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Expectations grow on Korea-US summit

Combined deterrence needed to tackle NK nuclear threats

By Ahn Ho-young

President Moon Jae-in and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden are scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., May 21. There will be no shortage of issues for the two leaders to discuss. However, from my own experience of preparing for, and participating in, Korea-U.S. summits, much of their time will likely be spent talking about how the two countries should work together toward North Korea's denuclearization.

On April 30, the U.S. confirmed that its review of the country's North Korea policy had been completed. White House press secretary Jen Psaki and other U.S. officials disclosed the outlines of Biden's new policy, even though we are still waiting to learn more about the specifics. A large number of countries around the world, especially their foreign ministers who gathered together in London for the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Meeting, welcomed the new U.S. approach.

However, Pyongyang responded negatively. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan responded with a conciliatory tone, affirming that the new policy toward the North was aimed not at "hostility," but at "solutions," in order to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Around the same time, the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) organized a webinar May 11, where a large number of former officials and academics related to Korea and the U.S. participated to share their views on the Korean Peninsula. Much of their discussion revolved around North Korea's denuclearization. I wish to share some of the main ideas from this as food for thought for Presidents Moon and Biden.

First, I told U.S. participants: "Don't blame yourself too much for past failures." I made this comment because what I read in Jen Psaki's April 30 statement, and Washington gurus' subsequent comments about it, was a high degree of frustration, as well as an urge to try something new.

I understand their frustration and this urge. However, a good prescription needs a correct diagnosis. Past U.S. efforts failed, not because they were poorly conceived or implemented, but because of North Korea's all-consuming obsession with developing nuclear weapons and adherence to "salami tactics."

An example of a problematic ― though well-intentioned ― prescription based on frustration is, as I wrote in my column for The Korea Times several weeks ago, to cite David Ignatius' terminology, the idea of preaching the virtue of finding a "way station" for Biden.

In this strategy, the U.S. should initially move its focus away from denuclearization itself and toward preventing proliferation and the development of delivery vehicles, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles by the North. I think that such ideas raise far more problems than solutions for the many reasons I shared at the time.

Second, many participants at the webinar emphasized the importance of sanctions. In fact, as many analysts agreed at the time, the convergence of three factors led to the 2018 "spring of peace" on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea's confidence in its nuclear capability; an exceptionally strong and effective global network of sanctions; and Moon's cajolement of Pyongyang to come forward to join the path of diplomacy.

After three years, those three factors are still there, with some modifications. What changed most drastically is North Korea's calculation. Up until the Hanoi summit in February 2019, North Korea seems to have guessed that, with Trump as president of the U.S., it was on track to achieve its "byongjin" policy, in which it could develop nuclear weapons and its economy at the same time. What North Korea learned in Hanoi only too poignantly was that even Trump wouldn't buy North Korea's "salami tactics."

On April 30, in announcing the completion of the U.S. policy on North Korea, Jen Psaki said, "Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience." The urge for a new path does not necessarily mean ignoring past experiences and lessons.

We must remind ourselves of the convergence of factors that worked in 2018. In this context, the recent London G7 ministers' meeting, through its joint statement, reaffirmed its commitment to "working together to ensure the full implementation of all related United Nations Security Council sanctions."

Third, many participants, including myself, advocated taking concrete actions to strengthen deterrence. Biden, through his speech to the joint session of U.S. Congress, April 28, said the U.S. will address the threat posed by North Korea "through diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence."

In view of the track record of the North, especially the fact that Pyongyang's engagement in talks and negotiations did not stop it from continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, it only makes sense that Korea and the U.S. pursue a new path in parallel with further investment in deterrence.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the Rand Corporation jointly issued a report titled, "Countering the Risks of North Korean Nuclear Weapons." The report estimated that by 2027 North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons, which will equip Pyongyang with seriously enhanced coercive and war-fighting leverage.

This picture is a scary but realistic one. What is even more worrisome is, as the report stresses, "there is a growing gap between North Korea's nuclear weapon threats and the ROK's and the U.S.'s capabilities to defeat it."

For President Biden's stern deterrence to work, it is absolutely necessary to develop the combined capabilities of Korea and the U.S. We must ensure that the Combined Forces Command is educated, equipped and trained to deal with the security challenges arising from the increasing nuclear weapons in North Korea's arsenal.

Ahn Ho-young (hyahn78@mofa.or.kr) is president of the University of North Korean Studies. He served as Korean ambassador to the United States and first vice foreign minister.

Allies can find new breakthrough to stalled peace process

By Moon Chung-in

A summit is the zenith of diplomacy. One will be held between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21. This summit will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders. South Koreans have great expectations that the summit will lead to a new breakthrough in the stalled Korean situation and strengthen bilateral alliance ties.

However, conservative observers in Seoul are pessimistic, citing fractures in the alliance, divergent perspectives on the North Korean nuclear problem, and a precarious balancing of diplomacy between Beijing and Washington. This anxiety, however, seems baseless on several accounts.

I do not see any rupture in the alliance system. As the Biden administration shifts its alliance policy from the Trumpian transactional approach to consultation and mutual respect, the ROK-U.S. alliance has only been further strengthened. Defense cost-sharing was a thorny issue during the Trump administration, but it was resolved when Seoul agreed to increase its contribution by 13.9 percent in 2021, and afterwards, Seoul will proportionally adjust its contribution according to annual increases in the defense budget until 2025.

Washington willingly accepted the offer. Both sides agreed to renew negotiations on defense cost-sharing every five years, while maintaining the existing framework of three categories ― labor cost sharing, ROK-funded construction and logistics cost sharing ― without any new categories added for cost calculations. As a result, defense cost-sharing is no longer an issue.

Transfer of wartime operational control remains unresolved. Whereas the Moon government may want to complete the transfer during its tenure, namely by May 2022, the American government thinks that this timeline is premature.

Seoul and Washington are making efforts to certify operational capability of the Future Combined Forces Command (F-CFC), as part of the conditions of wartime operational control transition, through the three phases of: initial operational capability (IOC), full operational capability (FOC) and full mission capability (FMC).

The IOC phase has been satisfied, but the second phase has not been fully implemented because of scaled-down joint military exercises and training caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moon government may not insist on completing the transfer by the end of its term, and thus, it may not be part of the summit agenda.

President Moon's top priority will be close policy coordination with President Biden on North Korea. Seoul has been perplexed because the Biden administration continues to send conflicting signals, ranging from hardline maximum pressure, diplomacy and negotiation, to stable management through deterrence. The Moon government was equally concerned about the relatively low priority given to the North Korea issue in Biden's foreign policy agenda.

However, this worry too has very much been resolved. On April 30, the Biden administration announced the completion of its policy review on North Korea. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden approach to North Korea "will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience" and that U.S. policy will pursue "a phased agreement that leads to full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

The U.S. is likely to pursue a calibrated, practical, and phased approach to North Korea, while honoring the Singapore Declaration on June 12, 2018, in which then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un pledged to normalize relations, work toward a permanent peace regime in Korea and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula completely. Such an approach is what the Moon government had wanted. The scheduled summit will easily find common ground on the North Korea issue.

Nevertheless, some unresolved issues could prevent North Korea from returning to dialogue with the U.S. First is the Biden administration's emphasis on human rights, which Pyongyang perceives as an explicit sign of a hostile policy. It will be extremely difficult for the U.S. to make progress on denuclearization while pushing the human rights issue.

Second, the Biden administration will be appointing a special envoy for North Korean human rights soon, but it does not have any plan to appoint a special representative to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. This move will certainly send a negative signal to Pyongyang, further delaying the resumption of dialogue.

Finally, although the Biden administration has underscored a "practical and flexible" approach, it has stopped short of revealing any concrete plans involving the relaxation of sanctions in return for halting and reducing nuclear/missile activities. Moon is likely to raise these issues at the summit.

The China question will be another important issue on the agenda. Contrary to widespread media speculation that Biden will push Moon hard to choose sides at the summit, the U.S. will be more prudent because it understands the complexities that underlie such a choice.

Edgard Kagan, senior director in charge of Korea at the National Security Council, recently stated that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue ― also known as the Quad (involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia) ― being an informal group, is "neither a security alliance nor an Asian NATO."

Thus, the issue of South Korea joining the Quad is not likely to be dealt with at the summit. Instead of specifically targeting China, Moon will seek close cooperation with the U.S. in the areas of climate change, the pandemic, investments, science and technology and supply chains. He may also concur with Biden on the importance of rule-governed behavior and universal human rights, in general terms.

Given all of the above and more, I do not expect any disappointing news to come from the May 21 summit, although some media watchers may wish to construe some developments otherwise. I expect that the two leaders will reach a mutually beneficial and future-oriented joint statement that will reconfirm and strengthen the ironclad ROK-U.S. bilateral alliance.

Moon Chung-in is chairman of the Sejong Institute and distinguished professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. He served as special adviser on unification, security and diplomatic issues to President Moon Jae-in.

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