America’s efforts to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea have settled into a precarious state of limbo since President Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. Maybe Pyongyang is dismantling stuff; maybe it’s not; and maybe National Security Adviser John Bolton is ready to invade either way.
Inter-Korean relations, meanwhile, are taking small but regular steps forward. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have met twice this year, and South Korea’s Blue House announced Monday that a third meeting is in the works. Lesser negotiating teams have convened repeatedly this summer, making arrangements to reunite Korean families separated for seven decades, building united sports teams for international competition, and seeking to minimize military tensions.
Kim will always make time for a photoshoot, but by and large these meetings seem to be straightforward, businesslike affairs. They are not producing dramatic achievements, but they are working toward the sort of slow, halting, and therefore realistic thaw that can plausibly avoid the horrors of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.
It is now the United States’ chief responsibility to get out of the way. As tempting as it will be for the Trump administration to constantly and visibly insert itself, to swoop in to coerce away any complications and claim credit for any wins, it would be far wiser to let Korea fix Korea.
There is no denying that North Korea is a problem. Nuclear weapons are hellish enough in the hands of the well-intentioned, let alone the sweaty grip of a power-mad dictator whose dynasty has crafted the world’s most miserable prison state. But the existence of this problem does not make Washington best suited to fix it. The obvious candidate — the candidate already engaged in the intricate toil this work entails — is South Korea.
This may be a difficult point for the United States to take. We are so used to thinking of ourselves as the indispensable nation. Our peerless military and economic power allows us to make any problem our own. But being able to assert authority over a situation is no argument that it should be done. We understand this well in other contexts, from domestic governance to parenting. It should be no mystery here.
While it is true that the United States helped shape Korea as we know it today, that historic tie does not itself equip us to provide a solution. The Pottery Barn rule — «you break it, you buy it» — is often an ill fit in international relations, where the end goal is not purchase but repair.
In this case, South Korea is the repairman for the job. Seoul has a cultural proximity to Pyongyang that Washington can never duplicate. «No other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning, whether the planning is creative, coordinating, or predictive,» wrote Jane Jacobs in her urban planning classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What she rightly perceived of city administration is equally true in diplomacy: Local expertise is invaluable for planning of all sorts and has no substitute — not even American military might. The U.S. can (and does) provide conventional deterrence against the unlikely scenario of an unprovoked attack by the North, but we cannot match South Korea’s advantage at the negotiating table.
Moreover, South Korea has an investment in solving this problem which the United States does not share. Even given North Korea’s recent advances in ballistic technology, there is no world in which the Kim regime can pose an existential threat to America. South Korea does not boast the same security: Seoul’s metro area of 25 million is a mere 35 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two countries, which means a war in which Kim believes he has nothing left to lose could mean unspeakable carnage for the South.
Those differing risks give South Korea a far greater stake in peacefully resolving the North Korea situation than the United States will ever have. The Blue House cannot afford to engage in the recklessness, aggression, and equivocation that has characterized much of America’s bipartisan foreign policy in recent decades.
Where Trump may happily tout his deal-making prowess with Kim one day only to be buffeted by the bad advice of administration hawks the next, for Moon, a sober and patient approach is the only option. The monstrosity of an avoidable war may be ignored in Washington, but not in Seoul. Moon may not lead exactly as we’d like, but he will not be talked into an unnecessary war the moment Kim strikes an uncooperative tone.
To the extent that Trump opened communication with Kim and made the prospect of war with North Korea less likely, he deserves credit for what he’s done. But now it is time to do less. Let Korea take it from here.