BBC World: Discussing North Korean Diplomacy
BBC World: Discussing North Korean Diplomacy
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.
BBC Breakfast: Discussing Trump’s North Korea strategy
CTV: Dr John Hemmings discusses diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula
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, 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.
The Telegraph, 9 March, 2018
Happy day: the news that President Trump has agreed to a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un sometime in May at last raises the possibility of de-escalating the long-simmering crisis. But before we start cracking out the bubbly and nominating for Nobel Peace Prizes, a cold assessment of the negotiations is necessary.
Even presuming that this isn’t simply another North Korean time-buying exercise, there are still big obstacles to a resolution. First, when both sides talk about “denuclearisation” they mean very different things.
As the Korea scholar Duyeon Kim has pointed out, Kim Jong Un’s regime says it wants arms control talks with Washington, and might be willing to denuclearise – but only if “both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons.” Well, North Korea is not the USSR, and Kim Jong-un is no Gorbachev, so that will be a problem.
Then there is North Korea’s demand for “security”: easy in principle, difficult in practice. While past US presidents such as George W Bush have written letters guaranteeing the regime’s security (an awful dilemma for Washington on the human rights front), it’s not clear what this time would actually entail.
If it involves the US being asked to reduce or eliminate its troop presence in South Korea, then we have another problem. Washington cannot forgo its defence of an ally that has been attacked repeatedly by the North merely for the possibility of an unknown “peace”. It’s like promising an arsonist that you’ll disband the local fire department.
So what can the two sides offer each other by way of realistic concessions? With all the obstacles to mutual understanding, should we even be having these meetings? The answer is that there is always a moral imperative to attempt negotiations if war is a real possibility. And by all accounts from Washington, war is a real possibility.
The most obvious move for both sides would be to attempt a return to the conclusion of the 2007 Six Party Talks. Despite criticism of the whole Six Party format, much was accomplished during these negotiations, including a DPRK commitment to disable all nuclear facilities and a commitment by Japan, South Korea and the US to normalise relations with Pyongyang and provide forms of energy and development aid. The primary problem would be – as it was at the time – that of verification. Who will verify that North Korea has carried out its commitments?
Less obvious moves include some sort of peace treaty being offered by the United States to the North. DPRK has long called for the US to normalise relations and end its threatening attitude. Again, for this to work, Pyongyang would have to be willing to include Seoul. If North Korea were to accept a peace deal with Seoul as well, it’s the type of symbolic move that could pave the way to further talks, and perhaps to a formal US treaty guaranteeing North Korea’s regime security. While morally distasteful, this would at least help avoid a horrific war.
As for sanctions, the best Washington and Seoul could do is offer a timeline for reducing them that parallels DPRK denuclearization, a sort of positive tit-for-tat. The danger with this, as with the entire idea of talks, is that American and Korean governments will rush into having talks for the sake of talks without any clear agenda.
Without a clear idea of what they want and what their red lines are, they could simply be outsmarted by the wily team of North Korean negotiators and bounced into giving away concessions which they or their allies cannot afford.
So yes, we have all been here before. The prognosis is not sunny. But what other choice do we have?
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