American think-tanks should offer alternative voices on how to deal with North Korea: The Korea Herald columnist

South Korean soldiers standing guard at the truce village of Panmunjom along the border with North Korea, on Feb 21, 2018.
South Korean soldiers standing guard at the truce village of Panmunjom along the border with North Korea, on Feb 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

In his commentary, the writer says that a new, different voice in Washington might be more beneficial to the Trump administration in handling North Korea.

Kim Tae Kyoon

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - At last, the Pyeongchang Olympics began in the face of all the uncomfortable comments on North Korea's sports diplomacy.

Although South Korea labelled the Pyeongchang Olympics the "Peace Olympics". the Trump administration and almost all think-tanks in Washington en masse shared sceptical responses to the phrase.

They commonly evaluated Pyongyang's participation in Pyeongchang as a strategically planned move to buytime and drive a wedge between South Korean President Moon Jae In and US President Donald Trump.

No doubt, their concerns deserve careful consideration. The heightened nuclear crisis resulted in US-led strong sanctions against North Korea.

Washington keeps on highlighting that a much stronger alliance among US, South Korea and Japan, in tandem with China's close cooperation, should be reinforced to suppress Pyongyang's ambitions as a nuclear power.

Two critical issues, however, need to be reconsidered seriously.

First, the White House dropped Victor Cha as a candidate for US ambassador to South Korea after he criticised the idea of a US pre-emptive strike, or "bloody nose" strategy, on North Korea.

The sudden withdrawal of Cha has led Seoul to fear that Washington might press ahead - without Seoul's consent - with military action against the North after the Pyeongchang Olympics. The Games end on Feb 25.

This is in the same line with the White House's immediate denial of Rex Tillerson's diplomatic overtures in December when he offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without preconditions.

Second, US Vice-President Mike Pence sent firm signals to Pyongyang and Seoul, with the aid of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the Olympic opening ceremony.

Pence was due to sit at the same table as North Korea's head of state figure Kim Yong Nam. Pence skipped dinner.

He not only threatened the toughest-ever US sanctions against North Korea, but also focus attention on North Korea's human rights violations by bringing along Otto Warmbier's father to Pyeongchang. The University of Virginia student was detained in North Korea for 17 months, most of it in a coma, and died shortly after he was flown back to the US.

The Trump administration's interest in engagement with North Korea while at the Pyeongchang Olympics has been absolutely zero.

This is quite opposite to actions taken by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, considering they all welcomed inter-Korea talks at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

More careful attention should be given to the negative situation wherebymost think-tanks in Washington have made cutting remarks against Moon's diplomatic brokering efforts.

The think-tanks commonly warn that this ongoing detente between the two Koreas makes Washington nervous, and the inter-Korea talks would be meaningless unless the principle of denuclearisation is accepted by Pyongyang.

Excluding the option of direct talks from the list of policy choices, think-tanks in Washington, regardless of their political orientations, seem to stay in tune with the Trump administration.

Comments from various think-tanks in Washington hardly emphasise the importance of US talks with North Korea.

Washington's think-tanks can contribute to the White House's decision-making by displaying various opinions and different voices.

Although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hides his wicked calculations behind the charm offensive to the Pyeongchang Olympics, the inter-Korea summit, followed by the Winter Olympics, would be the last chance for thawing the ice caps of nuclear deadlocks between Washington and Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un has invited Mr Moon for talks in Pyongyang.

If all fail, what would have been a positive exit ramp for the US-North Korean nuclear confrontation might end in a mirage.

Cooling measures need to be taken by both sides.

We all agree that the issue of denuclearisation should be at the top of talking points at any inter-Korean summit and that Seoul should tighten vigilance against Pyongyang's efforts to magnify differences between Moon and Trump.

For Washington, it is high time to gear direct talks with North Korea towards a necessary step in the long journey towards denuclearisation.

Washington can decide how it wishes to conducttalks with Pyongyang, while simultaneously enforcing tight joint sanctions against North Korea.

A different voice, hopefully, would go viral across think-tanks in Washington, thereby saving the forthcoming momentum of the summit for both sides.

The writer is an associate professor at International Development Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.