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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Kerry in Korea

by | February 16th, 2014 | 07:00 am
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Following are a few quick observations on three press opportunities surrounding the first leg of Kerry’s Asia trip in Seoul: two in Seoul and the third a backgrounder in Washington.

Remarks with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (February 13).

Perhaps the biggest announcement of this press opportunity had already been made: a restatement of the decision by the President to visit Korea on his April trip. Several weeks ago, the high-powered troika of Richard Armitage, Victor Cha and Michael Green made the case for the Seoul visit in the Washington Post after leaks suggested Korea would be left off the President’s itinerary. There are many good reasons for this reversal, including substantive policy issues such as Korea’s participation in the TPP. But perhaps the best reason was to avoid a situation in which Japan—which continues to perform badly on the history question—was visited while Korea was not. The majority of the press conference was in fact taken up with the Japan-Korea relationship. Secretary Kerry did not take sides in the conflict and acknowledged that the issues remain salient and real, and explicitly stated that it was the U.S. role to broker some kind of deal. Rather, he called on the two parties to “put history behind them and move the relationship forward.” Minister Yun was less diplomatic on the issue, reiterating the Park administration’s position that the way forward lies through Tokyo, not Seoul.

In anticipation of the China leg of his trip, Secretary Kerry pushed back on a question suggesting China had done nothing since Sunnylands to rein in North Korean behavior. Kerry disagreed, suggesting that China may have been doing more than meets the eye. But the general approach of both Secretary Kerry and Minister Yun was a reiteration of the two-track strategic patience approach of pressure and inducements, with few signals of an anxiousness to get back to the Six Party Talks.

The very brief press opportunity with President Park confirmed the wisdom of Armitage, Cha and Green: President Park led with the Obama visit, confirming Seoul’s sigh of relief at not being “overflown.”

While Secretary Kerry was on his way to the region, “senior administration and State Department officials” offered up one of these odd, on-the-record, off-the-record “background briefings” to give the administration’s spin. The core message: despite Kerry’s recent attention to the Middle East, the rebalance is real.

With respect to North Korea, “the way that you might want to think about the issue is that we are embarked in an effort to translate denuclearization from a noun to a verb.” Particular emphasis was placed in the opening remarks on China: “What [Kerry] seeks to do is to enlist greater and greater levels of Chinese cooperation in actually helping to achieve the goal of denuclearization, not just talking about it.” In Seoul, Secretary Kerry also emphasized the economic ties between the two countries and the fact that Beijing should be using them more aggressively (“As we know, all of the refined fuel that goes into move every automobile and every airplane in North Korea comes from China. All of the fundamental rudimentary banking structure that the North has with the world passes through China. Significant trade and assistance goes from China to North Korea.)

Nonetheless, when the official got push back on the fact that so little had happened since Kerry’s last visit, however, he claimed that conversations with the Chinese on the issue had in fact shown a more forthcoming posture. It’s not impossible, but we have been pretty unimpressed with the Chinese record to date.

We were struck, finally, by the open discussion of the Jang purge. In the background briefing, the senior administration official suggested obliquely that China was not pleased with Jang’s downfall. In Seoul, Minister Yun went further and explicitly referred to the execution as a sign of instability in the North, simultaneously reiterating the South’s new focus on reunification. How these strands of thinking relate to Park’s concept of Trustpolitik is far from obvious.