Irene Gracia assesses the current situation in Korea and how the US should react
Tensions between the two Koreas recently reached a new high. The past few months gave rise to a dangerous escalation of hostilities, with Trump’s numerous threats and Kim Jong-Un’s New Year’s pledge to boost his nuclear arsenal. Despite this, tensions lulled on 4th January, when the North accepted the South’s offer to resume high-profile official talks after a diplomatic freeze of two years. Aiming to improve inter-Korean relations, the talks have already produced a striking development: North and South will march as one under the unification flag in the forthcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Negotiations are still under way, with many, including the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, hoping they will serve as a stepping stone towards the restoration of peace in the peninsula.
The move has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Pacific. Scepticism runs particularly high in the United States. The US has traditionally sustained a harsher stance towards the rogue state than its Southern neighbour. Trump opposed easing pressure on the country, barring the latter’s solid commitment to the surrender their nuclear weapons. The North, however, has not shown any signs of willingness to dismantle its nuclear programme or halt the tests, and it is unlikely Kim’s resolve will be broken. In March 2011, at the height of international intervention in Libya, a North Korean spokesperson revealed the regime’s perspective of the world: “It has been shown to the corners of the Earth that Libya’s giving up its nuclear arms….was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country”. Adding to the cocktail US-led foreign middling and numerous threats of invasion, we can’t expect this position to change anytime soon. As long as invasion remains a threat, only access to a “nuclear button” can save the regime from replicating the destinies of Libya and Iraq. Denuclearisation, or even a pausing of the programme, are implausible for the foreseeable future.
Nonetheless, the South continues to press ahead with the talks. The initiative was met with an initially frosty reception from Washington. In recent weeks, however, Trump has toned down his rhetoric, declared the latest developments ‘a good thing’ and shown himself increasingly amenable o this talks-based attempt at rapprochement. However, in the absence of a reliable vow for enuclearisation, the move appears to be a diplomatic ruse on the part of North Korea to weaken international pressure while buying time for the continuation of its nuclear programme. It is when the North starts demanding the relaxation of sanctions, perhaps in exchange for minimal concessions, that firmness will be required from the other side of the negotiating table. The international campaign against Kim’s nuclear weapons, spearheaded by the United States, has made extensive progress since the first North Korean missile test in 2006. The US ought to engage in the talks for the sake of stability and maintenance of its alliance with South Korea but must be careful not to throw away years of negotiations if the undesired status quo is unlikely to change. Pressure should be maintained unless Kim’s government agrees to a full denuclearisation. If the worst, and most possible, scenario becomes a reality and hostilities resume after he Games, a complacent easing of international pressure would mark a diplomatic failure and an erosion of credibility.
The short-term effects of these talks will undeniably be positive. The lull in tensions will come at a time of heightened belligerence between Washington and Pyongyang, and the possibility of an all-out war due to fear or miscalculation will be, at least temporarily, diminished. After the Games, however, the road is unknown. The chance that the talks will serve as a platform for a peaceful de-escalation of the wider conflict remains slim. More plausibly, the current state of affairs will perpetuate itself, with an unwilling nuclear North Korea continuing to pose a threat to the world order and resisting to bow its head to the White House. In the face of Kim’s determination not to dispose of his “nuclear button,” the US ought to ensure it doesn’t march to the dictator’s tune. No action should be taken that undermines the sanctions, from the UN or individual nations, devised to constrain the beast within its cage. To do so would be a failure and discredit for the United States and the rest of the world. To do so would be Kim Jong-Un’s greatest New Year’s gift.
Featured image: Wikimedia