North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left his historic Singapore summit with US President Donald Trump last month with a massive political victory in hand, but questions remain how this will help his isolated country in pragmatic terms.
A Japanese newspaper reported Sunday that Kim has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in lifting the sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. But even if sanctions are lifted, will this be enough to improve the standard of living for North Korea’s impoverished citizens?
In recent years, Pyongyang has focused on twin policy objectives: achieving global political legitimacy, and embarking on a program of economic modernisation. The Singapore summit has arguably helped in reaching the first objective. North Korea will now be looking to achieve the second.
A possible high-speed future
Compared to neighbouring China and South Korea, North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of expansion and modernisation. For decades, the government emphasised investment in heavy industry and weapons programs, allowing its roads, ports, rail lines and airports to fall into disrepair. North Korea’s energy, water and communications systems lag behind the rest of the world, as well.
When Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Moon said he would like to travel through North Korea to climb Mt. Paektu – a site of great importance in Korean folklore. Kim responded with a revealing admission that he would be “embarrassed” by his country’s railways.
Kim also told Moon how the North Korean athletes who took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were impressed by the South’s high-speed rail network. This was seen by many as a likely signal that North Korea was motivated to bring its own rail network – and the rest of its infrastructure – into the 21st century.
And South Korea evidently wants to help. At the summit between the two leaders, Moon gave Kim a USB drive that laid out a vision for connecting the two Koreas through new infrastructure projects and special economic zones.
Moon’s proposal is shrewd. The rail lines would also connect North Korea to its northern neighbours, China and Russia, and ultimately serve as a vital link between the entire Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia and Europe.
These reserves consist of iron, gold, copper and graphite, as well as large amounts of rare earth deposits needed for production of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets made in the South. There are also unconfirmed reports of oil and gas deposits in North Korean waters.
However, modernising North Korea’s neglected infrastructure won’t come cheaply. The cost is estimated at several trillion dollars , similar to what West Germany spent to develop the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The technical know-how and capacities of North Korea’s labour forces will also pose huge challenges.
Already, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and other corporations provide training for the North Koreans they’ve employed in special economic zones along the border. These giants are well-placed to rebuild the North’s deteriorating infrastructure, but would need to invest much more time and money to train the local workforce.
Whether the North accepts the South’s help remains to be seen. This could prove to be a major stumbling block.
Of course, China could step in and play a major role. The country has built the world’s longest high-speed rail network, extending some 22,000kms, in a remarkably short span of time.
Before any progress can be made on grand plans like these, North and South Korea need to take an important first step and reopen the rail links and roads between the countries. The two neighbours agreed in June to work towards that goal, but any material progress will need to wait until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted.
The two Koreas agreed to start limited cross-border rail service to an industrial zone just over the North Korean border in 2007, but the fraught relationship between the two countries soon brought the initiative to a halt.
This time around, progress will depend on the cooperation of the North Korean leader, who has been reluctant to accept help in the past, but might be persuaded to do so now with his country’s future in the balance.
US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un will meet on Tuesday for their highly anticipated summit in Singapore. For the summit to be productive, the negotiations need to converge on a lowest-common-denominator shared interest that both parties can agree on.
We saw this in the inter-Korean summit, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un settled on easy-win confidence-building measures as the starting point for more substantive negotiations.
Given the extreme and long-standing trust deficit between the US and DPRK, it is not clear where Trump and Kim might find this lowest common denominator to unlock a confidence-building pathway. Because of that, this summit is shaping as compelling viewing as a spectacle, and perplexing in its ambiguous purpose.
What do they have to offer each other?
North Korea is not committed to denuclearisation as the concept has been understood by the Trump administration. The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea implies the full simultaneous nuclear weapons relinquishment by all nuclear powers, including the United States.
The problem with Trump’s insistence on CVID is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point for a discussion with North Korea on those terms. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program, because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway, and domestic political legitimacy.
The only real concession of value that Washington has to offer Kim is a formal treaty to conclude the Korean War. Indeed, Trump has hinted that the “signing of a document” to close hostilities is a possibility (though he stopped short of offering a formal peace treaty).
What does North Korea have to offer the United States, short of denuclearisation? We have seen gestures of goodwill in the lead-up to the summit. North Korea’s recently demolished tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site are a gesture of goodwill to Washington, offering up a now-obsolete facility.
This echoes a similar concession by Pyongyang in 2008, when it demolished the cooling tower of the obsolete reactor at Yongbyon. Negotiations may settle on a nuclear freeze and/or missile testing moratorium, in addition to other smaller security-related confidence-building measures.
The North released three American citizens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a recent visit to Pyongyang. The Americans had been detained in the DPRK on accusations of espionage.
Both parties have strengths and weaknesses in their bargaining positions. North Korea has (or is close enough to) a deployable nuclear weapons capability. Kim appears enthusiastic to talk now with the Americans, because in nuclear weapons his government has the strategic leverage it needs. North Korea wants to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States, but on Pyongyang’s terms.
The explicit inclusion of references to transportation infrastructure linkages with South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration from April’s inter-Korean summit illustrates this point.
Similarly, there are limitations on American action that constrain its negotiating options – most notably, the strategic vulnerability of Seoul to North Korean bombardment.
The absence of a substantive relationship between the US and North Korea also limits Washington’s economic and diplomatic leverage. Rightly or wrongly, the US has dealt itself out of direct influence over North Korea through its various policies of strategic isolation and maximum pressure. It is ironic that US officials have consistently urged China to do more to pressure North Korea and uphold the integrity of the sanctions regime, when it has been economic interactions between the DPRK and China that have had the most demonstrable impact on politics in Pyongyang.
However, the clear power disparity between the US and DPRK is often overlooked. As the more powerful party with overwhelming nuclear superiority and clear capacity to deter any North Korean nuclear threat, the US does have capacity to reset the terms of the relationship by reducing the heat in negotiations.
Trump can do this by changing the focus of the negotiations. If it insists on CVID to the bitter end, the Trump administration will blow an opportunity to meaningfully change the strategic goalposts on the Korean Peninsula by focusing on the wrong prize.
Who else is playing a role?
With such ambiguity over potential outcomes from the summit, other regional players are lobbying hard around the edges to represent their interests.
South Korea’s diplomatic efforts in 2018 have been geared to guiding the US into a more conciliatory position with North Korea. This would make it politically safer for Trump to negotiate for an agreement with Pyongyang, knowing there are influential American officials in Trump’s ear counselling for war.
Moon Jae-in has been busy maintaining the diplomatic momentum generated by the inter-Korean summit, from his tactical ego-stroking comments about Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize to visiting Washington to lobby the president directly.
Moon has even flagged that he may travel to Singapore for the summit, knowing South Korea is best positioned to facilitate confidence-building with the DPRK.
Conversely, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been engaging in shuttle diplomacy, urging Trump to follow a tougher line. North Korea’s WMD and missile threat to Japan, and resolution of the abductee issue, are core interests of the Abe administration.
Indeed, an adversarial North Korea better suits Abe’s domestic agenda for Japanese strategic “normalisation”, which would be undercut by rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang.
It is also interesting to see that former NBA star Dennis Rodman may be an attendee at the summit. While Rodman has been lampooned in some quarters for his sports diplomacy and relationship with Kim Jong-un, he nonetheless has a level of access to and a unique rapport with the North Korean leader that is largely unmatched by anyone else within the American foreign policy establishment.
Also significant is the non-invitation of US National Security Advisor John Bolton. His recent comments comparing North Korea to Libya appear to be a deliberate attempt to undercut the State Department’s groundwork with Pyongyang over the past few months.
American hawks such as Bolton view any kind of engagement with North Korea as a “loss” or “appeasement” — one of the most juvenile and misapplied terms in the international relations lexicon.
They are well aware of the difficulty of getting any negotiated deal ratified in a Republican-majority Congress (recalling the fate of the Agreed Framework). The irony is a deal is more likely to stick in the US if it is owned by a Republican president.
What could this summit achieve?
My view is that North Korea can be deterred as a nuclear power, and a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War represents the best pathway to managing regional security and ensuring the safety of the people who live in the region.
It is under the umbrella of a formalised peace regime that human rights concerns within North Korea are more likely to be addressed, coupled with continued pressure from international human rights advocates.
Summits are symbols that act as markers in a much broader process of relationship-building. They are based on confidence-building measures and clear, achievable implementation steps. Through such a process, the parties could gradually evolve the level of trust necessary to progress to subsequent steps on the negotiation pathway.
It is unclear in the build-up to this unprecedented summit if the participants will be able to hack away the thicket of decades of mistrust and hostility to identify common interests.
We will find out on Tuesday if Trump and Kim can find that lowest common denominator on which to build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
In the wake of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s meeting yesterday with US President Donald Trump, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable role he’s played in facilitating the opening for diplomacy that’s emerged this year between the US and North Korea.
It was a difficult environment for Moon to step into as the new leader of South Korea eager to pursue an agenda of rapprochement with the North. Yet Moon’s government has been able to craft a distinctive approach to engagement with an unpredictable leader like Kim and an American president who is equally erratic and deeply uncertain about his approach to North Korea policy.
Moon has made great strides in recent months, though we will have to hold judgement on the success of his approach until after Korea’s season of summits plays out.
A history of progressive politics
Moon Jae-in came from humble beginnings, born to a poor family who had fled the North during the Korean War. As a student at Kyung Hee University during the 1970s, he was involved in the emerging pro-democracy movement against the dictator Park Chung-hee. He also took part in Operation Paul Bunyan during his compulsory military service, the retaliatory operation to the infamous 1976 killings of two US Army officers by North Korean soldiers (known as the “axe murder incident”).
Moon eventually graduated from university and passed the bar exam in 1982, but was unable to advance in the judiciary due to his pro-democracy activist history. Through the 1980s, Moon partnered in a law firm with future South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, specialising in human rights cases.
Moon’s relationship with Roh would later lead him into politics. He was an official in Roh’s presidential administration, during which time he oversaw the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea in 2004 and was involved in organising the 2007 inter-Korean summit.
Moon made the jump from government official to elected representative in 2012, when he was elected to the South Korean National Assembly. He later launched an unsuccessful campaign for president against Park Geun-hye.
He went on to comfortably win the May 2017 presidential election, pledging to revive the engagement strategies of the Sunshine Policy era and seek better ties with the North.
A pivotal actor
Moon has advocated for a firm but patient strategy in engaging with North Korea. In his inaugural address as president, he expressed a willingness to:
go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula. If necessary, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and under the right circumstances go to Pyongyang, as well. I will do whatever I can to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
His enthusiasm for a more activist approach toward the North contrasted with the freeze in inter-Korean relations that had developed during the more conservative reciprocity-based strategy favoured by presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak.
The strategy is aimed at buttressing regional security through economic and infrastructure linkages, or “nine bridges” between South Korea and Russia in the form of gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the co-development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of the New Northern Policy emerged in Article 1.6 of the Panmunjom Declaration from the recent inter-Korean summit, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ between North and South Korea. These kinds of economic incentives may be highly attractive for North Korea as it pursues its Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development).
Despite taking a firm line on sanctions against North Korea following Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, the Moon administration capitalised on the auspiciously timed Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to open a new line of communication with the North Koreans. This bought much-needed time for diplomacy as tensions between the US and North Korea were reaching a boiling point.
By accident or design, the Moon-Kim summit last month and proposed Trump-Kim summit scheduled for next month have opened a window of opportunity to move away from the status quo toward a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.
While Trump and Kim will inevitably grab all the headlines, Moon has been a pivotal actor in this drama. His activism in engaging the North has helped to make it politically safer for the Trump administration to negotiate with Kim, a prospect that was unthinkable only months ago.
There has been much media conjecture over what exactly the two parties have agreed to at the Panmunjom summit. It is therefore worth examining the declaration article-by-article to ascertain what is and isn’t on the table.
The Panmunjom Agreement is built around three core articles that identify points of agreement between the two parties, address potential local-level security flashpoints, and call for the negotiation of a treaty to formally conclude the Korean War.
Much of what has been agreed to here is not new, having been restated from previous inter-Korean agreements. However, in the context of the heightened tension that has surround the Korean Peninsula over the past year, this material takes on fresh meaning.
Identifying points of agreement
The clauses of Article 1 build on existing points of agreement between South Korea and the DPRK that were established during the Sunshine Policy period of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun presidencies.
In calling on both sides to implement existing inter-Korean agreements, Article I attempts to marshal the authority of the previous agreements as the foundation to legitimise this declaration.
Articles 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 call for continued South-North dialogue and the establishment of a joint liaison office in Gaeseong: a quasi-embassy to more smoothly facilitate those interactions than is currently possible.
With the diplomatic success of the joint Korean team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in mind, the declaration calls for another joint Korean team at the upcoming Asian Games.
Article 1.5 calls for the restarting of the family reunion program to reunite family members separated by the Korean War. Family reunions have been a staple confidence-building measures between the two parties, as reunions satisfy a genuine need for the affected families, are good PR and relatively easy to facilitate.
Most intriguingly, Article 1.6 mentions potential work on railway and road corridors across the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This would link not only North and South Korea but also China via the western transportation route from Seoul to Gaeseong and north to Sinuiju, at the Yalu River crossing point.
Establishing infrastructure connections between China and South Korea, through the DPRK, has been a long-held objective dating back to the Tumen River development zone of the early 1990s.
Dampen the security pressure points
Article 2 of the Panmunjom Declaration signals possible security-related confidence-building measures on issues of ongoing irritation between the two. These are lowest-common-denominator actions that both sides can agree to, and signal a greater commitment to cooperation.
While they are easy-win measures, they also address friction points in the day-to-day management of the demarcation line. Preventing local-level flashpoints is particularly important given the pressurised security environment of the past year, when military confrontation looked like a real possibility.
The cessation of “hostile acts against each other” around and across the demarcation line articulated in Article 2.1 does not mean there will be any demobilisation of military forces on either side. Rather, that pinprick provocations such as propaganda battles by loudspeaker across the DMZ and the floating of leaflets into DPRK territory by balloon will cease. These are easy measures for each side to agree to without compromising their security posture.
Article 2.2 revisits the concept of a maritime peace zone in the West Sea around the Northern Limit Line, flagged previously in the October 2007 joint declaration.
The two most serious flashpoints of actual military engagement over the past decade— the sinking of the South’s naval corvette Cheonan, and the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — have occurred in this contested maritime space. If the two Koreas were to stumble into a shooting war by accident, this would be the likely flashpoint.
Article 2.3 calls for military-to-military level engagement. This could potentially keep future flashpoint situations in check, although agreement to talk doesn’t signal much more than a discussion at this front end of the confidence-building process.
A permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula
Stating a commitment to a permanent peace treaty to end the Korean War is a feature of previous inter-Korean summit declarations. But in this case, the call has added impetus, as a peace treaty might be the only way forward in an expanded round of engagement that included the United States.
If North Korea refused to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise, there is no other goal toward which negotiations between the three parties could focus.
In Article 3.1, the two Koreas have reaffirmed their non-aggression pact from the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation. While the non-aggression clause has been standard fare in joint declarations since that time, this clause has added resonance in the context of the threats of war emanating from the Trump administration over the past year.
Article 3.2 discusses phased disarmament. However, this relates to conventional forces mobilised against each other, and not to nuclear weapons, with the added caveat that other confidence-building measures have been implemented and that “military tensions” (read “the US threat”) have been alleviated.
Like most of the clauses in the Panmunjom Declaration, the veiled reference to the United States in this article is a good example of the negotiated compromise and coded language of the final text.
Article 3.3 talks to the larger great power context by calling for the participation of the original signatories of the Korean War armistice in negotiating a peace treaty. That objective is complicated by the Republic of Korea not being a signatory to the armistice agreement.
The South was represented by the United States in those negotiations, which acted on behalf of the United Nations forces. South Korea will need to be included as a sovereign signatory to a formal treaty to end the Korean War.
Most media attention has focused on Article 3.4, which calls for “complete denuclearisation” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula”. This is in addition to the call in Article 1.1 for both parties to work together on implementing the 2005 Joint Statement on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the 13 February Agreement of 2007.
However, this clause does not mean North Korea has committed to denuclearisation as that concept is understood by the Trump administration (CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation”). The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea includes the full nuclear weapons relinquishment of the United States as well – something that is obviously not going to fly in Washington.
In stating that “South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea [my emphasis] are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” this article looks more like a statement of goodwill to Washington with an eye toward the upcoming US-DPRK summit than a substantive commitment.
It will be interesting to see if Moon Jae-in accepts the invitation in the conclusion of the declaration to visit Pyongyang later in the year. That will depend on the outcome of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
There is little evidence in the Panmunjom Declaration that the South Koreans have attempted to test the waters for an aggressive American negotiating agenda at the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. There was no statement on specifics like a nuclear weapons freeze or missile testing moratorium. Instead, there seems to be more evidence here of an attempt to firewall the Korean Peninsula against an overly aggressive Trump gambit.
A US-DPRK summit based solely around the US-CVID agenda is doomed for failure, as there are no points of convergence between Washington and Pyongyang. A negotiating agenda that includes a pathway to a formal treaty to end the Korean War has a more realistic chance of progress.
Either way, with the inter-Korean summit concluded, it feels like we are at half time of a hotly contested, high-stakes game of summits in which the second half action is only going to get hotter.
One of the coldest northern winters for many years proved a piece of good fortune for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, but it may be the last happy moment on the Korean Peninsula for a long time. A war there is a distinct possibility. Some form of military action to disrupt North Korean nuclear weapon developments is even more likely.
Diplomacy may have run its course. We are at the most dangerous moment since the Korean War armistice in 1953. A war today could have unimaginable consequences: a catastrophic death toll, missile strikes beyond the peninsula, the first nuclear bombs to be used in conflict since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The risk has long been real – and in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is alarmingly high. Events unfolding on the Korean Peninsula and in Washington are pointing in a direction that is difficult, but essential, to contemplate.
A fear of mass civilian casualties and the perception that North Korea has a low bar on pre-emption have haunted US administrations. At least ten major North Korean atrocities and provocations since 1967 have been essentially passed over. The response has been sporadic attempts at diplomacy, backed by ever-tightening sanctions.
The Obama administration, faced with a paucity of good options and a hope that at some point the North Koreans would bend, articulated the Allied tactic as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration has said those days are over.
What has changed to bring us to this point? The first shift is the emergence of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following his father’s death in 2011. Clearly the most insecure of the dynastic line, Kim’s regime has been marked by regular and brutal purges of his retinue and deepening oppression of his people.
North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are entwined with Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy. Recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power is non-negotiable. Last year there were 23 tests of missile capability, culminating in the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At that point, Kim declared his program “complete”.
Kim’s 2018 New Year statement attracted attention for its outreach to South Korea, an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally. This produced a flurry of diplomacy to include the North in the Winter Olympics.
For some, this raised hopes. But most observers had the sense that we had been here before, and none should be fooled. More significant was Kim’s indication that North Korea will focus on “mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment”.
The second major change in the Korean situation is the election of US President Donald Trump. Trump’s approach to national security has deviated more from his campaign promises than any other set of policies.
He has dismissed allies, including South Korea, even suggesting that nation might want to provide its own nuclear umbrella. He sensed his voter base was tired of American commitments and wars, yet now finds himself on the verge of a war that would dwarf any in recent times.
Trump’s grasp of most matters in international politics and military affairs is rudimentary. His interventions, by tweet or otherwise, provoke instant mockery among the informed community. But he is the man in charge, and so his views bear close analysis. They reveal his method of processing the information and intelligence he is receiving. In response to a New Year nuclear boast from Kim, Trump tweeted:
Most commentary mocked this schoolyard exchange, but it was significant. Trump is seriously contemplating a war to disarm North Korea of its weapons.
Man in the middle
It would be folly to assume that Trump’s views are not widely held within his administration. His national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, who has described North Korea as “the greatest immediate threat to the United States”, is a leading proponent of military action.
This has posed some unique challenges for the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, who understands the scale of a likely conflagration. Mattis has repeatedly warned that a conflict with North Korea would be “catastrophic”, while also providing assurances of the ultimate outcome – total US victory and the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – so as to maintain deterrence.
Mattis works in tandem with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to achieve a diplomatic solution through a tighter sanctions regime. But Mattis matters to Trump; Tillerson doesn’t. Trump was angry about Tillerson’s suggestion that the US was prepared to begin talks with North Korea without preconditions.
We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a band-aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.
Trump’s principal source of advice is the Pentagon, which for years has worked on military options to pre-empt North Korea. The Pentagon’s primary duty is to work out how things can be done, a different task from saying whether they should be. Those who carry the diplomatic argument are sidelined.
This leaves Mattis in the weighty position of having to find both a solution and the enabling argument.
Mattis says the US has some potential military options that would not result in the devastation of Seoul, though he has not provided any details. How would it be done?
An apparent “preferred option” is the use of joint CIA and special forces teams – like those used in Afghanistan in 2001 – to seize the nuclear sites.
However, a covert operation of this kind would probably not be a standalone activity – extensive use of bombers and cruise missiles is likely. The possibility of a broader war through an accident or misinterpretation is substantial.
What would be the North Korean reaction to a limited punitive event? If Kim is as “rational” as is commonly claimed, a cruise missile strike to pre-empt a test would hardly trigger a massive response. Most likely, it would be a hit at a soft South Korean target or military base, or a cyberattack.
But neither a limited operation nor a wholesale assault on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could be attempted without having in place the mechanisms for an all-out war. Defending Seoul would require the rapid degrading of the mortar, rocket, missile and artillery capabilities ranged against it.
Given the erosion of North Korea’s conventional capabilities, that might be doable. The problem would lie in what Kim might do in a situation where his regime’s survival was in question. Has he secreted nuclear weapons that could unleash devastation on South Korea and Japan? Half-a-dozen weapons would be economy-destroying; a dozen would be civilisation-destroying.
This brings us back to the question of why Trump would try. For him, the game is simple: North Korea shall not have an ICBM.
For the experts and advisers advocating a pre-emptive strike, it goes to the nature of Kim’s regime. North Korea is a nuclear power like no other, and its intentions are an open question. Does North Korea desire a nuclear capability simply for deterrence and regime survival, or does it have a more aggressive ambition to use that capability to try to reunify the peninsula?
It is difficult to imagine that a pre-emptive US strike can do anything other than risk the devastation of South Korea and Japan, with dreadful human and environmental consequences. Small wonder former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said, before leaving the White House: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”
There is a closing, not closed, window for diplomacy. Any attack would need to be preceded by a comprehensive diplomatic strategy involving China. The US might want to test the waters with China and North Korea on solutions involving a major stand-down rather than entire elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
We probably have not yet seen the full weight China is capable of bringing to bear on North Korea. It would have to be a great deal to bring Kim to heel, and it is difficult to envisage such an outcome that would not undermine his sense of his regime’s legitimacy.
It is not yet midnight, but as the crisis deepens, the diplomatic and military options get more and more complex. In averting catastrophe, having a bigger nuclear button will not guarantee success. That is obvious to most informed observers.
But is it obvious to Trump? The answer is unknowable. What is certain is that his own sense of legitimacy is bound up in North Korea having no ICBMs. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts the prospect of war at 50/50.
The prediction is chilling. This is going to be a hard year.
That judgment remains valid, but last week a sliver of light appeared. Motivated at least in part by concern over the march toward confrontation we describe, both during and after the Olympics South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to buy time for diplomacy.
High-level negotiators from the South, following meetings with the North, reported a possibility their counterparts might be prepared to put their nuclear capability on the table in return for security guarantees.
Some analysts suggest the latter means the removal of US forces and guarantees to the South they might think about it, essentially a delaying tactic. Moon wants to test this at a meeting with his counterpart. Trump himself said this might be a start. Certainly in terms of management of allied relationships, the US would want to see what it means, though public statements by the North suggests it is pressing on with the nuclear plan.
Past experience would indicate this is nothing more than an effort at confusion. Still, we don’t know how the other side of the hill interprets Trump’s obvious preparedness for war. The US will certainly need to do some thinking about a matter that has attracted only sporadic attention to date – what does a diplomatic end game look like?
One senses the US clock is still ticking to midnight, and this is not an endless process without credible developments. A hard year ahead remains the case.
The prospect of South Korean and North Korean athletes marching together under a “unification” flag at this month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics signifies a brief respite in tensions rather than being a genuine thawing on the Korean peninsula.
After an initial surge of optimism in response to Pyongyang’s decision to accept Seoul’s offer to march as one Korea, reality has started to bite with the mechanics of implementing the deal.
While welcoming the Pyeongchang initiative, many South Koreans have pushed back against the decision to merge both countries’ women’s ice hockey teams, calling out the sexist nature of the decision (not a single woman was involved in determining the merger).
Meanwhile, citing “insulting” behaviour on the part of South Korean media, the North Koreans have cancelled a joint cultural performance with South Korea, scheduled for next week.
Understandably, the Pyeongchang “thaw” has attracted major headlines. But it obscures the significant possibility that we will witness major conflict on the Korean peninsula in 2018.
The South Korean government has worked hard to engage North Korea in structured dialogue in an effort to defuse the nuclear-armed state’s continued military threats. But there is nonetheless a growing risk that the Trump administration will authorise limited military strikes against the North’s weapons of mass destruction, conceivably within the next few months.
Despite extracting a commitment from the US that any military action against North Korea is contingent on first gaining South Korea’s endorsement, there is justifiable concern among South Koreans that the Trump administration will act unilaterally if US intelligence assesses Pyongyang is about to deploy an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.
Given the extent to which we have underestimated the sheer pace of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development over the past decade, this intelligence assessment might happen sooner than we think. Donald Trump would then face a difficult problem: how to avoid being the president who allowed North Korea to achieve the capability to hit the US homeland with nuclear weapons.
Since coming to power, the Trump administration has been deliberating over whether to carry out preventive strikes to degrade Pyongyang’s ability to sprint to the finish line of acquiring a deployable ICBM that can hit the continental US with a nuclear payload.
An increasingly popular assumption is that the price of living with a nuclear-armed North Korea that can destroy prime targets on the US mainland is higher than risking a second Korean War. And this is not just the musings of a few hardheads in the Pentagon: a growing number of Americans believe some form of military action against North Korea is justified if sanctions and diplomacy fail to achieve denuclearisation.
Most worrying of all, a belief seems to be gathering pace that the US can somehow launch “surgical” military strikes while containing a larger conflict, because Kim Jong-un will not respond for fear of triggering an overwhelming retaliatory response.
There are two basic flaws underlying what one expert has termed “the myth of the limited strike”. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s highly unlikely Kim Jong-un will believe the Trump administration’s assurances that “surgical” strikes are not the opening phase of an all-out US assault aimed at overthrowing the regime.
When the US goes to war, it tends to go full throttle – in recent times, this has translated into regime change (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya). Why would the leadership in Pyongyang assess that this time around would be any different?
The second major flaw in the argument is that what is portrayed as limited in Washington, and among some armchair strategists supporting this course, will inevitably be seen in Pyongyang as a major assault on North Korean territory and its prized strategic assets.
Even in the scenario that Kim Jong-un actually believed the Trump administration did not intend to implement regime change, as Van Jackson notes, his position as North Korean supreme leader would be untenable domestically if he did not respond with force.
Pyongyang would have a compelling incentive to retaliate early with any nuclear reserve that survived a US first strike. In this scenario, the North Korean leadership would confront a stark choice of either using these weapons of mass destruction to maximum effect or risk losing them in follow-on US precision munition strikes.
As I have argued elsewhere, like all new nuclear powers, North Korea will place a premium on permissive command and control systems that allow authorities to use nuclear weapons whenever they want. This will be reflected in a hair-trigger launch posture if it perceives an imminent threat.
Whichever way you cut it, a US first strike against North Korea would almost certainly trigger major war on the Korean peninsula, with a high risk of escalation to full-scale nuclear conflict. While the appalling humanitarian consequences of this don’t need to be spelt out, the strategic illogic of the arguments advocating a first strike must be continually reinforced.
North and South Korean athletes will march under one flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
The “Korean Unification Flag” is both a highly symbolic marker of reconciliation and a reminder of a divided Korea, a condition that has lasted since 1945.
As a scholar of East Asian international relations, I’m fascinated by the question of reunification that has been a mainstay of reconciliation and dialogue between North and South Korea. Unfortunately, history suggests such efforts to reunite the peninsula as a single country often don’t go far.
What Koreans think
Most South Koreans are not optimistic about reunification. According to a 2017 Unification Perception Survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 24.7 percent of South Koreans don’t think that unification is possible. Only 2.3 percent of South Korean respondents believe that unification is possible “within 5 years,” while 13.6 percent responded “within 10 years.”
However, the same survey indicates that 53.8 percent of South Koreans believe that reunification is necessary.
Beyond that, however, there is little consensus as to what kind of country a unified Korea should be. Nearly half of South Korean respondents want to keep South Korea’s democratic political system, while 37.7 percent support some form of hybrid, a compromise between the South and North Korean systems. Still, 13.5 percent of South Koreans answered that they prefer the continued existence of two systems within one country.
The first time North and South Korea held talks since the 1950-53 Korean War was in 1971. They agreed on basic principles of the reunification. According to the July 4 South-North Joint Communique, reunification should be achieved through 1) independent efforts of the two Koreas, 2) peaceful means, and 3) the promotion of national unity transcending differences in ideologies and systems.
Despite its significance for later agreements, this détente soon collapsed due to the leaders’ lack of genuine intention to follow through. North Korea viewed the inter-Korean dialogue as a way to wean South Korea away from the U.S. and Japan. South Korean leader Park Chung-Hee saw it as a useful tool for consolidating his authoritarian rule.
In the late 1980s, tides shifted as the Cold War broke down and inter-Korean reconciliation once again seemed possible. The 1988 Seoul Olympics spurred South Korea to pursue improved relations with communist countries to ensure their participation. The Olympics hosted a record number of countries from both blocs of the Cold War, including the Soviet Union and China. This, even in the face of North Korea’s attempt to throw the games off by bombing a South Korean airliner killing 115 people in 1987. With the help of South Korea’s rising international status and active diplomacy toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and China, Pyongyang agreed to talks with Seoul.
By 1991, North and South Koreans had once again come around to the idea of reconciliation and signed the Basic Agreement. In it, Koreans defined their relationship not as two separate states, but rather one going through a “special interim” – a process toward ultimate reunification. In 1992, they produced the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, by the end of 1992, inter-Korean relations grew seriously strained. North Korea refused to accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and objected to the resumption of a U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise.
Another milestone took place in 2000. North and South Korea held the first summit that amounted to the most substantial and frequent engagement between the two Koreas yet. South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung and his successor Roh Moo-Hyun’s Sunshine Policy meant to provide for a gradual change of North Korea toward the reunification through inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian, economic, political, social and cultural issues. But in the face of Pyongyang’s continued provocations and nuclear development program, this type of engagement-oriented policy had serious limits. Over time, it became less and less popular with the public.
After three major attempts and failures, is reunification feasible in 2018?
What these past talks show is that reconciliation has not been sustainable without the tangible progress in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
At the same time, the current South Korean President Moon Jae-In is more open to departing from the more conservative approach and pursuing engagement without such assurances. This may be a game changer. Without a doubt, he is much more proactive about creating opportunities for inter-Korean reconciliation.
President Moon faces the same harsh realities as his predecessors. With Pyongyang’s increased threat, the South Korean government will have to work more closely with other countries currently implementing sanctions against Pyongyang. If Seoul works out a deal for inter-Korean exchanges and joint projects and North Korea continues to engage in a provocation, skeptical South Koreans will not likely support the government’s engagement policy.
In this Q&A, The Conversation asked Professor Myers to explain what most in the West are missing about the North-South conflict.
You’re always complaining about press coverage of the Korean crisis. What is it you think people need to know more about?
A major problem is the mischaracterisation of the government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, “North Korea can’t take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself”.
In fact, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has pledged commitment to a North-South confederation, and stressed his opposition to any use of military force against the North, no matter what happens. That makes Moon’s current displays of military hardware seem pretty meaningless.
If Seoul and Washington are playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, it’s a terrible idea. The more placid South Korea appears, the more US troops look like the only real obstacle to unification.
Western media applaud Moon’s soft-line declarations, and they like it when the South Korean man in the street says he finds Trump scarier than Kim Jong Un. But there is a danger of Kim taking all these things the wrong way.
You’ve written that some South Koreans admire the North, or at least, feel a sense of shared identity. Why is that? And can this persist in the current climate?
Many intellectuals here admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.
But the average South Korean’s pan-Korean nationalism is rather shallow. Most people here want to see symbolic shows of reconciliation with the North – like a joint Olympic team in 2018 – but they don’t want unification, least of all under Kim Jong Un’s rule.
And they want the US Army to stay here in case he gets the wrong idea. It’s understandable enough, but this crisis will soon force them to pick one side, and one side only. “No ally is better than one’s own race,” President Kim Young Sam (president of South Korea from 1993 to 1998) said, which no West German chancellor would have dreamed of saying.
Washington has let this stuff slide for a long time, but people there are now asking themselves, “Must we really expose America to a nuclear threat in order to protect moderate Korean nationalists from radical nationalists?”
While the failures of the Vietnam War loom large, the US bungling of Korea is rarely discussed in “western media”. What’s the national memory of that war in both Koreas, and how is that impacting the current state of affairs?
That memory impacts the current situation less than one might think. Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.
You mention the Vietnam War. In some ways that’s the more relevant and topical event right now. Kim Il Sung (leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948 until he died 1994, and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un) was struck both by Washington’s decision not to use nukes on North Vietnam and by its general reluctance to go all out to win.
I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out.
In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.
How likely is a war?
I agree with those who say North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while US troops are here.
On the other hand, the North’s legitimacy derives almost wholly from its subjects’ perception of perfect strength and resolve. This makes it harder for Pyongyang to back down than it was for Moscow during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Also, the North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.