Not too long ago as it seems, we remarked that the Olympic thaw bore its first fruit from a tactical point of view. Unfortunately, concurrent with quieting naysayers and other steps towards rapprochement, we are witnessing actions that could very soon return the situation to its former aggravated state.
First of all, the negotiations are far from over but their conditions are already being reviewed. There are already implications that if Kim decides to sacrifice his ICBM program, it is essential to squeeze him further to ensure he abandon his medium-range and even short-range missiles. So far, this is what the Japanese and some South Korean media sources are voicing.
While nuclear weapon destruction is already being touted as the eradication of all the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Up to now, denuclearization has been American’s only topic of conversation but recently the US side began to signal in its official statements that their goal is “complete elimination of WMDs from the Korean Peninsula.” For instance, John Bolton, the National Security Advisor to the US President, mentioned this during the meeting with the member of State Council of China, Yang Jiechi, on May 4.
As soon as the US perceived that DPRK was not against denuclearization, they immediately began pressuring North Koreans to eliminate WMDs altogether. And we remember Iraq’s experience with searches and inspections of chemical and biological weapons, whereby any food or pharmaceutical manufacturers turn into dual-purpose sites capable of producing “something else.” After all, “it is well known” that the bloody regime used chemical weapons against its citizens…
Even South Korean media sources write “Washington and Pyongyang are in the midst of psychological warfare to finalize the actual agenda for the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un The USA have put forward broader demands for denuclearization thus intensifying the summit conditions. In the meantime Kim has been strengthening his relationship with China, which summons new questions about the influence this will have on negotiations about denuclearization.”
We should also take into account the US recent withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement, which serves as a warning to DPRK. As John Bolton stated in a recent interview “We are coming to the summit from a position of strength. The withdrawal will not only influence Iran but the upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-Un. It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals. The message to North Korea is the president wants a real deal.”
According to South Korean experts, it is the American way of announcing its firm intentions to stop nuclear weapon research in any country of the world. As a result, Washington will gradually realize its plan for a sustainable, supervised and reversible dismantling of nuclear weapons in North Korea. However, according to the point of view of any reasonable politician, the US move has once again showcased America’s cooperation levels, in short, the USA will agree to fulfill its obligations as long as it benefits them. Admittedly, DPRK has earlier faced the issue of “this was signed by our previous president, out current political direction has changed, and we have decided to review the conditions.”
Secondly, a new concept has emerged: a peace treaty will be signed only after complete denuclearization, which, in itself, conflicts with the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace. Joseph Yun, the former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, calmly talked about this concept during debates held in Washington on May 7, which were organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
According to Yun, it is impossible to prioritize peace over denuclearization, and the signing of denuclearization agreement will be a big mistake, as this will be a de facto admission that North Korea is a nuclear power. Joseph Yun pointed out that signing a peace treaty is not a simple matter and its implementation may take a long time (he used Vietnam as an example as the peace treaty with it took approximately 10 years to sign).
Moon Jae-in did not make any comments about this. What is more, during an interview with the Japanese newspaper, The Yamiuru Shimbun, on May 8, he stated that the main condition to improved inter-Korean relations is the North’s denuclearization. Peace and joint prosperity are only possible on condition that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons, the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang normalizes, and permanent peace is established on the Korean Peninsula.
The Korean war ended in an armistice in 1953. From the point of view of regime preservation and border revision, both sides more or less broke even. Connecting nuclear disarmament to the process of signing a peace treaty, as well as stating that a peace agreement will only be signed on condition that DPRK denuclearizes, transform these peace negotiations into the North’s capitulation, thereby establishing a world order different from the one before.
In addition, China’s role in the peace talks is being marginalized. South Korea’s presidential administration maintains the position that China can participate in the peace process but in fact, the two Koreas and the US can conclude it by themselves. However, PRC was as active a participant in the war as the USA and any lasting outcomes without its participation are, to say the least, inappropriate.
Thirdly, Seoul continues to systematically disinform Washington. During the previously mentioned interview with The Yamiuru Shimbun, Moon stated that he personally ensured that DPRK leader aspires to complete denuclearization.
It is also worth reminding the readers that this abstract agreement to aspire to something is not equivalent to willingness to do so here and now without any guarantees. Kim John-un and other North Korean leaders invariably state that the talks are concerned with a conditional disarmament and any progress in this direction will be both gradual and as a rule, met with reciprocal steps by the opposing side. Kim John-un last mentioned this at the meeting with Xi Jingpin from 7 to 8 May “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will be possible once all the sides involved abandon their unfriendly policies and security threats, thus making DPRK’ need for nuclear weapons null and void.”
Yet it is worth noting that Seoul is quite adept at playing the game of Chinese whispers as it continues to tell Washington whatever it wishes to hear, while simultaneously positioning itself as the chief intermediary and organizer of the process. As a result, even South Korean media sources have started voicing their concerns about the fact that South Korea “may have exaggerated” Kim John-un’s willingness to disarm. In the meantime, the author considers the possibility that the summit between Trump and Kim will not be successful and one reason for this failure could be America’s misinformed state, and this could in turn affect the South Korean administration making it into a scapegoat.
“Misinterpreting politeness for a concession, and a concession for weakness” is a typical mistake made by those who have an opportunity to overreact and subsequently face the aftermath. This is already happening to Seoul and Washington, who, from the very beginning, misinterpreted Pyongyang’s good intentions for “Kim’s capitulation due to the pressure of sanctions thus enabling to do as they please with him.”
If these trends continue, the inter-Korean thaw may end sooner than expected making it impossible to blame Pyongyang for such an outcome.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”