Washington wants to maintain status quo with Pyongyang: experts
By Kang Seung-woo
New South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's policy toward North Korea can be summed up in one word, "hardline," based on his previous remarks during the campaign.
On the campaign trail, Yoon, a foreign policy neophyte, mentioned a pre-emptive strike in case of signs of an imminent North Korean nuclear attack, while pledging to deploy an additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system to counter Pyongyang's evolving missile threats, both of which drew fiery responses from North Korea.
In addition, the Yoon administration is considering referring to North Korea as South Korea's "main enemy" in its defense white paper. Plus, he is open to inter-Korean talks only when North Korea genuinely embarks on the path to complete denuclearization.
However, it remains to be seen if the United States will stand up for its ally's hawkish stance on the Kim Jong-un regime, which could ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, as Washington, already preoccupied with other diplomatic issues such as its strategic competition with China and Russia's war in Ukraine, wants to settle for a status quo on the peninsula.
Many believe that Yoon's hardline stance will increase the arms race between the two Koreas, which will eventually stoke tensions on the peninsula.
"This month, the U.S. government does not want the situation on the peninsula to deteriorate further and in that respect, should the Yoon administration unilaterally adopt a hardline stance on North Korea, the U.S. would urge South Korea to refrain from undermining the situation," said Cho Han-beom, a senior researcher of the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, expressed a similar view, citing the Joe Biden administration's lukewarm stance on issues regarding North Korea.
"If the inter-Korean confrontation intensifies, the U.S. side is likely to urge restraint from South Korea as well as North Korea so as to manage the situation," he said.
|An F-16 fighter of the U.S. Air Force takes off at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, Monday, as Korea and the United States kicked off their two-week regular air force drill, dubbed 'Korea Flying Training.' Yonhap|
Along with headline-grabbing pledges of pre-emptive strikes and THAAD deployment, the Yoon administration also wants the permanent presence of U.S. strategic assets on the peninsula that the North Korean regime has responded strongly to.
Last month, Yoon sent a policy consultation delegation to Washington, where it discussed the issue with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The strategic assets refer to long-range bombers, nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.
In that respect, the government is seeking to reactivate regular meetings of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), a high-level consultative mechanism to achieve North Korea's denuclearization through steadfast deterrence, which last met in January 2018. Extended deterrence refers to the commitment to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks on allies. The U.S. has provided extended deterrence or a nuclear umbrella to South Korea since removing all of its nuclear assets from the peninsula in 1991.
However, the permanent deployment of U.S. strategic assets may be rejected by Washington as the issue has been discussed between the two countries for a long time without any progress being made, as the U.S. is also mindful of a possible backlash from North Korea or China.
President Biden is scheduled to visit Seoul next week, and he has requested to meet former President Moon Jae-in during his three-day stay, which is seen as "unprecedented." The envisaged meeting is raising speculation that the U.S. government will try to use Moon as a bridge to manage the situation on the peninsula.
"The U.S. seems to believe that Moon can help relations between the U.S. and North Korea transform confrontation to dialogue and in that sense, I guess Biden is seeking to meet Moon," former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said in a recent radio interview.
Their first summit in May 2021 reaffirmed the strength of the bilateral alliance, with Korea unequivocally standing with the U.S. on issues concerning U.S.-China relations and the competition for influence in the region.
Harry Kazianis, the president and CEO of the think tank Rogue States Project, also said Yoon may feel alone in taking a tough stance against North Korea because the U.S., which is now busy dealing with other diplomatic matters, may not fully accept his policy toward Pyongyang.
"Right now, Biden looks at Pyongyang's missiles and nuclear weapons as a challenge that only presents political pain and nothing he can solve easily. Washington knows that in order to make any progress with Pyongyang will take very tough negotiations and years of effort as well as using political capital they do not have at the moment," Kazianis said.
"Combine all that with the war in Ukraine, you will likely see President Yoon mostly on his own trying to contain North Korea while Washington attends to what it feels are other more pressing matters."
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London, said that the allies will try to coordinate their respective North Korea policies.
"So I think that both of them will leave the door open to dialogue with Pyongyang," he said.
"Dialogue should be a key pillar of any approach towards North Korea. And ultimately I think that the Yoon government will sit down to talk to Pyongyang if the opportunity arises. But I think that its current stance also makes sense as a starting point to any bargaining process with North Korea."