How Long Will the Fragile Calm on the Korean Peninsula Last?

It is common knowledge that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has always believed that normalizing relations with the United States is the only possible way to overcome the crisis on the peninsula and remove the threat to its very existence. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and US President Donald Trump tried to put the relations between their countries back on track in what a number of analysts considered to be an encouraging attempt. In 2018 and 2019, the US President had three meetings with the DPRK leader.

It is during this period that a relative calm reigned in Korea.

What are the takeaways from this round of bilateral diplomatic dialogue that lasted for two years?

The most important conclusion was that Washington remained true to its strategic objective of achieving Pyongyang’s complete capitulation, changing the diplomatic décor, and doing it Trump-style, meaning with certain flair.

Otherwise, here is how to sum up the bottom line.

US diplomats and military officials, with the default and unconditional backing of their allies, continue to affirm that Washington articulated the “right” position only during the February 2019 talks in Hanoi. It was there that Donald Trump tried to persuade Pyongyang that there was only one way to clearly define denuclearization under international law. They also claim that sanctions resulted from the collective will of UN Security Council members rather than US policy, which made demands that Washington ease them untenable.

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The most important demand made by the DPRK was that it ease sanctions, but the problem is that the United States perceives sanctions as the only effective lever of coercion, denying Kim the right to good will. As a result, judging by the final documents of the plenum, Pyongyang has decided that amid the current situation, there is no sense in hoping for the lifting of sanctions, and it is necessary to build a policy based on a worst-case scenario.

The United States sees three stages in its dialogue with Pyongyang. The first stage took place in 2016 in what is regarded as a major milestone. It was then that China finally took the historic decision to agree to the international sanctions in order not only to impose restrictions on the DPRK’s military industry, but also to undermine its trade. During the second stage in 2018, there was a reversal of trends that had a negative effect on the prospects of a forced denuclearization. This stage was marked by a sudden breakthrough in intra-Korean relations (three summits and two joint declarations), amid confusion within Trump’s team. As a result, the June 2018 US-DPRK summit in Singapore ended with the adoption of a vague document “drafted in Pyongyang” and failing to set out a roadmap for further action.

However in February 2019, at their second summit in Hanoi, Trump presented Pyongyang with a series of demands that were much tougher and far-reaching. In doing so, he moved away from the misguided softness of the preceding period when, for example, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun hinted in his speech at Stanford University at the readiness to accept the DPRK’s proposal to proceed with denuclearization following a step-by-step approach, while making parallel moves.

Therefore, during the meeting in Hanoi, Trump opened the DPRK’s eyes to the actual scope of obligations it had to assume after the US reviewed its position based on an “all or nothing” approach, which meant completing nuclear disarmament before anything else, and maintaining all the sanctions until North Korea was completely denuclearized.

The US believed that any substantive easing of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council on the DPRK could not be discussed, let alone enacted.

The US refused to listen to the DPRK, Russia and China, who pointed out that demanding that the DPRK achieve complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) was tantamount to asking Kim Jong-un to put a price on his life. At the same time, Washington was consistent in blocking efforts by Moscow and Beijing to have the UN Security Council adopt initiatives to partially ease restrictions against Pyongyang, commensurate with the steps it was taking to carry out UN Security Council resolutions.

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Pyongyang had a bitter response to the outcomes of the Hanoi meeting.

In the spring of 2019, Kim Jong-un changed course on denuclearization and efforts to modernize the country’s nuclear capability and means of delivery. In April, the DPRK leader drew a red line, promising to abide by the commitments assumed in Singapore not to test any nuclear weapons or ICBMs until the end of the year. At the same time, the DPRK came up with a new formula: if Washington does not change its policy aimed at strangling the DPRK as described above or take serious reciprocal steps, Pyongyang promised to take a different path in 2020.

Considering the lack of progress in US-DPRK dialogue, and with 2020 around the corner, the international community was debating what would happen after January 1, 2020 as tension mounted.

We see a number of possible scenarios.

Option 1. Negative

This time, instead of making his traditional New Year address setting out new provocations, Kim Jong-un held a party forum in Pyongyang on December 28-31, 2019.

Kim Jong-un made a very harsh statement at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, including regarding the US. He made a series of accusations, saying that “recently the US has been talking about continued dialogue, while on the other hand, it has openly revealed its provocative political, military and economic manoeuvers to completely stifle and crush our Republic, and this is the double-dealing behavior of the brandish US. We will shift to shocking actual actions to make the US fully pay for the pain sustained by our people so far and for restraining our development.”

Speaking about the plans for the immediate future, Kim Jong-un said: “The DPRK has found no grounds to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitments that the other party does not honor,” promising that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be obtained by the DPRK in the near future.”

In addition, the Chinese coronavirus factor could have a multi-faceted effect on the situation. On the one hand, it complicated the economic situation within North Korea. At the same time, it diverted the attention of Washington and the entire world from North Korea to China. As a result, the White House has somewhat loosened its grip on Pyongyang, offering it more room to maneuver for engaging in risky undertakings and new “provocations.”

It is for this reason that reading these excerpts from the DPRK leader’s statement at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in late December 2019, a number of experts and politicians felt confident that the world was on the verge of a new breakthrough in the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile potential, and therefore, a new military and political crisis on the Korean Peninsula was around the corner.

This is a real scenario describing how the situation could dramatically spiral out of control.

Option 2. Positive

At the same time, a closer look at the abovementioned document reveals its multi-directional nature and messages regarding Washington that are intentionally evasive and ambiguous.

While giving threatening warnings, Kim Jong-un also said: “The present situation presages a protracted confrontation with the US, and urgently requires us to make it a fait accompli that we have to live under the sanctions by the hostile forces in the future, too, and to strengthen our internal strength in all aspects.”

The main message was articulated in the following manner: “Making a breakthrough head-on to overcome all the challenges in our way,” while the economy was designated as the main battlefront. I believe that this has critical importance.

Therefore, there are reasons to believe that economic development will be the main objective for years to come, which requires a peace perimeter.

In his speech, the leader also hinted at the possibility of continuing dialogue with Washington: “If the US persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will never take place.”

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The world has long got used to the cyclical nature of tensions around the Korean peninsula. Aggravation of the situation has been repeatedly followed by détente, while bellicose rhetoric has been replaced by peaceful gestures. But the recent two years’ developments raise eyebrows even among seasoned observers; launches of North Korean missiles and large-scale US-South Korea military exercises are only several months away from the unprecedented summit meetings between Kim Jong-un and leaders of the great powers. Valdai Club experts explain where the young North Korean leader is taking his country and what its neighbours should be prepared for.        

There is no doubt that maintaining the current environment of relative peace and calm on the peninsula in the near future will serve the interests of both the United States and the DPRK. It is possible that Pyongyang still hopes that once reelected, Donald Trump will make practical steps to normalize bilateral relations. After all, he is the only US president who agreed to have a summit with a North Korean leader.

The fact that Kim Jong-un refrained from drawing any new red lines regarding Washington in his speech, unlike the preceding decision in April 2019, also supports this idea.

In this context, the coronavirus factor will likely help preserve the current fragile stability after Pyongyang was forced to seal-off its border with China and stop any contacts with other countries. It is obvious that having developed considerable momentum in political and economic cooperation with China, North Korea is set to face new serious economic hardship and challenges for an undetermined period of time. This could restrain Pyongyang military and political ambition, including in developing its missile and nuclear capability.

Therefore, the second option seems to have a better chance of materializing. It will consist of continuing to move along the relatively peaceful trajectory on the Korean Peninsula that has taken shape over the past two years, while putting on the back burner hopes of seeing Washington and Pyongyang improve their relations or resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue.

We believe that this second option has a better chance of becoming reality.

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