North Korea

Kim Jong-un’s China visit could be the prelude to the last act in Korea’s nuclear drama

The latest diplomatic manoeuvres have given rise to cautious optimism about a lasting peace – if the Trump administration is willing to play along

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 10:01pm

Nowadays, it seems everyone wants a piece of Kim Jong-un. The high-profile meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the North Korean leader late last month is likely to be just the beginning of a series of historic meetings.

Leaders of all the major regional players have lined up for scheduled summits with their North Korean counterpart. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has leveraged the Korean crisis to enhance Japan’s defensive capabilities, has also expressed his willingness to meet Kim.

While there is a cause for cautious optimism, there is no room for complacency. Peace on the peninsula is one of the biggest geopolitical puzzles of our time, and will require nothing short of patience, self-restraint and categorical commitment to diplomatic resolution by all relevant parties.

Just months earlier, the world was on the brink of direct military conflict, as Washington and Pyongyang ramped up their war of words and threatened to settle their grievances in the theatre of war.

After months of escalating tensions, however, a new buzz is in the air. And it is the abiding hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, which would place a divided Korea on the path to irreversible reconciliation and, eventually, full reunification.

Based on recent discussions with senior leaders from North Korea and other concerned parties, it’s clear to me that the only way forward is a final peace agreement.

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Since 1953, the Korean peninsula has been in a state of suspended war, with the belligerent parties separated by a tenuous armistice that ended armed hostilities but not the threat of renewed conflict.

A final peace agreement will have to replace the long ceasefire with a formal recognition of the legitimate interest of nations on both sides of the divide.

The North Koreans seek security guarantees against the threats of regime change by outside forces, particularly America.

Washington and its allies want a definitive end to provocative behaviour by Pyongyang, particularly its nuclear and ballistic missile tests in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

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Sanctions have had a visible effect on the North Korean economy, depriving the country of much-needed access to global capital and markets to modernise its economy.

The young North Korean leader is seemingly determined to build a “powerful socialist state”, both militarily and economically.

This is reflected in the build-up of infrastructure and limited yet crucial economic reforms, which have led to emergence of semi-private institutions across the country, as well as the rapid advancement in the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile capability in recent years.

Yet there are no signs that the sanctions have been strong enough to either threaten the foundations of the regime or alter its national security doctrine.

The sanctions, however, have been robust enough to nudge the increasingly isolated regime back to the negotiating table. As North Korean officials told me during a trip to Pyongyang in April, they are negotiating as a “full-fledged strategic state”.

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North Korea is now technically part of the elite club of nuclear powers, though it has yet to fully master its delivery capacity.

Officials there contend that the reinvigorated peace process in the peninsula is fundamentally a reflection of the “bold and courageous” decision of Kim to open communication channels with relevant world leaders.

For the North Koreans, ownership of the process – and a sense of agency in determining their national fate – is paramount. Through direct engagement, the regime is likely calculating that it could scale back international sanctions in exchange for greater transparency in its nuclear programme.

They have raised the stakes by even discussing the prospect of “denuclearisation”, but it’s still not clear what they mean by that.

It’s highly unlikely that Pyongyang will ever be amenable to unilaterally giving up its nuclear weapons without an absolute and irreversible security guarantee from America and its key regional allies.

In the meantime, both parties can at least explore a packaged solution, which will eventually graduate into what one senior Chinese official in Beijing described as a “permanent peace regime”.

Both sides can start with confidence-building measures, namely a suspension-for-suspension agreement, whereby Pyongyang refrains from additional nuclear and ballistic missile tests in exchange for a moratorium on the imposition of new sanctions.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to hold direct talks with his North Korean counterpart later this month. This could potentially pave the way for the development of an enduring framework of peace on the Korean peninsula.

Yet, much will also depend on the willingness of the Donald Trump administration to commit necessary diplomatic capital to patiently negotiate a complex and multilayered agreement with Pyongyang. America is the elephant in the room.

The appointment of John Bolton, who has repeatedly called for regime change in North Korea, as the new US national security adviser isn’t the most encouraging development.

By opening communication channels with multiple countries, however, Pyongyang will be in a position to isolate Washington, if the Trump administration were to opt for military intervention without fully exhausting diplomatic means.

Thus, everyone now is under pressure to ensure that this time they get the peace process right. This is the ultimate plot twist in the ongoing Korean saga.

The author was part of a Southeast Asian delegation, led by veteran Indonesian diplomat Dino Patti Djalal, that visited North Korea from April 3-7.