A bright spell in the Korean Peninsula
By Joseph R DeTrani
On the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, there is reason for guarded optimism that a peaceful resolution of tension with North Korea is achievable. The last 20 years have conditioned us to believer that North Korea will persist, despite periods of apparent reconciliation, with its nuclear weapons and missile programs, despite United Nations sanctions and international condemnation.
It's possible that North Korea's new leadership recently assessed the benefits that would accrue from denuclearization, in terms of security assurances, economic assistance, foreign investment and ultimately normal relations and international legitimacy, and
concluded that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue is in North Korea's interest.
Relations with North Korea during the last six months have been tense. After North Korea's February 2013 nuclear test and the subsequent imposition of United Nations sanctions, North Korea assumed an aggressive posture: Threatening the US with a pre-emptive nuclear strike and to make Seoul "a sea of flames", unilaterally closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex and pledging to build more nuclear weapons, to include uranium enriched nuclear weapons.
These threats, from a Kim Jong-eun, a leader who initially removed some of the hardline supporters of his father and spoke of economic reforms, were unexpected and resulted in a display of US and South Korean military might that showed the two forces could effectively deal with any military threat from North Korea. This, indeed, was a tense and unfortunate period. Any miscalculation from either side could have sparked military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Fortunately, this did not happen.
For the past six weeks, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased. The initial visit of North Korea Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae to Beijing, who met with President Xi Jinping and others in the Chinese leadership, no doubt was North Korea's attempt to maintain a good relationship with a China that was critical of North Korea's brinksmanship, as evidenced by Beijing's support for intensified UN sanctions in March 2013 and their decision to cease banking relations with North Korea's Foreign Trade Bank.
I view the visit of Vice Marshal Choe, a close confidant of Kim, as the beginning of North Korea's de-escalation of tension, in an apparent effort to maintain good relations with a China they depend upon for food and energy assistance.
On August 14, South Korea and North Korea agreed to re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex, pledging "not to shut it down again under any circumstances" and to "internationalize" Kaesong to foreign investors. This is an important agreement. For North Korea, it means about 50,000 workers from the North have jobs, in addition to an annual revenue of more than US$30 million for North Korea. Immediately following this agreement, the South's President Park Geun-hye said that the two Koreas should resume arranging reunions of families separated by the Korean War and she renewed her proposal to build an "international peace park" inside the demilitarized zone.
In response, North Korea agreed to the South's proposal to resume the reunion of families separated in the Korean War. These reunions should take place on September 19, 2013, during the Chuseok Harvest Festival. North Korea also will call for the resumption of tours from the South to Mount Kumgang, which will remain problematic until the North complies with Park's request that the North apologize for the death of a South Korean tourist to Mount Kumgang a few years ago. This significant easing of tension between the two Koreas is encouraging and appears to be a policy approach now being pursued by the leadership in Pyongyang.
The North Korea media during the past week have published numerous stories about the "Arirang" smartphones manufactured in North Korea. Although many suspect that these phones are built in China and rebranded in North Korea, the fact remains that Kim Jong-eun has endorsed the ownership of cell phones. This in itself is a positive development. Estimates are that there are over 2 million cell phones in the North and now with Kim Jong-eun's encouragement of the people to buy North Korea-produced smartphones, there could be an additional one million cell phones introduced into the North within the next year. This would be even more significant if and when Kim permits the introduction of the Internet. Such connectivity with the outside world could help to transform North Korea in a positive way.
These recent positive developments could be reversed if, as many suspect it will, North Korea launches another missile and conducts another nuclear test in the next few months. This has been our experience in working with North Korea - periods of optimism, only to be dashed by another missile launch or nuclear test.
Hopefully, this will not happen. Hopefully, on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, the leadership in Pyongyang will refrain from any further escalation of tension and return to Six Party Talks negotiations with the goal of implementing the September 19, 2005 joint statement that commits North Korea to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic assistance and, eventually, civilian nuclear energy and normal relations.
North Korea can expedite this process by the humanitarian decision to release Kenneth Bae, a US citizen sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labor camp. A display of goodwill of this type will help build the trust and confidence necessary for the eventual resolution of issues that will bring peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula.
Joseph R DeTrani is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization. He was the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006; the ODNI North Korea Mission Manager from 2006-2910 and until January 2012, the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of any US Government department, agency or office.