Optimism for the North Korean crisis?
The coming of 2018 has brought a positive surprise on the North Korean crisis. The North and the South are sending positive messages to each other. They include the reopening of the Panmunjom hotline. During the recent contact lasting approximately twenty minutes, the two sides made the technical check of the cross-border hotline, which had not operated for almost two years. More importantly, some hopes for discussions have been raised. The content of the New Year’s Day speech of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the general determination of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to invest in dialogue are paving the way. Some talks will be held on January 9th indeed.
Soldiers attend a military parade in central Pyongyang, April 15, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]
China cannot but welcome recent developments. As a matter of principle it believes that the efforts to improve inter-Korean relations through dialogue and promote reconciliation and cooperation by North Korea and South Korea serve the interests of the two sides and are conducive to deescalating tensions on the Peninsula. Only a few day ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his South Korean counterpart in Beijing and agreed that chaos should not be allowed on the Peninsula. China’s interest in the re-activation of the six-party talks is straightforward. That is why special representative of the Chinese Government on the Korean Peninsula Affairs Kong Xuanyou travelled to Seoul to exchange views with South Korean representative Lee Do-hoon.
The apparently good atmosphere and the new calmness are contradicting the problematic political climate of the last weeks of 2017. Then Pyongyang had proceeded to a new test of an inter-continental ballistic missile causing the verbal reaction by US President Donald Trump. ‘We will take care of it’, he had said. On the whole, what Trump practically means, remains a mystery. It is not clear whether the military option is on his table or he only uses it as a theoretical threat to exercise pressure. In any case, the American President is currently hailing potential Korea talks and is crediting his firm stance.
What is highly significant is how close North Korea might be to acquiring nuclear weapons and producing nuclear warheads. According to South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, there is ‘no concrete evidence’ that Pyongyang has mastered the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile. As she explained in her recent interview with CNN, the final stage has not yet been completed despite progress achieved.
Nonetheless, the general ability of North Korea to launch missiles that can reach countries geographically located far away – including the US – is causing serious alarm. Before Trump’s afore-mentioned reaction US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, had distanced the Trump administration from proposed contacts between North and South Korea, saying it would not take any talks seriously if Pyongyang did not abandon its nuclear arsenal.
More importantly, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has publicly said that North Korea had the ability to hit ‘everywhere in the world.’ For its part, the Pentagon has prepared a letter stating that ‘the only way locate and destroy – with complete certainty – all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs is through a ground invasion’. Under these circumstances, the possibility of a war should not be excluded in the future if diplomatic means fail. However, such as decision cannot be easily made by Trump. The experience from similar responses to Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and even Libya in 2011 demonstrate the limits of real success.
From another perspective, American public opinion will not necessarily support a preemptive strike perplexing Trump’s domestic problems. Two-thirds of Americans oppose this option according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Other surveys present more balanced results but are indicative of the division in the society. More importantly, the US president is lacking great popularity in key Asian countries, namely Japan and South Korea. A November Pew research poll shows that only 24 percent of respondents in Japan and 17 percent of respondents in South Korea trusted him. The same survey indicates that people in South Korea have greater confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping (38 percent) than in Trump.
From the Obama years until now China has advocated for the route of dialogue with North Korea and the beginning of 2018 it is practically vindicating its position. American experts who have participated or are aware of the content of informal discussions between officials from the two sides are aware that North Korea might not undermine the process if it did not feel threatened and if the regime change theory would be out of the American agenda. They said, dialogue should be definitely given a chance as it also happened between US and Iranian diplomats before the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Of course dialogue does not automatically mean that differences will be overcome. It can constitute the beginning of a promising diplomatic process though. The more North Korea cooperates – after receiving some initial security assurances – the more chances it will have to solve its economic problems. Hopefully, the country will realize that it is unable to militarily compete with the US and that it needs to act in line with decisions of the UN Security Council.
The international community is sincerely hoping for a breakthrough. And the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games offer the right symbolic moment for intransigence to be replaced by prudence.
(Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is a senior research fellow and advisor for EU-China relations at the Centre international de formation européenne, Nice/Berlin.)