Confusing denuclearization signals from Korean Peninsula
South Korean President Moon Jae-in prepared the groundwork for the June summit between North Korea and the US in Singapore by inviting a huge North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics in consultation with US President Donald Trump. This was followed by quick diplomatic exchanges between North and South Korea and opened up diplomatic space for the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s meeting with Trump.
The summit between Kim and Trump on June 12 was conceived as a major breakthrough to usher in peace on the Korean Peninsula by ending North Korea’s many years of isolation from the US and its allies and heralding the process of denuclearization on the peninsula.
The liberal Moon government is inclined to create a peaceful environment in the peninsula, not only to increase the likelihood of larger inflows of foreign direct investment into South Korea (tensions between North and South Korea have evidently dampened FDI), it also seeks to expand the South Korean market by dismantling economic barriers between the two Koreas.
Moon may have a vision of a unified Korea that could deter external powers from taking advantage of the division, as history has been witness to how Korea became a Japanese colony because of palpable factionalism within the Korean leadership.
Moon’s rise to the presidency ended 60 years of dominance by conservative governments that used inter-Korean tensions largely for their electoral advantage. In the past, a liberal government was in power only from 1998 to 2008. However, Moon this time shows more resolve to end tensions on the peninsula and work toward promising prosperity in the region.
However, when South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha made a reference to lifting a trade and investment embargo imposed on the North in 2010, the government was apparently pressured to disown any such plans after Trump’s remark that Seoul could do “nothing” without Washington’s “approval.”
The Trump administration has preferred to adopt a dual strategy toward Pyongyang in the shape of limited diplomatic gestures such as opening up channels for meetings between political leaders along with a policy of coercion in the form of continued sanctions in an attempt to attain the objective of denuclearizing North Korea.
The US policies seek to oblige North Korea to destroy and abandon its nuclear program unilaterally, and sanctions are not likely to be waived in response to anything short of this target. The sanctions seem to be primarily aimed at assuaging the widespread fear of a country that has been internationally insular but poses an ominous nuclear and missile threat.
In this light, the coercive measures are understood as an effective way to ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, as well as in the wider region. In tune with the Trump administration’s “America First” policy, Washington believes that a strategy of coercion will relieve the US of its security entanglements and commitments to protect vulnerable countries from the North Korean nuclear threat and hence enable Washington to concentrate more on building up its own strength.
Further, Washington needs to view the summit in Singapore as one of the initial steps toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, which needs to be followed up with more such dialogues. There are positive indications from Pyongyang. First, efforts at destroying the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site were undertaken in the presence of foreign journalists; second, nuclear and missile tests have reportedly been frozen; and third, three American prisoners of the Korean War have been returned.
Pyongyang’s recent invitation to nuclear inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site has not aroused much optimism in the US strategic community
However, doubts have persisted within the US strategic circle pertaining to the fact that an inspection team was not allowed to visit the nuclear site. As well, suspicions remain as to North Korea’s intentions and progress toward denuclearization as the process lacked Pyongyang’s commitment to continued verification and dismantlement of existing nuclear stockpiles and related facilities.
Pyongyang’s recent invitation to nuclear inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site has not aroused much optimism in the US strategic community. There are questions over whether inspectors would be allowed to visit the Yongbyon site, which produces fuel for nuclear weapons.
Amid the personal praise that Trump and Kim heap on each other, the cancellation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang and remarks from North Korea that the Trump administration was making “gangster-like demands” earlier pointed to possible hitches in any progress toward complete denuclearization.
North Korea has expressed its desire for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War (1950-53) as well as security guarantees from the US that would allay North Korean suspicions over America’s extension of nuclear deterrence and a missile defense system to South Korea, but so far the dialogues on the denuclearization process have not sought to address this issue.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has warned Russia and China against violating international sanctions in view of their companies making shipments to North Korea. The latest US move to prevent South Korea from making any concessions to the North has indicated that Pyongyang has to go for denuclearization without any quid pro quo from Washington.
However, it is likely that the US putting pressure on North Korea without considering efforts at reaching out to the long-isolated country with deeper engagements would only alienate Pyongyang further and push it into the laps of Russia, China and Iran.
The imposition of US sanctions against all these countries would undermine the moderate elements within their societies. If these policies are not reconsidered, radical elements could influence the formation of an axis against the US.