Kim Jong-un’s historic meeting with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in across the ‘Military Demarcation Line’ (MDL) on April 27, 2018 will go down as a watershed moment in the destiny of Korean Peninsula. The Korean Peninsula, given its geographic location, has been the scene of inter power rivalry in the North East Asian region. Post the Korean War, despite adversaries being armed to the teeth and in a ‘trip wire’ state of readiness, major confrontation was obviated due the prevailing state of parity in terms of military potential. Hence, even after six and half decades, the status of MDL remained unaltered, despite sporadic incidences of incursion and violence.
In recent times, the delicate strategic equilibrium on the Peninsula has been under intense strain due to the persistent obsession of the North Korean regime to develop credible nuclear capability as a security guarantee. Consequently, Pyongyang remained a major security concern for the Obama administration. Armed with ballistic and nuclear missiles, North Korea posed a serious security threat to the US and its East Asian allies. Economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure proved ineffective in stalling Kim’s missile and nuclear programmes. The American policy of ‘sanctions and subsidies’ in fact gave an impression of a half-hearted and inadequate approach to shape the regional security architecture.
Fire-Fury and Frosty Thaw
Pyongyang’s missile launches, especially the 13,000 range Hwangsong-15, along with the sixth nuclear test in 2017, were highly provocative acts that disturbed the geo strategic equations in the region. At the same time, joint US-South Korea military drills, unprecedented in intensity and scope, were seen as an existential threat by Kim’s dictatorial regime. Absence of effective channels of communication and widening trust deficit added to the escalation of tensions.
The region witnessed dramatic turn of events over past few months. Sabre rattling by President Donald Trump and Kim’s vitriolic threats of merciless retaliation made it appear as if war clouds were gathering over the Peninsula, raising fears of a possible nuclear showdown. There was sudden climb down when during his New Year address on January 1 this year, Kim made unexpected reconciliatory overtures. He called for better relations with South Korea, even showing inclination to participate in the Winter Olympics.
This change of stance followed Trump’s hard hitting speech at the UN a few days earlier. It was a well calculated strategic move by Pyongyang with multiple objectives — to weaken US-South Korea alliance and provide relief to North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy. Presence of Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong accompanied by Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s presumed head of State during the opening ceremony at Pyeong Chang in February 2018 was a coup of Olympic proportions. It was the highest level visit by a leader from the North to the South and the first by a member of the Kim clan.
The hyper paced developments which brought Kim to the negotiation table without preconditions could be attributed to number of factors. These could include biting pressure due to fresh US sanctions, China tightening curbs on trade with the unruly neighbour (imports reduced by over 78 percent and exports by almost 34 percent, as of late 2017), and a desire to end the state of international isolation and gain recognition in the global polity. As a reaffirmation of the traditional bond between the Communist neighbours, Kim travelled to Beijing in March 2018 on his maiden foreign tour since assuming power in 2011. President Trump too despatched Mike Pompeo, then Director CIA and now Secretary of State to meet with the North Korean leader, which has set the stage for his forthcoming meeting with Kim.
Historic Summit at Panmunjom
Kim commenced the path breaking summit meeting with a sweeping promise, “I came here to put an end to the history of confrontation”. The salient highlight of Panmunjom Declaration was the pledge by the two leaders to officially end the Korean War. It envisages complete cessation of all hostile acts against each other and multilateral talks with other countries including the US. To realise the common goal, both sides agreed to pursue complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Announcing the beginning of a ‘new age of peace’, the two sides declared that there will be no more wars on the Korean peninsula. Both the leaders agreed to transform the fortified border into a peace zone. Practical schemes would be devised to transform the current ‘Northern Limit Line’ in the West Sea into a ‘maritime peace zone’. Mechanisms will also be put in place to hold frequent defence ministerial and working level meetings in a bid to immediately resolve military issues, with the first meeting scheduled in May.
The two sides further committed to fully implement existing agreements and declarations. They also committed to jointly participate in international sports events and resolve the humanitarian issues resulting from the nation’s division. Measures are to be instituted to encourage more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts between the two sides. A joint liaison office is to be established in the Kaesong industrial zone with resident representatives from both the sides.
Beginning of a New Era
Despite these positive developments, given the conflicting interests of the key stakeholders, there are number of imponderables which need to be addressed. Peace prospects will largely depend on the outcome of the Trump-Kim meeting, tripartite talks between US and two Koreas and ‘four party’ talks involving China. To make any tangible progress, Washington will have to allay Pyongyang’s security concerns and Beijing will need to be an honest broker.
Going by the past record, Pyongyang is no naïve player. On two occasions, South Korean Presidents had travelled to North for summit meetings. Post the inter-Korean summit in 2007, the joint declaration had almost identical goals as the recent one, including on the nuclear issue. Yet the international peace process failed to make any progress and North Korea went on to resume its nuclear weapons programme.
For the US, de-nuclearization tops the agenda which includes removal of chemical and biological weapons and elimination of the ballistic missile threat. Going by Trump’s stance on renegotiation of the Iranian nuclear deal, the terms and conditions with respect to North Korea are expected to be very stringent. Besides, America will press for a peace treaty to end the state of hostility and move towards normalization of relations. If achieved, it will be a major victory for Trump. However, US will always be vary of losing its influence in the region, especially regarding issues like the future of 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea.
China is an important stake holder in the region. As a peaceful periphery is vital for its economic progress, a nuclear free and stable Korean Peninsula best serves Beijing’s strategic interests. Fearing the loss of North Korea as a buffer, Mao Tse Tung had entered the Korean War in November 1950 in the wake of the northward advance of General Douglas MacArthur’s forces. Mao succeeded in fighting the adversary to a stand-still astride the 38th Parallel; in the process suffering over 600,000 fatalities, including of his own son Anying. In case its interests are not well served, Beijing can well block the peace deal by not being an honest broker.
For North Korea, the key concern is the survival of its authoritarian regime. Kim Jong-un and his father Kim Jong-Il painstakingly built the nuclear arsenal as a guarantee to obviate the repeat of US interventions in Iraq and Libya. That is why, North Korea is insistent on guarantee against any US misadventure, before it even considers giving up its nuclear arsenal. While Kim has stated that his nation’s nuclear sites will be open to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection, he has not made any tangible concessions on his nuclear weapons.
Kim’s motives for rapprochement are open to conjecturing. His outreach to President Moon is a smart move to weaken sanctions and erode Trump’s clout. By replaying the cycle of provocation and reconciliation pioneered by his grandfather and father, Kim has catapulted himself as a world class player. President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer had flagged conciliation with North Korea a key issue of his Presidential campaign. Consequently, he has made proactive moves to deliver on his promise. For South Korea, the highest priority is to prevent conflict on the Peninsula and open avenues to find lasting solution to the prevailing imbroglio. The recent summit is bound to deliver enormous political dividend for Moon at home, with national elections slated for June 2018.
For Japan, having witnessed Kim’s missiles flying over its territory, reduction of tensions would come as a great relief. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe termed the recent Korean Summit as a positive move forward towards resolution of various issues. President Vladimir Putin referred to the dialogue as positive news with certain prospects.
One issue that is highly complex and contentious relates to ‘denuclearisation’, as the three key stake holders have varying perceptions. According to Trump, “it means North Korea gets rid of its nukes”. However, North Korea itself has made no explicit pledge to do so during the current rapprochement. The Chinese state media has cited Kim as saying that the issue could be resolved if Washington and Seoul take progressive and synchronous measures for realisation of peace, implying some kind of ‘quid pro quo’. As per Seoul, Pyongyang has offered to give up nuclear weapons for unspecified security guarantee. Hence, resolving this issue will entail a long drawn process and multiple rounds of negotiations, before a deal is reached to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Intense rivalry amongst the major stakeholders in pursuit of their national interests is going to pose major challenges for the impending negotiations to resolve the Korean issue, as it concerns the future of North East Asia. Japan and South Korea are already worried that Trump may sacrifice their interests in pursuit of an ‘America First’ policy. Even the peace treaty to formally close the conflict and help in the subsequent unification of the two Koreas will be a complicated process as both Seoul and Pyongyang claim sovereignty over the whole Peninsula. The process will have reasonable chances of progress only if the key players re-evaluate their basic goals and reframe the issues. This will entail massive diplomatic effort. While the recent Korean Summit marks the beginning of the new era, to achieve lasting peace will require intense diplomatic efforts.