North and South Korea Are Playing America Against China

As the two Koreas affirm binding ties, world powers are forced to come along for the ride.

Typhoon Soulik recently raced towards the Korean Peninsula, but neither Seoul nor Pyongyang are letting the weather—or America—get in the way of a budding Korean romance.

In fact, North and South Korea are playing the world’s major powers against one another as Pyongyang and Seoul steadily move in near-tandem to build inter-Korean trust, economic relations, and diplomatic representation that may lead to a once-distant dream of unification. As the two Koreas affirm those binding ties, China and America are being forced to come along for the ride.

Inter-Korean dialogue continues next week with a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in in the North Korean capital, a stone’s throw from where the 70th anniversary Pyongyang parade was held – a parade notable for what was missing: long-range missiles capable of lobbing nukes at American troops. The North-South summit will mark the third time this year the two Korean leaders are getting together for a tête-à-tête, the first one being the remarkable meeting at the Korean DMZ where Kim and Moon did a hand-holding two-step across the border’s demarcation line and swung smilingly into each other’s territories.

The love-fest continues between Kim and Moon, but not everyone is ready for this fast-moving political Romeo and Juliet act. The Chinese are like the Capulets and the Americans the Montagues. The two have serious and conflicting regional interests and security concerns and they’re not as keen for the Korean romance to take on a life of its own. Just this last week, Beijing and Washington watched unamused as South Korea’s Unification Ministry seemingly skirted U.N. sanctions to establish a Joint Liaison Office.

Preparations and pre-summit talks are well underway for next week’s Kim-Moon meeting with an immediate goal of achieving a formal Korean peace accord. After a 68-year state of war, these determined sister nations are leading the charge and ignoring any noise from supine superpowers.

This is a contemporary Asian remake of a movie we’ve seen before. The original was a late-20th century thriller that took place in the heart of the European theater, centered in the divided city of Berlin. The whole world binge watched “The Germanys” as if it were a Netflix serial, following every twist and turn of this dramatically unfolding performance on live cable news programs.

Nearly three decades ago, two other countries split by war, one Communist, the other an inordinately successful capitalist nation and a major car exporter, raced towards confidence-building measures, deepening relations, and not only articulating the dream, but artfully managing a peaceful reunification process. Along the way, they dragged behind them the day’s adversarial superpowers—the Soviets and Americans—often playing them against each other to achieve German goals. Sound familiar?

France, Britain, the USSR, and the United States originally thought they were bringing the two Germanys to the dance. What they found out was that Berlin and Bonn had already been dating and the four occupying powers in Berlin attended as somewhat annoying chaperones. West Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl made it clear to me during a group visit to the Bonn Chancellery that the Germans would be in charge of the reunification process and everyone else would need to follow along. So, too, now the Koreas.

Last year, South Korea was in a pinch, nervous about the rhetoric coming out of Washington. President Trump’s nuclear saber rattling and his “fire and fury” threat had the effect of scaring Seoul stiff. President Moon and his citizens actively, if not publicly, questioned whether the U.S. military presence and security umbrella would protect them from a North Korea capable of quickly raining missiles onto South Korean territory.

President Moon and his team scrambled to get a South Korean delegation to Washington, where Seoul’s National Security Advisor delivered an invitation for Trump to meet Kim Jong-un. A bold South Korean gambit that paid off in a Singapore summit.

President Trump held all the cards in Singapore. He could decide whether to withhold or confer international legitimacy and respect to nuclear blackmailer Kim Jong-un. Singapore was the last time America was fully in charge of the now momentum-led and interest-driven inter-Korean unification process. Once Trump bestowed his blessing on Kim as a responsible and reliable actor—and let him glimpse “The Beast” presidential limo — Kim and Moon were off to the races.

China is doing its best to keep a nuclear-empowered Kim in check while the USA is trying to pump the brakes on a President Moon who is moving rapidly to consummate a peace deal that will have a direct effect on the 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and on the pace and process of denuclearization.

If the Koreas get their way, any American troops remaining on the Korean Peninsula will be there less to fight and more to provide a regional security presence. They might also help with humanitarian emergency relief following typhoons and other natural disasters.

Delivering fresh water and blankets in South Korea is a far cry from today’s 2nd Infantry Division’s preparedness motto to “fight tonight” in North Korea. Let’s hope neither is necessary any time soon.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.