North Korean Multi-Stage Game

28.03.2018

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to amaze observers with his active diplomacy. It turns out that he can manage it as good as the military buildup, contrary to the West-promoted image of an errant youngster pampered with missiles and nuclear warheads.

Preparations for the inter-Korean summit are in full swing under his direct control. On March 29, a regular meeting of high-ranking officials of the North and South will take place. They will discuss the agenda of the forthcoming summit between Kim Jong-un South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which is to be held in April. There is one rub – if the South Koreans at the insistence of their American allies push denuclearization into the center of negotiations, the Northerners can turn obstinate. According to Pyongyang (and, apparently, it is reasonable), the nuclear issue should be discussed with the United States. After all, its settlement presumes the process of gradual reduction of the level of nuclear deterrence on both sides, which also includes security guarantees, and South Korea does not possess nuclear capabilities and cannot give any guarantees. The agenda of inter-Korean relations is so intense that it should not be burdened by problems that are clearly unresolved on the bilateral track.

After all, in theory the parties need at least to confirm continuity – that is, to support those provisions that were fixed at past inter-Korean summits. Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, met with Kim Dae-jung in 2000 and with Roh Moo-hyun in 2007 (the South Korean incumbent Moon also took part in that summit as Roh’s “chief of staff”). Many issues concern the reduction of tensions between the North and the South, the restoration of trust, the repair of economic ties destroyed by the previous conservative South Korean administrations. By the way, Russia is interested in tripartite logistics and energy projects (first of all, railway transit), that were initiated during the inter-Korean détente.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un arranged a strong combination, dragging China into the game. His unexpected visit to China on March 25-28 (the first one during his six years in power) and meeting with Xi Jinping created a powerful base for the upcoming meetings not only with Moon Jae-in, but also with US President Donald Trump. Americans and other observers were sure that the relationship between Kim and Xi is very strained, so China could almost dump and squeeze the North Koreans. Now Beijing can be pleased – China has powerfully declared its irreplaceable role in Korean affairs and convincingly showed that its interests must not be ignored. Probably, such a gesture of good will on the part of Kim, who seems to have finally left his role of the “recalcitrant vassal” and humbly visited the “Chinese emperor,” should be agreeable for Xi Jinping. And his gratitude, perhaps, will be not political, but also have an economic dimension. Assistance to the DPRK’s economy, crushed by the sanctions, is probably very welcome, although it will not be easy to track its volume, knowing the traditions of cooperation between the two eastern countries, which have again declared themselves “close relatives.”|

Meanwhile, it is not clear how the preparation for the meeting with Trump is going on. According to some sources, North Koreans are actively preparing for it (there are also direct contacts through the intelligence services, and numerous informal consultations involving both sides – for example, the meeting that was just concluded in Stockholm). But on the American side, it is not clear who orders and performs the music. The State Department is still demoralized and has no one to develop a coherent concept of the summit and relations with Pyongyang. We do not know what happens in the CIA, but this body is usually busy with other matters, rather than with the strategic planning. Maybe the newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will involve his cadres. The appointment of John Bolton to the post of the National Security Advisor caused a lot of despair, because he is known as a long-standing and irreconcilable opponent of the DPRK and will in any way try to hamper agreements and concessions with it (although, it seems that now Bolton is more preoccupied with destruction of the Iran nuclear deal). In these conditions, it is not clear whether the historic US-North Korea summit is to be held in May at all. It is incomprehensible what the parties are willing to offer and agree on. However, even if we use quotations from the already existing US-North Korean joint statements, starting from 1994, a decent final document will turn out, where the main idea is prescribed: nuclear weapons in exchange for peace and security on the peninsula. But times have changed, North Korea has become a full-fledged nuclear country and it is unlikely that it will easily surrender the nuclear trump card. Probably it should be better to talk about creating a system for reducing and limiting strategic arms on both sides.

Meanwhile, the recent events show that Russia is getting farther from their epicenter. Of course, we can be proud of the fact that they are developing according to the road map proposed by Russia and China in July 2017, but so far Moscow has no influence on the forthcoming agreements. We need to intensify work with key players – China, the United States and especially with the DPRK. It is good that the DPRK foreign minister will soon arrive in Moscow, but issues affecting Russia’s interests should better be discussed with the first person. Perhaps, this could be done by sending a high-level special envoy of the Russian President to Pyongyang.

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

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