The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As clock ticks, South Korea looks for a leap of faith from Washington over North Korea

A South Korean guard post is destroyed Thursday in the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas in Cheorwon. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — On the militarized front line dividing the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has been busy bulldozing and blowing up some of its guard posts.

It is a symbol of what Seoul hopes will be a new era of relations with Pyongyang. But it is also one of the few steps South Korea can take to build confidence with the North without violating U.N. sanctions or going against its U.S. allies and protectors.

In South Korea, frustration is building that its efforts to improve relations with North Korea have not been matched with a corresponding improvement in ties between Pyongyang and Washington.

Indeed, five months after President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, there are worrying signs of backsliding.

A meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, was canceled at the last minute earlier this month. And as the United States resumed small-scale military exercises with the South Korean military, North Korean media warned the country could restart its nuclear program unless sanctions were lifted.

Pyongyang has expressed frustration that — in its eyes — Trump has not come through on a promise to build a “new era” of relations, while the U.S. administration remains adamant that strict sanctions will remain in place until North Korea surrenders its nuclear weapons. 

“These acts by the U.S. apparently came from a medieval-era way of thinking that only threatening, coercive and barbarian tactics could enhance its negotiating leverage,” DPRK Today, a state-sponsored website, said Monday, also complaining about recent military exercises with Japan involving nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and bombers. Those “illogical” tactics won’t work, it said.

In Seoul, the government is wary of criticizing the United States directly. But behind the scenes, there is a real sense that Washington needs to move the needle forward by building trust with the North.

Opinion: As expected, North Korea played Trump for a fool

“As long as this lack of confidence persists, the United States and North Korea will just be going around in a vicious circle,” said Lee Soo-hyuck, a ruling-party lawmaker who led South Korea’s negotiations with the North a decade and a half ago. “I really hope the United States has some novel idea.”

There is a fundamental disagreement between Washington and Seoul about how we arrived at this point. The Trump administration credits its “maximum pressure” campaign for forcing Pyongyang to the negotiating table. South Korea’s government says it was President Moon Jae-in and Trump’s joint efforts to extend the hand of friendship to Kim. 

From that disagreement comes discord about how to move the process forward.

Vice President Pence told NBC News last week that it is “absolutely imperative” that when Kim next meets Trump, he hand over a “verifiable” plan to disclose his nuclear and weapons sites, open them for inspection and dismantle them. 

“Now we need to see results,” Pence said.

It is an approach the South Koreans say is premature.

“North Korea is aware that reporting a list of its nuclear weapons is a very important step toward denuclearization,” South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong said during a parliamentary hearing this month. “But such steps must come after concrete measures are taken to build up trust by both sides.” 

Chung also quoted Kim as saying that handing over such a list before the two sides trust each other “is the same as telling us to submit a list of targets for attacks.”

There is understandable wariness in Washington about trusting a regime that has never demonstrated its trustworthiness in the past and has not renounced a January pledge to move from testing to mass production of warheads and missiles.

But some experts say the United States also is at risk of missing an opportunity to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and explore just how far Kim is prepared to go in cutting his nuclear arsenal in return for better relations and economic development.

Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University who was involved in U.S.-North Korea talks from 1992 to 2000, said it’s unrealistic to expect North Korea to allow thousands of U.S. investigators to roam its country at will. Washington also needs to be more aware of how its rhetoric plays in the North, he said.

“Why is it so hard for people to grasp that North Korea is not a conquered country?” he asked. “America also needs to stop rubbing their noses in the fact that we’re going to keep sanctions on until hell freezes over.” 

Joseph Yun, former U.S. special representative for North Korea, said Washington was guilty of “a tremendous amount of mixed messaging” between Trump and other members of the administration — and those under Trump were guilty of being “way too uncompromising.”

As a result, he said, Pyongyang was not even giving Pompeo and new Special Representative Stephen Biegun the chance to meet face to face with North Korean officials. “Without getting those meetings, you can’t rely on summits to do all that work.”

Recent articles in North Korean state media suggest doubts may be surfacing in Pyongyang about whether Kim’s more conciliatory approach to Washington is bearing fruit, experts say.

“Ultimately the only road to a real agreement is to build trust between the United States and North Korea,” said Lee, the South Korean lawmaker. Lee headed South Korea’s delegation at six-party talks when North Korea submitted a list of its nuclear facilities in 2003. “Only if this happens will North Korea feel safe to actually tell the truth.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has missed small but significant opportunities to signal its interest in a new relationship with Pyongyang, extending at the end of August a travel ban on U.S. citizens and blocking American aid workers from making humanitarian trips to the country.

Yun, the former special representative, said the United States should consider opening liaison offices with North Korea but ultimately should talk to Pyongyang about sanctions relief.

“You can see bits of the sand castle crumbling,” said John Delury, an associate professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “And there’s a big wave out there.”

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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