The news of US President Donald Trump having contracted the coronavirus has prompted concerns here over the effect his illness could have on the security situation on the peninsula, with inter-Korean ties strained amid stalled denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
It is hoped that dire scenarios will be averted by Trump’s quick recovery from COVID-19. And the US government should be counted on to function without a significant hitch even if his condition becomes worse than expected.
Trump catching the coronavirus appears to have ruled out a surprising diplomatic event with Pyongyang ahead of the US presidential election on Nov. 3.
A recent string of visits to Washington by senior South Korean officials, including top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon, sparked speculation that Seoul was trying to help arrange yet another summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Experts here also raised the possibility of Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly powerful sister of the North’s dictator, traveling to Washington this month to convey a message to Trump from her brother.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his aides have been eager to see the resumption of high-level contacts between the US and the North, which they hope will advance their agenda for peace on the peninsula.
They may have wanted to hear, during the planned visit to Seoul of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that Washington intended to set up a big diplomatic event with Pyongyang.
Instead, the US State Department announced the cancellation of the visit Sunday in the wake of Trump’s disclosure in a tweet that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19.
It earlier said the top US diplomat would visit Seoul for two days from Wednesday after stopping by Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, following his trip to Tokyo, where he is attending a four-way meeting with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan on ways to cope with China’s growing assertiveness.
The statement by the US State Department said Pompeo expected to travel to Asia again within October. The aim of the rescheduled visit, which might be preceded by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Seoul, is more likely to center on drawing South Korea into the global framework the US is building with like-minded countries against China.
Moon’s push for declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, is also expected to lose steam.
In his prerecorded address for the UN General Assembly last month, Moon called for international efforts to declare an official end to the war, which he said would provide the security guarantee the North has long sought, thus prompting the recalcitrant regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions and take the path to a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.
Lee, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, apparently sought US support for the peace initiative during his trip to Washington days after Moon’s address.
He told reporters after a meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun that the allies have formed a “better foundation” for the end-of-war declaration.
Biegun, who doubles as the US point man on negotiations with the North, said the two sides discussed “creative ideas” on how to move stalled talks with the communist state forward.
Upon returning home, Lee was asked by a reporter whether those creative ideas could take shape before the upcoming US presidential election. He said South Korea and the US would continue to consult with each other. Under the current circumstances, it might be difficult for any substantial consultations to move forward.
For its part, the North seems unlikely to make a serious provocation before November’s US presidential vote. Instead, it might show off a new type of strategic weapon, such as upgraded long-range missiles tipped with multiple nuclear warheads, during a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party later this week.
An actual provocative act might come after the US election to bring the North Korean issue back into the focus of attention for the new US administration, either under Trump or Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Kim Song, the head of the North’s diplomatic mission to the UN, last week affirmed that the isolated regime would not give up its nuclear arsenal, saying it would not sell off its dignity for economic benefits and would safeguard its security with the “absolute strength” it has built.
The jolt from Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis might well remind South Korean officials of the importance of a firm alliance with the US in dealing with the nuclear-armed North.