Negotiations between North and South Korea: Warming and Freezing?

The beginning of dialogue between the DPRK and South Korea indicates that it is possible to achieve the double freeze format, which was proposed by Russia and China in their statement of July 4, 2017: since the end of last year, North Korea has not conducted any tests or military exercises, and perhaps, this pause will be prolonged, says the Valdai Club expert Georgy Toloraya.

Some truly dramatic events are taking place on the Korean peninsula at an unexpectedly rapid speed, which make the whole world freeze in amazement, because no one expected such serious progress in the inter-Korean relations. Less than two and a half months passed after the unexpected New Year offer by Kim Jong-un to establish ties and to send the North Korean team to the Pyeongchang Olympics, the successful performance of the joint team and two visits of very important persons of the North Korean hierarchy to South Korea. Recently, a special envoy of President Moon Jae-in agreed on a summit with Kim Jong-un during his first official meeting with the South Koreans. The summit should be held at the end of April, for the first time for a North Korean leader on the South Korean territory in the DMZ on the border between two Koreas, and this development dramatically changes the situation in the region.

When Kim Jong-un used diplomacy, Moon Jae-in actively responded to these moves, removing the threat of war on the Korean peninsula and possible preemptive strike of the United States, which found it rather inconvenient to continue pressure on North Korea to make it abandon nuclear weapons. According to the South Korean representatives, the North Koreans seemingly agreed to discuss denuclearization, but it is not yet clear how exactly these proposals were formulated, and what Pyongyang is ready to discuss realistically. It is clear that North Korea should discuss the issue of nuclear weapons primarily with the United States, and South Korea can play the mediator’s role. Anyway, such a development allows to break the impasse in the region, open the way for US-North Korean talks and close the way to military operations - as long as diplomats speak, guns should be silent.

Moreover, the issue with the US-South Korean exercises, which were previously regarded as provocations by North Korea, may be resolved: perhaps this factor will be downplayed now. Kim Jong-un seems to make it clear that he understands the need for South Koreans and Americans to conduct military exercises, and they will not be perceived by North Koreans as a provocation. Accordingly, there will be no response in the form of nuclear tests and missile launches. This is very important, because the United States, having postponed the exercises for the Olympics, intends to hold them in April, and many fear that this would serve as a new impetus to the spiral of tension on the Korean peninsula. Now it is obvious that this should not happen and the exercises will be held in a regular mode.

It turns out that we have achieved exactly the double freeze, which was proposed by Russia and China in their statement of July 4, 2017: since the end of last year, North Korea should not conduct any tests or military exercises, and perhaps this pause will be prolonged. Moreover, there is already transition to the second stage of the road map proposed by Russia and China: negotiations between the concerned parties. The negotiations have already advanced far enough between South and North, and now it is up to the US to move toward direct dialogue with the DPRK.

Of course, Trump will argue that all of this is the result of pressure and sanctions. This is not the case, and Kim Jong-un has taken such decisive steps not out of fear of sanctions or economic collapse, which they may entail, but simply because he was well aware of the moment: now, after the statement on the creation of nuclear weapons, he has a good trump card in his hands in order to bargain and transfer the matter to the negotiating table. The Americans’ assurances of the effectiveness of their policies is a matter of saving the face in a bad game: the goals of their policy of isolating and strangling North Korea and pressure on China in connection with the North Korean issue have not been fulfilled. The situation is entering a calm course, and now even bilateral negotiations are possible, which the Americans, in general, did not want.

As to Russia, the situation is very beneficial for it. Dialogue between the two Koreas is important for Moscow, because, first, it sets aside the military threat, and, second, it allows to implement joint projects, including the bilateral ones. Now we can talk about the revitalization of the Trans-Korean international route: this topic will be discussed soon at the seminar in the Rason Special Economic Zone. There is a proposal to create joint industrial parks in North Korea, etc.

Denuclearization remains the most serious problem. According to South Koreans, North Korea agreed to abandon nuclear weapons on the conditions that threats to their own security are removed. In principle, this is possible, but the devil is in the detail – how to formulate this security? How to guarantee it? What will this refusal look like? North Koreans may well formulate it differently: they say that they agree to freeze the buildup of nuclear weapons and move towards a more just world order. However, the Americans would not agree with this, and then we will see the repetition of what has already happened on the Korean peninsula. One thing is certain: this year will bring many more events.    

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