As the present author has written on more than one occasion, the reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula can be largely attributed to the “double freeze” strategy jointly developed by Russia and China. And although the dialogue between the USA and North Korea is progressing slowly, and not as smoothly as hoped, no-one has claimed that we have gone back to the days of peak tensions.
So far, neither party has made any major concessions: now that North Korea has discontinued its program to create strategic nuclear weapons, the old nuclear facilities have lost much of their importance.
And, what is more, in view of the growing tensions between the USA and China, it is worth noting that relations were much warmer when Mike Pompeo made his trip to North Korea. It appears that the parties really have reached agreement on something, and observers, fascinated by the question of just what that something is, have filled the gap in their knowledge with speculations which reflect their own political views. There are three main theories, each of which has its own adherents among conspiracy theorists, and the author sees them all as sufficiently crazy to be worth investigating.
The USA has put the Korean problem on hold, because its real target is Iran
The first of these theories is that, behind the scenes, the policymakers in the US administration have decided it is Iran, and not North Korea, that is going to be used as an example to show the world who the real boss is.
There are several signs that indicate the US strategists have chosen Teheran as their “whipping boy”:
- Iran’s nuclear missile program is not advanced enough to pose any serious threat to the USA.
- Iran does not have the capacity to respond to a strike by attacking a valuable regional US ally such as Seoul or Tokyo.
- An attack on Iran would be a greater blow to Russia, as, in terms of foreign policy, Russia is more involved in the Middle East than in the Far East.
- As far as Iran is concerned, a fifth column approach would be much more likely to yield appreciable results.
- Iran is also a large and developed nation, so its overthrow would demonstrate how powerful the USA is now, and it would not be difficult to demonize Iran as much as North Korea has been demonized.
- Let us not forget that although the Korean specialist John Bolton is well-known for his anti-Pyongyang position, he is also no more a friend to Iran.
However, even the USA is not ready to fight two major wars at once, and it is therefore clearly inclined to put the less promising, and riskier, of these conflicts on hold for now and focus on demonizing Iran in the eyes of the public, so that by the time the summit comes round the black cloak that denotes “global villain number one” can be passed on to a new wearer. And if Kim Jong-un is no longer the greatest single embodiment of Evil then doing a deal with him will not necessarily have to mean unconditional surrender, and may pass relatively unnoticed.
One thing that might confirm this theory would be a blitz of propaganda aimed at demonizing Iran, along with more positive statements about Kim Jong-un, along the lines on “he may be a tyrant, but at least he’s behaving constructively.” But, so far, there has been no such blitz of propaganda, and although, on April 30 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, stated that the country’s foreign intelligence service had been provided with proof that Iran is developing its own nuclear weapons, and although on May 8 Donald Trump announced that the USA was pulling out of the nuclear deal, and on May 21 Mark Pompeo presented 12 demands for Iran, including withdrawal of its troops from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and ceasing to supporting its proxy forces in those countries the USA has not yet stepped up the pressure, which would be surprising if a war really were just around the corner. Or, to be more accurate, the USA is stepping up the pressure, but not on Iran.
Kim Jong-un has secretly promised to stay neutral in the stand-off between the USA and China
The second version focusses on the growth of tensions between the USA and Beijing, which may, it appears, take a far more serious turn. We will ignore some of the more far-fetched theories, for example the suggestion that the structural problems in the US economy are so serious that the only solution is a really major war. But some of the authors who are familiar to the present expert in the field, are already asking whether the trade war is going to develop into a “fourth Taiwan crisis.”
Of course a lot depends on how serious an adversary the experts advising Donald Trump really consider China to be. But a fair number of those experts are convinced either that China will not be able to stand up to the pressure and that it will turn out to be a giant with feet of clay, or that if China gets any more powerful then this will mean the end of the USA as a great world power.
One way or the other, the USA considers it fairly important to drive a wedge between China and as many of its allies as possible, and is taking steps to do this. To find examples of this, you only need to consider what is happening in South and South East Asia.
Let us look at the situation from North Korea’s perspective. Despite the switch, back in spring 2018, to a new rhetoric focusing on friendship, the relations between the two Koreas are still far from simple and North Korea is not really willing to enter into a partnership of two nations with a “common destiny”. Pyongyang’s ideal policy would be to keep on switching course between Beijing and Washington, just as it did between Beijing and Moscow during the Soviet period. It is true that such a policy would not lead to a great deal of economic support from either country – no hegemon state will reward a vassal for such half-hearted loyalty – but the North Korean leadership has always been concerned, first and foremost, about its ability to choose its own course.
North Korea generally avoided taking sides in the stand-off between the Soviet Union and China, and adherents to this theory believe that the main diplomatic achievement of Mike Pompeo’s visit was a secret agreement with North Korea that the latter would stay neutral in the event of any conflict between the USA and China, for example relating to Taiwan or the islands in the South China Sea.
To put it baldly, if the dispute heats up, North Korea will, they believe, support China in words, but not in deeds. China has also, in the past, stated that if North Korea pushes things too far, and as long as the USA does not cross any red lines, then China will raise objections, call upon the two nations to resolve their differences through diplomacy, but not take any further action.
Of course, in some ways Kim Jong-un’s offer is just a lot of hot air: he is exaggerating his close ties to China so that, when the “split” comes, Washington may think he is making a big concession. It should be noted that the USA is meeting North Korea half way: it is China, and not North Korea, that Donald Trump is accusing of “not acting constructively”. Maybe he believes that North Korea could disarm right now, but that others are holding it back from doing so. But there is also another possible explanation for the US’s willingness to take the pressure off Kim Jong-un
Maybe the whole process is just a big act – and the parties are going along with it because it suits them.
According to the third theory, despite all the talk about denuclearization, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have reached a realistic compromise during their confidential one-to-one meetings. They fully understand that North Korea will never give up its “bomb” (at the very least, in order to guarantee its own safety in the “post-Trump” era) but it is too dangerous to continue a course of aggressive confrontation.
It would appear possible for both parties to take a step backwards, a decision similar to that taken by Moscow and Washington during the Cuban Missile crisis, but the USA has demonized North Korea to such an extent that merely entering into negotiations looks like a concession, even if the talks do not lead to anything. And if disarmament really does get under way then both countries, but particularly the USA, will soon find that they have run out of acceptable concessions, and that any further steps would put national security at risk, or would be seen by the political establishment, or the public, as a loss of face.
But there is one way Kim Jon-un and Donald Trump could get out of this stalemate – and it is along the lines of the old joke about the policemen and the likeable villain: they “promised to search for him day and night, but nobody said anything about finding him.”
A “fake peace process” would allow both parties to win time, and have the effect of turning the heat down. Thus, just as it is better to be at peace and hungry than to be at war and have a full belly, while the diplomats talk at least the tensions will be on hold and small steps can be presented as diplomatic breakthroughs, because previously there was no progress at all. The speed of the process is, in the end, less important than its direction, and if North Korea takes steps towards denuclearization, even if only an inch at a time, then, while it might be accused of dragging its feet, it certainly cannot be accused of doing nothing.
Donald Trump would not lose face, because North Korea would be able to demonstrate that it has made concessions, the sanctions would, largely, remain in place, and he would be able to reassure the American public that he had managed to “avoid a far worse scenario.” Kim Jong-un would continue giving up certain “disposable” parts of his nuclear program: doing this would allow him to postpone a definitive solution to the denuclearization question for as long as possible, and entitle him to demand guarantees or reciprocal moves from the USA. North Korea would gain breathing space and the chance to focus on developing its economy, and strengthen its links with Beijing and Moscow, and Kim Jong-un would be seen, not as an odious dictator, but as a leader who is acting peacefully and taking positive initiatives.
If that were to happen then cooperation between the two countries might achieve the level of 2007-2008: they would spend a long time discussing and reaching agreement on a list of nuclear facilities, the stages involved in the dismantling, and other technical issues. This could go on until the end of Donald Trump’s (first) term of office, and it is, naturally, too early to say if he will get re-elected.
The Russian political analyst, Artyom Lukin, goes even further: he suggests that the Trump administration may cut a deal that would allow Washington to announce that it has solved the North Korean nuclear problem. However, North Korea would (probably secretly, rather than openly) keep back a certain quantity of warheads and fissile material, and retain the ability to produce more, as an insurance policy against the risk of Donald Trump’s successor deciding to revisit the nuclear deal. North Korea’s nuclear status would be similar to that of Israel, which claims to have “no bombs, but, in a critical situation, we will use them.”
Pyongyang and Washington would not be the only parties to benefit from such a situation: Pyongyang’s willingness to negotiate and comply with demands would also help promote a detente between the two Koreas. And the longer a detente on the Korean peninsula lasts, the better.
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.”