A NEW wind blows in the Korean Peninsula. After decades of conflict and hostility, South Korea, North Korea and the United States prepare to open a forum for discussion and begin a new phase of relations. In late April, the third South-North Korea summit will be held in Pan-mun-jeom; not long after, the very first North Korea–U.S. summit will take place in the summer. It is expected that these summits will bring the long-waited peace in the Korean Peninsula. The question is: Can we bring permanent power to the Korean Peninsula? What should we do?
From threats to talks
In January 2018, Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump engaged in a battle of bluster, threatening each other with their nuclear capabilities. North Korea claimed that its nuclear button was always on Kim’s desk, while Trump retorted that his button was “much bigger and more powerful.” Yet on March 8, only two months thereafter, Trump agreed to a U.S.-North Korea summit, showing that Washington was willing to engage in talks with Pyeongyang.
The reason behind these changes can be attributed to two key events: the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Kim Jong-un’s letter of invitation. The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics provided the platform for high-level talks between South and North Korea, communication that had been absent since 2015. During the Olympics, as well, the two Koreas showed symbolic signs of improving relations with the joint national women’s hockey teams and the showcasing of the unified Korea flag during the opening ceremony. Kim Jong-un also sent his sister Kim Yo-jong, Vice Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department to deliver a personal letter of invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyeongyang. In return, Moon sent a special envoy of five officials, headed by Chung Eui-yong, the Chief of South Korea’s National Security Council, and Seo Hoon, the Director of the National Intelligence Service, to Pyeongyang on March 5, 2018. During the meeting, Kim Jong-un stated that he wishes for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and also for a summit with the U.S. After the meeting with Kim, the envoy headed to Washington D.C., where they met and talked with Trump, who agreed to hold talks with North Korea.
The national interests of the three nations: The three P’s
North Korea: Preservation of the regime
In the upcoming talks, the main goal and interest of North Korea will be to guarantee its own preservation and survival. Outside the Korean peninsula, the U.S. looms as the largest threat to the North Korean regime because Washington is allied to Seoul and it conducts annual joint military drills against the North. Thus, Pyeongyang and Washington maintained poor relations since the end of the Korean War and the start of the armistice. For the first few decades following the war, the Communist regime of North Korea was relatively secure thanks to the Soviet Union, its strong communist ally.
As part of the communist bloc, the DPRK had military and economic support from the regional superpower. In fact, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the DPRK’s nuclear program was only possible because the USSR supplied nuclear reactors to the North during the 1960s. Thus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the North lost a crucial ally. Although the DPRK has had relations with China, there were often disagreements between the leaders of the two communist states. This led China to exist as a weaker ally, or as a restraining “older brother,” of North Korea. While Pyeongyang’s security deteriorates, its neighbors exponentially increased their military strength.
Not only does Pyeongyang face threat from outside its borders, but it also struggles to preserve stability domestically. Sanctions led by the U.S. caused the international isolation of North Korea and instability within DPRK’s borders since basic supplies like oil are severely limited. Also, the isolation that Pyeongyang faces is prohibiting Kim from attaining his goal of economic strength. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Professor John Delury (Associate Prof., Graduate School of International Studies) emphasized the economic factor in Kim’s motivations for coming to the negotiating tables.
“The economy is doing better under [Kim],” Delury said. “I think he is very ambitious in terms of economic development, and I think he knows that he must rearrange the security relationships to allow more room for trade and investment. North Korea, on its own, can only improve so much economically.”
United States: Power and non-proliferation
Washington D.C. strongly objected to the North’s acquisition of nuclear weapons for two reasons: proliferation and threat. Ever since the conception of nuclear weapons, the U.S. tried to limit the nuclear capabilities of other states, especially of its enemies. Thus, the U.S. vehemently opposes the DPRK’s nuclear developments. The U.S. fears that if it allows North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons, it may set a precedent for other nations to seek nuclear weapons as well. In addition, North Korean nuclear weapons are capable of hitting U.S. military bases, territories and allies.
According to James Mattis, the U.S. Defense Secretary, North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), tested in late 2017, “have the capacity to hit everywhere in the world.” While the U.S. mainland has only recently been under threat, its allies in East Asia have faced North Korea’s nuclear missiles for a decade. Currently, South Korea and Japan are not interested in their own nuclear deterrent because of the nuclear umbrella* provided by the United States. However, recent progression of North Korean nuclear technology led many of its neighbors, notably South Korea and Japan, to raise the idea of acquiring their own nuclear weapons. This could lead to more proliferation, something that Washington wishes strongly to avoid.
Pyeongyang’s determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent and Washington’s subsequent opposition created tension in the Korean peninsula. The U.S. reviewed several military methods to stop the North. One option was to conduct a surgical, cyber-attack on the North’s facilities, but such an attack’s effectiveness was questioned and eventually not enacted. Another military option was to perform a contained attack on the nuclear facilities of the North, often labeled a “bloody nose” strike. CNN reported that former U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster advocated for this type of action, but as Mattis warned, such an attack could quickly escalate into a full-scale war. On behalf of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Admiral Michael Dumont wrote in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives that the only certain way to destroy North Korea’s nuclear stockpile was through a ground invasion. According to the 2016 South Korean military white paper, such a war would require 690,000 U.S. military personnel to engage in war on the peninsula. For comparison, the United States dispatched 192,000 personnel into the 2003 Iraq War, according to The Huffington Post. War in the Korean Peninsula may place burden on the United States never experienced in its contemporary history.
South Korea: Peace and consequential prosperity
A war in the Korean peninsula would bring astronomical damage to South Korea. According to the Congressional Research Service, 10,000 rockets shot every minute can strike land below the 38th parallel, resulting in at least 300,000 dead in a matter of days. If Pyeongyang, the largest possessors of chemical weapons after the U.S. and Russia, used its stockpile of almost 5,000 tons of biochemical warheads against Seoul, the fatalities would increase exponentially. Thus, it is in the interests of the Blue House to make sure the situation doesn’t escalate into a full war.
To avoid war, Moon aims to improve relations with North Korea and mitigate tensions in the peninsula. On July 6, 2017, in what is now called the Berlin Declaration, Moon expressed that South Korea wants peace, not the collapse of North Korea. Furthermore, he stated that the South will pursue a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that guarantees the security of the North’s regime, and ultimately he wishes for a permanent peace system on the peninsula.
Analysis into the leaders of the three countries is essential in understanding the agents of the upcoming talks. For the South, Moon played a role in attracting the North to come to the negotiating table by building years of trust. Moon repeatedly asked Pyeongyang for diplomatic solutions and held essential positions in the Presidential Office during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. On 2007, under Roh, Moon was both the President’s Secretary General and Chairperson for the 2007 Inter-Korean summit Promotion Committee. For more than a decade, and most recently with the Berlin Declaration, Moon assured that it is not in Seoul’s plans to topple the North Korean regime.
For the U.S., the unpredictability and “deal making” nature of Trump’s attitude towards North Korea played a part in bringing it to the negotiating table. In August 2017, Reuters quoted Trump with threats to face North Korea with “fire and… fury like the world has never seen.” This was one of many such remarks, but it seems like Trump may be bluffing. For example, that September, the U.S. flew its B-1B Lancer north of the military demarcation line.
What can we expect from this situation?
However, many experts like Delury didn’t expect Kim Jong-un to finally come out to the negotiating table in such a short time span. While some attribute Pyeongyang’s actions to Trump’s hawkish foreign policy, Delury claimed that only explains part of the problem. Instead, he attributed the changes to Kim’s confidence.
“I feel [that] if he just feels pressured, insecure and weak, he wouldn’t come out [to negotiate],” Delury said. “I think that his recent trip to China shows that the domestic political situation feels stable enough for Kim that he can leave the country with his top people, in a well-advertised trip.”
Although they are dependent on each other and occurring one month after another, the inter-Korea summits and North-U.S. talks are still very distinct in terms of their processes. For the inter-Korean summits, top officials from both sides met in Pan-mun-jum to deal with the details. Delury claimed that the summits are likely to be regular.
However, unlike the inter-Korean summits, the decision to hold the North-U.S. talks was made suddenly and arbitrarily by Trump. Since the two countries don’t communicate often, Delury claimed that it will be an opportunity for both heads of states to “get a read on each other and learn their interests.”
The goal of South Korea and the U.S. in the summit is the denuclearization of North Korea. Worries arose on March 22, when President Trump tweeted that his National Security Advisor (NSA) H.R. McMaster will be replaced by John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and advocate for the Libyan style of denuclearization of North Korea. Libya abandoned its nuclear program in 2003, and normalized relations with the United States in the following year. However, the Blue House stated that such a “Gordius’s Knot” style of denuclearization is impossible for Pyeongyang. Instead, the Korean government suggested a step-by-step process for denuclearization, and Delury agreed. “While looking at the Libyan and Iranian cases is useful, North Korea is unique and the actors are different,” Delury said. He also noted that the agreement will be quite different because of Trump. “I think the agreement will come first, and then the paperwork.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Kim before his scheduled meeting with Trump, which Delury claims could be one of the main reasons Kim is coming out to the talks, as China is the only military ally of Pyeongyang. “North Korea feels the pressure that every other Asian nation feels: being overwhelmed by China’s rise,” Delury said. “It is trying to figure out, diplomatically and economically, how to maintain autonomy from the behemoth.”
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Despite extensive analyses by experts of Korean relations, predicting the results of the summits is difficult. The Korean peninsula faces an unprecedented opportunity to bring unity to a divided people. The key to success lies in the hands of the nations’ leaders; a positive outcome cannot be guaranteed, but any action that can lead to de-escalation and potential peace should be taken.
*Nuclear umbrella: Refers to a guarantee by a nuclear weapons state to defend a non-nuclear allied state