By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2019/2/25
The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will take place on Wednesday and Thursday. Besides the two countries, it is South Korea that has the most at stake in the summit and would be watching it with the utmost nervousness.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried hard to mend fences with its northern neighbor and resolve the nuclear issue. But the US and North Korea are the ones to hold the key. If the two countries fail to reach an agreement, South Korea's efforts may come to naught. This has probably driven Moon to pledge during a phone call with US President Donald Trump on February 19 that his country was ready to assume any role for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, ranging from connecting railways and roads across the border to inter-Korean economic cooperation projects.
Trump would certainly love to accept Seoul's offer of help. It has been difficult for US and North Korea to implement their agreement after the first Kim-Trump summit. If Washington does not agree to at least partly lift sanctions or provide Pyongyang with some economic benefits, Kim is unlikely to abolish all nuclear weapons or allow international inspections in his country. Although Trump has benefited by pressuring North Korea with sanctions, he should also know that maximum pressure against North Korean has contributed to the standoff. Partly lifting sanctions or providing economic benefits may be Washington's bargaining chips to offer incentives for denuclearization during the Hanoi summit.
Compared to lifting sanctions, Trump may prefer offering economic benefits or compensation. Not lifting sanctions would let Trump keep up the pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. If Trump scraps sanctions, Washington may lose leverage during future talks with Pyongyang, and even face internal political pressure and criticism.
To put it more clearly, when it comes to North Korea nuclear issue, the US is pilling pressure while letting South Korea to deliver economic compensation. In another word, Seoul is paying the bill for Washington. This is the dilemma that South Korea faces.
The two Koreas will both be victims if there is any conflict between the two sides. Compared with North Korea, which has been under sanctions, South Korea is less used to taking the walloping.
Although South Korea's conservatives and progressives have different policies toward Pyongyang, they are one on avoiding war and pursuing peace. The nuclear issue is linked to their future reunification, which is a matter of South Korea's national interest and dignity. Therefore, Seoul would pull out all stops to have an agreement reached.
However, South Korea's influence on the issue is pretty much limited. The country still needs to follow US' lead as its security depends on Washington. The US still has South Korea's wartime operational command. Although South Korea wants to implement different policies on North Korea, it still depends on how long a leash Washington would offer it. For example, late former president Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy failed because of US opposition. Moon's conciliatory approach could not be implemented properly as well because of Trump's sanctions. This is another reason why Moon expects the second Kim-Trump summit to succeed.
In addition, South Korea has limited influence on North Korea. Moon's conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang took great strides in 2018. But it came after Pyongyang had decided to change its strategic policy. This means South Korea's credit was no more than lending North an opportunity. Although Seoul had played the role of a mediator, Washington and Pyongyang do not lack ways to communicate. South Korea can help North Korea economically, but whether such benefits will bring results to Seoul is uncertain.
That South Korea kneels on the US for its security is a major factor tying Seoul's hands. The long-term geopolitical game is centered around North Korea's nuclear issue. To get itself out of such a strategic dilemma, South Korea needs to radically change its security strategy.
The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.