By Kim Jae-kyoung
This is the fifth in a series of interviews with international experts on Korea to discuss pending issues surrounding the nation on the occasion of the beginning of 2018 _ ED.
For many South Koreans, diplomacy with the United States and China is a zero-sum game.
In other words, strengthening ties with China means weakening the alliance with the U.S.
This belief provoked a public outcry after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on "Four Principles," including the unacceptability of war on the Korean Peninsula during his recent visit to Beijing.
Some argue the agreement indicates Moon was tipping the diplomatic balance in favor of China over the U.S. but Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, downplayed concerns about Moon's China strategy.
"Although the Four Principles were a tremendous concession by South Korea towards China, it is a mistake to view or consider South Korea's relationship with China and South Korea-U.S. relations as a zero-sum game," Hwang said in an interview.
"These two relationships are not, and do not have to be mutually exclusive."
Hwang served as a special adviser on East Asian affairs to the U.S. State Department in the George W. Bush administration.
From Hwang's perspective, South Korea can, and should, pursue a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with China, but that does not mean doing so has to diminish relations with the U.S.
"China, it seems, would very much like to weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance, but South Koreans do not have to succumb to such pressure, nor should they view improvement of South Korea-China relations as a lessening of South Korea-U.S. relations," she said.
"Nor should Americans be suspicious of improved South Korea-China relations. Indeed, it is clear positive and stable relations among China, South Korea and Japan are all of utmost benefit and interest to the U.S."
She described Moon's two-track policy toward North Korea _ seeking dialogue and imposing sanctions at the same time _ as a reformulation of his predecessors' policies, including the one by Park Geun-hye, and even Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy.
"This is essentially the basis of U.S. policy since the 1990s, and followed by the last three presidents, and to some extent even the Trump administration, at least in principle," she said.
She pointed out the reason such an approach has not proven successful in all its various formulations is that such a strategy is entirely dependent on the ability to separate North Korea's nuclear ambitions completely from improving relations with the North in every other arena _ social, economic, political, even conventional military.
"Such a separation is, of course, an impossibility not only for the U.S. and South Korea, but also North Korea," she said.
US-N. Korea meetings likely in 2018
The Washington-based North Korea expert suggested the U.S. and South Korea should not blindly pursue talks because talks themselves cannot fundamentally resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
"There is always the possibility of talks between the U.S. and North Korea. And in fact, in 2018, we may see some meetings occur," she said.
"But the talks themselves are not important, and not necessarily significant."
She explained there were actually numerous talks conducted between relatively high-level officials under the Obama administration, even after the Six-Party Talks were suspended in 2008 but those talks never produced any lasting or significant results.
Against this backdrop, the issue in her view is not whether "talks" are possible or even whether they will occur.
"The real issue is whether or not there can be any progress in reaching any agreement with North Korea _ whether through talks or not _ that will halt, reverse, or even eliminate the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons programs," she said.
"It is unlikely that any kind of talking or diplomacy alone will ever cause Pyongyang to change its ambitions to achieve a fully functional and capable nuclear weapons program."
Since 1991, three previous U.S. presidents have attempted, and even reached various levels of progress in negotiating agreements with North Korea, and yet none have ultimately proven lasting or permanent.
‘Delaying drills is a serious mistake'
The former research fellow for the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul advised Moon not to delay the next round of South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympic Games to avoid provoking North Korea.
"I think this would be a very serious mistake. The entire premise of the issue is wrong," she said.
"If the U.S.-South Korea starts to make decisions that weaken the military strength of the longstanding bilateral security alliance, it not only sends a very negative message to other U.S. allies, but also to others, such as China and Russia, but especially to North Korea."
She added that joint exercises have been an annual planned event for decades, and are not provocations because they are for the sole purpose of improving defensive and deterrence capabilities.
"If South Korea were to alter such annually planned exercises which are based not on political dynamics but military necessity, then it is a signal that sovereign South Korea security decisions are subject to foreign interference or approval," she said.
She thinks this was China's exact objective in pressuring South Korea economically over its decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
"South Korea must show resolve in asserting its sovereign right to proceed with its own security decisions," she said.
Regardless of the North's missile and nuclear capabilities, she stressed the world should not accept the reclusive regime as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.
She said accepting the North as a "legitimate" nuclear weapons power not only defeats the sole purpose of negotiations, but even more problematic is that doing so will destroy the entire global non-proliferation regime.
"This is the real global danger of Pyongyang's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons," she said.
"So the international community cannot, and should never legitimize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, unless it is willing to completely abandon the global NPT."
By Kim Jae-kyoung