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US leadership crucial for regional peace

This letter is the 11th in the "Letters to President Biden" series aimed at conveying policy recommendations through open letters from politicians, scholars and experts to the new U.S. president following his Jan. 20 inauguration. ― ED.

By Kim Won-soo

Dear Mr. President,

First of all, I would like to convey my heartfelt congratulations to you on your election that was fought hard and won dramatically. I am sure many in the U.S. and around the world must have had sleepless nights watching the dramatic upset. It ended with an eventual sigh of relief, but with lingering mixed feelings.

A surprisingly high number of votes was cast for former President Trump. It was also deeply discouraging to see the unprecedented traumatic scenes of a riot at the U.S. Capitol. I am afraid this means you have a tough time ahead with your domestic agenda marred by political polarization and racial division.

On the other hand, we are still heartened to witness the resilience of American institutions withstanding the populist storm. Many of us in the world have confidence in your wisdom to build on this resilience and successfully steer the U.S. in the right direction. Then it would serve once again as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.

Having said this, I would like to turn to the salient regional issues in Northeast Asia that is dear to my heart, even though you must be already familiar with most of these from your long engagement in foreign relations.

The first and foremost concern is of course the future of the U.S.-China relationship. This holds the key to how the current international order will be reshaped. Given the continuing trend of a narrowing gap in relative power of Washington and Beijing, elements of competition and friction are likely to grow in such areas as trade and technology.

Rules-based management of such elements will help prevent them from spiraling out of control. It remains to be seen whether and how the vacuum of global leadership in the Trump period will be filled by the U.S. and China, the two most powerful states of the world. Among other things, it will determine how soon the world will overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the world will be better prepared for future health contingencies and stop climate change catastrophes.

The failure would push the world into an uncertain and turbulent era. This must be avoided for their enlightened self-interests. The U.S. and China must find a way together to urgently shore up weakened global consensus to cope with worsening global challenges. It is evident that the U.S. cannot engineer global solutions to the mounting global challenges alone.

In Northeast Asia, the U.S.-China relationship is also crucial to the management of Korean Peninsula issues. Any perceived gap in the respective positions of the U.S. and China will be exploited by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), thus hampering the prospects of a negotiated settlement. Both Washington and Beijing must accept their shared responsibility in ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula while endeavoring to achieve denuclearization.

Both countries must stop their mutual inertia and blame games when confronted with Pyongyang's brinkmanship. The buck stops with them. Unless the DPRK sees the convergence of minds between the U.S. and China, solutions will remain out of our reach. The DPRK will not take any meaningful steps for denuclearization without the corresponding carrots by the U.S. that are supported by the threats of sticks by China. The current stalemate is mainly the outcome of the reverse combination of the above.

As recently confirmed by you to President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK) over the phone, the ROK is the lynchpin of peace and security in Northeast Asia for the U.S. and vice versa. The U.S. deserves big credit for the exceptional rise of the ROK from a war-torn country to a mature and prosperous democracy within one generation. The ROK is also proud of its achievement and ready to contribute to peace and prosperity not only in the region but also around the world.

Managing security challenges on the Korean Peninsula remains an uphill task with lingering Cold War legacies. Peace remains fragile with an armistice lasting for almost seven decades. Denuclearization remains elusive with diplomatic efforts faltering over the deepening mutual mistrust. Now the immediate priority must be on resetting the modes of engagement among the concerned countries in the region including in particular the two Koreas (ROK and DPRK) as well as the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

It is primarily incumbent upon Washington to lead the negotiated settlement process, as Pyongyang perceives it as the main protagonist since the Korean War. The ROK-U.S. consultation should be the bedrock for any negotiating strategy vis-a-vis the DPRK including the clear division of labor. In view of available leverage and security constraints, the U.S. is better suited to play a kind of hard cop, while the ROK plays a soft one.

Detailed planning for the respective roles of the ROK and the U.S. needs to be worked out with unity of purpose and consistency in implementation. Special care must be taken in renewing the credibility of the U.S. security commitments to the ROK including its extended deterrence, which was weakened by Trump's erratic management of the alliance. The ROK-U.S.-Japan coordination is also necessary with the greater involvement of Tokyo as a future financial enabler of any possible deal.

Japan must be asked to play a more proactive role in the humanitarian agenda by combining Japan's concern on the abduction issues and the DPRK's dire humanitarian needs. Closer trilateral coordination among the U.S. and its two allies will put the three countries on a more solid footing in engaging China and Russia.

China and Russia should be asked to persuade the DPRK leadership not to take provocative steps while your new foreign policy team is reviewing the U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK should be reminded by China to seriously consider making a wise strategic choice by putting the nuclear and peace agenda simultaneously on the negotiating table.

All of these require U.S. leadership. The first step is to appoint a high level focal point in the U.S. administration. The role played by the former Secretary of Defense William Perry as a senior coordinator on the Korean Peninsula issues can be taken into account.

In doing the above, we must assume that we are in for the long haul. We need patience. But we should not waste our time waiting for the DPRK to act first. Time is not on our side as far as the security agenda is concerned. The DPRK will continue the development of its nuclear, missile and other military capabilities. Action must be taken sooner rather than later to stop or at least slow it down. But we must do so with the clear bottomline: a nuclear armed DPRK will not and cannot be a normal member of the international community.

These are tough challenges. But the fruits of success will be huge. For the region, it will pave the way for the countries to start working on other projects like trans-regional energy pipelines and transport connections, which have long been desired but delayed due to security and political stalemates. For the world, it will serve as a reassuring example of the U.S. and China working together to solve long-standing security threats.

The next several years under your leadership will be critical for the future of Northeast Asia and the world. We hope you will lead the U.S. back to the world and the world back to the U.S. Divided, we may perish. But standing together, we can persevere and prevail.


Kim Won-soo (wsk4321@gmail.com) is the former under secretary-general of the United Nations and the high representative for disarmament. As a Korean diplomat, he served as secretary to the ROK president for foreign affairs. He is now the chair of the international advisory board of the Future Consensus Institute (Yeosijae) and a member of the Group of Eminent Persons for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO).


This letter is the 11th in the "Letters to President Biden" series aimed at conveying policy recommendations through open letters from politicians, scholars and experts to the new U.S. president following his Jan. 20 inauguration. ― ED.

By Kim Won-soo

Dear Mr. President,

First of all, I would like to convey my heartfelt congratulations to you on your election that was fought hard and won dramatically. I am sure many in the U.S. and around the world must have had sleepless nights watching the dramatic upset. It ended with an eventual sigh of relief, but with lingering mixed feelings.

A surprisingly high number of votes was cast for former President Trump. It was also deeply discouraging to see the unprecedented traumatic scenes of a riot at the U.S. Capitol. I am afraid this means you have a tough time ahead with your domestic agenda marred by political polarization and racial division.

On the other hand, we are still heartened to witness the resilience of American institutions withstanding the populist storm. Many of us in the world have confidence in your wisdom to build on this resilience and successfully steer the U.S. in the right direction. Then it would serve once again as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.

Having said this, I would like to turn to the salient regional issues in Northeast Asia that is dear to my heart, even though you must be already familiar with most of these from your long engagement in foreign relations.

The first and foremost concern is of course the future of the U.S.-China relationship. This holds the key to how the current international order will be reshaped. Given the continuing trend of a narrowing gap in relative power of Washington and Beijing, elements of competition and friction are likely to grow in such areas as trade and technology.

Rules-based management of such elements will help prevent them from spiraling out of control. It remains to be seen whether and how the vacuum of global leadership in the Trump period will be filled by the U.S. and China, the two most powerful states of the world. Among other things, it will determine how soon the world will overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the world will be better prepared for future health contingencies and stop climate change catastrophes.

The failure would push the world into an uncertain and turbulent era. This must be avoided for their enlightened self-interests. The U.S. and China must find a way together to urgently shore up weakened global consensus to cope with worsening global challenges. It is evident that the U.S. cannot engineer global solutions to the mounting global challenges alone.

In Northeast Asia, the U.S.-China relationship is also crucial to the management of Korean Peninsula issues. Any perceived gap in the respective positions of the U.S. and China will be exploited by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), thus hampering the prospects of a negotiated settlement. Both Washington and Beijing must accept their shared responsibility in ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula while endeavoring to achieve denuclearization.

Both countries must stop their mutual inertia and blame games when confronted with Pyongyang's brinkmanship. The buck stops with them. Unless the DPRK sees the convergence of minds between the U.S. and China, solutions will remain out of our reach. The DPRK will not take any meaningful steps for denuclearization without the corresponding carrots by the U.S. that are supported by the threats of sticks by China. The current stalemate is mainly the outcome of the reverse combination of the above.

As recently confirmed by you to President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (ROK) over the phone, the ROK is the lynchpin of peace and security in Northeast Asia for the U.S. and vice versa. The U.S. deserves big credit for the exceptional rise of the ROK from a war-torn country to a mature and prosperous democracy within one generation. The ROK is also proud of its achievement and ready to contribute to peace and prosperity not only in the region but also around the world.

Managing security challenges on the Korean Peninsula remains an uphill task with lingering Cold War legacies. Peace remains fragile with an armistice lasting for almost seven decades. Denuclearization remains elusive with diplomatic efforts faltering over the deepening mutual mistrust. Now the immediate priority must be on resetting the modes of engagement among the concerned countries in the region including in particular the two Koreas (ROK and DPRK) as well as the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

It is primarily incumbent upon Washington to lead the negotiated settlement process, as Pyongyang perceives it as the main protagonist since the Korean War. The ROK-U.S. consultation should be the bedrock for any negotiating strategy vis-a-vis the DPRK including the clear division of labor. In view of available leverage and security constraints, the U.S. is better suited to play a kind of hard cop, while the ROK plays a soft one.

Detailed planning for the respective roles of the ROK and the U.S. needs to be worked out with unity of purpose and consistency in implementation. Special care must be taken in renewing the credibility of the U.S. security commitments to the ROK including its extended deterrence, which was weakened by Trump's erratic management of the alliance. The ROK-U.S.-Japan coordination is also necessary with the greater involvement of Tokyo as a future financial enabler of any possible deal.

Japan must be asked to play a more proactive role in the humanitarian agenda by combining Japan's concern on the abduction issues and the DPRK's dire humanitarian needs. Closer trilateral coordination among the U.S. and its two allies will put the three countries on a more solid footing in engaging China and Russia.

China and Russia should be asked to persuade the DPRK leadership not to take provocative steps while your new foreign policy team is reviewing the U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK should be reminded by China to seriously consider making a wise strategic choice by putting the nuclear and peace agenda simultaneously on the negotiating table.

All of these require U.S. leadership. The first step is to appoint a high level focal point in the U.S. administration. The role played by the former Secretary of Defense William Perry as a senior coordinator on the Korean Peninsula issues can be taken into account.

In doing the above, we must assume that we are in for the long haul. We need patience. But we should not waste our time waiting for the DPRK to act first. Time is not on our side as far as the security agenda is concerned. The DPRK will continue the development of its nuclear, missile and other military capabilities. Action must be taken sooner rather than later to stop or at least slow it down. But we must do so with the clear bottomline: a nuclear armed DPRK will not and cannot be a normal member of the international community.

These are tough challenges. But the fruits of success will be huge. For the region, it will pave the way for the countries to start working on other projects like trans-regional energy pipelines and transport connections, which have long been desired but delayed due to security and political stalemates. For the world, it will serve as a reassuring example of the U.S. and China working together to solve long-standing security threats.

The next several years under your leadership will be critical for the future of Northeast Asia and the world. We hope you will lead the U.S. back to the world and the world back to the U.S. Divided, we may perish. But standing together, we can persevere and prevail.


Kim Won-soo (wsk4321@gmail.com) is the former under secretary-general of the United Nations and the high representative for disarmament. As a Korean diplomat, he served as secretary to the ROK president for foreign affairs. He is now the chair of the international advisory board of the Future Consensus Institute (Yeosijae) and a member of the Group of Eminent Persons for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBTO).




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