Korean Peninsula – Two Steps Forwards, One and a Half Steps Back
Amb Vishnu Prakash

A productive inter-Korean summit was held in Pyongyang on 18 to 20 September - the third since April 2018. The historic first North Korea-USA summit took place in Singapore on 12 June. Preparations for the second are afoot.

President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong-un have already met three times in China this year and Xi could be travelling to Pyongyang soon. The North has not tested any nuke/missile since last November. Rather it has destroyed its main nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri, promised to disband its primary Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) testing and launch site, and if the US takes reciprocal steps, also permanently disable the Yongbyon nuclear test facility. President Moon Jae-in and Kim are committed to concluding a Peace Accord this year. Kim is agreeable to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. And Trump declared on June 13 that ‘There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

As such, these should have been heady days for the Korean Peninsula which has been embroiled in hostilities for seventy years. But the celebratory mood is missing. South Korea (ROK) cannot sign a peace accord with the North (DPRK) without American (and Chinese) consent. The US is not ready to declare an end to the inter-Korean war which was halted by an armistice agreement in 1953. It is also not allowing sanctions against DPRK to be diluted or Seoul to provide economic assistance to Pyongyang, as most of the purported gains are rather tenuous. One wrong move and things could be back to square one.

There is a marked lack of trust among the protagonists, and with sound justification. Pyongyang is seen as clever by the half and Washington has not distinguished itself by honouring its commitments since the 18th century. Seoul is caught in the middle, Beijing is sulking, and Tokyo has been rendered marginal. At the core lies the issue of denuclearisation – definition, scope, timeframe, verification and reciprocal obligations. Hope and despair thus keep alternating and so does the outlook in the concerned capitals.

But first the just concluded inter-Korean summit. Moon and Kim signed a joint statement to lower military tensions, build on bilateral ties and achieve denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula. Kim agreed to permanently close Tongchang-ri - its missile engine testing and launch facility - "in the presence of experts from relevant nations". It has served as DPRK’s main satellite and missile (including ICBM) launch facility since 2012. He further expressed willingness to shutter the Yongbyon nuclear facility, if the US took some reciprocal action. More details are likely to emerge in coming days. A bunch of other steps were also agreed to. Kim promised to visit Seoul soon for the next interaction. No Northern leader has ever been to the South. Given that normalisation of inter-Korean relations too depends on Washington’s nod, the outcome could not have been better.

Trump welcomed the results as ‘very exciting’. Earlier in the month he received ‘a very warm, very positive letter’ from Kim, proposing another summit. Moon and Trump are likely to meet in New York in the coming days. Secretary Mike Pompeo has invited his North Korean counterpart for further talks. However, the elephant in the room continues to be denuclearisation and the Trump administration appears to be divided. While the American President himself is playing good cop, unwittingly or by design, he is also allowing the hawks in his team, to up the ante and demand upfront CVID (Complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation) from DPRK, before making any reciprocal concessions. They know that it is a deal-breaker and that the principals had merely agreed to a vague statement – ‘DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ - during the Singapore Summit. They also know that Kim regards his nukes and missiles as a guarantee against regime change and will never cede that card.
DPRK fears an existential crisis and has staked everything in developing a nuclear deterrent, which Kim calls his nation’s ‘treasured sword of justice’ (South China Morning Post, 5 May 2018). Short of completely bartering them away, he seems willing to make concessions to normalize ties with the US and ROK, in exchange for massive financial assistance and economic development of North Korea. Andrei Lankov a respected scholar and a life-long Korean Peninsula watcher had presciently noted, ‘The North Koreans … are willing to consider arms-reduction measures if the incentives are right. It is possible that …(they) … will agree to surrender some fissile material, to dismantle some nuclear and missile production facilities, and to let international inspectors check their known nuclear and missile sites as long as they are rewarded by piecemeal reduction of the UN sanctions. … Even so, these measures will not mean denuclearisation” (Washington Post, 29 June 2018).

So why is the White House playing hardball again, conscious that it may not work with Kim, who has mastered the art of brinkmanship? It may be recalled that Trump had to call off the Singapore Summit on May 24 precisely because Pyongyang had rejected a similar demand. It was only the timely and effective intervention of President Moon (second Kim-Moon meet on 26 May) that salvaged the summit. There are at least a couple of possibilities. Trump may be allowing the hawks in his regime to give the tough approach one last shot, or he may have been persuaded that he was short-changed by Kim at Singapore. From all appearances it looks to be the former, as Trump is keen to project the Korean deal as the biggest success of his Presidency.

All said and done, Americans are more concerned about the North Korean race to miniaturise nuclear warheads and hone its ICBMs, which can reach the continental USA. It appears that Kim is willing to scrap this part of his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme, so long as he does not have to completely denuclearise. Notwithstanding their posturing, the other key capitals, except Tokyo, would be amenable to such an arrangement, so long as suitable verification and inspection mechanisms are put in place, to prevent Pyongyang from cheating again. In the interim, President Moon, a life-long votary of détente and engagement with DPRK, is doing his best to nudge Pyongyang and Washington, towards mutual accommodation and continued dialogue. His role has been appreciated both by Trump and Kim, secure in the knowledge that ROK has the highest stakes in a sustainable thaw in the Korean Peninsula and in maintaining its security ties with the US.

The road ahead will be bumpy, with two steps forward and one and half steps back. However, chances of a breakthrough have never been brighter.

Image Source: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/05/10/the-stars-of-north-korea-talks-revolve-around-moon-trump-kim-summit-singapore/

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