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Even if it fails, the North Korean peace summit is an incredible breakthrough

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The Telegraph, 26 April, 2018

What took place this morning in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area an incredible moment in Korean history. Even after years watching the ratcheting tensions between North and South Korea, I found myself a little awed.

In one clip doing the rounds this morning, both Northern and Southern leaders meet on a large screen, with journalists in the press pool watching. The ascending roar of surprise and acclamation when they stepped across the border, hand in hand, was moving in itself.

We watched Kim Jong-un, the leader of a murderous regime, smilingly step over a simple concrete marker and into South Korean territory. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s progressive president, was in his element, with a welcoming and warm smile.

Then they even stepped back over into North Korea, to the amusement and pleasure of both. It was a testimony to the fact that all political walls are , in the end, only human.

Several months ago, denuclearisation was not even on the table. Today, however improbably, it is. Even if nothing comes of this meeting, it’s significant that we are even at this point.

But what are the actual prospects for a lasting peace? The opening point of the statement released by both leaders was a promise to re-open people-to-people links, and a number of steps were taken to institutionalise relations at certain flashpoints, such as the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea.

Most importantly, it agreed that a peace treaty between the two is on the cards, to be signed within a year, committing Moon to a visit to Pyongyang in the Autumn. Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, senior lecturer at Kings College London, said this was certainly the most consequential element of the agreement. It “would not only allow a formal end to the Korean War, but also allow for a new framework for inter-Korean relations”. The US and China would also have to be involved in this process, as two of the parties to the 1953 Armistice.

In terms of denuclearisation, both agree that this is a desirable goal and one that both sides want. But the term “disarmament” is also mentioned, perhaps indicating some hint of a reduction of ROK forces and US forces. Time will tell what this means, and we will have to see how this issue is framed during the Trump-Kim meeting, expected to take place in Singapore sometime in late June.

As some have argued, it was a necessary step, but not a sufficient one. Pardo stated that this cautious optimism was palpable in South Korea. “On the streets of Seoul, this is seen as a positive, hopeful and feasible agreement, but there is still caution about North Korea’s commitment to this process.”

As weary American diplomats have been known to say about North Korea in the past, “we’ve bought this horse before”. The Six Party Talks in the mid-Noughties came within a whisker of resolving the crisis, only to fail at North Korea’s refusal to have third party verification over their denuclearisation process.

Having said that, one need only think of where things stood this time four months ago to realize that progress is being made, and jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

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Vice News, David Gilbert, 26 April 2018

“It is unsurprising that Moon is taking such steps to make Kim and his entourage feel comfortable,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News. “The fact that the meeting is occurring in the South is already a great concession from Kim’s perspective. It may fall into the category of an ‘unpleasant necessity’ to bring about peace on the Peninsula, thus avoiding a conflagration that would cost millions more lives.”

 


Against all odds, is Trump about to solve the North Korea nuclear crisis?

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The Telegraph, 29 March, 2018

The arrival in Beijing of a long, armoured North Korean train was as mysterious as it was sudden. Who could it be? Kim Jong-un hadn’t publicly left his country since he became leader in 2011, fearful perhaps of a military coup. The train itself, reminiscent of those favoured by the Bolsheviks, was strikingly similar to the one used by Kim Jong-il, the current dictator’s father, who was reportedly afraid of flying.

There had been no sign that a visit was imminent. But then the photographs emerged, Kim and Chinese president Xi Jinping shaking hands in front of their national flags. The message was as expected: we stand together and will proceed with the upcoming North Korea-South Korea negotiations as a team, as “lips and teeth” as both countries like to say of each other. But the background to the meeting was not: Donald Trump may have set in motion a series of events that could lead to a positive resolution, in some form, of the North Korea nuclear crisis.

It is astonishing that we have reached this point – and that Trump appears to have been the man who achieved it. The president is not known for his foreign policy expertise, and the nuclear issue is the modern day incarnation of the Great Game, one of the most complex and longest-running crises in history. In the 1990s, an American official said it “felt like playing a multi-tiered chess game on overlapping boards.” While there are six states involved – the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan – arrayed in two “teams”, everyone comes to the table with a different agenda, different objectives.

Take Japan. Prime Minister Abe is known to have reached out to the North through interlocutors insisting that he wants to be at the table. But for Abe, the North Korea nuclear issue cannot be resolved without determining the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. For Russia, North Korea presents an opportunity. A long-term ally during the Cold War, it now plays the crisis like a poker player with few stakes in the game and uses its role to gain best advantage for its position in Asia.

Just months ago conflict seemed imminent. Now we will see the US and the North sitting down at the same table for the first time since 2012

For China, the game has long been about history. Historically, the Korean nation has been a tributary state, and US involvement on the Asian mainland has felt like a foreign intrusion. At the most extreme, Beijing has sought to use the crisis to engineer a US removal from the peninsula; by the most benign reading, it merely seeks to maintain a safe buffer zone on its borders from any US-allied nation.

Trump could have drowned in this complexity like some of his predecessors, but instead he has shown an agility of purpose that has thrown the pieces in the air. The Kim-Xi meeting suggests movement in Beijing. The Chinese are desperate to avoid being cut out of the planned summit. Xi will have wanted to remind Kim who butters North Korea’s bread. Kim, meanwhile, will have wanted to ensure a defence commitment in case the talks are unsuccessful. After all, the Trump administration’s quiet movement of military assets to the region belies a serious determination to remove what they perceive to be a direct threat to the US mainland.

But while we should all be cautious about the long-term chances of a US-North Korea accord, what has been achieved so far is remarkable. Just months ago conflict seemed imminent. Now we will see the US and the North sitting down at the same table for the first time since 2012, and for the first time with an open agenda since 2007.

President Trump would not have accomplished this without the incredible diplomacy of the South’s President Moon Jae-in. Indeed, the US and the South have led a superb three-pronged campaign. They’ve stood firm on defence issues, with Trump raising the potential prospect of war by keeping military options on the table and moving assets in-theatre. Both men have adopted highly versatile approaches toward China, giving Xi respect and reassurance, while playing hardball on sanctions and pushing Beijing to accept a “maximum pressure” approach to the North. In turn, Xi and Kim have greeted the US-South overtures with apparent respect, and seem to be attempting to relieve tensions.

One only hopes they succeed. For if the negotiations do fail, we’ll have an unimaginable disaster on our hands in East Asia, and right at the heart of the global economy.


Vice News: China and North Korea just sent a very clear message to Donald Trump

Vice News, David Gilbert, 28 March, 2018

“The Chinese insist that they only want to bring the two states together diplomatically, but they don’t want to be cut out of the picture altogether,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the British foreign policy think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, told VICE News. “China has major interests that must be considered by Pyongyang in any future settlement and they’ll want to remind Kim of those.”

With Pyongyang yet to formally confirm the meeting with Trump, Kim likely used the Beijing visit to improve his position before negotiations begin. “[Kim] does not want to look weak, so meeting with Xi and getting all the royal treatment will also give him a stronger position in the run-up to the meeting,” Hemmings said.

 


Inkstone: Did Kim Jong-un just make a flying visit to Beijing?

Inkstone, Xinyan Yu, Grace Tsoi, 27 March, 2018

“Dr John Hemmings from the Asia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society said China fears it is losing influence with North Korea. The two sides have had a complex, intertwined relationship since the Korean War in the 1950s.

‘Beijing must be sweating right now that the US and North Korea have arranged a summit all without their say-so,’ Dr Hemmings told Inkstone.

‘I think that Kim’s visit will be to ostensibly save China’s face, coordinate policy, reassure Beijing of no more surprises, and also remind Pyongyang how much it depends on Beijing for economic growth,’ Dr Hemmings added.”

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