When South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives at the White House later today for talks with Donald Trump, there will likely be many smiles and many more soft diplomatic statements appearing to demonstrate solidarity on the major issues surrounding the still scheduled but increasingly tenuous 12 June summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
But behind the public rhetoric of unity, closed door meetings will likely be tense and in all fairness they ought to be as tense as possible. Recent weeks have seen the DPRK (North Korea) cancel a summit with South Korean leaders, while Pyongyang has also rescinded invitations for Southern journalists to observe the DPRK’s dismantling of a nuclear testing facility. Then in a public statement, the DPRK also criticised the South’s government for being “incompetent” and chastised Seoul for allowing “human scum” (thought to be the DPRK traitor Thae Yong Ho) to speak at the South Korean National Assembly.
The proximate cause of the aforementioned actions taken and statements made by the DPRK were provocative remarks by US National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton, a man on the record as saying that peace with the DPRK is impossible, said in recent days that in order for the current peace process to work, the DPRK would need to go through a Libyan style de-nuclearisation which would also see all of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles humiliating shipped to the United States.
As soon as the notoriously hawkish Bolton made these remarks, Pyongyang’s tone towards the peace process as a whole and towards Washington and Seoul specifically, shifted from one of total magnanimity and even graciousness to reservation, speciousness, caution and disgust. Before Bolton spoke, there were warm words and affection shared between Kim Jon-un and Moon Jae-in, while the DPRK also seemed to be agreeing to every major US demand. After Bolton spoke, the rhetoric changed and open doors were shut.
Far from exacerbating the problem, the actions of South Korean officials appear to indicate that Seoul is sympathetic to Pyongyang’s disgust with Bolton for the simple reason that his irresponsible, aggressive, childish and parochial remarks threaten a peace process that arguably stands to benefit Seoul more than anyone else.
On the 17th of May an official from President Moon’s administration confirmed that South Korea intends to more intensely perform “the role of a mediator” between Washington and Pyongyang. When one strips off the diplomatic language of the statement, it becomes clear that South Korea is as desperate for the US to tone down its aggressive posture as the DPRK is furious about the hegemonic, unilateral and un-Asian approach that certain US officials have taken regarding the peace process.
Ultimately, Moon Jae-in has demonstrated that his soft tone, sympathetic attitude and constructive position in the peace process is at odds with the aggressive rhetoric of Washington which seeks to turn the otherwise Asian authored, owned and executed process into a chance for US ultra-nationalists to humiliate the DPRK and leave it vulnerable to the kinds of aggression the US committed against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.
In order for the peace process to work, Seoul will need to actively distance itself from its traditional US ally and in doing so, encourage the “cost-cutting” factions in Washington as best represented by Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Donald Trump to win out over the neo-con hawks who are best represented by National Security Adviser John Bolton and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. In so doing, South Korea could in an ideal situation, convince the US to lessen its own economic burden that is implicit in maintaining a large presence of troops and weapons in South Korea. Until South Korea is made pacific in terms of US arms and soldiers, the DPRK’s necessary security concerns may not be met and if this is the case, the goal of de-nuclarisation that China and Russia support could reach a critical impasse. Ultimately, the US would save money in helping South Korea to develop an independent military-industrial complex that is less reliant on the US and less reliant on massive arms which would become far less necessary were peace to be formalised across Korea. This win-win situation was hinted at by both Donald Trump and James Mattis but it clearly goes against the war mongering tendencies of Haley and Bolton.
In this sense, South Korea now must help to convince a US administration at war with itself over the Korean peace process, to understand that the singing of a peace treaty, dignified de-nuclearisation and an order US de-weaponisation of South Korea will ultimately be in Seoul’s interest is this is the only sure guarantee that Seoul could possibly have in respect of avoiding further wars on the Korean peninsula.
In offering to mediate between the DPRK and US, South Korea has made it clear that while the US may not yet be mature enough to speak respectfully to a country it still considers to be an adversary, that South Korea is capable of holding mature discussions with the North as was evidenced by Kim Jong-un’s successful meeting with Moon Jae-in.
This means that the burden of responsibility for a successful peace process is now largely on Seoul’s shoulders. It is a responsibility South Korea did not need or ask for, but one which ultimately, only South Korea is in a position to fulfil.
When Moon meets Trump face to face for what will likely be the last time before the scheduled Kim-Trump summit, he must make it clear that John Bolton must be gagged in order to preserve the peace process. While China and Russia are both in a position to make sure that Bolton does not get his wish of turning the DPRK into Libya, the childish rhetoric from the US must immediately cease if there is going to be a peace process left for China and Russia to responsibly guarantee.