between North Korea and the U.S. were reaching their flashpoint until early this year, with the U.S. mentioning a military option in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations. But in just two months, the situation changed completely as the two nations are even planning a summit. An inter-Korean summit is scheduled for late April, while a North Korea-U.S. summit will likely take place in May. Now, renewed attention is being paid to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s remarks that Seoul should take the driver’s seat when it comes to Korean Peninsula issues.
When the president mentioned the phrase, “drivers’ seat,” many analysts both here in Korea and abroad remained cynical. They thought that what some call “Korea passing” would better define South Korea’s role, suspecting that the U.S. might bypass South Korea when making important decisions related to North Korea issues. But in just ten months or so, South Korea did drive Pyongyang toward dialogue and also mediated between North Korea and the U.S. The diplomatic feat shows that South Korea does take the driver’s seat of inter-Korean affairs. North Korea hopes to approach the U.S. through South Korea, while the U.S. is noting Seoul’s diplomatic ability to draw the North out for talks, although it still distrusts North Korea in some way. Also, China watched South Korea pave the way for a breakthrough in North Korea-related issues amid the frayed relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. Apparently, the analogy of South Korea being in the “driver’s seat” is working.
As Professor Kim analyzes, South Korea laid the groundwork for a planned inter-Korean summit and a North Korea-U.S. summit. Since its inauguration, the Moon government in Seoul has stressed the importance of South Korea’s role as a “driver” in regional diplomacy. It actively persuaded North Korea and the U.S. and sent a group of special envoys to the North early this month to produce a visible outcome. South Korea has also shared the result of the recent negotiations with the North with neighboring countries, taking the lead in handling security issues in the region.
South Korea is a country directly involved in Korean Peninsula issues, including the North Korean nuclear crisis. But the nuclear issue is also an international concern involving four powers, namely, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. They cannot be excluded in possible negotiations over the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and Korea’s unification, so it is highly important for South Korea to cooperate with those countries. Now, the involved countries are seeing something that had never happened before, and it is hard to predict what will happen in the following two months. A fierce diplomatic war is anticipated during the period.
Professor Kim says that it is difficult to find an ultimate solution to the nuclear issue without cooperation from neighboring countries, even if the two Koreas and the U.S. may prepare for a basic outline for North Korea’s denuclearization. China, Japan and Russia, which are the participants of the previous six-party nuclear talks, might be concerned about the so-called “passing” theory amid the rapidly-progressing summit diplomacy involving Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington. That’s why South Korea has dispatched special envoys to those countries. Early this week, National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong traveled to China and Russia, while National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon visited Japan. Chung and Suh were both the South Korean president’s special envoys who visited North Korea and the U.S. this month to mediate between the two nations. In China, South Korea emphasized China’s unique role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. In Japan, which has focused on pressure on North Korea, Seoul urged Tokyo to join the mood for dialogue. In Russia, South Korea also discussed how to cooperate to address the Korean Peninsula issues. As South Korea is creating a new diplomatic frame, the neighboring countries are expected to make their own response to the change. Here again is Professor Kim.
China led the six-party nuclear talks in the past. Even if the two Koreas and the U.S. agree on something, the agreement should probably take the form of approval from the six-party talks so it can be recognized internationally and get legal support. In this sense, China’s role is important. Moreover, Beijing said several times that it was willing to provide a considerable amount of economic aid to achieve stability in Northeast Asia. So, China, along with South Korea, could play a major role in giving economic aid to North Korea. Japan, for its part, will quickly move in sync with the U.S. when it confirms Washington’s reconciliatory policy toward North Korea. If history is any guide, former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise visit to North Korea in 2002, following the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Japan will possibly do an about-face in its North Korea policy, depending on the situation.
South Korea is making a dense diplomatic net of dialogue to strengthen international cooperation. It has helped ease the escalating tension between North Korea and the U.S. and facilitated the process of an inter-Korean summit and a North Korea-U.S. summit. We’ll have to wait and see whether South Korea’s mediating role will produce a substantial outcome.