M. K. Bhadrakumar |
On Tuesday, even as Moon Jae-in got elected as South Korea’s next president, in faraway Oslo, North Korean and American representatives sat down to hold “informal discussions” for the second day. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman effectively welcomed the development:
First, it has been China’s position to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultation… China also calls on and encourages various parties to resume dialogue and contact at an early date… China has noted the statement by the US side and its positive signal of peacefully resolving the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and consultation. We believe that relevant parties have also noticed the signal in a timely manner… China will stay in touch with relevant parties and work to bring the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula back to the right track of peaceful settlement through dialogue and consultation.
China’s mediatory role is obvious. Indeed, Moon’s election dovetails with the meet in Oslo. Moon will breathe new life into the ‘Sunshine Policy’ toward North Korea, advocated by South Korea’s two previous left-leaning presidents Kin Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. The progressive forces in South Korea have stood for improved inter-Korea ties.
Moon Jae-in’s government plan; dangerous for US administration
The American commentators say Moon’s liberal government is bad news for US President Donald Trump as it could spell trouble for the US-South Korea alliance. True, Moon will refuse to pay up $1 billion, which is the bill Trump has presented for the deployment of the US’ ABM system in South Korea – known as THAAD missile. Actually, Moon is against the deployment itself.
The Pentagon hurriedly deployed the THAAD in March knowing that Moon’s election in May was all but certain and anticipating that the planned deployment by the end of 2017 may not come through once he took charge. The bottom line is the North Korea missile threat provides an alibi for the US to deploy the ABM system in the Far East, which has the capability to neutralize China’s nuclear capability.
Again, Moon, son of North Korean refugees, seeks a conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang, which will grate against Trump’s negotiating style of bullying the potential interlocutor first before dealing. Most certainly, Moon’s softer approach exposes Trump’s pretension that the US’ ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea has run out.
President Moon willing to visit North Korea
However, the more significant realignment is going to be Moon’s keenness to foster friendly ties with China. Fundamentally, South Korea under Moon’s leadership will be on the same page as China in regard to the approach to the North Korean problem – avoid provocative moves or political and military escalation and peacefully resolve the problem through dialogue and consultation. In his first remarks after being sworn in as President earlier today, Moon said he’d be willing to visit North Korea under the right conditions. He also made clear in a major signal to China that he intends to renegotiate the deployment of THAAD system, which casts a shadow on South Korea’s flourishing ties with China.
To be sure, the tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific are shifting. The region has to adjust to the new type of relationship emerging between the US and China. Even as China’s key role as mediator in the North Korea problem continues through the next several months, Beijing can be trusted to boost its stature as a global power that epitomizes the virtues of moderation, restraint, and patience. An editorial in Global Times counsels Trump, Kim, and Moon to show maturity:
At the current sensitive juncture when either the situation worsens or a turning point for negotiations could take place, we should avoid miscalculations. Pyongyang, Washington, and Seoul should realize that North Korea is the vulnerable and defensive side. It does not have the courage to have a military showdown with the US and South Korea. If it’s aggressive posturing leads the US and South Korea to miscalculations, the situation will spiral out of control.
The report from Oslo signals that China helped arrange the US-North Korean interaction in anticipation of Moon’s election. Interestingly, a sixth nuclear test by North Korea hasn’t materialized yet, and the two latest (failed) missile tests wore a proforma look. A meeting over cheeseburger with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, which candidate Trump spoke about during the campaign, seems entirely within the realms of possibility in a conceivable future.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.