The United States and South Korea must not reduce their joint military drills just to bring North Korea back to the dialogue table, former US ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said Thursday, calling it a “proven path to failure.”
He also dismissed the call for an end of Korean War declaration long advocated by the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration.
“I think the current administration in South Korea took us down a wrong path. So far this year, North Korea has launched over a dozen missiles, including hypersonic and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and this is no path toward peace on the (Korean) peninsula,” Harris said in a webinar hosted by the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in Washington.
“I think we can’t relax sanctions or reduce joint military exercises just to get North Korea to come to the negotiating table. We’ve tried this for years. This is a proven path to failure,” he added.
Seoul, as well as the former US administration of Donald Trump, had often postponed or cancelled the countries’ joint military drills amid dialogue with Pyongyang that included three inter-Korean summits and two US-North Korea summits in 2018 and 2019.
North Korea, however, has avoided any meaningful dialogue with Seoul and Washington since 2019. It also remains utterly unresponsive to any US overtures since the Joe Biden administration took office in January 2021.
“If exercises and sanctions are reduced as an outcome of negotiations, that’s fine, and that’s why you have negotiations. But don’t give them away in advance just as an inducement to come to the negotiating table. That would be a fool’s error, in my opinion,” said Harris.
The Moon administration also sought to declare a formal end to the Korean War, believing it would help kickstart dialogue with the reclusive North.
The former US ambassador to Seoul countered that such a declaration, even if signed, would only be another agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that apparently would not be honored.
“We should ask ourselves, I think, what will change the day after such a declaration is signed?” he said.
“Our treaty obligations to defend South Korea will still be extant, and North Korea’s considerable chemical, biological, conventional, and now nuclear weapons capabilities will still be extant. So let’s not be seduced by another piece of paper signed by Kim Jong-un,” he added.
Seoul and Washington, instead, should work with Tokyo to enhance their joint defense capabilities while trying to completely denuclearise North Korea, Harris insisted.
To this end, Harris highlighted the importance of President Biden directly engaging with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.
“We have to start this off with a top-down approach. At any level less than the heads of government at negotiating… there are people, even at the foreign ministerial level, (who) won’t be empowered in Seoul and Tokyo to move the needle forward in any demonstrable way unless they get clear and unequivocal guidance from the presidents and the prime ministers,” said Harris.
He said Biden’s widely anticipated trip to Asia next month will provide a very important, and possibly the last, chance for him to hold a three-way summit with Japanese prime minister Fumino Kishida and South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who is set to take office on May 10.
“There has been some talk about a Quad meeting. Now that would be really important. I’m a big fan of the Quad, but it would be a lost opportunity if we were to have a Quad meeting and not a trilateral meeting with Korea, Japan and the United States on different issues,” he said.
Biden has said he is planning to visit Tokyo on May 24 for a Quad summit that will also be attended by the leaders of Australia, Japan and India.
Earlier reports suggested the US president may also visit Seoul during his first trip to Northeast Asia. The White House has yet to officially announce his trip or details regarding his itinerary.
“We have a new leadership team in South Korea, and we have a new team, relatively, in Japan and in the United States. Here’s the opportunity. It may present itself only once in the Biden administration,” said Harris, reiterating the importance of a trilateral summit.