Even a couple of months ago, most people were talking about a likely military confrontation in the Korean peninsula. It all changed so quickly. A military confrontation, however, was an unlikely scenario even during the most tense months of 2017. Ever since 1953—when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, after the Korean War—both the US and North Korea seem to have been very careful to avoid any large-scale military clash. In the Middle East, the US frequently resorted to air strikes or other types of military intervention if it faced a challenge, but it never carried out a deliberate retaliatory strike against North Korea. Even after the latter resorted to provocation, like the 1968 capture of the American spy ship USS Pueblo, the 1969 shooting down of an American spy plane, killing all 31 on board, and the axe killings of two American soldiers in 1976, in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Nor did North Korea escalate these limited crises to such an extent as to trigger a new war. North Korea’s recent switch from defiance to flexibility was probably motivated by a combination of factors. First, in 2016-2017, China applied much stronger economic pressure on North Korea than at any time before, and North Korea could not expect Russia or any other country to fill the gap. North Korea could and did resist this pressure for a considerable time, but it was not interested in maintaining this situation indefinitely. Second, in the summer and fall of 2017, North Korea reached a confirmed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, which created a strong negotiating position. As long as there was still need for tests to check whether North Korea was really capable of striking the continental US, the leadership would have been probably unwilling to stop halfway, no matter how strong the pressure it faced. Third, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics provided a suitable opportunity for a new attitude, because North Korea could present its flexibility as generosity, rather than as weakness. North Korea could take advantage of South Korea’s need to hold the Games under peaceful conditions. It was South Korea that “blinked first” by proposing to suspend its military exercises with the US during the Games, and thus North Korea could soften its stance on the basis of reciprocity, instead of having been forced to make a unilateral concession. Fourth, North Korea remained unresponsive to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s cooperative gestures as long as Moon’s engagement policy was combined with simultaneous efforts to improve Seoul’s relations with Washington, Tokyo and Beijing. In November 2017, however, the South Korean government realised that a normalisation of Chinese-South Korean relations would necessitate some sort of concession to China at the expense of America and/or Japan. Due to the importance of the US connection, South Korea decided to reduce its security cooperation with Japan. Under such conditions, North Korea could hope that it might be able to drive a wedge in the US-Japan-South Korea alliance.
The conservatives in South Korea, meanwhile, are wary about the summit and its results. As long as engagement was primarily Moon Jae-in’s policy, and the US adopted a hard-line stance, South Korean conservatives were very critical of Moon’s peace overtures. In the spring and summer of 2017, it partly reassured them that Moon countered Pyongyang’s threats by deploying terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD), an American anti-ballistic missile defence system, but in the winter of 2017-2018, they sharply criticised his “kowtowing” to China, complained about the North Korean visitors at the Olympics, especially the cheerleaders and North Korean intelligence head Kim Yong-chol, and feared that Moon’s engagement diplomacy endangered the US-South Korea alliance. US President Donald Trump’s decision to meet Kim Jong-un partly undercut the conservatives and legitimised the engagement approach, and so now their position is that Trump should maintain his demand for a complete and verifiable denuclearisation, instead of accepting an incomplete solution. They do not trust North Korea, and emphasise that Moon is too willing to accept some gradual or partial deal that North Korea might later break once again. Still, the majority of the South Korean population is probably happy that the situation is more relaxed now than it was in 2016-2017.
There have been several false starts in the past on peace negotiations with North Korea. If the aim is the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea, its chances of success are not great. North Korea’s promises are probably only aimed at securing a summit with Trump (a greater achievement than any previous US-North Korea encounter). The historical experience is that the more advanced nuclear capability a country attains, the less willing it becomes to give it up, unless its whole political system changes (as it occurred in post-apartheid South Africa). Successful cases of voluntary nuclear dismantlement usually occurred in countries whose indigenous nuclear weapon and missile programmes were still in an early stage, like South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina and Libya. As such, the chances of a successful nuclear deal with North Korea were the best in 1994, and each subsequent agreement, made in parallel with North Korea’s gradual nuclear progress, faced more obstacles and risks than the previous one. At present, the likelihood of a complete North Korean denuclearisation is about the same as a complete denuclearisation in Pakistan or India. So, it would be more realistic to start with persuading North Korea to modify its behaviour. If North Korea does not act in an aggressive and unpredictable manner, its nuclear capacity will be easier to accept as fait accompli, just as the US ultimately accepted India’s nuclear status, and brokered a nuclear deal with it. France and Britain are also nuclear powers, but they do not brandish their weapons all the time to threaten others. It is, however, questionable whether North Korea is willing to join the international community as a permanently peaceful, law-abiding state.
The world is watching with great interest the events unfolding in the Korean peninsula. China, for instance, is strongly interested in normalising inter-Korean relations, because regional tension is inimical to its economic interests, and because inter-Korean conflict pushes Seoul closer and closer to Tokyo and Washington. In 2016-2017, China put simultaneous pressure on North Korea (against nuclear and missile tests) and on South Korea (against THAAD and Japan-South Korea cooperation). Now, China simultaneously engages both Koreas, encourages them to cooperate with each other, and seeks to use this triangular relationship to isolate Japan. Consequently, Japan feels marginalised and threatened by North Korea-South Korea, China-South Korea and China-North Korea cooperation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying hard to persuade Trump to not make a deal with North Korea that would not take Tokyo’s interests into consideration. From a US perspective, Japan is a more reliable and attractive partner than South Korea, and the current Sino-US trade war might further complicate the situation. Still, Trump has a strong motivation to show that he can solve the North Korean problem that none of the previous US administrations could solve.
The author is a historian, teaching at Korea University, Seoul.