It made great…

27.04.18 Publication:

It made great television, for the place where the leaders of North and South Korea met on April 27th, the so-called De-Militarized Zone on the border between the two Koreas, is highly militarized, rather spooky and very menacing. So in such a place all the talk of peace, as Kim Jong-un became the first ever North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea, cannot be anything other than welcome. But whether it is meaningful is a quite different matter.

Behind the smiles and newly found camaraderie, several points need to be borne in mind. One is that during 2017 alone, North Korea conducted 18 tests of ballistic missiles, the latest on November 28th, and one test of a nuclear weapon, on September 3rdlast year. Another is that last year North Korean agents murdered Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, using a nerve agent in the highly public space of Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. And in November last year a North Korean soldier attempting to defect across the De-Militarized Zone was shot dead by his colleagues.

The North Korean regime may be good at smiling for the cameras, and talking about peace, but it is a far from pleasant or peaceable regime. Meanwhile the real negotiating counterpart for Mr Kim will be President Donald Trump of the United States, with whom a summit meeting, which will be even more historic in nature, is planned for late May or June. President Trump has talked of raining down “fire and fury” on North Korea, and has recently appointed a very hardline new National Security Advisor, John Bolton.

The fundamental question remains unanswered: what are the main protagonists in the Korean peninsula willing to offer in return for peace? When the Korean War between North Korea, South Korea, China and the USA came to an end in 1953, no peace treaty was signed. There has just been an uneasy ceasefire ever since, punctuated by occasional killings on both sides.

Everyone claims that their goal is denuclearisation. The presidents of North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, agreed at their summit to work to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons and to try to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2018. This fits in with China’s desires for stabilisation on the peninsula (and so on China’s eastern border), and with President Moon’s long-held belief in diplomacy rather than any military solutions.

As a result, this summit will be viewed favourably in Asia. But it will still be viewed sceptically, even in the major neighbouring powers of China and Japan.

It is not credible that North Korea would be willing to give up its nuclear weapons cheaply. After all, it has spent half a century developing them, and achieved its goal of demonstrating its capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead only last December. It is under strict international economic sanctions, but no evidence has emerged that this is causing an unusual level of suffering, either for the North Korean people or the regime.

Kim Jong-un’s true demands will emerge only when he meets Donald Trump. They are likely to involve a programme of denuclearisation on both sides of the border, and with it a programme of withdrawal of US military forces. America has always been studiously ambiguous about whether its forces in either South Korea or Japan have been nuclear-armed. And its experience of talks with Kim’s predecessors during the 1990s and 2000s has taught it to be highly sceptical of North Korean promises of moratoriums on testing or suspension of production of nuclear materials.

So the stage is set for President Trump to demand a process of verification of denuclearisation that Kim is unlikely to accept, and for Kim to demand a process of US withdrawal from South Korea that Trump will be unable to accept.

This does not mean that either the summit between the two Korean leaders or between Kim and Trump will necessarily prove to have been a waste of time. They could lead to agreement on processes for future talks and for de-escalation of tensions that could help stabilise the situation.

Such processes would, however, be tantamount to an American recognition that North Korea has joined the world’s ranks of nuclear-weapons states and that in the long-term the only sensible response will be one of containment and deterrence, just like during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. If that were to occur, China would undoubtedly feel pleased, for the US would have been forced to accept reality and to cease threatening a war into which China would inevitably be drawn.

For that reason, it is important to recognise that another, much more dangerous outcome is also still possible. If President Trump and his team conclude that Kim Jong-un is simply being intransigent, or even worse is just faking his apparent desire for peace, then the US may decide to use a pre-emptive military strike on North Korean nuclear facilities in order to push Kim to negotiate properly. War may come back on to the table.

If that were to happen, the consequences would be unknowable. So the rest of the world, and all the Koreas’ neighbours, must hope and pray that such an outcome does not arrive.