“It is natural to reunite something that was artificially separated, and for the past 10 years almost all inter-Korean communication and exchanges were suspended,” Cho observed. Inter-Korean détente was, he said, similar to “a river that was once blocked for a long time” and is now flowing again.
In the case of the United States and North Korea, he continued, “it is too early to expect [them] to establish trust after 70 years of hostility. There is a huge gap in their perspectives, and they lack mutual understanding.”
The two tracks, Cho argued, could go hand in hand. Even as he downplayed an end-of-war declaration as a mere “political” statement, for instance, Cho highlighted its capacity to grant Kim the “legitimacy” necessary for persuading top North Korean military officials to stake the nation’s future security on peace and economic development rather than nuclear weapons and international isolation.
U.S. officials, however, seem far less thrilled by the burst of activity on the Korean peninsula. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who previously scolded his South Korean counterpart during a private call for insufficiently consulting with the United States about inter-Korean military pacts, recently made the rare move of airing his grievances in public.
The Trump administration wants to “make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas,” he told reporters last Tuesday. It was a mealymouthed way to say: Not so fast, Mr. Moon.
Read: The man behind the North Korea negotiations
This is fundamentally what divides the two allies at the moment: The South Korean government contends that relieving pressure on North Korea is the best way to push forward on denuclearization, while the U.S. government considers it the surest way to fall backwards. Seoul is examining the fine details of when and how to open relief valves that Washington so far has shown little interest in touching.
Nowhere is this disconnect clearer than with economic sanctions against North Korea. Whereas Pompeo has referred to international sanctions as “the core proposition” that “will give us the capacity to deliver denuclearization,” Moon recently made the case to European leaders that these sanctions should be eased as a form of encouragement when Kim takes significant steps toward relinquishing his nuclear program. (North Korea, which abruptly canceled a November meeting with Pompeo, has threatened to make no further concessions on its nuclear program and even resume its weapons buildup unless sanctions are lifted.)
When tensions have erupted between the United States and South Korea over inter-Korean initiatives—whether involving the water supply to a liaison office or South Korean banks eyeing the North Korean market—they have stemmed from the Trump administration’s concerns about the Moon government watering down sanctions and puncturing holes in the broader U.S. pressure campaign against Kim.