Is Warming Between the North and the South of the Korean Peninsula Possible?

North Korea’s announcement of “completing the construction of a nuclear force” makes the US face up to the threat. It is time to sit down and seriously discuss how to realize denuclearization. 

Taking the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as a great chance, the relationship between the two Koreas has made a rapid progress. In March 5, a delegation from ROK, led by the director of National Security Chung Eui-yong, arrived in DPRK. The main achievements they had were a major agreement on the third summit meeting in late April and the consensus on denuclearization of the Peninsula. In order to create a good condition for the South-North summit meeting, the ROK delegation visited the United States and handed Kim Jong-un’s letter to President Trump on March 8. 

Unexpectedly, Trump responded positively by declaring that he would meet Kim Jong-un by the end of May, taking permanent denuclearization as the main goal. Also, the ROK delegation will make visits to China, Japan and Russia right after the DC visit. As for the original plan of the ROK-US joint military exercise scheduled in April, it was announced that there would be an adjustment plan made by ROK after the Paralympic Games. 

Even though the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were regarded as a platform for improvement of relations between the two Koreas, it was not the key factor. There are three factors to be considered: First of all, North Korea declared that they had already completed the construction of a nuclear force; second, THAAD deployed in ROK is highly impossible to be withdrawn; third, the possibility of nuclear weapons to be deployed in ROK during the Trump administration should be considered. 

North Korea’s foreign policy logic has changed fundamentally after the announcement of “completing the construction of a nuclear force.” On the one hand, it has a high profile in its diplomacy. At present, North Korean has confidence to talk with any country, because its immunity to the joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States has greatly improved compared to that before “completing the construction of a nuclear force”. On the other hand, it pays more attention to economic interests in its foreign policy. According to previous experience, it is helpful for North Korea’s economic interests to pursue cooperation with the South. Similarly, it helps to improve North Korea’s security interests and is beneficial for the improvement of Sino-North Korea relations and North Korea-Russia relations seeking dialogue between North Korea and the United States by abandoning nuclear weapons as a jetton. 

Deploying THAAD puts the Moon Jae-in administration in an awkward situation. It makes hard for “the progressive regime” to make progress in security and economic cooperation with China and Russia. In the circumstances, the administration has no other choice but to improve the relations with North Korea, which is of vital significance for it to establish political achievements and win the hearts of the people. 

For the Trump administration, domestic considerations make the North Korea nuclear issue a top priority. However, North Korea’s announcement of “completing the construction of a nuclear force” makes the US face up to the threat. It is time to sit down and seriously discuss how to realize denuclearization. 

Korean Peninsula Détente: Can It Last? Clifford Kupchan
It is unlikely the US and South Korea will agree to suspend their military exercises for much longer. Renewed drills will eventually ignite Pyongyang’s wrath. Indeed, while Moon Jae-in may have a predisposition towards dialogue with the North, he has neither the intent nor domestic clout to break with America’s “big stick” approach to the Korean issue.

Although the Korean Peninsula dynamics saw an unexpected development in 2018, it is not an indecipherable puzzle when viewed from the basic logic. The warming of relations between North and South Korea or the Pyongyang-Washington upturn with South Korea as a go-between is either the result of mutual compromise or either party’s strategic needs, driven by inner logic and impetus. But what calls for special attention is that before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the talk about improving North-South Korean relations between Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump went on unusually well. Judging by Trump’s profit-driven logic, South Korea must have made some sort of exchange which benefits the US – most probably, the ROK-US FTA Renegotiation (which rather favors the US than ROK) and the United States’ increasing arms sales to ROK (ROK’s emphasis on independence of national defense and the United States’ arms sales to ROK come to a point of agreement when Progressive Party reigns). For sure, South Korea is devoted to balancing ROK-DPRK and ROK-US relations (easing tensions on the Peninsula will only enhance, not infringe, America’s interests). A tentative judgment can be made that North Korea with nuclear weapons vests opportunities to easing tensions on the Peninsula; South Korea determines the sustainability of force that propels the improvement of North-South Korean relations; the US decides the probability of reaching important agreements; while China, Russia and Japan are participants, impellers and warrantors of the whole process.

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