How Lasting Is the Korean Thaw?

The situation seems to have reached a dead end, though its principal participants are still trying to draw a veil over this sorrowful accident by spelling words of cheer. Both North Korea and the US keep acting as if we are merely facing some minor obstacles, though in reality one can talk about essential, possibly insurmountable differences.

Over the past months, the South Korean media were full of optimism, which was not accidental. In part, it reflects sincere hopes of the supporters of the ruling left-nationalist Democratic Party, but it is also cultivated by spin doctors from the presidential administration.

Moon Jae-in’s administration does its best to present a bright picture of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Pro-government media reports and official South Korean statements create an impression that North Korea is embarking on a radical transformation path, having decided to renounce nuclear weapons and to normalize its relations with the US and the outside world. It is implied that Seoul, for its part, will provide its neighbor with generous and diverse assistance. The projects of inter-Korean cooperation are being enthusiastically discussed in the press. Some of these projects, to put it frankly, are completely unrealistic, but others seem to be reasonable.

At the moment, the most significant are the plans to resume the projects launched during the last inter-Korean warming in 2002-2008, which did not survive the further confrontation between Seoul and Pyongyang in 2008-2017.

These include, first and foremost, the Kaeson Industrial Complex closed in 2016. It was located in the North Korean territory, close to the South Korean border. By 2016, more than 50,000 North Korean workers were laboring at the complex’s enterprises, which belonged to small and medium-size South Korean companies.

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Although one can conclude, reading the South Korean press, that restarting the Kaeson and other suspended projects along with new initiatives is a technical problem, which can easily be solved, things are more complicated in practice.

Over the past few years, the UN Security Council issued several resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions were constantly tightened, so the latest, the toughest resolution actually prohibited the UN member countries to cooperate with North Korea economically in most forms. In particular, the Security Council decision prohibits all investments in North Korea. It is also impossible to provide it with industrial equipment, metals and liquid fuels. On the other hand, according to the effective UN decisions, North Korea is prohibited from exporting a whole range of goods, including coal and other minerals, seafood and textiles.

In this situation, all attempts of the two Korean states to normalize relations would violate the sanctions regime. Although it has certain loopholes (permitting, for example, development of touristic projects), the UN Security Council decisions in fact make it impossible to realize almost all of the projects whose bright future is now being discussed in Seoul with such certainty.

Apparently, the Moon Jae-in administration supposes that the sanctions regime could be eased somehow. It is not about complete lifting of sanctions, which is impossible until North Korea renounces nuclear weapons (and Pyongyang does not intend to do so). However, easing or selective lifting of sanctions is possible in theory, if the Security Council takes such a step.

Thus, the only hope of Seoul is a “legal” review of the existing sanctions regime, approved by the UN Security Council. However, despite the officially cultivated optimism, the chances are very weak. The reason is the United States’ position: no lifting of softening of sanctions can happen before North Korea renounces its nuclear weapons. This position has been announced in Washington not only officially – it is supported in private conversations by both representatives of the US foreign policy establishment and think tank employees with whom this author has communicated a lot in Washington recently.

Dilution of sanctions is not acceptable for Washington if only because of the troubled relations with Beijing and Moscow – even in the context of a new crisis it is not going to be easy to bring the sanctions back to the previous levels. On the other hand, many in the US believe that the crisis is inevitable, so sooner or later Washington will have to revive the 2017 “policy of maximum pressure,” aimed at forcing North Korea to make considerable concessions. For that policy to become a success, the sanctions must be kept at their maximum.

North Korea is not going to take any steps towards reducing its nuclear and missile potential. The DPRK administration believes that its nuclear weapons are the only real guarantee of its survival and North Korea’s sovereignty. Additionally, under current conditions Pyongyang is feeling more upbeat than even a few months ago. There are reasons for that: first, the meeting in Singapore eliminated the threat of a US military operation, which seemed to be possible; second, as a result of the trade war between Beijing and Washington, the common US-Chinese diplomatic front collapsed, and Beijing began to ignore some of the US sanctions. That is why the pressure on Beijing has been lowered, and thus it has made Beijing less eager to make concessions, however, its willingness always seemed to be rather moderate.

Thus, the situation seems to have reached a dead end, though its principal participants are still trying to draw a veil over this sorrowful accident by spelling words of cheer. Both North Korea and the US keep acting as if we are merely facing some minor obstacles, though in reality one can talk about essential, possibly insurmountable differences.

North Korea conveys flat reluctance to give up its nuclear weapons, and that may hurt the chances of the US – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – to rebid the terms of the current sanctions regime. Meanwhile, no resumption of inter-Korean cooperation can be discussed as long as the sanctions regime is in force.

Eventually, the cat will go out of the bag, yet Seoul administration has been trying to table that mean issue by having game face on it. Hopefully, some decision is to come around. It is possible that a miracle will finally happen (sometimes they do), though outside observers should not chase rainbows, keeping in mind that the current thaw in relations with North Korea is exceptionally deceptive, and may be followed by a very severe frost.

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