Complete Denuclearization? Not Before the Korean War Is Officially Over

No matter how long the current truce lasts, a bad peace is better than a good quarrel, and currently, the likelihood of a conflict on the Korean peninsula has been substantially reduced, Valdai Club expert Konstantin Asmolov writes.

Kim Hong-gul, the chairman of the Korean National Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, gave the terms for further denuclearization. The South China Morning Post quoted him as saying that Pyongyang expects at least a partial lifting of sanctions. He noted that in the past North Korea insisted on a peace treaty, whereas now it simply wants a statement on the end of the Korean War. Only then can the process of denuclearization move forward, he said. Pyongyang also believes it is necessary to include China in the negotiations to stabilize the process.

In reality it is necessary to treat the newspaper reports with a certain apprehension, especially with regard to China’s direct involvement in the negotiating process, something that was previously presented by Pyongyang as exclusively bilateral. Even South Korea’s attempts to join in were not taken seriously. Nevertheless, the current situation reflects a number of problems that compel some analysts to think that a de-escalation of tensions is coming to an end because the actions that each side can take without harming themselves are reaching their limits.

For the time being, North Korea is fulfilling everything it promised both verbally and in writing. Apart from the nuclear testing grounds, it has dismantled a number of facilities linked with the missile program. The importance of these facilities might be called into question but this step is irreversible. In addition, as promised at the Singapore summit, the US was given some of the remains of the soldiers killed during the Korean War, and if tensions do not escalate other remains will be returned.

As for the anti-Trump articles on North Korea’s covert work on its missile program and the implication that Trump was misled, first, neither Seoul nor Washington has officially confirmed this and, second Pyongyang has not committed itself to ending this research.

At the same time, Pyongyang is left with concern over one unpleasant question: what will happen after Trump leaves office; will Trump’s successor put the agreements aside and say that everything he accomplished fails to meet national interests (as when Bush replaced Clinton and Obama replaced Bush). No, if Trump rules for eight years and Ivanka succeeds him for another eight years (as some people like Edward Luttwak suggest) such a period of stability could bring the process if not to its completion, then seriously closer to North Korean disarmament. However, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal indicates the instability of any agreement that might be concluded.

Trump is also a hostage to this situation. Moscow does not quite understand it, but for him, domestic policy is much more important than foreign policy. He is being pressured by his opponents from “the Democratic camp” on the one side, and by conservatives like Michael Pence, on the other. As a result, he has to fulfil a certain agenda, an element of which is the recently adopted law on human rights in North Korea. Washington may be willing to relax its tough position on the deadlines for denuclearization, admitting that the process may take longer than planned (the result is the main goal), but its stand on easing the sanctions will remain unchanged, and it will not mitigate them step-by-step in response to North Korea’s good behavior.

Is Further Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula Possible? Ma Yunpeng
The trend of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has taken shape, with a tortuous process, but bright and peaceful prospects, Valdai Club expert Ma Yunpeng believes.

At the tactical level, this is developing into a problem that could become the main stumbling block. The inter-Korean summit promised us that the Korean War would come to an official end before the year is out. Considering the course of this war and the circumstances of signing the truce, the format of the agreement is a separate problem, but there is a more important factor.

At present, the US position is as follows: “First, the North will disarm and then we will end the war.” These processes are seen as interconnected and in this context the official end of the Korean War will look like an American victory that led to the opponent’s disarmament.

North Korea’s approach is different. Before taking irreversible action on disarmament, it is necessary to achieve a level of mutual trust between the countries, which does not exist at this point. In this context, an official end to the Korean War is an important step to establishing this trust and this is why “first, the end of the war and then further denuclearization.”

A side note: failure to conclude an agreement this year may have a negative influence not only on the further course of US-North Korean talks, but also on the domestic political situation in South Korea where the ratings of the current president are declining because of serious economic problems and a number of political scandals.

Questions asked by

How comprehensive and irreversible are North Korea’s steps on curtailing its nuclear missile program?

On the one hand, it has made some irreversible steps because the restoration of destroyed infrastructure would take some time whereas suspended military exercises could be reversed at the stroke of a pen. On the other hand, for the reasons mentioned above, these steps cannot be called large-scale because for the time being Kim Jong-un has not taken any action that will seriously damage the country’s nuclear missile potential.

Are Seoul and Washington likely to comply with North Korea’s demands?

The answer is sooner negative than positive for domestic political reasons. It is very important for Trump to show his constituency that he has not given in and to avoid actions that may be seen as unilateral concessions.

Will the US agree to the partial lifting of the sanctions until they are completely suspended? 

For now even the partial lifting of the sanctions is not a possibility. The first attempts by Russia and China in this area have already failed, and it would only be possible to return to this issue if Pyongyang’s informal moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests holds for at least a year.

And the last point. No matter how long this truce lasts, a bad peace is better than a good quarrel, and currently, the likelihood of a conflict on the peninsula has been substantially reduced. As the author noted, de facto the sides are at the “double freeze” stage that was suggested by Russia and China at one time.

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