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What explains the unexpected shift to diplomacy in the North Korea crisis?

By Shriyank Mulgund

Since the time of the beginning Korean War, North Korea has been rightfully acknowledged as a growing and serious threat. The fact that no peace treaty was signed and that the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 is a document merely bringing in a ceasefire between military forces, does anything but not make this even more apparent, since the Korean War has in fact, not ended. The US continues to pursue its aim of denuclearizing North Korea, and that aim, continues to remain elusive making many regard the US’s North Korea policies, ‘a dismal failure’ [1].

US strategy and policy experts have pondered over the possible solutions to the persisting problem for years, even considering an all-out military strike, which is a bad idea, considering the projected consequences indicate that engaging North Korea in military conflict will result in the largest humanitarian crisis [2] the world has ever seen, despite military success. North Korea’s terrain and geographical features give it a tactical advantage in a warlike situation and the totalitarian nature of its government ensures that intelligence on the machinations of its booming nuclear program remains hard to come by, thus ruling out the ease of mounting covert, surgical operations to neutralize the threat. The Kim Dynasty, perceived as paranoid and trigger-happy in popular opinion, continues its dogged resistance despite sanctions imposed against North Korea, and it doesn’t take incredible political acumen to interpret the presence of US troops in South Korea and off the coast of Japan as not signifying an olive branch.

However, in the last year or so, there has been observed a significant and sudden change in North Korea’s attitude. It is interesting to take into account the timeline of how this came to be, starting from North Korea’s ICBM tests in September 2016, the missiles landing inside Japan’s waters. After this incident, there were reports of international pressure on Kim Jong-Un to suspend his nuclear program in light of security concerns and to further the objectives of non-proliferation, a joint statement by the Heads of State and Government of the Member States of ASEAN at the September 2016 East Asia Summit recalled all relevant UNSC sanctions on North Korea, and urged the country to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs [3]. As the country continued to pursue its ballistic missile program with more tests, UNSC came down hard with more sanctions against North Korea. The US turned the pressure on North Korea’s long-time ally, China as well, charging Chinese companies of evading US sanctions by using shell companies to aid North Korea financially. Pressure began mounting on North Korea as China began calling for a halt to the former’s nuclear program, in addition to this, the country received no aid from US despite the UN’s recommendation after severe flooding caused the death of 138 people. There were reports of joint military exercises between US and South Korea and dispatch of a navy strike group to the Korean Peninsula to maintain readiness in the Western Pacific.

Subsequently, 2017 was a year of tremendous political tension between North Korea and the US, following the entry of the Trump administration. Trump has since, famously advocated a “maximum pressure” North Korea policy that claims to have even the most of unfavourable options (suggestive of engagement in military conflict) on the table when dealing with the country. The jibes of both heads of state at each other and the US administration’s willingness to engage with North Korea head-on, became a cause for global concern, many fearing that it would possibly result in the impending nuclear war that had been put off for more than 6 decades. Trump continued to pressure North Korea by offering China favourable trade policies in exchange for dealing with Kim Jong-Un, and deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea acting as a shield to intercept missiles from the North. Towards the end of 2017, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy was in the most favourable position as, North Korea seemed cornered and bleeding, due to heavy losses incurred from the US sanctions imposed on shipping, failing missile tests, financial insufficiency, and repeated threats from the US both in word and in action. In such a scenario, the new South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s willingness to hold talks with the North Korean leader, seemed to coax the leader to engage in talks for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

This is what was seen in the beginning of 2018 when in January, North Korea agreed to participate in Inter Korean talks, and subsequently sent its athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea. Kim Jong-Un’s meeting with Moon Jae-In, his South Korean counterpart sent out a message that was echoed by the South Korean government, that Pyongyang was ready to talk denuclearization. These developments culminated into a meeting between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump on June 12, 2018, in Singapore where they signed a joint declaration in which Pyongyang committed to work towards complete denuclearization, while Trump announced that US-South Korea military drills would be stopped deeming it inappropriate and provocative to continue them in light of the diplomatic efforts being made.

While this may be interpreted as a success of the Trump administration’s policies, many foreign policy experts are of the opinion that this is a clever move by Jong-Un to take control of the nuclear crisis especially after talk of war in Washington. The US’s crippling sanctions might have proved to be too much for the determined and headstrong Korean leader but he has displayed level-headedness that is uncharacteristic of him in order to defuse the situation.

According to Miha Hribernik, senior Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft,

“If past experiences are anything to go by, Kim Jong-Un is hoping to extract a loosening of sanctions or other assistance by feigning a willingness to disarm. The North Korean economy is straining under the weight of sanctions, forcing the country to resort to a well-worn playbook.”[4]

The ‘past experiences’ referred to here, signify the 1994 Agreed Framework signed between the governments of US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which ultimately broke down because both parties did not hold their end of the bargain. However, the West is largely of the opinion that this is a trend that North Korea resorts to, that is, when cornered by sanctions, it agrees to talks in exchange for easing of sanctions and goes back to its provocative ways soon afterwards. Most experts claim that it is highly improbable that the Kim will relinquish his nuclear arsenal as it is a foundation on which the country and the ideology of the ruling party is built, that is, in order to repel invasion from the West and from its Southern cousin, it is absolutely necessary to become capable of nuclear warfare. What happened in early 2018, can be interpreted as a ploy to buy more time while at the same time, defusing tensions on both sides of the Pacific, as the US and South Korea have indefinitely ceased their joint military drills but North Korea has not announced any particulars of the denuclearization process, apart from dismantling a nuclear test site which certain reports claim to have been unusable since 2017. The Inter-Korean Dialogue has ruled out the possibility of any pre-emptive or preventive strikes by the US despite the threats from last year as a military option would require South Korea to be on board as it would be the worst hit from the fallout of the conflict. It is not too farfetched to assume then, that in light of South Korea’s less than warm response to increased US presence in the peninsula, the recent display of diplomacy by North Korea is a wily manoeuvre or a ‘charm offensive, as many foreign policy experts who have studied the country over the years conclude.[5]

What remains to be seen is how long this peace lasts, as there has been no easing of the sanctions imposed on North Korea.

References:

  1. Beinart, P. (2018, February 8). The Weirdest—and Possibly Best—Proposal to Resolve the North Korea Crisis.
  2. Bowden, M. (2017, July/August). How to Deal With North Korea.
  3. Heads of State and Government of the Member States of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), A. P. (2016). 2016 EAS Leaders’ Statement on Non-Proliferation. East Asia Summit 2016.Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
  4. Chandran, N. (2018). From missile tests to peace talks: North Korea’s sudden shift explained.
  5. Kim, J. (2015). Sources and Objectives of North Korea Foreign Policy. In The North Korea Crisis and Regional Responses. East-West Center.

Shriyank Mulgund is a student of international affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He is currently enrolled in a two year Postgraduate Degree programme- M.A.(Diplomacy, Law and Business).

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