The Korean Peninsula Drama: Waiting for the Endgame in 2018

Negotiations between the representatives of North and South Korea and the agreements reached on January 9 in the Demilitarized Zone are good news. A timid hope appeared for the de-escalation of the current crisis on the Korean peninsula, which has lasted for two years, since January 2016, when the DPRK made a nuclear test and organized a series of almost continuous missile launches together with underground nuclear explosions (in September 2016 and September 2017). The response of Pyongyang’s main antagonists – Washington and Seoul – did not take long and the Korean peninsula was on the verge of a big war.

The meeting in Panmunjom between the delegations of North and South Korea was the first official contact between the confrontation participants in more than two years. Agreements were reached on the arrival of the delegation of the North to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, as well as on the renewal of contacts between the military to prevent incidents on the demarcation line between the North and the South. These agreements do not encompass the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, but at least they give reason to believe that the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in South Korea will be calm, especially when the Americans agreed to postpone the large-scale military exercises traditionally held in February and March. Thus, we can talk about two months of the Olympic Truce (the Paralympic Games will end on March 18).

In today's extremely heated situation this means a lot. A two-month respite, during which the North Koreans will refrain from rocket launches and nuclear explosions, and Americans with South Koreans will not conduct military maneuvers, gives a chance to launch a full-scale diplomatic process. And here not only North-South negotiations are needed: first of all, the participation of Americans is necessary, because only Washington, and not Seoul, has the possibility to use military force on the peninsula, and it is the US that is the main initiator of increasingly stringent sanctions against the DPRK. Moreover, being a junior ally of the United States, Seoul cannot fail to coordinate its steps with Washington regarding North Korea. And Pyongyang sees the United States as the main counterpart for the nuclear talks, not South Korea.

Are North Koreans and Americans ready for dialogue? As for Pyongyang, the answer is probably yes. Apparently, Kim Jong-un is interested in the negotiations, because he can now act from a position of strength. In his six years of rule, he managed to increase and significantly improve the nuclear potential of North Korea, possibly even to make an intercontinental ballistic missile and a hydrogen device. It seems that from Pyongyang’s point of view it is time to “secure” the victory, receiving significant political concessions and economic bonuses from Washington and Seoul. Moreover, the unprecedentedly severe sanctions against the DPRK in 2016-2017, which brought North Korea close to the total economic blockade, also had some effect. Even such an autarkic economy cannot function without ties with the outside world. Accumulated reserves of currency and fuel can be enough for a while, but what will happen next? Kim Jong-Un would like to start negotiations, while the North Korean economy has not yet shown any clear signs of deep crisis.

It is less clear whether Washington wants the negotiations, and who in the US administration determines the policy towards North Korea. Two points of view are struggling in the American establishment. The “party of war,” which includes, inter alia, the US representative to the UN Security Council Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, is in favor of the most stringent measures against the DPRK up including “the military option” to force Pyongyang to surrender. Representatives of the second group, which, apparently, includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Minister James Mattis, insist on diplomacy. President Trump rushes between the two positions, threatening to bring “fire and fury” to Kim Jong-un, then letting compliments to the North Korean leader and expressing readiness for a personal meeting.

What can we expect? With a high degree of probability, the endgame will be in 2018. There is a real chance that the parties will be able to launch the diplomatic process. The Trump administration reasonably did not interfere into the inter-Korean talks, perhaps keeping in view that they will serve as a prelude to the US-North Korean diplomacy. If after negotiations with Washington, the North Koreans abandon the development of ICBMs and further nuclear tests in exchange, say, for a partial lifting of sanctions, the Trump administration could declare this a victory. Unfortunately, we cannot also exclude a bad scenario, when the negotiations will not begin at all or they will fail. In this case, in 2018 the threat of war on the Korean peninsula can become a reality.

Russia has repeatedly expressed its readiness to act as the “facilitator” of the diplomatic process on the Korean Peninsula. In particular, the Russian-Chinese road map is the only plan for diplomatic settlement of the Korean crisis that is currently available. Preferring a political-diplomatic option, Moscow is certainly prepared for any development of the situation. Perhaps, it was not by chance that the S-400 air defense system was put on combat duty in Vladivostok in late December. Its range covers the sky not only over the Russian Primorye region, but also over the northeastern regions of the DPRK with the strategically important Rajin Port. The presence of Russian military might near the North Korean borders can be another weighty argument in favor of diplomacy.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.