The path to peace in the Korean Peninsula
The Asian geopolitical theatre is witnessing dramatic turnaround with a flurry of diplomatic events aimed at securing peace in the continent — which not many months ago, feared to have drifted towards potential nuclear conflagration
While the European theatre remains considerably disquiet following US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy triggering a protectionist wave as a ripple effect elsewhere, the Asian theatre is witnessing dramatic turnaround with a flurry of diplomatic activities, all aimed towards securing peace in the continent — that not many months ago, feared to have drifted towards what looked like a potential nuclear conflagration. Whether Trump’s belligerent stance towards North Korea and tough posturing towards China raising fears of a trade war were the trigger is difficult to gauge.
What mattered most was the initiative taken by South and North Korea to restore peace in the Peninsula plagued by constant threats, and where peace — which looked like will-o’-the-wisp a few months ago — now seems achievable. The beauty of this development was that it all happened without any third party mediation or intervention, though Trump wants to take credit for “pushing Kim” to demonstrate peace overtures towards the South.
Reset of Asian geopolitics
The geopolitical churning also saw both India and China mending fences after a period of tensions that saw a dramatic fall in trust and confidence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in April and a heart-to-heart meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping — which was preceded by visits by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also in April 2018 — laid the right platform to bury their past acrimony and set the stage to work together for restoring trust and bring peace in the ties between the two countries.
This does not, however, imply that all past differences have been resolved overnight, but at least the path has been carved to march towards that goal. The Modi-Xi summit was a major media highlight, as was the Moon Jae-in-Kim Jong-un summit on April 27. As it transpired, the latter scored better in global importance than the former.
Similarly in the Southeast Asian region, the 10-member bloc, despite their differences on certain issues, resolved to address the common challenge they face. Coping with the China challenge is the common threat that binds the group, as was demonstrated during the 32nd summit of the leaders of the grouping in Singapore concluded in the last week of April. Other regional forums in the Southeast Asian region, that includes other stakeholders also, have been working towards similar goals.
The flurry of diplomatic activities that have already taken place and others that are planned started with the desire of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in his New Year address for a summit meeting with his Southern counterpart, Moon Jae-in. The stage was set right as a liberal President assumed office in South Korea, who during his election campaign had already articulated an engagement strategy towards North Korea despite the latter’s nuclear test and a series of missile launches.
Whether Kim was emboldened by this fact or came under pressure from Trump, as claimed by the US President, is immaterial. What is important is that it set the stage for more developments, including an impending summit meeting between Kim and Trump later this month or early June, the date and venue of which are yet to be announced.
Setting the stage
A relevant diplomatic engagement was Kim’s surprise visit to Beijing for a meeting with Xi Jinping in April, prior to his summit with Moon. This was followed by Kim dispatching his senior security advisor to Washington to meet Trump and express Kim’s desire for a summit with him, a proposal which Trump instantaneously accepted, taking his senior officials by surprise. That the announcement for a summit proposal by a North Korean official was made directly to Trump broke many diplomatic protocols. International theorists now need to rework their analysis of how diplomacy is conducted in modern times and that there are no established norms as such. While the world eagerly awaits what would finally transpire at the Trump-Kim summit, the news itself has created a lot of flutter in other Asian capitals.
Though China is the principal ally of North Korea, it seems to be miffed that it was not consulted by Pyongyang before reaching out to Seoul. Beijing’s worry becomes greater as Kim is working out a thaw in relations with Washington through the summit meeting. There is a feeling in Beijing that it is being marginalised despite the fact that it has backed Pyongyang in the toughest of times, though it did go along with the US and others to impose the UN-approved sanctions. However, given Beijing’s other compulsions, one is not sure how sincere it was, as it was suspected to have continued commercial activities with North Korea clandestinely.
This time around, Beijing’s worry of being marginalised looked real when the wave of diplomacy led to the historic summit between Moon and Kim on April 27. Whether Kim consulted Xi when he visited Beijing in April, the first of its kind outside of North Korea since taking power in 2012, is not known. But Beijing must have got a hint when Kim had already expressed a desire to meet Moon in his New Year address. The subsequent development — the participation of North Korean athletes in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, wherein both teams marched together under a common unification flag during the opening ceremony — was an indication enough that Kim will go his own way and consulting Beijing was not a priority. That must have worried Beijing.
This prompted Xi to dispatch his Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Pyongyang on May 2-3, making him the highest ranking Chinese official to travel there in years to improve ties with Pyongyang, days after a landmark inter-Korean summit and weeks ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. Wang Yi travelled there at the invitation of his counterpart, Ri Yong Ho. Both had met in April when Kim visited Beijing. Wang Yi became the first Chinese Foreign Minister to visit the North since 2007.
This long hiatus showed that relations between the Cold War-era allies experienced turbulent times and remained frosty. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had visited Pyongyang in 2009. Wang Yi’s sudden visit to Pyongyang demonstrates the worry that Beijing harboured of being marginalised as it feared that the diplomatic thaw between Pyongyang and Washington would work against its interests. Thus far, a divided Korea has served Beijing’s interests as the North has served as a buffer from the South, where 28,600 US troops are stationed.
Despite Pyongyang rattling the world with its nuclear tests, missile firings and threat to hit mainland US and turning Seoul and Tokyo into a sea of fire, Beijing tolerated Pyongyang and continued to remain its principal ally and main economic partner. However, though Beijing remains North’s main economic partner, trade declined by over 90 per cent after Beijing was forced to go along with other nations in imposing US-approved sanctions.
Kim’s change of heart
In the latest diplomatic announcement, South Korean officials claimed that Pyongyang promised Moon during the summit to shut its nuclear test site within weeks by this month-end and invite experts and journalists from the US and South to verify its closure. This is a huge concession, but the offer is conditional: Pyongyang shall have no need to possess nuclear weapons if the US commits to a formal end of the Korean War and pledged not to invade the North. By making this announcement, Kim has thrown the ball in Trump’s court. Interestingly, Pyongyang has neither confirmed such claims made by the Blue House nor has it denied them.
There is yet another view on what prompted Kim for this peace overdrive. Much to Trump’s pompous claim of putting pressure on Kim and making him respond to Moon’s peace overtures, the other view is that it was Beijing’s sanction implementation that precipitated North’s diplomatic initiative. Pyongyang has preferred not to comment, endorse or reject such assertions. For China, maintaining stability in North Korea at any cost is the topmost priority as any domestic turbulence in the North would inevitably result in millions of refugees crossing into its border, a prospect that Beijing would least rejoice. Moreover, stationing of the US and South Korean troops close to its border would increase Beijing’s uneasiness.
However, given the past experience — when promises were made and quickly broken — Trump would deal with Kim cautiously and not take him for granted. If the Blue House press secretary Yong Young-chan’s remarks that the US shall get to know the kind of person Kim is once talks begin and that he is “not the kind of person who will use nuclear weapons against the South or the United States across the Pacific” are to be believed, then Trump needs to relax his tough stance and start believing Kim’s words.
As a bargain chip to test Kim’s sincerity, Trump might demand at the summit that Pyongyang frees three Americans imprisoned in the North, besides agreeing to an “irreversible” and “verifiable” end to its nuclear weapons programme. Dealing with Kim would be the first diplomatic test for the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
If Trump-Kim talks fail...
What happens if talks between Trump and Kim fail, with neither willing to yield? Trump is going to harden his stance and Kim might retract from his offer to shut down his nuclear installation. The situation could be worse than what prevailed before the summit diplomacy started. Kim’s offer to adjust North Korea’s time zone, bringing it up 30 minutes and synchronising it with the South, will also remain only a proposal.
North Korea has, in the past, made similar commitments about its nuclear programme, but each time failed to honour them. Trump and his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have expressed hope that the talks will result in a solution, but they have also threatened that if there is no outcome, Trump and the delegates shall “leave the room”. At the moment, there is no clarity on how much Kim shall be willing to offer at the talks or what he will demand in return. Nor is it clear as to how much Trump shall be willing to concede. For now, the glass is either half full or half empty, whichever way one looks at it.
Mattis has remarked that the US shall not hesitate in pulling out its troops stationed in South Korea if an agreement is reached with Kim. That is a huge statement. The immediate implication of such a thing happening would mean the abrogation of the security alliance between the US and South Korea. How would China possibly react? A possible new situation emerging in the Korean Peninsula, setting the stage for eventual unification, would not be a prospect that would please Beijing. In the current state of strategic consideration, reunification of the Korean Peninsula is not going to be in any country’s interest and all the stake-holding nations would work to prevent that from happening.
In all these possible scenarios, where does Japan stand? Japan’s position looks to be the most vulnerable from whichever angle one looks at it. The US, Russia, and China issued public statements in the aftermath of the historic summit, though Japan cast a more sceptical tone. From the beginning, the way diplomacy was conducted, Japan had a reason to feel sidelined. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, resolving the abduction of Japanese nationals by the North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s is one of the top priorities. He even sent his Foreign Minister Taro Kono to Seoul prior to Moon’s summit with Kim to ask Moon to raise the abduction issue with Kim.
South Korea said Moon conveyed Japan’s desire to normalise ties with North Korea during the summit after resolving issues of “past history”. Moon’s office said Kim was willing to discuss normalisation of relations with Japan, though he did not provide specific details. Japan says North Korea abducted at least 17 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train its agents in Japanese language and culture in order to spy on South Korea. North Korea acknowledged abducting 13 Japanese in the 1970s. It allowed five of them to visit Japan in 2002. North Korea says eight others have died, but their families say the North’s statement cannot be trusted. North Korea says the other four never entered its territory. With North Korea’s recent turn to diplomacy, Tokyo is expected to try to arrange talks with Pyongyang to resolve the long-standing abduction issue.
Reactions to the Moon-Kim summit were overwhelmingly supportive, though South Korean media cautiously welcomed the outcome, lamenting the lack of a firmer commitment to ridding the North of its nuclear weapons. The conservative Chosun daily said in an editorial that the agreement was positive in terms of repairing frozen ties between the two Koreas, but left much to be desired in terms of denuclearisation. Referring to the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit, the editorial observed, “Even if an agreement is reached on denuclearising the North at the upcoming US-North Korea summit, it will take a while to demolish nuclear facilities, weapons, and fissile materials.” The observation was apt in view of the fact that Kim himself made no mention of denuclearisation in public.
The JoongAng Daily said there is a long way to go before denuclearisation. It observed: “It was never made public what Kim’s idea of denuclearisation is and how and when denuclearisation will be accomplished.” It noted that a definite road map, including the method, subjects, and timeline for denuclearisation had not been laid out. But it acknowledged that might have been retained for the forthcoming summit between Trump and Kim, which would need “a shining moment of dramatic progress”. The Korea Herald gave a more positive spin to the Panmunjom Declaration, saying the inter-Korean summit was “a stepping stone to the Washington-Pyongyang summit”, and that it had “played its role quite successfully”.
Iran welcomed the steps towards détente between North and South Korea, but warned that the US was unqualified to play a role since it did not “respect its commitments”. Iran said that the “historic new page for détente on the Korean Peninsula” should be worked out between the two principal parties, without the “interference of foreign countries”. Iran’s reaction was on expected lines as its nuclear deal reached in 2015 with the US is under threat under the Trump administration.
The Koreans in Japan had mixed reactions over the summit. While some hailed the reconciliatory spirit displayed by the two leaders, there were others who said “the sense of distrust hasn’t been dispelled”.
The summit was analysed critically by former North Korean diplomat, Thae Yong Ho, who was posted as the deputy head of mission in England; he defected in 2016 and now lives in South Korea under heavy security. He remarked that Kim shall see his meeting with Moon as a victory. According to him, the location of the talks is seen differently by people in North and South Korea. “That special area of Panmunjom is interpreted quite differently between the North and South. In South Korea, it is a symbol of peace, which ended the Korean War. In North Korea, it’s the place where America was forced to sign a surrender, so Panmunjom is a symbol of victory.”
As it transpired, the inter-Korean summit eclipsed the informal Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan even as much hype was made that India was resetting ties with China. Now world attention is shifting towards Trump’s impending summit with Kim, which could eventually emerge as the biggest event of the century. Writing in The New Yorker, Robin Wright has a word of caution. According to him, the inter-Korean summit — though provided a rare glimpse of a possible détente after a year of sometimes breathless escalation and “an adrenaline-pumping affair centered on a political odd couple” — could be a premature event. From a period when ugly exchanges of words between Trump and Kim flew without any restraint to what metamorphosed soon enough with Kim’s New Year address expressing his desire to meet Moon, for reasons that are still not completely clear.
Yet, the remarks of Wendy Sherman — a senior State Department official during the Clinton and Obama administrations, who travelled to North Korea with former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in 2000 — that dialogue was certainly better than a march to war has considerable merit.
Kim seems to have achieved much of what he sought, mainly the nuclear arsenal at his command, but so far has given up nothing. He had a hero’s welcome in China and now waits to sit face to face with a sitting President, which his father and grandfather sought to do unsuccessfully. With the Kim-Moon summit, the first round of battle on the Korean issue seemed to have been won. Now starts the hard part when Trump and Kim sit down for talks. The world would like to hear what each brings to the table and what concessions each would be willing to offer to each other. It is difficult to disagree when Robin Wright writes, “For all the buoyant optimism generated by the Panmunjom talks, there are innumerable opportunities for failure.”
The writer is former Senior Fellow, IDSA, and until recently ICCR Chair at Reitaku University, Japan
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