Long term conciliation in Korea

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By 2018-01-22

By Georgy Toloraya

The year 2018 started with a sensation in Asia, a "New Year's gift," if we are to use the words of Ri Son-Gwon, Head of North Korea's delegation at the inter-Korean talks held on 9 January 2018 in the South Korean segment of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom.In his traditional New Year's speech, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un proposed that an inter-Korean dialogue be launched. The proposal was timed to the participation of North Korean athletes in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Moon Jae-in's government agreed immediately, which is understandable: the President of South Korea needs success to increase his domestic political support. He also needs "join the game" in the peninsula, the stakes in which (peace or war) have been set over recent months by the United States and North Korea, without the participation of South Korea.

The talks (the first since 2013) are being held at the highest possible level (ministers in charge of the relevant matters from both countries), which allows the parties to discuss all manner of problems, and not just those related to sports. The results of the first round instil a certain amount of optimism.

In addition to North Korean athletes (who may even walk out under the same flag as their counterparts from the South) being allowed to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, the two Koreas also agreed that a North Korean governmental delegation, a demonstration taekwondo team, fans and a support group comprised of dancers and musicians could also attend. In total, an estimated 500 people will travel to South Korea. Perhaps, as we have seen in the past, the occasion will be used to develop political contacts between both the North and the South and between North Korea and the United States.

The agreement to restore the communications hotline between the militaries of the two countries (which the North Koreans cut in 2013) and hold military consultations to reduce tensions was sensational news. Humanitarian and sports exchanges are expected to be stepped up.

High-level consultations

It is also important that the two parties have outlined the prospects of continuing high-level consultations. Moreover, on 10 January, President Moon said that an inter-Korean summit was possible. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that both parties confirmed their respect for former agreements which had been ignored for the last decade by South Korea's conservative administrations.

What caused such an unexpected turn of events, which has given hope for a détente in the Korean Peninsula?

The initiative is in the hands of North Korea. Kim Jong-un played a brilliant diplomatic gambit, breaking out (at least temporarily) of a seemingly hopeless dead-end where he had been driven by international sanctions stemming from his country's nuclear missile programme. The entire world welcomes news of his initiative to ensure a safe and successful Olympic Games. Having played the 'South Korean card,' Pyongyang used it as a 'vent' to reduce pressure in the 'Korean cauldron' by eroding the united front of its enemies. China and Russia eagerly supported these initiatives, and South Korea is now on Pyongyang's side as well, as it is extremely interested in the dialogue being a success. This means South Korea will be against initiatives to increase the pressure on North Korea and oppose Washington's belligerent threats. Pyongyang has thus weakened the United States–South Korea military union. South Korea will no longer follow in the wake of the US policy of coercion, which had made the country hostage to a possible military operation spearheaded by the United States. And Japan is unlikely to be particularly active, breathing a sigh of relief at the reduced threat of war that would inevitably hit it too.

The unprecedented regime of sanctions and isolation imposed on North Korea, the principal 'achievement' US diplomacy attained in the last few months (at the cost of an uncompromising dialogue with both allies and dissenters, including China and Russia), is now also up in the air. South Korea has already announced it will be limiting the sanctions due to the Olympics, and this creates an unpleasant precedent for the United States. Is there any reason why Russia or China should not organize a North Korea-related event that would also justify exceptions? And calls for new sanctions on the part of Washington will hardly be embraced in an atmosphere of dialogue. It is no coincidence that the United States appears to have lost hope in the United Nations. It now seems to be thinking about creating a 'coalition of the willing' to defeat North Korea, choosing the 'willing' from its allies.

The United States was forced to back down. The American leaders abruptly changed their tone: President Trump, who had recently rebuked Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson for "wasting time" in trying to negotiate with North Korea, suddenly announced that he had always favoured negotiations and that the inter-Korean dialogue had started because of his efforts, since Kim Jong-un was allegedly scared of pressure. Even avowed 'hawks,' such as Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, suddenly started to pay lip service to political solutions. Moreover, plans for a 'limited' strike against North Korea which, according to The Wall Street Journal, have been secretly discussed within the US Administration, are now hanging in mid-air.

Tactical victory

Kim Jong-un has thus, scored a tactical victory. In fact, the Russia-China proposal of a 'double freeze,' stopping North Korean tests in exchange for restricting US–South Korea military drills, was implemented at his initiative. The United States had already postponed the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills until after the Olympics. The postponement and possible modification of drills are conducive to the world getting used to North Korea's nuclear status.

Using inter-Korean relations in this manner is a tried and tested manoeuvre on the part of Pyongyang. The method was first employed back in the early 1970s during a period of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, when South Korea was searching for 'approaches' to North Korea's allies, and when North Korea was attempting to gain economic aid from developed Western countries. North Korea probably tested the manoeuvre in order to decrease its dependence on the great powers, and South Korea played into its hand. On 4 July 1972, unexpectedly for many, the North and the South published a joint statement recording the principles of the country's unification, which was to be achieved independently, peacefully and democratically, on the basis of national consolidation.

Later, for declarative purposes, the North proposed the idea of creating a confederation based on the principle of "one nation, one State (with a single national government), two systems, two regional governments." In the 1990s, the idea was augmented with the principles of consolidating the nation, national sovereignty, patriotism and the struggle against external interventions.

Pyongyang pulled the same trick in the early 1990s. The country was in crisis at the time, political ties with Russia had been severed; Russia had cut economic assistance to the country; and the United States and South Korea had stepped up pressure on the North, believing that North Korea was about to collapse and preparations should be made for 'subsuming' the country 'German style.' North Korea played a double game. On the one hand, it accelerated its nuclear missile programme, which had been conceived as a 'deterrent' against foreign intervention; on the other, it played the 'Korean unity' card, signing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North.

Liberal decade

Pyongyang strove to drive a similar 'wedge' between South Korea and the United States during the 'liberal decade' (during presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun). At the 2000 and 2007 summits, Pyongyang and Seoul attained a consensus on the prospects of separate State-building with growing economic and later cultural integration of the two States. As a result, South Korea in essence started acting as North Korea's principal global sponsor and advocate, unseating China in that role. South Korea's economic aid became the principal factor in North Korea's 'survival,' and the role of the United States dropped, causing its displeasure.

Washington is hardly pleased with Seoul's current pro-active stance, although Seoul is protecting its own existential interests and is striving to prevent a war. As far as the United States is concerned, Seoul's consent to North Korea's nuclear status, as well as its cooperation with North Korea, are unacceptable. Although Moon Jae-in tried to convince Trump otherwise during their recent telephone conversation.

We can thus, assume that the United States will undermine the inter-Korean dialogue. For starters, massive pressure will be put on Seoul to push the nuclear issue to the centre of the talks, which is patently unacceptable for North Korea. At the very first meeting, North Korea's representative put a definitive stop to all such approaches by the South Korean side. He stressed that North Korean missiles are aimed not at South Korea, Russia or China (a reminder to the great powers of North Korea's new status and capabilities), but at the United States, and North Korea hold talks on that subject with the United States. Apparently, in the current situation, the United States cannot avoid such a dialogue. The policy of pressure and blockade and threats of force essentially failed.

Will that last? It would seem that the forces hostile to North Korea will soon regroup. They grudgingly consented to the moratorium on military drills for the duration of the Olympics, but they will hardly let this hiatus last any longer, especially since the pretext of "strengthening defence capacities against the crazy regime" is always at the ready, since they are fully cognizant that such provocations will prompt a response from North Korea (for instance, new underwater missile launches or another nuclear test) and that will warrant a return to the customary tactics of isolation and an economic blockade.

Breakthrough

That is, unless a miracle happens and the two Koreas achieve a breakthrough in their talks on cooperation and reconciliation, thereby forcing the United States to agree to a semblance of a compromise, at least until the situation escalates once again.

The active stance of China and Russia is of crucial importance for a positive scenario. Russia should make the Korean issue one of the crucial points in its relations with the United States, insisting that the US obstruction of the diplomatic process is unacceptable. In particular, Russia should strive to reduce the scope of possible military drills and move them to regions far removed from the North Korean border and push for the United States to engage in a direct dialogue with North Korea as soon as possible. Russia may also offer the two Koreas a venue for a summit, in Vladivostok or Irkutsk, for example, since, for security reasons, Kim Jong-un cannot travel to the South and he hardly wants to travel to China, and because holding a third successive summit in North Korea is fraught with political costs for the South Korean leader.

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