How can you go to war with your enemy when the enemy is on the same sports team as one of your best friends? And playing on his home field?
That is the dilemma facing U.S. strategists as they reel from the invitation by South Korea to North Korea to embrace its athletes into next month's Olympics -- an overture that has cascaded into possibly broader talks between the two Koreas, with the U.S. sitting on the sidelines.
The person-to-person talks are scheduled for January 9th -- one day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's birthday -- at the Peace House, located on the South Korean side of the so-called truce village of Panmunjom, located in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two nations. A hotline between the two sides, dormant for about two years, crackled to life again this week. The annual war games conducted by the U.S and South Korea have been delayed. Words of communication are flowing from Seoul toward the North.
The press secretary for South Korean President South Korean President Moon Jae said in a statement the restoration of this communications channel was “very significant” in that it “creates an environment where communication will be possible at all times.”
With each other. Not with the United States. And while State Department, White House, and Defense officials have tried to frame the rapid rapprochement as a ruse by Kim, privately there is concern that the two Korean presidents may march on to an agenda that leaves the U.S. out of the loop.
The overtures by Kim have thrown a curve ball into U.S. diplomatic and military quarters. Many speaking on background referred to the move as having significant potential to disrupt U.S. leadership on the peninsula and spread apart U.S. and South Korea unity. Several noted how Kim’s chosen attire for his New Year’s address -- a light grey suit and tie, slicked back hair and thoughtful eyeglasses, was designed to project a lighter, softer image that his usual presentation.
Relations between the U.S and South Korea have chilled under President Trump, who has openly clashed with President Moon. Trump, who visited Seoul in November, has repeatedly threatened to scrap a bilateral free trade deal with South Korea; last summer he criticized what he called Seoul’s “talk of appeasement” with the North. “Talks are not the answer!” he tweeted in August.
The two presidents spoke on the phone Thursday when Trump agreed to delay the military war games but spoke of no other topic, according to reports.
Some diplomatic and military talk ponders if the flurry of Korean connections may begin to push Trump to be a bystander on major decisions on the Korean peninsula. For this week, at least, it the two Koreas with control of the decision-making.
President Moon has been vocal in his skepticism about the U.S. strategy of “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy, which seeks to force North Korea into talks with little leverage. He has long argued for diplomatic talks with the North.
“I appreciate and welcome the North’s positive response to our proposal that the Pyeongchang Olympics should be used as a turning point in improving South-North relations and promoting peace,” Moon said in a statement. “I won’t be weak-kneed or just focus on dialogue, as we did in the past.”
U.S. officials see it differently.
“Kim Jong Un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations, between our nation and the Republic of Korea,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said early on, “I can assure you that that will not happen.
“We are close allies, and if [South Korea] wants to sit down and have a conversation with North Korea, that’s fine, that’s their right,” she said. “But we aren’t necessarily going to believe that Kim Jong Un is sincere. We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un's sincerity in sitting down and having talks. Our policy hasn't changed. The South Koreans' policy has not changed. We both support a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, as, frankly, so does the world.”
TOM SQUITIERI is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Pentagon for three decades and was a war correspondent reporting on numerous conflicts.