U.S. and South Korean foreign policy are heading toward a confrontation as the two countries pursue contradictory strategies of engagement with North Korea.

Though South Korea seemed to have embraced the 2018 Winter Olympics as an opportunity for friendly engagement with the North Koreans, the United States was more wary. Vice President Mike Pence did not attend a dinner hosted by Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, and remained seated while the unified Korean Olympic team received a standing ovation from the rest of the stadium.

The United States and South Korea have historically swung back and forth between taking a hard line versus a friendlier approach toward North Korea.

“As soon as we have a progressive president, they switch to a much harder line  and vice versa,” said Robert Uriu, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, in a recent presentation at Pomona College. “I think that does send mixed signals to the North Koreans. … It also meant we’ve never been on the same page, which I think has hurt our common position.”

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the current U.S. policy toward North Korea is “maximum pressure,” according to the Washington Post. The goal is to get North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear activity as well as achieve denuclearization, primarily through economic pressure.

In the past year, the United States and the United Nations expanded sanctions against North Korea  specifically to target its military-industrial complex. In February,  Trump announced another round of sanctions to block oil and other  products from entering North Korea.

“We have imposed the heaviest sanctions ever imposed,” Trump said  in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s approach is different, however. His attitude toward North Korea harkens back to the “Sunshine Policy” of former Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon acted as chief of staff. The Sunshine Policy asserts that “warm engagement through economic development, tourism, and cultural exchange would lead to a more open North Korea,” attorney and Korea expert S. Nathan Park wrote in Foreign Policy.

Although the Sunshine Policy has been criticized for being too soft, it has a track record of success, according to Park. Kim Jong Il had in-person meetings with both Kim Dae-Jung and Roh, the only two South Korean presidents to ever meet with North Korean leadership. There were also meetings for families separated between North and South Korea, and South Koreans supervised North Korean workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea.

The problem lies not necessarily in the different approaches the United States and South Korea take when it comes to North Korea, but in the lack of coordination between the countries, Pomona College assistant professor of politics Tom Le suggested.

“From the ‘90’s up until 2018 … we never have a chance where all three states were on the same page when it came to North Korea,” Le said, referring to Japan as the third state involved in the North Korea crisis. “You always had these rotating objectives in East Asia, which makes it really hard to have a united front when it comes to dealing with the North Koreans.”

Such a unified approach might occur within the next few months, as both Trump and Moon are planning to meet with Kim Jong Un. In a surprising move, Trump agreed to meet with the North Korean leader before May to talk about denuclearization, despite the United States’ hard-line policy toward North Korea. Kim Jong Un also promised to suspend all nuclear and missile tests during the talks. If the meeting takes place, Trump will be the first-ever sitting American president to meet a North Korean leader.

If both meetings with the North Korean leader go well, Moon said a three-way summit between the United States, South Korea and North Korea is conceivable,  the New York Times reported. Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert is skeptical about the significance of these talks, however.

“It looks like the old playbook, and we know where the old playbook leads,” Lippert said at the Pomona College event. Some of the demands made are very similar to ones from past failed negotiations.

“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Trump said on Twitter in early March.

If the United States and South Korea are finally on the same page, that could set the stage for progress that has long eluded the troubled peninsula.

(By Jaimie Ding; March 8, 2018)


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