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Moon Jae-in’s diplomatic dance towards peace with North Korea

South Korea’s president has to negotiate the competing demands of Trump, Kim Jong-un and China.

The question of moving from conflict to peace is often assumed to be largely a matter of political will. Once leaders are committed to a process, then supposedly insuperable obstacles should be overcome and practical difficulties pushed to one side. In the case of the Korean peninsula the challenge is stark. The North invaded the South in June 1950. After three years of vicious fighting a ceasefire was agreed that left the two sides more or less back where they started around the 38th parallel and the country still divided.

The divide became sharper as the South became a prosperous democracy while the North was stuck with repressive, dynastic rule and a feeble economy. A resumption of hostilities often seemed close. The prospect became even more frightening as the North developed a nuclear arsenal. Last year was a particularly tense time as the Americans warned about the dire consequences of the North continuing to test missiles capable of reaching the United States. President Donald Trump considered a pre-emptive strike.

Yet remarkably the main players in this drama have taken a different path. Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong-un’s movement from belligerent rhetoric to mutual admiration in a matter of months captured international attention. But the man who really made this possible was South Korean president Moon Jae-in. He visited the Northern capital Pyongyang for the first time last week and has been in the US this week, where he has signed a new trade deal with Trump, as he works to keep the peace process on track. Moon is the one who set the process in motion and is most invested in its success. At a minimum, he wants to keep his country secure: at most he looks forward to eventual unification with the North (from where his parents escaped dramatically in December 1950).

It was Moon who used the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February to engage with Kim, after which events moved quickly. There was the landmark declaration in April on future relations, and then Trump’s own summit with Kim in Singapore in June. For Trump this was an opportunity to demonstrate his talent as a deal-maker. He claimed a triumph. The North’s nuclear threat had been eliminated and a lasting peace in the Korean peninsula was possible. Perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize was in order.

There was no absence of political will but there was now a burden of high expectations. All three men appeared to want the same things – peace, unification, denuclearisation. But all three also had different interpretations of what these objectives might mean. The challenge for Moon has been to get them into alignment.

Those with long experience of these issues warned from the start that Trump’s boasts were unwise. He had flattered the leader of a weak and tyrannical country and agreed to suspend American military exercises with South Korea. In return he was getting only vague commitments about the North’s nuclear programme. The Americans then struggled to fill in the gaps in the summit communiqué by getting the North to agree a timetable for denuclearisation. The North responded with its own complaints. Whereas it had made a start with denuclearisation, by dismantling a nuclear testing site and a missile engine facility, Trump had reneged on a promise made to Kim to declare the war properly over. In response to these complaints Trump cancelled a planned visit in August by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to Pyongyang, which was intended to get the negotiations back on track.

Moon had most to lose from this turn of events. His initiative had been extremely popular in the South, but now appeared to be faltering. He had boosted Kim by encouraging the idea of shared Korean ownership of a process that could allow both sides more control over their destinies, yet he also needed to keep Trump on side because he dared not be seen to be making concessions that could jeopardise the alliance with the US. He therefore got Trump’s blessing for his latest meeting with Kim and his role as the lead negotiator. Kim played his part by addressing Trump’s ego as well as his agenda. Pompeo had been slammed in July for making “gangster-like” demands, but Kim let it be known that he had never said anything negative about Trump. His frustration was only that his sincere desire to denuclearise the peninsula had been doubted. The US president tweeted his delight on 6 September. “Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

Kim has persuaded both Moon and Trump that he is serious and accepts the need for substantial concessions. In support of this view, which remains controversial, the South Korean government argues that Kim has got the North into a position where he can make bold moves.

Kim took power as a young man after his father died in 2011 and then acted ruthlessly to consolidate his position. Possible rivals were eliminated, in some cases brutally. He also made the nuclear programme a priority, and by accelerating the testing programme got it to a position where no more testing was needed, and a deterrent was in place. The economy has revived, at least compared with the starvation conditions of the 1990s. Markets have been introduced in a number of areas, along with other modest reforms. As he is still a young man he can look forward to decades in power. Kim therefore wishes to build on his inheritance, and to do this he must get sanctions eased. He understands, according to this argument, that getting out of sanctions requires sacrificing at least some of his nuclear assets.

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A more sceptical view is that there has been no fundamental change in the North’s position. Kim is using the opportunity granted by Moon to ease the pressure on his country but sees no need to make fundamental changes. He may not dare to do so in any case, because anything too fundamental may destabilise his regime. National unity has been sustained by a siege mentality. To declare that all is now safe and it is possible to relax may open up debate about the country’s priorities and the degree of its militarisation. Isolation has prevented the intrusion of external influences. The more the North interacts with the South, the more people might become dissatisfied and restless.

Moreover, the nuclear programme required an enormous effort, which has paid off. Becoming a nuclear power has enhanced security and boosted the country’s international standing (how else would Kim have achieved a meeting with the US president?). This status will not be bargained away early on in what could be a long process. The sceptics’ view is that Kim’s aim is to do enough to crack open the US-South Korean alliance and the international coalition that sustains the sanctions regime.

Kim may even calculate that things will move in his direction without him having to do much at all. After all, Trump is evidently dubious about all American alliances and has justified suspending joint military exercises with the South as a welcome cost-saving as much as a peace gesture. And recent events have enabled Kim to repair his relations with China’s President Xi Jinping. China has no interest in a unified Korea, wishes to avoid a collapse in the North because of the chaos that might ensue, and would be delighted if the US no longer had any reason to keep forces in South Korea. It has also deplored Kim’s past provocations. This is why Chinese support of sanctions has been such an important part of the pressure on Kim.

For the moment, Beijing has done little to relax the pressure, but it could soon make life easier for the North. The two countries have a long border and there are plenty of opportunities for sanctions-busting. As the US ratchets up its tariff war, Xi may feel that he is under no obligation to help the Americans deal with the North’s nuclear capabilities.

For all these reasons, the risk is that this process will join past initiatives – all with their own breakthrough, declarations and hopes for a better future – that eventually ran out of steam, and that should this happen it will be because of the nuclear issue.

The measures that have been agreed to date are far from trivial. They mainly have the effect, however, of stabilising the current situation rather than being truly transformational. The first steps involved the North dismantling a nuclear site that may well have been redundant in return for the US suspending joint military exercises with the South that can easily be reinstated.

At last week’s meeting an agreement was signed to reduce military tensions, including taking down some guard posts, introducing no-fly zones and a maritime peace zone, and an end to artillery and other military drills close to the demilitarised zone. A joint military committee will ensure regular communication between the two armed forces. These measures should help prevent the sort of deadly incidents that occurred in the past.

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Denuclearisation is the most challenging issue. The North has reaffirmed its commitment sufficiently for Trump to apparently believe that he really is on track to get a deal by the end of 2021. As a new concession, Kim has offered to let international inspectors verify that the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch pad at Tongchang-ri has been shut down. While few events would be more guaranteed to revive past tensions than ICBM launches, the North has used mobile launches in the past.

In fact the gap between American expectations and North Korean intentions seems to have grown rather than receded. It is not just that the US is demanding the elimination of all nuclear facilities, warheads and delivery systems, and also the research base. The real problem is that when the North talks about denuclearisation it means the whole peninsula. The US provision of a nuclear umbrella to South Korea depends on aircraft from distant bases and carriers, not on any weapons based in the country (the last were removed in 1991). There are no systems to be removed as a quid pro quo for removal of the North’s weapons. In this respect full denuclearisation is impossible unless the US ends its commitment to South Korean security.

What then about peace and unification? The North has demanded a declaration that the war between the Koreas is over. Moon does not believe that this should be too difficult to concede. Such a declaration has no legal status and requires no changes to any current arrangements. Proponents describe it as but a small step en route to a proper peace treaty, which will be a big deal by comparison. It will involve the Chinese, who will join the North in arguing that such a treaty would remove the case for the South’s alliance with the US. The challenge with this step is therefore to keep its scope limited.

Unification is where Moon clearly wants to increase the pace. He is now expecting a return visit from Kim to Seoul later in the year. More families will be reunited. The railway line that crosses the demilitarised zone will be reactivated. The Kaesong industrial facility, a collaborative project close to the border on the Northern side formed in 2002, but ended by the South in 2016 in protest at the North’s nuclear testing, may now be opened up again. A liaison office will explore future co-operation.

The choreography behind this peace process is therefore going to be tricky. The bonding may have begun among the leaders, and more small steps may be taken, but there are limits on how far this can go without moves that make a material difference. The biggest obstacle is economic sanctions. The US insists that these must stay in place pending progress with denuclearisation. Moon appears to be trying to ease Trump into relaxing the link. Though good intentions will be regularly repeated in future communiqués, he must accept that North Korea will remain a nuclear power for some time to come. Instead of denuclearisation, real progress must come from closer relations between the two Koreas, and this requires relaxing sanctions.

Meanwhile, the conversations and confidence-building measures will reduce the danger of war. In all this it must be kept in mind that these are not just two halves of a country that wish to unify, but also two separate social and political systems that are at their core incompatible. This in the end is why peace is so difficult. Moon’s formula is the one the West followed in the Cold War, especially with regard to Germany. North Korea is well aware how that ended. 

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, and the author of the “Ladybird Expert Book on Nuclear Deterrence”

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis