New Dawn or False Hope on the Korean Peninsula?

Joint Security Area North Korea and South Korea border

There is once again cautious optimism of breaking the deadlock on the Korean Peninsula. A flurry of inter-Korean diplomacy, a “commitment” to denuclearization by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea summit have spelled a dramatic change after the peaking of tensions last year. But while these developments bring hope, there are huge obstacles to clear ahead. ISDP’s Korea experts provide their perspectives below.

Niklas Swanström, Director of ISDP

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula have been very positive, but there is still a long way to go before denuclearization can be achieved, if at all. The North Korean regime is unlikely to agree to abandoning its nuclear arsenal unless far-reaching concessions are extended to Pyongyang.

Among others, such as easing of sanctions, its demands would likely include the signing of a peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement and discussion on a “unification” process, which in turn would seriously challenge the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Indeed, a longstanding goal for North Korea is ultimately to see a withdrawal of American troops from the Peninsula. Without what remains an improbable scenario – in other words a fundamental change of North Korea’s security environment – it is highly unlikely that talks on denuclearization would be successful.

In the meantime, North Korea has already improved its position through a de-escalation of tensions, having driven a small wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, and secured preliminary acceptance for a meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. If the meeting goes ahead, it would prove a large coup for Pyongyang as no serving U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader. It has furthermore – despite announcing a freeze – bought itself time to continue to improve its missile and nuclear programs, as well as gain possible concessions on sanctions relief.

For now, it is Kim Jong Un that is calling all the shots. If and when substantive negotiations get underway, North Korea’s strategy will be to maximize concessions at every opportunity; but this will not involve conceding on anything that it views as undermining the regime’s security.

Sangsoo Lee, Head of ISDP’s Korea Project

Beyond the successful staging of the Winter Olympics, since January we have witnessed dramatic developments in the security landscape on the Korean Peninsula.

Inter-Korean talks have contributed to reducing the high level of military tensions and opened up the notion of a peaceful negotiation process. The two Koreas, furthermore, have reconnected all previous hotlines and agreed to create a new hotline between the two leaders, serving as a tool for crisis management. Fears that the resumption of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises in April would spell an end to the current thaw have also seemingly been allayed. The announced freezing of nuclear and missile tests also represents a positive development.

The fact that Kim Jong Un has broached the possibility of denuclearization indicates a symbolic reversal of North Korea’s previous position that its nuclear program was non-negotiable. While these are only words for now, they nonetheless represent an initial starting point for what will inevitably be a long-term denuclearization process.

Moreover, the proposed U.S.-North Korea summit, if it goes ahead, constitutes a very significant decision, as it would be the first time that two incumbent leaders of both countries meet.

In the short term, at least, both Trump and Kim have been able to present themselves as holding the advantage, without either so far having to make significant concessions.

However, the difficult part is yet to come. If there is a lack of movement on denuclearization in terms of concrete steps, and if, on the other hand, that North Korea perceives that sanctions are not being softened, or that its security assurances are not being seriously addressed, then the current process can very quickly derail. Therefore, a test of true intentions and commitments remains.

The next couple of months are crucial. All parties should carefully prepare behind the scenes for a long-term and phased roadmap process towards the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, one which would set out clear objectives and specify mutually agreed levels of reciprocity and sequencing of measures. Repeating history through failed negotiations will only bring about an even more dangerous crisis.

Major General (ret.) Mats Engman, ISDP Distinguished Military Fellow and former Head of the Swedish Delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission

Having grabbed the headlines with a relentless succession of nuclear and missile tests, once more North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has managed to take center stage in world affairs by inviting President Trump to meet, and stating his willingness to discuss the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” if relevant security guarantees can be secured for North Korea.

It seems likely that a combination of three different issues have contributed to bringing North Korea to the negotiation table over its nuclear arms.

First is a new leadership under President Moon in South Korea (since May 2017). Moon has clearly been willing to try and engage North Korea in a dialogue in order to defuse tensions and grapple with some of the very difficult security-related issues. This represents a sharp contrast to the previous decade of conservative South Korean governments.

Second, the new leadership in Washington under President Trump has introduced a very different policy vis-à-vis North Korea, characterized by tough sanctions and an “all options are on the table” stance, including the prospect of pre-emptive military strikes – a policy which makes it very difficult to analyze and assess the U.S.’s real intentions.

Third, the adoption of several sanctions by the UN Security Council targeted at crippling critical elements of the economy and the assets of prominent North Korean elites. Significantly, these sanctions that have been supported and implemented by most countries including China.

But while these factors have contributed to North Korea changing its approach, if not policy, the crux remains what it may expect in order to pursue denuclearization, namely in terms of security guarantees.

According to its interpretation, this most likely entails making major changes to the security alliance between South Korea and U.S. such as dismantling “extended deterrence” to South Korea, involving deployment of nuclear capable units and naval assets. It may even demand that the alliance is severed and that all U.S. troops leave South Korea as a condition for denuclearization. China and Japan may also be required to extend security guarantees.

Any discussion of security assurances will inevitably be very complicated and North Korea will likely have an upper hand, as it can determine if relevant security guarantees are met. If nothing else, the “Hermit Kingdom” leader Kim Jong Un has proven to be a very skilled diplomat, understanding international politics by having most other political leaders adapt to his agenda and pace.

The views expressed above are those of the individual authors only.