Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What South Korea should be wary of, and what it should push for, in its current talks with the North

Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute lays out the stakes for the current attempt at dialogue between the two nation-states occupying the Korean Peninsula:

The talks set to open this week between the North and South Korean governments are off to an inauspicious start: Even before negotiators could settle into their seats, the North had pocketed its first concession from the South, offering nothing in return.
North Korean negotiators are practiced hands in the art of “we win and you lose” deal-making. Unless the team of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has the fortitude to stand up to such ploys and has a solid game plan of its own, there is a serious risk that the South, its allies and much of the international community will come out of these apparent peace overtures even less secure than before.
The upcoming North-South dialogue was decreed by Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s Day address, after two years of brushing off diplomatic feelers from Seoul. Mr. Kim declared that now — as in, right now — was the time for the two sides to meet to “improve the relations between themselves and take decisive measures for achieving a breakthrough for independent reunification without being obsessed by bygone days.” Seoul rushed to accommodate Mr. Kim’s timetable.
The North’s sudden move ostensibly is explained by its desire to participate in the Winter Olympics next month, which will be hosted in South Korea. But those games were awarded back in 2011, and Mr. Kim’s New Year’s speech is an important annual ritual, prepared and polished months in advance.
By springing this surprise right before the start of the event, the North imposed a hurried and artificial deadline for results. This is “we say jump, you ask how high” diplomacy in action — which is effective for showing who is in control of the negotiation process. Sometimes it also pushes adversaries into making unforced errors.
The South Korean government, in its haste to make ready for dialogue with the North, almost immediately wrong-footed itself. It pre-emptively proposed delaying the joint annual United States-South Korean winter military exercises until after the Games. (Washington acquiesced after high-level consultations.) Seoul may have intended this gesture in the spirit of good will or magnanimity, but it sent all the wrong signals — including a willingness that may be read as weakness, and could harden Pyongyang’s posture, raising its expectations for what it might be able to take back home. The South Korean government, in other words, is off to a bad start, at least tactically.
Eberstadt points out that current South Korea president Moon isn't a full-on appeaser, even though he leans that way:

To his credit, in his short time in office Mr. Moon — who, by the way, was one of [former president] Mr. Roh’s top advisers during those troubled years — has leavened his own sunshine yearnings with a strong dose of realpolitik. He has pushed for missile defense, for example, as well as for close coordination over international sanctions with the United States despite new strains with President Trump. Last week, Mr. Moon is reported to have said of the upcoming talks with North Korea, “I will not just na├»vely push for dialogue as in the past.”

So what can the South do to be proactive and get something positive from this exercise?

 . . . how can the Moon administration avoid getting played? First, by recognizing the North’s ulterior goals in these talks, and the other traps it may be readying. Then, by insisting ruthlessly on a quid pro quo at every step — requiring, for example, that if Seoul postpones military exercises, then Pyongyang should too. And finally, by tucking a few tricks up its own sleeves.
Mr. Kim says he wants more contact between the North and the South? Insist on it, including by requiring that news from South Korea be allowed to reach the North. Don’t shy away from raising unpleasant topics, like North Korea’s appalling human rights situation, and calling for it to cooperate with the existing United Nations commission of inquiry. And why not confidentially mention that a large majority of South Koreans now seem to favor hosting United States tactical nuclear weapons to counter the North’s new threats?
South Korean negotiators are not used to turning the tables on their North Korean interlocutors, but they should start. 
This doesn't have to turn out to be another one of those patty-cake sessions that always ratchet up the world's danger level, but it will require that the good guys go into it with the wiliness of a serpent.

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