North Korea’s Kim Jong-un surprised the world with his New Year’s address offering an olive branch to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. What resulted was a welcome lull in tensions on the Korean peninsula that can be largely attributed to both parties’ desire for a smooth roll-out of the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. As the sporting event has concluded, however, the question becomes whether this truce can last and eventually turn into a durable peace, or whether we will soon be reverting to the instability that characterized the Korean issue until late last year.
Kim and Moon both had reasons to seek a détente in early 2018. The North Korean leader was eager to convey a message to the world that he remains – contrary to common suspicion – a rational human being capable of compromise when the incentives are right. Also, Kim likely thought he could create a rift in strategy between Seoul and Washington by extending carrots to his counterpart Moon, thereby reducing South Korea’s willingness to support the US’ approach to the conflict. Moon, for his part, has long sought better relations with the North.
The hope today is that this temporary sports diplomacy can be turned from a humanitarian and symbolic step into a more sustainable reconciliation process. This is an effort Washington should support, including by participating in direct talks with all parties.
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against successful diplomacy. Pyongyang has made clear that it does not accept the principle of denuclearization as a precondition for talks, as demanded by the United States. Kim Jong-un appears committed to acquiring an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland, as a means of guaranteeing his government’s security.
North Korea will likely resume ICBM tests in coming weeks or months, and through a horizontal test demonstrate the ability to hit the US. Pyongyang will also likely show during 2018 that it has mastered reentry technology – that it is able to build a warhead that will not burn up on entering the earth’s atmosphere. These developments will severely impair the chance of success in any possible US-North Korea diplomacy. Nor is there much doubt that Washington’s recently stepped-up sanctions on North Korea have made the country even less amenable to compromise.
Moreover, it is unlikely the US and South Korea will agree to suspend their military exercises for much longer. Renewed drills will eventually ignite Pyongyang’s wrath. Indeed, while Moon Jae-in may have a predisposition towards dialogue with the North, he has neither the intent nor domestic clout to break with America’s “big stick” approach to the Korean issue.
Continued bilateral dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang remains likely in the short run. On March 5 the envoys for South Korean President Moon Jae-in paid a two-day visit to Pyongyang Discussions focused around the possibility of a summit between the two parties in North Korea. (On March 6 South Korea’s presidential office said the two countries had agreed to hold a summit in April at a truce village inside the Demilitarized Zone). Beyond the next few months, however, relations are more likely than not to sour.
Given the stakes, it is critical for the United States to engage in talks with North Korea before red lines are crossed on either side and tensions cannot be walked back. A crisis on the Korean Peninsula is likely this year. But a small window of opportunity remains if Pyongyang can yield to the concept of a freeze in its nuclear activities, and eventual disarmament, while Washington agrees to hold off on aggressive rhetoric and military exercises and instead delivers limited sanctions relief as progress in talks is achieved.