March 15, 2021 | Insight

Ahead of U.S.-ROK Meeting, Unresolved Policy Disputes Still Trouble the Alliance

March 15, 2021 | Insight

Ahead of U.S.-ROK Meeting, Unresolved Policy Disputes Still Trouble the Alliance

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will meet with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul on March 17, at which point the U.S. secretaries will likely share preliminary analysis of Washington’s ongoing North Korea policy review. Ahead of this meeting, Ko Yun-ju, a South Korean spokesperson, praised the Biden administration for reinvigorating the U.S.-ROK alliance, with “strategic communication between Korea and the U.S. taking place very frequently at all levels.” Ko credited an early alliance victory to the recent completion of burden-sharing negotiations that the Trump administration left unresolved.

However, while this U.S.-ROK cooperation is encouraging, Washington’s and Seoul’s leaderships still must confront several unresolved policy differences to establish not only a coordinated North Korea strategy, but also a more robust alliance.

One major issue that could spark discord is the South Korean administration’s introduction of inter-Korean engagement programs and incentives to revive inter-Korean diplomacy, which Seoul hopes can lead to permanent peace on the peninsula. Last June, Seoul considered supporting North-South economic and business cooperation by revising the South-North Exchange and Cooperation Act to allow North Korean businesses and companies to operate in South Korea.

Likewise, in January 2020, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested restarting the closed inter-Korean commercial programs at the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea and allowing tourists to return to North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang resort. That same month, Moon recommended opening other North Korean tourism programs as well as joint infrastructure projects, such as the construction of an inter-Korean railroad.

Washington previously raised objections to Seoul’s proposed inter-Korean endeavors. Days before President Joe Biden took office, Harry Harris, the Trump administration’s ambassador to South Korea, noted that while tourism itself is not a sanctionable activity, previous tourism programs, such as the Kumgang joint venture, provided the Kim family regime with millions of dollars per year that undermine financial sanctions. Despite such incentives, the Kim regime made no decisive steps toward verifiable denuclearization.

Harris recommended that the U.S. and ROK governments consult one another before moving ahead with any project. The Moon administration responded negatively to Harris’ remarks, stating that his comments were “very inappropriate” because “issues of inter-Korean cooperation is a matter for our government to decide.”

The Biden administration has not made clear if it will fully embrace Moon’s policies. While Blinken stated that the United States will consider using incentives to support diplomacy with North Korea, he also vowed to “increase pressure” and continue enforcing sanctions “in coordination with U.S. allies.” Seoul may feel some reassurance from Blinken’s statement that Washington will considering employing incentives. However, Washington’s desire to continue sanctions enforcement could incite another policy dispute with the Moon administration, which has been more skeptical towards sanctions.

Moon and his unification minister, Lee In-young, have called for more U.S. “flexibility” with sanctions, arguing that they have been unsuccessful in advancing denuclearization efforts. Lee also expressed concern that sanctions have unintentionally harmed ordinary North Koreans by making it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to carry out programs inside the country. A State Department spokesperson, however, dismissed Lee’s assessment, arguing that the North Korean government’s draconian policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than sanctions, are what “significantly hindered the efforts of humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, and other countries to deliver aid to the most in need.”

This exchange between Seoul and Washington foreshadows that sanctions enforcement will remain contentious, especially as the alliance seeks to break the diplomatic deadlock with Pyongyang.

Another issue likely to stir tension is North Korean human rights. Last December, the South Korean National Assembly passed an amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act that codified harsh penalties on individuals and organizations that send balloons into North Korea carrying propaganda leaflets promoting anti-Kim regime ideas. Prior to this legislation, the Moon administration pressured North Korean human rights groups to stop sending the balloons, by opening government investigations into their activities. These investigations could lead Seoul to limit or cut off their funding sources.

Seoul defended this approach by arguing that it aimed to protect South Korean residents living near the inter-Korean border, where the leafleting activity occurs. After all, North Korea recently blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in protest of this activity. Pyongyang also threatened that South Korea would “pay a dear price” if it did not stop the balloon campaigns.

Seoul’s policy has drawn extensive criticism from the United States, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations for suppressing the freedom of speech and expression of North Korean escapees and human rights activists. Likewise, critics have deemed the legislation an act of appeasement to Pyongyang. The legislation, critics argue, also deflects attention from the Kim regime’s restriction of information to the North Korean people and political persecution of those who try to counter the regime’s repression.

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and co-chair of the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted in December that the commission will consider holding hearings regarding the South Korean law. The Biden administration added that Washington will not only continue to support the free flow of foreign media and information into North Korea, but will also “carefully consider” North Korea’s “egregious human rights record and how to promote respect for human rights in the closed country.”

Unlike Washington, Seoul is reluctant to pressure Pyongyang for its crimes against humanity, because Seoul fears that raising the topic would incite tensions and spur the regime to walk away from talks. As concern over South Korea’s controversial legislation builds in Washington, the U.S. and ROK governments will likely need to address North Korean human rights in their March 17 meeting to begin coordinating policies.

Taken together, Washington and Seoul’s policy disagreements underscore a more substantive problem: The allies base their policies on diverging strategic assumptions regarding the Kim regime’s true nature.

The Moon administration’s engagement policies rest on the assumption that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un shares Moon’s vision for peace and is willing to reciprocate Seoul’s good-will gestures. Moon likely also believes that withholding pressure, such as sanctions and human rights criticism, removes obstacles to negotiations and will help the Kim regime participate in a peace process.

Kim, unfortunately, has repeatedly rejected Moon’s overtures, responding instead with security provocations ranging from missile tests to blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office. This pattern suggests that Moon’s assumptions are wrong. The Kim regime is not interested in Moon’s proposal for peace and wants only to extract political and economic concessions to prolong the regime’s survival while giving up nothing in return.

By contrast, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken’s vow to “increase pressure” suggests the Biden administration will base its policy on the notion that good will alone will not change the situation. Rather, Washington must impose costs to change the Kim regime’s strategic rationale, because Pyongyang cannot yet be trusted.

The Biden and Moon administrations, therefore, must align their strategic assumptions regarding North Korea’s true intentions. Only then will the alliance be in the best position to resolve its differences. It is imperative that Washington and Seoul prioritize resolving these disputes, because Pyongyang will try to aggravate them to further divide the U.S-ROK alliance and thus boost North Korea’s own diplomatic leverage. Once the alliance overcomes these hurdles, the Biden and Moon administrations will find themselves in a much stronger and more confident posture to engage the Kim regime.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mathew and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy