International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

7 May 2018

Competing and overlapping geopolitical interests place imposing obstacles before Trump, Kim, and lasting peace, Daniel Fazio writes.

The optimism generated by the symbolic inter-Korean Summit needs to be balanced by a cautious and realistic appraisal of the obstacles the two countries must overcome to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

The history of the two Koreas is a cautionary reminder that these tensions and divisions are unlikely to be reduced and resolved anytime soon.

It also shows that predictions about the future of the peninsula have rarely eventuated. The two previous summits in 2000 and 2007 took place amidst high hopes, yet very few of those expectations have come to fruition. The Panmunjom Declaration signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un contains three elements that are illustrative of the inherent difficulties in attempts to reduce Korean tensions and divisions.

More on this: Hoping for history on the Korean Peninsula

First, increasing inter-Korean contacts on the personal, economic and political levels appears achievable and some movement may indeed happen. More frequent reunions between families separated by the Korean War, greater dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang, and more joint Korean representation at international sporting events like the recent Winter Olympics would be welcome developments.

However, greater contact between the two Koreas has risks for both nations. The South would be reluctant to increase economic aid to the North without tangible evidence that Pyongyang will cease its nuclear and weapons program and implement real economic reform. A more open border, especially a rail link, really seems a distant goal.

North Korea has too much to lose from having greater contact with the South. The resulting flow of news and ideas into North Korea risks inciting the population and emboldening North Koreans to take greater risks to try to flee the country, which could precipitate the collapse of the regime. This would be reminiscent of the fall of the East German regime in November 1989, days after it opened its borders, an event unlikely to have been forgotten in Pyongyang.

Any loosening of Pyongyang’s political and economic controls will be detrimental to the survival of the regime and contrary to its character. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated he is a ruthless and wily political operator. He is unlikely to expose his regime and risk its collapse.

One immediate symbolic outcome of the inter-Korean summit could be a cessation of the propaganda confrontation at the demilitarised zone. The blaring loudspeakers and the leaflet drops are pointless exercises. Seoul and Pyongyang can cease these activities without having to make any concessions to each other.

Second, a peace treaty ending the Korean War appears achievable on face value, because it would formalise the status quo since 1953. This has the backing of all the regional powers, including the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan.

More on this: Rapid Round-up: Inter-Korean Summit

However a treaty needs to be negotiated, and once both sides are compelled to make concessions and agree to certain conditions, the effort could easily unravel as the two Koreas and the regional powers have overlapping and conflicting interests. This would enable Pyongyang to play the regional powers off against one another, thereby buying time without having to make any concessions.

The Korean War armistice was signed in July 1953 after two years of often exasperating talks between the UN/US and their communist foes. It is a cautionary reminder that negotiations for a peace treaty could become protracted.

Third, as I have previously argued on Policy Forum, Pyongyang’s paramount objective is survival, and it is therefore highly unlikely it will surrender its nuclear and missile programs, which constitute one of its trump cards.

Having surreptitiously developed its nuclear and missile capacity, Pyongyang can no longer make promises to shut down these programs in return for economic aid. In turn, the US and its allies cannot enforce the verifiable and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons arsenal.

Despite the language of the Panmunjom Declaration and the rhetoric of the US and the other regional powers, Pyongyang will probably respond to pressure to surrender its nuclear and weapons programs as it has done in the past: it will play the regional powers off against each other and obfuscate indefinitely to buy itself time.

This strategy has previously succeeded because of Pyongyang’s second trump card: the conflicting interests of the regional powers have prevented them from devising and implementing a united approach towards North Korea.

More on this: Panmunjom Declaration is a first step on an uncharted path

Pyongyang may say it will de-nuclearise, but demand concessions it knows South Korea and the US cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of all US forces from the peninsula and the end of its military exercises with the South.

South Korea and the US cannot be seen to be held to ransom by Pyongyang. This advantages the North, which will justify the necessity of maintaining its weapons arsenal to defend itself against “aggression” from America and its “puppet” allies.

In the wake of the inter-Korean summit, a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un appears more likely but is still no certainty. Trump is unpredictable, but Kim is a skilled political operator. Neither leader will allow themselves to be out-manoeuvred, nor will Kim accede to Trump’s demands on de-nuclearisation.

At best, if Trump and Kim do meet, it will be a symbolic beginning of a long process that may reduce regional tensions and normalise relations between the US and North Korea.

However, history suggests that it’s more likely that diplomatic tensions between North Korea and the US will again escalate, as will the risk of a military confrontation.

So irrespective of the bonhomie between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, tangible changes to the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and in the regional power balance are unlikely. The conflicting geo-strategic interests of the two Koreas and the regional powers in northeast Asia will remain.

Nevertheless, if the inter-Korean summit only results in a reduction in regional tensions and the lessening of the possibility of a military confrontation, Moon and Kim can claim success.

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