Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address has given rise to the potential for improved inter-Korean relations. Though caution is necessary in dealing with Pyongyang’s peace overtures, Washington and Seoul should work together to leverage Kim’s overture in order to create an opening for de-escalation in the nuclear standoff between Pyongyang and Washington.
It is entirely understandable why Kim’s speech may be seen as anti-American and a ploy to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Indeed, what was surprising was Kim’s sudden ardent call for inter-Korean reconciliation, in contrast to his previous New Year’s addresses lacking in such a call. Kim devoted much time making his case that the way to peace on the Korean Peninsula is through inter-Korean cooperation instead of relying on interventions by foreign powers. Kim named the United States repeatedly as the chief foreign power opposed to inter-Korean peace and reconciliation.
For Washington to oppose the steps for inter-Korean dialogue underway in the wake of Kim’s speech would be to take Pyongyang’s bait and give credence to Kim’s narrative that Washington is an enemy, not a friend, of the Korean people. It is high time the United States shattered the decades-old North Korean propaganda that America is the chief culprit behind Korea’s modern tragedies, including the partition of the peninsula after World War II, the ensuing Korean War and the continuing division of the peninsula. For decades, the Pyongyang regime has been using this propaganda to indoctrinate and rally the North Korean masses behind its rule. Washington needs to start demonstrating by its words and actions that Kim’s narrative is deceptive. Once the North Korean people come to see that the trumped up existential threat to their country posed by America is not real, cracks will appear in the foundations of the Kim dynastic regime.
A way out for Washington from the nuclear standoff is to deprive Kim of his rationale for nuclear weapons as necessary for self-defense against Washington’s aggressions. Instead of obliging Kim in exchanging threats and taunts and further escalating tensions, thereby further fueling Pyongyang’s anti-American propaganda, Washington should engage Pyongyang with peace initiatives demonstrating that the Unites States is not an existential threat and that it supports peaceful Korean reunification through inter-Korean dialogue.
Washington has therefore made a step in the right direction by agreeing with Seoul in freezing their joint military exercises during the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. Indeed, the Olympics comes almost as a godsend in that it has provided the cover necessary for Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington to call a truce and enter into a de-escalating mode, at least temporarily. If there ever were an acute interstate conflict that the Olympics may have been designed to help de-escalate, the current nuclear standoff may be it.
Washington and Seoul enjoy a strong alliance that is decades old and has successfully weathered past North Korean provocations and charm offensives. As long as the allies remain in close coordination vis-a-vis Pyongyang, they should be able to overcome any attempt to weaken their alliance and, instead, use the opening created by Olympic diplomacy to generate momentum for crisis de-escalation. De-escalation may take the form of inter-Korean dialogue leading to direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington that discuss steps such as a post-Olympic freeze in joint military exercises in return for a halt to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program. If successful, such steps can pave the way for more confidence-building measures aimed at inducing North Korea’s behavior as a responsible member of the international community and its eventual denuclearization.
The international community should support this Olympic momentum for de-escalation. Failure to sustain this momentum would probably mean a relapse to a worsening crisis as joint military exercises resume in the spring and Pyongyang likely follows with more nuclear or missile testing.
By Lee Jong-soo
Lee Jong-soo is senior managing director at Brock Securities and center associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004. This is reprinted from the Council on Foreign Relations website. -- Ed.