US, South Korean Presidents Meet to Confront the Pyongyang Quandary

North Korean success in test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4 puts the new South Korean government in the difficult position of having to appear tough while still looking for dialogue with its northern rival.

With that launch ringing in his ears, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had already laid the groundwork for deepening rapport with the US in a summit with President Trump that was surprisingly free of disagreement on North Korea. Far from jabbing one another with sly innuendos if not full-frontal attacks, Trump and Moon agreed in two days of talks in Washington that South Korea should take the lead in negotiations with the north.

That understanding, however, still doesn’t offer a solution to the riddle of what policy options might actually work. With thousands of artillery pieces pointed across the DMZ at Seoul and the port city of Incheon, and possibly 200-300 missiles pointed that way too, Donald Trump is clearly having second thoughts about fulfilling his campaign promise of military action. The options are precious few, leaving the US, its South Korean and Japanese allies – and the United Nations – in a quandary.

While Moon buys time searching for dialogue, Trump is reaching the point where he may have to admit, to himself and his tight clique of insiders if not publicly, even in a tweet, that there’s no happy way out.

It should be obvious by now that North Korea is not responding favorably to sanctions, however onerous, and it’s equally plain that China’s President Xi Jinping is not going to exercise the strongest possible pressure, whatever he may have told Trump when they met at Mar-a-Lago. That would be to cut off the flow of oil, virtually all of which North Korea imports from China.

Nor do even the most hawkish of Trump’s advocates and underlings want to contemplate a “pre-emptive strike” – much as some of them would love to knock out the North’s nuclear and missile facilities. For one thing, one or two air raids would hardly scratch the surface of a program in which most of what the North has produced is stashed in tunnels and caves. For another, no one wants to risk Korean War II, beginning with retaliatory artillery strikes from North Korea on Seoul, Incheon and surrounding Kyeonggi Province, home of half the south’s 50 million people.

So what option is left – waiting for North Korea to strike first and then striking back? That would be too easy. North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un, despite his bristling rhetoric, is not at all likely to give the US the luxury of righteous self-defense of US continental soil. even if the latest North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile puts Alaska and the US west coast within striking distance.

Nonetheless, Moon seems determined to go on trying to persuade North Korea of the wisdom of halting its nuclear program – a goal he had set long before the summit but reiterated again in Washington. Might another round of talks –North-South perhaps, then broadened to include the US and China, maybe Japan and Russia, be conceivable?

Maybe, but the North’s latest and perhaps most fearsome missile test should effectively end pressure for a peace treaty as long as Pyongyang refuses to give up its program for producing nuclear warheads – and the means to carry them to distant targets.

Moon also appears to have sublimated whatever opposition he had to THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense that the US military has installed in the South over ongoing protests. While he still may not be enthusiastic about it, he hardly seems inclined to tell the Americans to remove the counter-missile battery already implanted on a former Lotte golf course way south of Seoul.

As for talk about a mutual “freeze,” that is, the notion of South Korea and the US canceling military exercises while the North promises not to indulge in more missile and nuke tests, that idea also seems to have been glossed over in the Moon-Trump summit. No one doubts the North Koreans intends to go right on fabricating nukes and missiles, and conducting military exercises too, whatever deal might be reached.

Not surprisingly, North Korea seems quite disappointed by Moon’s meetings in Washington with Trump. Far from welcoming the prospect of North-South dialogue, as endorsed at the summit, North Korea’s party newspaper Rodong Sinmun accused the US of treating South Korea “as a mere puppet and colonial servant.” The paper, once seemingly enthusiastic about Moon’s election as president after having reviled his unfortunate predecessor, Park Geun-hye, as “witch” and “whore,” suddenly saw the South Koreans “seized with sycophancy and submission to the US occasioned by the chief executive's first junket to the US"

How long will it be before the North Koreans begin attacking Moon with the same venom reserved for previous South Korean presidents? It’s to be hoped Moon will at least get the chance to pursue his own version of the dormant Sunshine policy, breathing new life into fainting hopes for eventual inter-Korean reconciliation.

Unfortunately, North Korea does not appear at all likely to be so charitable toward Trump. The North Korean propaganda machine is already reviling him as a “Hitler” – surely not nice considering he has praised Kim Jong-un as “a smart cookie” and famously said he’d like to sit down and have a hamburger with him.

Actually, despite North Korea’s latest missile test, Trump may not be as hawkish or fearsome or threatening as believed. Yes, he’s said the US might have to take matters into its own hands if China’s President Xi Jinping fails to rein in China’s North Korean protectorate. No, Trump obviously doesn’t want a second Korean War – a calamity that inevitably would engulf the Korean peninsula if he were to order the dreaded “preemptive strike” on the North’s missile launch sites and nuclear facilities.

The real dividend of the Moon-Trump conflab is that both of them really want to give peace a chance. Moon badly wants to see where he can go in dialogue with North Korea, and Trump, on good advice from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence, all of whom visited Seoul earlier this year, is encouraging him to do that.

So what happens if the North doesn’t respond?

Calls for ever stronger sanctions, and pressure from China, are reverberating in Washington and the UN. But before that happens, we should be in for some interesting attempts at inter-Korean diplomacy – still preferable to the ultimate alternative of a war that nobody wants and could spread through the region.

Donald Kirk is a longtime Korea-watcher and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel