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Is great power politics complicating the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?

By Megha Gupta and Samarth Kavoori

On May 17th2018, Donald Trump had declared that the United States would impose unilateral sanctions on Iran and that major importers of Iranian products would have to reduce their trade to zero. India and China, the largest importers of Iranian oil were also the victims of these sanctions. Though at the beginning of November, the US issued waivers to a few states including China, South Korea and India. There could be a number of reasons for such waivers, though the principal purpose one can speculate could be an effect of America’s East Asia policy.

The Korean Peninsula, situated in East Asia, is a geopolitically important region where the four big powers – U.S., China, Russia and Japan nervously meet and interact. The region is important and a volatile one as three of the five P5 members have strategic involvement and are the only nations to officially possess nuclear weapons under the “discriminatory” Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The two superpowers the U.S. and the Soviet Unionpost World War 2 had influenced formation of the state and state building measures for South and North Korea respectively. Since then, the Koreas have been seen as polarized doppelgangers. South Korea aligning with the capitalist world propagated by the U.S. and Japan, and North Korea aligned with Communist bloc supported by China and Russia. This made peaceful coexistence of differences in identity difficult to achieve in the Korean Peninsula, a far-fetched dream.

After the Korean War ended in 1953, the first Inter-Korean summit was held in 2000, where the South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and the North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il met to discuss issues pertaining to the development of weapons by North Korea and the massive deployment of troops to the Korean Demilitarized Zone. However, only two years after the summit North Korea was found to develop the highly enriched uranium nuclear program. Hereafter, North Korea’s international image has been instilled with skepticism and the stability of this region has been constantly questioned.

North Korea is one of the last official communist regime whose basis for formation was anti-Americanism. It views South Korea as an American proxy whose aim is to destroy the communist regime which explains the deployment of the troops. Kim Jon Un and his father’s dictatorial tendencies were primarily based on the survival of the regime.

As the peninsula is largely enveloped by three big neighboring powers, who have pursued the peace process chiefly for their own national interest, has made the security situation of this region more complex as compared to any other. An example this could be China shifting from its One-Korea policy to Two-State agenda with Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization in 1982; China and Japan are trying to constantly create a balance of power in the Korean Peninsula; while Russia, another major player in the region tries to maintain its prestige and influence in the region.

Looking at the recent developments, Japan continues to seek raison d’état as it has not shown any interest in normalizing its relationship with North Korea until the issues of Japanese abducted by the North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s would be resolved (“A Role For Japan On The Korean Peninsula | The Japan Times” 2018). Japan continues to rely on its close ally U.S. to address the abduction issue along with denuclearization.

Whereas, the U.S. in the post-Cold War era has developed a new policy tool that is the threat of imposing economic sanction’s diplomacy. It has from time to time imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea supplementing the already imposed sanctions by the UN. The U.S. has also sanctioned the North Korean supporters such as the Chinese and Russian companies in the hope of impeding North Korea’s nuclear development program. Even though these sanctions have isolated North Korea in the global market and made it lose out a great access to economic opportunities, it has not yet been able to achieve its goals of denuclearization as China continued its trade with North Korea which accounts for about 90%. (Harrell and Zarate 2018) These permutations and combinations have further complicated the issue and slowed down the scope of peace in this peninsula.

The economic rise of China has worried the U.S. as China aspires to be a regional hegemon. One must also consider the fact that China accounts for 90% of trade with North Korea. The Maximum Pressure Strategy is a unilateral American move without the approval of the China. Complying to U.S. would mean a Chinese failure to negotiate with the US and the US gaining the upper hand in the regional conflict.

Even though, this year North Korea has dismantled its nuclear and rocket engine testing sites, suspended nuclear and missile tests and returned the remains of some American servicemen killed during the 1950-53 Korean War (“North Korea Returns Remains of US Soldiers Killed During Korean War” 2018). Looking at their notorious history, there will always be a deep rooted skepticism on both the sides on their willingness to denuclearize and establish peace. Moreover, it is difficult for North Korea to trust the U.S. as they do not want the Libya or Iraq mode of nuclear abandonment to be implemented in their state.

The North Korean Chairman continues to fear that denuclearization would lead to eventual loosening of control over the people thereby emboldening movements in favor of democracy. The U.S. and Japanese participation is seen by North Korea with high levels of suspicion which is why Kim Jong Un continues to consult the Chinese before having a summit or meeting with the U.S. administration. (“Kim Jong-Un Hopes to Consolidate Ties With China” 2018)

Presumably, the involvement and interference of all these four powers can be blamed for the difficulty caused in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The Koreas have entangled themselves in the great power politics and in the process have increased insecurity among one another. The big four should be able to create opportunities or impose constraints but should not be given the authority to dictate the nature and direction of the Korean Peninsula. The hopes of denuclearization can only be accomplished at the local level or inter-Korean level. Such as the South Korea’s pursuance of ‘‘Nordpolitik’’ and North Korea pursuing some sort of “Southern Policy” can only be the direct solution to the normalization of the relationship between the two states which in turn will help in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The ability of Kim Jong Un to maintain his regime in North Korea has provoked national unity and thus inability to remove him from power. The Chinese find a reasonable ally in him as he can maintain pressure on Japan and the United States, which in turn helps China’s economic expansionist agenda. Another important aspect to consider is the fact that North Korea has never really succumbed to the US’s agenda of denuclearization.

Megha Gupta and Samarth Kavoori are scholars of Masters in Diplomacy, Law, Business at Jindal School of International Affairs, India.

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