South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump 

Australia has had yet another high-level, former US defence official breeze in, this time to warn that we might be attacked by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Whether there is or is not a concerted plan to all this, the visits of the grave and famous, and warnings about improbable threats serve the purpose of keeping us from wandering away from Uncle Sam’s skirt in these strange times. It is useful to step away from speculation and look at some things actually happening. 

On October 1, The Washington Post reported that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting Beijing, explained to journalists “… the United States is in direct contact with North Korea and is looking into whether Kim Jong-un is open to talks.”

I think it’s a perilous business to tell journalists you may have a fish biting. On the same day, a DPRK spokesman “called on the United States … to halt what it claimed to be a hostile policy toward Pyongyang, threatening to turn America into a ‘sea of flames'”. On September 28, Choe Son-hui, director general of the North American department at the DPRK Foreign Ministry, at talks in Moscow, “stressed that it is necessary for the US to stop its hostile policy toward the DPRK in order to defuse tension and ensure peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region”.

If Tillerson claims he’s winning something in this contest, he won’t.

On September 28, on Republic of Korea Armed Forces Day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in awarded “the highest unit-level award given by the ROK government … to all the Sailors of CNFK [US Combined Naval Forces Korea] for ‘outstanding contribution to the defense of the Republic of Korea'”. Since the Korean War, ROK forces have remained under US control in war time. In his speech on the same occasion, Moon called again for transfer of operational control (or OPCON) from the US to the ROK: “It’s only when we regain wartime operational control of our military that North Korea will fear us more and the South Korean public will trust the military more. The goal of this administration is to accelerate the transfer of wartime operational control.”

Then President Moon and Mrs Moon went to have lunch with ordinary seamen on an ROK naval vessel, the Yonhap photo showing happy laughter.

On October 1, the ROK monthly trade figures showed a year-on-year increase in exports of 35%. In September, “outbound shipments came to US$55.1 billion for the month, up from $40.8 billion tallied a year earlier … Imports also rose 21.7 percent on-year to $41.4 billion”. Petrochemical exports in the wake of hurricane damage to the US oil industry were a significant component.

Another round of discussions on the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement will take place in Washington on October 4.

Also on October 1, the Korea Resources Corporation published an estimate of the value of DPRK mineral resources at approximately US$2.8 trillion, 14 times that of South Korea. Modest joint ROK-DPRK minerals projects have been suspended for some time. Sanctions exist, prospects remain.

Again on October 1, in response to the decision of the ROK government to extend electrical vehicle subsidies to Tesla cars previously excluded because they take more than ten hours to charge, Tesla announced plans to extend its network of charging stations in South Korea.

Also on the same day, Moon released a video wishing everyone well for travel home over the Chuseok (Harvest Moon) holiday break … and separately congratulated DPRK figure skaters on their qualification for the Winter Olympics in the ROK next year.

Meanwhile in the wake of the trilateral summit between heads of state of the US, ROK and Japan in New York (at the Korean Lotte hotel, not a Trump hotel), “[t]he Blue House and White House have reportedly shared concerns that ‘distorted’ reports from the Japanese press could ’cause fissures’ in trilateral coordination”.

This report does not implicate Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the shaping of the news items attracting concern, but anxious Abe has been using articulation of tension and criticism of South Korea as well as the DPRK and China (plus a US$18 billion education and aged care package, to be paid for by a GST increase of 2% in 2019) in support of his campaign for re-election on October 22.

On September 27, at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the meeting in 2007, on October 4, between then-ROK president Roh Moo-hyun and then-DPRK president Kim Jong-il, Moon said: “Many of the matters agreed upon in the Oct 4 summit statement can be implemented even now. I hope that both North and South Korea will declare that the Oct 4 summit statement remains valid.” He once again called for the restoration of military talks, humanitarian co-operation and the reunions of the families divided by the Korean War. Restoring military talks was particularly urgent, Moon said, “to relax inter-Korean tensions”. [Hankyoreh]

In his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on September 12, Moon quoted former US president Ronald Reagan: “Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

This ROK government demonstrates a flexibility and skill in dealing with all sides in the current difficult situation. Many domestic supporters were alarmed by Moon’s siding with Trump on issues relating to the DPRK, but had Moon been strident rather than flexible, troubles would abound domestically and perhaps more dramatically in the trade relationship with the US. Nothing would have been gained strategically by antagonism, just as nothing is gained by being joined at the hip with a major power.

*This article was originally published at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations

*Dennis Argall, a former Australian Ambassador to China, has been an observer of north Asian affairs since 1970