China and Hong Kong
After a period of relative quiet, North Korea again commandeered news headlines with the dramatic, if symbolic, demolition of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in the city of Kaesong, just north of the demilitarised zone.
The office was refurbished at considerable cost to South Korea following the 2018 inter-Korean Summit, and was intended to function as a virtual embassy between the two Koreas. Its destruction was an unmistakable indication of North Korea’s displeasure with its neighbour, and a dramatic end to two years of pageantry and hope.
Tensions between the Koreas have been rising after the north protested the launch of anti-North Korean propaganda-filled balloons and plastic bottles into North Korea by South Korean civic groups. Just three days before the liaison office’s demolition, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, specifically threatened its destruction.
North Korea, clearly sensitive to the anti-regime flyers, has abandoned expectations of meaningful sanctions relief or economic benefits from South Korea. It may also be trying to bolster the credentials of Kim Yo-jong, just months after she was speculated to be a potential successor to Kim Jong-un following rumours of his demise.
However, these alone do not fully explain what appears to be a deliberate series of actions intended by North Korea to draw attention by ratcheting up tensions on the peninsula.
To fully comprehend the current situation in North Korea, one must understand developments over the past two years. In late 2017, it appeared increasingly possible there would be some form of conflagration between the United States and North Korea.
This stemmed from a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests that had, both in their range and demonstrated capability, convinced White House national security planners that North Korea posed an unacceptably high direct risk to the American homeland.
US President Donald Trump openly derided the North Korean leader as “little rocket man”, and threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. It was this that led Kim Beazley and me to warn of the potentially dire consequences.
Instead, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, facing the risk of a conflict that could draw the Korean peninsula into war, and an escalatory cycle over which he would have little direct influence, scrambled to diffuse the situation.
Latching onto a few positive elements in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech, South Korea welcomed a North Korean cheering team led by none other than Kim Yo-jong to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics.
This in turn opened the door to the full-body embrace between the two Korean leaders at the inter-Korean Summit two months later, and the Singapore-based US-North Korean Summit in June 2018.
But despite a small number of follow-on meetings, that is where the progress ended.
Trump, always more concerned with theatrics than substance, asserted a North Korean commitment to denuclearisation that was not apparent to anyone outside his administration, and returned home.
The question is, what does North Korea want?
It wants to be accepted and recognised as a nuclear power. It also wants to secure sanctions release and economic benefits, despite having reversed none of the actions or policies that led to the imposition of those sanctions in the first place.
In addition, there is increasing evidence that North Korea has not been immune from the ravages of coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, the economic global economic downturn will also have an impact on an already weak North Korean economy.
In this context, North Korea appears to be returning to its tried and true approach of instigating international tensions as a way of forging greater domestic solidarity in the face of ongoing economic privation.
The danger now, as always, is the risk of a North Korean miscalculation, particularly in an uncertain international environment. There is evidence Pyongyang had already dismissed the US, and had no expectations for further progress until after the US elections. This latest act of aggression indicates they have likewise now written off South Korea.
Unfortunately, the longer-term questions surrounding North Korea remain unsolved by the summits with South Korea or the US. It is increasingly apparent that even if we get through 2020 without further incident, we will still be facing a North Korea that is more capable and more dangerous.
If the most recent actions are any indication, it may also be more desperate than it was when we issued a stark warning two years ago.
Sunday’s trilateral meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and South Korean President Moon Jae In made for compelling viewing, the latest chapter in Korean peninsula summit diplomacy.
Indeed, such a meeting would have been unthinkable only 18 months ago. It was an unprecedented event – the leaders of the US, South Korea and North Korea meeting together, especially in the DMZ.
Critics have argued, however, that the meeting was merely a heavily manicured photo-op. While heavy on symbolism, it covered nothing substantive and signalled only that the parties are willing to restart the negotiating process.
A couple of major questions remain unanswered. First, what is the ultimate purpose of negotiations? Are the US, North Korea and South Korea talking about the same thing when they talk about “denuclearisation”?
And is the endgame of negotiations ultimately about denuclearisation, or is it about reaching a permanent peace settlement to formally end the Korean War?
Symbolism vs substance
Given the abrupt failure of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February, a symbolic photo-op at the DMZ is an encouraging sign that the parties are still interested in talking.
These kinds of symbolic gestures are the foundation upon which negotiations can move forward, given that all parties are starting from a place of mutual mistrust. Without this kind of patient state-to-state relationship building, the US and North Korea will never reach a stage where more substantive issues can be discussed.
The symbolism is also important in signalling intent to the public in all three countries. For the US and South Korea, building domestic support for engagement is key to the ultimate ratification of any future agreement.
We also need to place the DMZ meeting in the proper context. There are several parallel games at play in which the US, North Korea and South Korea have diverging interests.
The first of these games revolves around the US demand of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation”, or CVID, which has formed the basis of US policy on North Korea for successive administrations since 2002.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program represents a threat to America’s nuclear weapons supremacy – both in and of itself, and as an example to other countries that might seek to develop their own nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear-armed North Korea also demonstrates the diminished authority of the US as a regional and global power.
We see the CVID game at play in the rhetorical commitment of the US government to denuclearising the DPRK, despite the evidence that CVID has thus far failed, and in the pushback against Trump for his perceived willingness to sacrifice this aim in order to reach a deal with Kim.
The North Korean interpretation of a nuclear-free Korea, meanwhile, involves the full relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all nuclear powers, including the US.
With this in mind, the Kim government is committing to a negotiating process from which it can obtain sweeteners, not an end goal.
This leads into the second game at play: Kim’s quest to modernise the North Korean economy, which is important to the legitimacy and longevity of his government. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program was developed as a security umbrella under which the government can move forward with economic modernisation, while minimising the risk of state collapse.
As such, the North Koreans are likely to seek an easing of economic sanctions and economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy in negotiations with the US.
One way to achieve these objectives is by stretching the negotiating process out for as long as possible – this allows the North Koreans to secure incentives for small concessions over a longer-term, incremental negotiating process.
The race to develop the North
The third game relates to the potential opening of North Korea to foreign investment. Kim’s economic modernisation drive means that extensive opportunities for infrastructure development will emerge for foreign investors when the political climate eventually warms sufficiently.
The contours of a contest to develop North Korea are beginning to coalesce, with South Korean, Chinese and Russian companies jockeying for position to develop this relatively untapped space.
Moon, for one, sees this engagement strategy as part of South Korea’s broader push to integrate northeast Asia through economic and infrastructure linkages, such as gas pipelines, railway connections, seaports, regional electricity grid integration, Arctic shipping routes, shipbuilding, labour exchange, and the development of agriculture and fisheries projects.
Elements of this emerged in last year’s Panmunjom Declaration, which mentioned the potential opening of railway and road corridors across the DMZ.
A peace settlement, or at least a negotiating process towards that end, is the magic key that could unlock possibilities for infrastructure development in North Korea. This would remove economic sanctions as an obstacle to investment and reduce the political and economic risk for investors.
Trump’s unique diplomatic style
Finally, the fourth game relates to Trump himself. His businesslike approach to diplomacy and penchant for policy-by-Twitter are far removed from longstanding US diplomatic practices, in both style and substance.
Trump’s desire to reach an agreement with Kim has brought him to the brink of relinquishing the US demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” by the North.
While one could argue, as I have, that CVID has long been a fantasy anyway, Trump’s apparent willingness to make concessions on this front puts him at odds with many in his administration and within the broader US foreign policy establishment.
This may explain one notable absentee from Trump’s entourage in South Korea – National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was dispatched to Mongolia instead. Bolton’s hardline stance on North Korea is well known, so his absence was significant. In February, the North Korean media criticised Bolton for trying to be a spoiler in the negotiations in Hanoi.
More work to be done
Engagement with the North is hugely preferable to the uneasy status quo on the Korean peninsula that carries with it a heightened risk of conflict escalation. However, for this engagement to continue, the parties need an agreed purpose to keep negotiations moving forward.
The DMZ leaders’ meeting shows just how far apart the interests of the US, South Korea and North Korea are, and how much work needs to be done to build trust and align the parties to a basic common goal.
Handshakes and symbolism only go so far. Eventually, the parties will need to work towards something more concrete for the process to be sustained.
Korea-watchers around the world are scrambling to tease out the meaning of the abruptly concluded US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. I want to cast a critical eye on denuclearisation itself as the framing objective of the summit negotiations.
If we step back for a moment to look at the extraordinary developments in Korean Peninsula diplomacy over the past year, we see three parties who want different things.
The Moon Jae-in administration in South Korea remembers all too well the chaos of 2017 that brought Korea to the brink of war, and sees a permanent peace regime as the most important objective of its engagement efforts.
For their part, the North Koreans want to neutralise the military threat from the US, see sanctions lifted, and obtain economic assistance to accelerate the development of their economy. The Trump administration, and much of the broader US foreign policy establishment, remains attached to the denuclearisation of North Korea as the end game of this process.
But denuclearisation is a fantasy that is leaving Washington as the odd man out on the Korean Peninsula. The goalposts on the Korean Peninsula are changing as the momentum for inter-Korean engagement grows, while the importance of the US as the indispensable security guarantor is diminishing.
Who walked out on whom?
Like everyone else, I will be watching closely over the coming days as details begin to emerge about the sticking points that led to the abrupt conclusion of the summit.
In the lead-up to the Hanoi summit, the Trump administration did signal some flexibility on verification measures for full, independent accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program as a condition for further negotiation.
It is ironic that Trump’s apparent willingness to befriend authoritarian leaders has opened the door for negotiations for a permanent peace regime in Korea, which previous US administrations had kept quarantined behind the demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” (CVID).
However, in his final press conference in Hanoi, the US president indicated that the North Korean delegation asked for too much in requesting the lifting of all economic sanctions in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
Considering the enormous pressure Trump has come under from domestic quarters not to sell out the denuclearisation agenda, there was no way the US delegation could accept those terms.
But there is another possibility. The Congressional testimony of Michael Cohen from Washington may have created fresh doubts in the minds of the North Korean delegation about Trump’s ability to deliver on a deal. It is possible that Kim Jong-un presented terms they knew the Americans could not accept, to avoid the possibility of a lame-duck deal negotiated by a compromised president.
It is important to recognise that the US and North Korea run at different political speeds. Since 1945, North Korea’s three Kims have presided through 13 US presidents. US presidents are confined to term limits and captive to the political demands of relatively short election cycles. The now extreme polarisation of American politics ensures that promises made by Trump may not be honoured by an incoming administration.
With a US presidential election looming in 2020 and widespread criticism within the American foreign policy establishment of Trump’s negotiating position, and with recurring allegations of criminality fuelling calls for his impeachment, it is understandable that the North Koreans might be cautious about making concessions.
They will remember the failure of the US Congress to ratify the Agreed Framework when President Bill Clinton was facing impeachment during the 1990s.
The denuclearisation of North Korea is a fantasy
Regardless of who blinked first, the failure to reach agreement in Hanoi further demonstrates that North Korea will never willingly denuclearise. This is not a secret. It has been obvious for more than a decade, since the failure of the Six-Party Talks. Beyond the economic sanctions regime, there is very little the US can do about it.
It bears repeating why this is the case:
successive US administrations have considered and rejected the use of military force against North Korea on the grounds that it poses an unacceptable risk to its ally in South Korea
because of the longstanding sanctions regime, the US lacks sufficient economic leverage over the DPRK to bring it to heel, even with the expansive list of goods banned from export to the North, and the expansive powers of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to restrict financial flows in and out of the DPRK
North Korea is adept at sanctions-busting, in spite of the squeeze being placed on the country by existing measures.
Holding out for denuclearisation as an end game is an exercise in futility. It is bad policy. It unnecessarily backs the US into a corner of weakness where it cannot bring its obvious strategic and economic advantages to bear.
Denuclearisation has been the obstacle that has kept the US and North Korea at the stage of talking about talking, halting progress on other confidence-building measures that could improve the relationship and take some of the heat out of the Korean Peninsula security dilemma.
Missed opportunity for a peace settlement
The dominant school of thought in disarmament circles is that states that acquire nuclear weapons are a threat to international peace and security, and so must be prevented from doing so. This is the denuclearisation perspective that has dominated the discourse on North Korea in the US and informed the longstanding CVID policy.
There is an clear logic here that stems from the terrible and awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, with which few could argue. From this perspective, any negotiations with North Korea that do not result in full nuclear relinquishment will be interpreted as a sell-out.
However, there is also an obvious hypocrisy in this position (and in the nuclear non-proliferation regime more generally) given the size of the US nuclear arsenal and the deliberate ambiguity of its doctrine around nuclear first-strike. It is this hypocrisy that the DPRK exploits in its official interpretation of denuclearisation as meaning the universal relinquishment of nuclear weapons by all countries.
There is another school of thought that it is not nuclear weapons per se that represent a threat to international peace and security. Rather, it is an international environment teeming with existential threats in which states feel compelled to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
From this perspective, a peace declaration could diminish the level of insecurity that feeds the desire for nuclear proliferation. If the perception of imminent threat lessens, then the probability of nuclear weapons use in the event of conflict is also reduced.
There is space within this perspective to work towards nuclear disarmament. But that goal is one element of a bigger picture. This is the essence of the South Korean position on inter-Korean summit diplomacy, and the fading shadow of a missed opportunity in Hanoi.
These summits are part of a long-term peace-building process. Clearly, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are not on the same page in their negotiating objectives.
If US-DPRK bilateral negotiations are to continue, they are going to have to find a lowest common denominator on which they can build. Regardless of how we feel about Kim Jong-un, the political system he presides over, and the abuses of his regime, denuclearisation is never going to be the lowest common denominator upon which the US-DPRK relationship can evolve.
As US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet at a summit in Vietnam, we are again seeing the same kind of language used in relation to North Korea. The country is constantly described as the “hermit kingdom” and words like “nuclear threat” enter the headlines.
The US president himself called Kim “Rocket Man”, delegitimising the country and its leader. This kind of language demonises North Korea and closes off possibilities for more constructive engagement.
Past research has identified that the media regularly engage in “conflict-priming” during times of international conflict. An example was the dehumanisation of Arab citizens during the Bush-labelled “war on terror”. The authors noted the language “took the form of animal imagery” that equated human actions with subhuman behaviours.
Our research into Australia’s coverage of North Korea showed the news media often uncritically reproduced metaphors that framed North Korea as dangerous, provocative, irrational, secretive, impoverished and totalitarian.
The wider public picks up cues about the national interest, and how it might influence their own, from the media. A widespread group-think on North Korea’s impulsiveness and aggression could quickly and dramatically escalate tensions.
The hermit kingdom and other metaphors
We analysed coverage on North Korea in three major Australian media outlets: The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and transcripts of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) over three years – from January 1 2010 to December 31 2012.
We found North Korea was rarely referred to as a country or its rulers as a government. Instead it was described as: an impoverished rogue state; a secretive state; the world’s most isolated state; a totalitarian regime; an evil regime; and Asia’s worst regime. The country’s leader was often referred to a ruthless psychopath or demonic big brother.
Several dominant metaphors appeared in the coverage. These framed North Korea as
- a military threat (conflict metaphor)
- unpredictable, irrational and ruthless (psychopathology metaphor)
- isolated and secretive (pariah metaphor)
- a cruel dystopia (Orwellian metaphor)
- impoverished (basket-case metaphor).
These metaphors help shape public perceptions of North Korea, giving the country a negative, often adversarial orientation. Without a change to the North Korean frame, resourced and evidence-based intervention is more likely to fail due to donor disengagement.
We also run the risk of dehumanising the North Korean people. In the event of conflict, such dehumanising can mean humanitarian imperatives are pushed aside in favour of attack.
North Korea – nuclear and narcissistic
The conflict metaphor was the most frequent across the three news sites, particularly referring to the country’s “nuclear” capabilities. Typing “North Korea” into Google News today elicits much of the same:
While the extent of North Korea’s nuclear capability is not categorically known, it is often assumed, with references to a possible “nuclear holocaust” and fears a North Korean rocket carrying a nuclear warhead could reach Australia.
Another common theme in our research was that North Korea was covered as if suffering from a pathological, narcissistic disorder. North Korea was often portrayed as seeking attention or exploiting the threat of nuclear retaliation to extricate more aid.
We can still see this today. An article in The Australian this week
noted that Kim Jong-un was a master of “deceptive statecraft” as practised by his father. The author wrote:
Pyongyang is a master at getting something meaningful from the US and giving up something less meaningful or even meaningless in return… In the schoolyard, this is like the bully promising not to punch you in the face tomorrow in return for your pocket money today.
Another piece in Fox News used similar language, talking about the country as if a narcissist stringing along a romantic interest with manipulation and deceit.
Kim’s father and grandfather – who ruled North Korea before him – have a history of stringing along past US presidents of both parties with assurances of cooperative behavior and then breaking their promises.
So, North Korea is depicted as an isolated and backward country run by a tyrant with comically eccentric, excessive tastes. And its leader is perceived as a liar and a cheat.
This unbalanced consideration of North Korean motives makes us virtually oblivious to the country’s point of view. A failure to understand North Korea’s interests has serious implications for how Australia (and its allies) respond to North Korea.
Why it matters
Research shows recognising others’ concerns as valid is key to resolving long-term conflicts. But, by reinforcing a negative, often adversarial stance towards North Korea, the media effectively demonise North Korea’s interests and close off the possibility of engagement.
This locks North Korea and the “civilised” West into a mutually antagonistic relationship that precludes any solution other than the enemy being eliminated through conversion or destruction.
The Australian media would be substantially enlivened by more stories illustrating individual and community life. This would give North Koreans a human face and offer the Australian public a less singular, monotonous depiction of a country so often written about with such a limited lexicon.
Access into North Korea can be tricky for journalists. But our analysis found even where human stories of refugees exist, they are often tied to negative metaphors.
For the sake of balance, the media should resist common, creative descriptions and let North Korean refugees speak for themselves.
Such journalism would alter the way we view North Korea and soften the tendency to see it as an adversarial, irrational, rogue state populated by brainwashed citizens devoted to the cult of the Kims. It also should seek to better capture some of the complexities and differences of opinion that make the North Korean problem so difficult to resolve.