Could a Korean peace deal hold? Why Donald Trump should beware gloating too soon

Both North and South Korea remain committed to the goal of a united Korea, but have very different ideas of what that would look like. 

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When Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in met last week in the de-militarised zone of the Korean peninsula to discuss denuclearisation and an end to the Korean War, it was heralded as a resounding diplomatic victory by all sides. Around the world, pictures of the two Korean presidents walking hand-in-hand were accompanied by headlines proclaiming a new era of peace for North and South Korea.

Certainly, the day produced a number of firsts. Besides the agreement to seek a formal end to the Korean War 65 years after the armistice was signed, the meeting represented the first top-level summit outside of Pyongyang, and only the third ever. It is also the first time a North Korea leader has stepped across the border into South Korea. However, despite both South Korean President Moon and Donald Trump claiming credit for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, it is Kim Jong-un who stands out as the real victor.

Last year, tensions on the Korean Peninsular peaked following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and a fresh round of international sanctions. It was probably the greatest period of tension since the wayward state withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. As I wrote in the New Statesman at the time, North Korea and the US risked entering a zero-sum game. I concluded with the prediction that were North Korea to attain a credible nuclear deterrent, it would curtail the need for brinkmanship diplomacy and make the US more amenable to negotiations.

Later in 2017, North Korea successfully tested a new type of inter-continental ballistic missile (Hwasong-15), capable of striking anywhere in the US mainland, and cemented its position as a credible nuclear power. What followed next was a complete reversal in the Trump administration’s approach to the crisis, moving away from aggressive threats and petty name calling, to more conciliatory language and finally, the promise of a meeting between Trump and Kim. If the meeting goes ahead, it will be unprecedented. Not only because it will it be the first time presidents from the US and DPRK have sat down together, but also because Kim Jong-un has managed to secure top-level negotiations without the need to make any real prior concessions – it was only once talks were in the pipeline that the North Korean regime hinted at denuclearisation, and even then, only in very non-explicit terms.

President Moon of South Korea has also benefited from the change in US policy. When Trump was threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea and comparing the relative size of each country’s nuclear buttons, Moon faced pressure within his government to distance South Korea from US policy choices. It was at this point Kim Jong-un began his diplomatic overtures, beginning with North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in Seoul and the fielding of a joint ice hockey team. Over the last few months, relations across the 38th parallel have continued to improve, culminating in Friday’s meeting. Again Kim Jong-un looked to be in control as the Republic of Korea agreed, with US blessing, to leave the issue of human rights in the DPRK off the negotiating table.

Yet, the question remains, how credible is this supposed detente between the US and ROK on one side, and the DPRK on the other? And how viable are the agreements that have been made for maintaining peace in the future?

From its inception, the North Korean regime has built itself in counterpoint to an external threat. It has used this to legitimise its power and totalitarian style of governance. Peace with the US and South Korea poses a potential existential crisis for the North Korean regime. How is the regime supposed to rationalise its purpose to the North Korean people if it loses its main adversaries? North Korea spends around a quarter of its gross domestic product on its military, and at the very least, major economic reforms would need to accompany any announcement of peace.

If Kim is really a reformist, one also has to ask why he has waited so long to show it, considering he assumed power in 2011. Normally, a true reformist lines his or her government with fellow reformists. However, the most likely candidate for such a role, Jang Song-thaek, was executed at the orders of his nephew Kim in 2013. Furthermore, the North Korean representative at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics was Kim Yong-nam – a man hell bent on trying to deceive the US into abandoning its South Korean ally.

What is clear is that North Korea seems unlikely to surrender its nuclear weapons without a guarantee of lasting security. History suggests this may be difficult to provide. North Korea has consistently reneged on deals, starting with the 1992 Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the 2000 South-North Joint Declaration and in 2007 with the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity

While Kim Jong-un has confirmed that he is willing to pursue denuclearisation, he has not stated what he believes this to entail. He may insist on the removal of US weapons, such as the THAAD missile system installed in South Korea in early 2017, or even reverse his decision not to seek the withdrawal of the 20,000 US troops stationed on the Korean border. In doing so, the success of Korean peace in made contingent on the US. Should the US refuse to comply, tensions may emerge between the superpower and its ally, South Korea. The fact that while Trump is seeking to negotiate denuclearisation with North Korea, he is at the same time threatening to dismantle the Iranian nuclear deal, will only serve to increase Kim’s scepticism.

Even if a deal is made, there is another major stumbling block to its survival. Both the North and South Korean governments remain committed to the goal of unification, which is enshrined in both countries’ respective constitutions. If neither country decides to rescind this article, then the prospects of a diplomatic solution appear slim. Furthermore, it makes it hard to sign a peace treaty, since both governments claim to represent the entire Korean population. (The DPRK does not recognise the ROK as a belligerent in the Korean War, preferring to portray it as puppet regime of the US, while South Korea did not sign the original armistice agreement.) As a result, any agreement that is signed cannot be termed a peace treaty, but must instead be referred to as a “peace regime”.

President Moon’s policy towards North Korea is popular among voters: polling firm Realmeter claimed nearly 78 per cent of South Koreans favoured a peace agreement with Pyongyang. However, the country remains divided over the question of unification. While a survey taken in 2017 found that over half of the population as a whole support unification, the 57.8 per cent of those in favour has dropped from a figure of 69.3 per cent only four years ago. Among the younger generations, this shift is even more apparent: 71.2 per cent of South Koreans in their 20s now oppose reunification. This reflects the stark differences in identity and culture felt by young South Koreans as they have grown up in a society that has developed independently from the North for more than seven decades.

Finally, what of Trump’s role in securing Friday’s historic meeting between the two Korean leaders? He has been quick to claim credit and there is even the suggestion that Trump, along with Kim and Moon, should win the Nobel Peace Prize for their parts in defusing the Korean nuclear crisis. However, while the Trump administration’s move to engagement with North Korea should be acknowledged, this only came after a period of intense hostility, during which North Korea announced it had achieved the goal of its nuclear programme. More importantly for some is China's role. President Xi Jinping agreed to and implemented the toughest sanction package against its northerly neighbour to date. Although Trump pressurised China to take a stronger stance against North Korea, arguably China was already showing leanings of this sort before his arrival. Beijing did not appreciate Kim Jong-un’s lack of deference. Either way, Trump appears less as a decisive agent than a bystander.

Those hopeful about a Korean peace agreement have drawn comparisons to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, the US, USSR, France and the UK renounced all rights they held in Berlin and Germany as a whole. Mikhail Gorbachev won a Nobel Peace for his role in ending the division of Germany. It is worth noting, however, that the prospect of a lasting detente between the US and Russia never came to fruition, in no small part due to the failure of the US to provide credible security guarantees to Russia and its encroachment into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.

Jack Broome is a political analyst specialising in East Asian and South East Asian regional politics, with experience working in the political risk and corporate intelligence sectors in China and Taiwan. Jack obtained his Bachelor's degree in Politics from SOAS, University of London, and is currently studying a Master's degree in Conflict Studies at LSE, University of London.