U.S.-South Korea Alignment and the Hanoi Summit

The outline of the tentative Hanoi agreement released by Vox this morning indicates that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will make significant progress on improving U.S.-North Korea relations at the summit. The two most important points in this respect are the signing of a peace declaration and the establishment of liaison offices. The peace declaration does not carry the same legally binding power as a peace treaty, but it represents a significant U.S. security assurance to North Korea—an assurance that has never been previously offered. Establishing liaison offices will provide a venue for regular, working-level exchanges between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, which will help both countries live up to the commitments made at their high profile summits. These are very important developments for peace and security in Northeast Asia, and should be greeted as such.

The most important result of the Hanoi agreement will actually have nothing to do with North Korea but everything to do with South Korea. If the broad strokes of the tentative agreement are in the final agreement, the United States and South Korea will have effectively aligned their diplomatic approaches to North Korea. Since the start of Seoul’s diplomatic outreach, the South’s primary goal has been a transformation of its relationship with North Korea. Denuclearization is also one of South Korea’s goals, but that can only happen if the structural conditions that caused the North to pursue nuclear weapons in the first place are changed. To wit, all of South Korea’s diplomatic efforts have prioritized shifting the relationship over narrowly defined questions of denuclearization.

After the Singapore summit, the United States, in contrast, prioritized denuclearization as a precondition for changing the structure of the relationship. This caused tension in U.S.-South Korea relations and failed to yield significant movement from North Korea, whereas the inter-Korean process produced more successful, detailed agreements on military confidence building measures. The tentative Hanoi agreement indicates a significant change in the U.S. approach.

Instead of holding fast and refusing to make any concessions until the North takes steps to denuclearize, the United States is prepared to expand the scope of negotiations to include ending the Korean War, and it is willing to loosen sanctions pressure to enable inter-Korean economic cooperation. Going forward, the United States and South Korea will have a similar order of priorities and similar diplomatic strategies. If the success of the inter-Korean process so far is any indication, this should result in better U.S.-North Korea agreements in the future and reduce friction between Washington and Seoul.