Bowdoin’s Babson: Time for a New Order of Statesmanship on North Korea

Bradley O. Babson

With the recent historic announcement of a US-North Korea summit, Distinguished Lecturer in Government Bradley Babson shares his thoughts on what Washington should do next. Babson is a former World Bank economist with extensive experience in Korean affairs. He teaches a course titled The Two Koreas and Geopolitics of Northeast Asia.

An Olympic achievement is the prospect of a US-North Korea summit in May, to discuss the nuclear issue and possibly reduce tension on the Korean peninsula. Now the question is: How do we, the US, handle the delicate next steps? Joseph Yun’s surprise announcement last month that he is stepping down as the lead diplomat in the State Department adds even greater urgency to this question.

We Americans and many Koreans seem to be stuck in a deep mental rut when comes to how to relate to the challenges posed by North Korea. Do we have the courage and imagination to think about how to shape a different future and not rehash the past or wallow in present recriminations and anxieties?

American engagement with Korea dates back to the 1880s, when the first reaction was “how soon can you leave?” That is a fundamental question today. When and how should America leave Korea to a different future? Our interests and relationships with both Koreas have been intertwined since the fateful decision that we made at the end of World War II to split the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel into spheres of Soviet and American occupation. We fought the Korean War to resist a Communist takeover of our half the peninsula, not to promote independence after decades of subjugation under the Japanese.

Today we are mired in a contradiction: The alliance between America and South Korea was anchored in our commitment to protecting a nascent democracy in a region threatened by Communist expansion ambition. Today, South Korea does not fear its relations with Communist China nor with post-Communist Russia and has increasingly deepened its economic and political relationships in Northeast Asia.

Threats to South Korea come only from North Korea, which is pursuing its own defense strategy in the face of the perceived threat from America and South Korea. Our alliance today is heavily weighed on military confrontation and has shifted from primarily protecting South Korea from unwanted attacks, to protecting America and Japan from North Korean nuclear missilesThis places new demands on our relations with South Korea, which has long-depended on American support for deterring the North as well keeping alive the prospect of eventual unification.

As the Trump Administration debates its future course of action, both diplomatic and military, it should ask “What future do we want for the Korean peninsula and for American relations with Northeast Asia?” and “What policies are worth pursuing to achieve this?”

It’s important to remember that times change. Social, economic and political changes mean the worldview and aspirations of young Koreans on both sides are different today than previous generations. Finding ways to reinforce the dynamics of change inside North Korea has not been given much attention as an alternative to military confrontation.

South Korea now enjoys extensive economic and social ties with China, while American influence in the region is weakening under policies being pursued by the Trump Administration. As China flexes its geopolitical muscle, and Russia seeks deepening engagement in Northeast Asia, our alliances with both South Korea and Japan are challenged by evolving regional realities.

So far the US has not articulated a strategic vision for Northeast Asia. The Pyongchang Olympics has given us breathing space and a new opening for dialogue. Now is the time to think big and forge a new relationship with the region.

North Korea is the “thorn in the side” of this challenge, and a problem that should be addressed by taking a higher and longer-term view of the stakes at play. Reducing our strategy to military gamesmanship and retrospective thinking is not the answer: It requires a strategic vision and willingness to draw on deep American values and commitments to an international order that is managed in a transparent and legal way. This could move our relationships in Northeast Asia into a new and creative space for innovation and mutual benefit, not to mention the security benefits.

For starters, the US needs to appoint a very senior envoy to engage in a high level, longer-term dialogue about American interests and relations with Northeast Asia and how to resolve the Korea issue with an eye to these fundamental perspectives that respect the interests of all countries concerned.  Our bilateral discussions with North Korea need to be anchored in this longer-term vision and regional collaboration in shaping a shared future. Are we up to it?

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