Danger remains, but Korea is now a safer peninsula
US President Donald Trump caused considerable angst and tensions in North East Asia in 2017 when he threatened to retaliate against Kim Jong Un’s provocations with “fire and fury.” Kim relished provoking Trump by firing ever farther-reaching missiles able to carry nuclear warheads.
From the point of view of North Korea’s near neighbors, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Taiwan, it was a moot point whether these missiles could reach the US mainland. A nuclear altercation would have had devastating effects on these countries and the world’s third, 12th and 22nd largest economies. Nor would China have been spared the nuclear fallout from a devasted neighbor and the resulting stream of refugees. Playing with fire in one of the world’s most densely populated regions was callous to say the least.
The thawing of relations brought relief. The winter Olympics in Pyeongchang provided the stage for a rapprochement between the two Koreas. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong skilfully deployed soft diplomacy and got the ball rolling. This could probably not have happened without South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who came to power on a platform endorsing North-South dialogue. His predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was a hawk on relations with the People’s Republic.
What followed was nothing but extraordinary. After a hiatus of 11 years there were no fewer than three inter-Korean summits. The last one in September resulted in a joint declaration advocating the cessation of military hostility, restoring east and west coast rail connections, making Mount Kumgang (in the North, but treasured by the whole peninsula) accessible, and collaborating on the 2020 summer Olympics.
Relations between the US and North Korea are bound to become frostier again, but the two Koreas seem to be engaging in a more lasting détente.
In between the inter-Korean summitry there was the historic meeting of Donald Trump and the North Korean dictator in Singapore during the summer. The two gentlemen were clearly taken with each other and Donald Trump hailed it as the end of a nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula. He went so far as to cancel military exercises between the US and South Korea. This might have been a tad hasty, because the nuclear threat persists. One of the key issues was that the US and North Korea used different definitions for denuclearization. The US definition was that North Korea would be giving up its entire nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang’s definition delineated a reciprocal pullback of American nuclear capabilities south of the border in line with North Korean disarmament. These essential differences were glossed over in the general euphoria surrounding the summit.
There was also National Security Adviser John Bolton’s insistence that Libya’s nuclear disarmament could serve as precedent. This did not fly with Kim, who remembered that eight years after renouncing his nuclear capabilities, Col. Qaddafi was bombed by US warplanes and lost not only the leadership of his country, but also his life. Subsequently Libya ended up a failed state.
At this point both Trump and Kim are losing patience with each other, which became patently obvious during Kim’s televised New Year address. As so often when there has been insufficient diplomatic preparation, the hype surrounding a meeting was too big and the expectations were too high; the result is frustration on both sides.
Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that there was a lot of ground covered. The name-calling between Trump and Kim has stopped for the time being and the rapprochement between North and South is gently progressing. For the first time in a decade a South Korean train rolled northwards across the border, implementing one of the pledges in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018. The demilitarized zone may soon open to tourists from both North and South. Last year some families were allowed to meet briefly for the first time in decades.
If things don’t change, relations between the US and North Korea are bound to become frostier again, but the two Koreas seem to be engaging in a more lasting détente. Here again it will probably have to be President Moon who helps the US and his northern neighbours to better understand each other’s position, as he did both before and after the Kim-Trump summit. All in all, the Korean Peninsula may have become a moderately safer place thanks to the varied summit diplomacy.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources