The Korean crisis has two components. One is the North Korean nuclear and missile program. Another is the decades-long division of the Korean nation in two separate states. These issues are interrelated, but their influence on each other is ambiguous.
On April 27, 2018, the DPRK and South Korea agreed to hold an inter-Korean summit. This very fact is already an important step towards the settlement of the Korean crisis, which represents one of the most acute military threats in the modern world. On the eve of the meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that, as from April 21, the DPRK will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. To confirm the promise to suspend nuclear tests, North Korea will close the nuclear test site in the northern part of the country.
The Korean crisis has two components. One is the North Korean nuclear and missile program. Another is the decades-long division of the Korean nation in two separate states. These issues are interrelated, but their influence on each other is ambiguous. Pyongyang’s rejection of nuclear development alone will not stop the confrontation between the North and the South. At the same time, the inter-Korean normalization is an indispensable condition to solve the nuclear problem, since the North Korean nuclear missile program is a direct derivative of the longstanding confrontation between North and South Korea, where the United States is on the South’s side. Pyongyang has created a nuclear arsenal and launch vehicles to neutralize the US involvement in the potential conflict between the two Korean states.
The movement to the current detente in inter-Korean affairs was facilitated, on the one hand, by the fact that Kim Jong-un, having produced a long-range nuclear missile, seems to believe that the main strategic goal – ensuring North Korea’s security from the United States – is achieved, and it is possible to suspend the nuclear missile race. On the other hand, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric about the DPRK also played its role. For the first time in decades, the world has faced a very real threat of a new war on the Korean peninsula on the initiative of the United States. An American strike against the DPRK would cause a devastating North Korean blow against South Korea. The realization that the Americans are ready to use the South Koreans as a human shield to ensure their own security, pushed Moon Jae-in to a direct dialogue with Kim Jong-un.
Of course, the Kim-Moon summit will not solve all the problems that have been accumulated in inter-Korean relations for decades of confrontation. Obviously, it is premature to talk about the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two Korean states. The forthcoming North-South dialogue is to be considered above all as a talk about lifting sanctions, restoration of the former cooperation and building new bridges. The leaders will inevitably discuss the resumption of the Kaesong industrial complex, located in the DPRK near the border with South Korea, a kind of example of practical economic integration between the two countries. Thanks to this project, the inter-Korean commodity turnover approached $2.4 billion in 2014, and South Korea became the second trading partner of the DPRK after China. Probably Kim and Moon will also discuss creation of joint Kaesong-type complexes in other regions of the DPRK, which, by the way, was envisaged by the agreements of the second inter-Korean summit in 2007. Regular railway service between the two Korean should be resumed through the demilitarized zone that separates them. A new impulse should be given to humanitarian ties – meetings of divided families, youth, sports, cultural contacts, tourism.
As for denuclearization, one can hardly expect a significant breakthrough. In his April 20 statement Kim Jong-un said that the DPRK would never use nuclear weapons if there are no nuclear threats or provocations against it, and by halting nuclear tests, Pyongyang joins the global nuclear disarmament process. But the North Korean leader never spoke of the DPRK’s refusal of nuclear missiles.
For Pyongyang, the nuclear missile program is a shield for its security, and this shield will not be simply abandoned. Pyongyang needs strong and sufficiently convincing security guarantees. Seoul, in its own capacity, is not in a position to provide such security guarantees for the DPRK. A general discussion on multilateral security arrangements in Northeast Asia should take place within a broader format, involving China, the US and Russia, possibly in the same six-party format, also with the participation of Japan.
Under the influence of Seoul, Trump also spoke about a meeting with Kim Jong-un. What the US-North Korean summit could look like, and whether it takes place at all, largely depends on the outcome of the Kim-Moon dialogue. The US at large is not interested in resolving the Korean crisis, because this would deprive Washington of a pretext for military presence on the Korean peninsula, which is an important component of the global “American leadership” system. However, in the conditions of inter-Korean rapprochement Washington cannot ignore the position of its South Korean ally.