Governor Richardson Op-Ed: How South Korea can Defuse the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un Showdown



The United States and North Korea have two significant things in common, ironically: Rational mistrust and rational self-interest. Therein may lie the opportunity for diplomacy to defuse current tensions and chart a path forward that takes into account the goals of all involved countries.

For the U.S., North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is the heir of a wild, unpredictable dynasty, hell-bent on destroying America. For North Koreans, the U.S. led the prosecution of a war that killed millions of its citizens in the 1950s and remains a bully that respects only force.

It is therefore as rational for North Korea to show it cannot be bullied as it is rational for the United States to check North Korea’s potentially dangerous aims. But the leaders of both countries know they are in a zero-sum game. Today’s inflammatory rhetoric will have to give way to a tense coexistence similar to that which marked the U.S.-Soviet Union relationship for 40 years and which continues to define South Korea’s relationship with the North, 64 years since a cease fire effectively ended the Korean War.

South Korea may be in the best position to help broker a much- needed compromise — something both the U.S. and North Korea insist is acceptable, much more so than the dire alternative. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been on the job only three months but is no stranger to the twin arts of diplomacy and practical politics. A former human rights leader and student activist, Moon also served as a top aide to former president Roh Moo-hyun and as a party leader in the country’s National Assembly.


From the start, Moon’s presidency has been caught up in the U.S.-North Korea standoff and he has handled the situation with an admirable combination of realism and earnestness. At first dismayed that the THAAD missile defense system the U.S. championed appeared to have been imposed on his country before he could consider options, he put his personal misgivings aside and now accepts the THAAD missile in a pragmatic move that enhanced his country’s security and helped to ease tensions with the U.S.

Last week, as hostilities between Pyongyang and Washington reached levels not seen in years, he again offered to host multilateral talks. Moon grasps that steady skillful engagement, not bellicose words and hollow gestures, will prevail.

Moon was not elected to address tensions with the North. He was elected as an alternative to what many South Koreans saw as an economic and political system that seemed to be running out of steam in delivering prosperity and economic opportunity for them. He replaced Park Geun-hye, who was impeached over charges of bribery and corruption. His economic program is the salient issue in public affairs in the South. Moon knows his success in this arena is the standard by which he will measured and that there is little time to waste.

Pres MoonSouth Korean President Moon Jae-in

As with diplomatic and security matters, Moon needs a deft touch on economic matters. The scandal that led to Park’s ouster brought the symbiotic relationship between the government and the diversified corporate conglomerates into sharp focus. The system was prone to and plagued by scandal for decades. The Chairman-in-waiting of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, could be facing up to 12 years of jail stemming from alleged bribes directed by the ex-President to one of her associates. Lee is a symptom of system that needs to be treated, but clearly not the cause of what ails it. His imprisonment would only serve as a symbolic show of change under Moon. More significantly, it would also be a jarring setback for one of the country’s leading innovation powerhouses at a pivotal moment and disrupt Moon’s efforts to simultaneously expand economic opportunity and reform the country’s economic system.

If Moon is willing and able to direct his energies to his political mandate to shore up the economy at home and the crisis in the region, we should welcome this opening. At this delicate time, concrete but measured actions will help stakeholders walk back from the edge of a nuclear crisis. What has been lost in the hysteria over President Trump’s “fire and fury” comments is the fact the U.S. achieved a consequential diplomatic victory with a unanimous 15-0 vote at the UN recently with support from Russia and China for tough new sanctions aimed at North Korea. The sanctions involve coal, energy, seafood and other sectors that will get North Korea’s attention. What matters now is getting China to use its unique position, both geographically and politically, to make sure they are fully implemented and enforced. If additional sanctions effecting oil and other sectors are needed should North Korea refuse to accept overtures for engagement and diplomacy, the U.S. and other countries are now better positioned to take up this option.

As sobering as events this week have been patience, pragmatism and diplomacy can prevail. Symbolism, theatrics and hyperbole in word and deed has never led to meaningful change in the delicate art of international statecraft.


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