What to make of the forthcoming North-South Korea and US-North Korea summits and the prospects of an inter-Korean permanent peace treaty

When in June 1950, in a bid of reunification, a then young, chest-thumping and socialism-oriented Kim Il-Sung hastily ordered his troops to trespass the 38th parallel and take over South Korea, he was not expecting such a swift and heavily-armed US-UN response — after all, the Korean Peninsula had been left out of the watchful US’ eyes[1]. One of the first skirmishes of a then bipolar world, the 3-year-long Korean War has bequeathed today’s generation of policymakers a diplomatic challenge that, at a first glance, seems unsurmountable: an unfished conflict deeply embedded in pent-up resentments. However, the prospects of an official halt to the 1953 Armistice, as confirmed by a high-ranking South Korean official on April 18th (Wednesday)[2], brings about great expectations — what to make of it?

Undermined already. If such a treaty ever really sees the light of day, that watershed moment will either be the 27th of April — when the Inter-Korean Summit (between North and South Korea) is to be held — or someday after the US-North Korea Summit, scheduled for early June. Nonetheless, the road that lays ahead is bumpy and dodging the obstacles might not be as easy as the Trump administration (mostly himself) thinks. In other words, there are more things that could go badly wrong and dangerously spoil the momentum that underpins the summits and the possible treaty. Firstly, a more hawkish US view on how to deal with the North Korean “threat”; secondly, the apparent ostracism of a key major player regionally involved, China; and, most importantly, the very nature of Kim and Trump’s diverging demands and expectations.

Mr. Trump’s unpredictable and monarch-like behaviour has ushered in the era of “tweet diplomacy”. All you need is a Tweeter account to read first-hand, from the President himself, what the White House’s speaker only confirms hours or days later. Just like that, Rex Tillerson, now former Secretary of State, was “tweet-fired”. Mike Pompeo is expected to take over. Less diplomacy-inclined, Pompeo openly calls for a regime change in North Korea and the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, brokered in 2015 by the Obama administration and a handful of European countries. Moreover, much like his workmate John Bolton (National Security Adviser) — the ultra-hawkish and mastermind of the 2003 Iraq invasion– Pompeo has not bothered to disguise his flirting with the idea of a pre-emptive strike against North Korean launch sites[3]. With such a bellicose and untrustworthy speech by the Americans, you cannot expect their sworn-enemy, the rocket-man Kim Jung-Un, to hold out the Olive branch (a sing of willingness towards peace) for much longer.

The North Korean question does not boil down to a mere two-country’s (North and South) unresolved divergences. Under a wider scope, it engulfs a handful of key regional and non-regional players, each of which with its own share of rather conflicting demands. There are two major world powers, one of which regionally implicated, China and the US; a regional power, Japan; a medium-sized power, South Korea; and North Korea, a relentless country which for most of its history had been a nuclear power wannabe. Having said that, the round of talks involving only one major power, the US, and leaving aside another, China, is doomed. Why? The US pragmatically hopes to get rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat through denuclearisation. It also expects not let down its local protégés (South Korea and Japan), thus reaffirming its sway in that region of the planet. On the other hand, Beijing, as much as it wants and would benefit from a tamed North Korea, it definitely does not want a double-edged outcome which would make the differences that have always set apart the North and the South to fade and give way to an increased US or US-backed ally encroachment in its backyard. Throughout most of its existence, the Kim family’s regime has served China precisely like that: a buffer-zone. In that regard, the summits’ success and the prospects of a North-South Korean peace treaty are also dependent on agreements that cater to historically diverging stances and needs

Delicate on their own, those bumps — Trump’s bellicose foreign policy and an apparent ostracised China — pale in comparison to Pyongyang and Washington’s clashing demands and expectations. With its people, soldiers and territory ruthlessly ravaged by the US troops during the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung handed on to his son, Kim Jung-Il, and grandson, Kim Jung-Un, now the incumbent dictator, a deeply-rooted notion that the US is the archenemy who’s just about to strike. To this day, thousands of US troops remain stationed in South Korea and Japan conducting regular joint military exercises. Nuclear weapons, reasoned Il-Sung (the founding father), would guarantee his country the desperately needed deterrent power with which to repeal the American menacing and meddling policy.

Many decades on, and on the threshold of finally developing a missile system capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US mainland, North Korea probably deems accomplished its decades-old mission: getting hold of the nuclear status which would give it a wiggle-room in future talks with its foe. Therefore, what Pyongyang expects from the 27th of April talks is a trustworthy commitment towards the complete removal of all US stationed troops and the end of the joint military exercises, a demand that “Washington and South Korea have adamantly rejected”. Aware that he may be asking for too much, Kim has hinted that he may settle for less so long as security guaranties for his county were provided[4]. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, does not seem as flexible as his counterpart. If Washington has never before agreed to a comprehensive withdrawal of its troops from that region, why would it act differently especially now that his country supposedly is within the reach North Korea’s nuclear missiles? In that sense, the US administration demands “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation while making it crystal-clear that less diplomatic options are still on the table — that is, a pre-emptive military strike, as feverously defended by his new war-inclined appointees: Bolton and Pompeo.

All things considered, it appears to me that only with a generous pinch of luck and much mutual willingness and patience will Kim and Trump diplomatically dodge the obstacles and ultimately avoid the comeback of a military tit-for-tat. Weather forecasting is far more predictable than international politics. One can only speculate. After all, we have come from a year of hair-rising sabre-rattling between Washington and Pyongyang to the prospects of a permanent North-South Korean peace treaty and the overall cooling of tensions. Indeed, we stand at a crossroads.

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[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-korea/2018-04-01/right-way-coerce-north-korea?cid=int-fls&pgtype=hpg

[2] https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21740762-not-much-americas-and-south-koreas-leaders-do-what-expect-talks-north-korea

[3] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/us-north-korea-prepare-for-talks.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/world/asia/north-korea-south-treaty.html

An International Relations degree holder; a language, history and economics aficionado; and a soon-to-be Economist who sees writing a thought-untangling act.

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