Author: Stella Canessa
Posted on: BROWN POLITICAL REVIEW | April 7th, 2018
The final days of the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang kindled an inkling of hope that North Korea would start taking steps to enter the global diplomatic sphere. On the same day as the Closing Ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced Kim Jong-un’s willingness to talk to the United States. A week later, Pyongyang confirmed its commitment by offering a freeze of its nuclear weapon programs as soon as talks with the U.S start. The White House initially responded in an approving, but guarded manner. Trump asserted that “We want to talk also, but only under the right conditions” – specifically: denuclearization. Now, the two heads of state plan to meet and with the combined force of America’s diplomatic power and China’s economic influence on North Korea the realization of this condition seems closer than ever.
The switch in North Korea’s rhetoric seems revolutionary, given how the two countries’ messages have historically stood in opposition.While the U.S. demands absolute, immediate denuclearization, North Korea has relentlessly held on to its nuclear weapons program. Now, there is hope the stalemate may be resolved. North Korea compromised on its strong nuclear commitment and, as South Korean security advisor Chung Eui-yong asserted after a meeting with Kim Jong-un, he sees “no reason to own nuclear [weapons] if military threats towards the North are cleared and the safety of its regime is guaranteed.” It is further willing to freeze its nuclear programs as soons as talks with the U.S. commence – an important first step towards entering diplomatic relations. Trump tweeted: “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned.” Pyongyang’s recent change of mind is likely a synergy of America’s strict line against the country and the international bloc supporting United Nations sanctions, which foremost includes a committed China, North Korea’s most important trade partner. With the U.S. leveraging its diplomatic power to provide security to its allies, and China continuing economic pressures there might be a real chance for a resolution of the North Korea case. The implications of North Korea’s denuclearization also have a cultural dimension as they allow for rapprochement with South Korea and hopefully foster sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula.
The second part of Trump’s tweet – that “the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!” – reinstates the White House’s reservation towards North Korea’s peace movements. This is grounded in the history between the two countries. In 1994, the U.S. military planned an attack on a small nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in order to prevent North Korea from acquiring raw materials needed for nuclear weapons. Fortunately, the incident was not resolved in war but rather in the so called “Agreed Framework” negotiated under the Clinton administration. The agreement, which committed North Korea to an immediate freeze of nuclear testings and to replace its nuclear reactors with alternative energy sources, ultimately failed and broke down in 2002. Accordingly, North Korea conducted seven nuclear tests in 2006, the first series of tests since 1993. Testing drastically increased with Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power from his father Jong-il in 2011. Kim Jong-un’s justification of proliferation is the necessity to protect the country against U.S. military action, and potential foreign-motivated political coups. The record of such hostile rhetoric directly against the United States provides a further reason for caution towards North Korea’s diplomatic pursuits.
Yet, beyond the reduction of nuclear tensions, talks between the U.S. and North Korea also have a cultural dimension as they pave the way for rapprochement between Korea’s North and South. The division of Korea is an international construct – before Japanese colonial rule in 1910, the Korean Empire had been a unified kingdom for centuries. In 1945, in an effort to end the war against Japan and liberate Korea from colonial rule, the Soviets marched into Korea from the north. Accordingly, with Japan’s defeat in August 1945, Korea was divided into North and South, similar to the post-war divide of Germany. The tension between two separate Koreas is thus a product of post-war geopolitical concerns, with the two being rebuilt under the polar opposite ideologies of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The effects of these differences are now felt by the population: while President Moon is pushing for diplomatic relations, young South Koreans protested a unified Olympic hockey team. A rapprochement of North and South thus cannot be limited to the political sphere. It must also reconcile the more than one million casualties of the Korean war (the first U.S.-U.S.S.R. proxy war) and the cultural and ideological differences between a democratic, economically flourishing South and a totalitarian, isolated North.
The offer to talk is grounds for hope and an indication that Trump’s hard line against Pyongyang is seemingly working. On February 24, Trump announced more sanctions targeting the shipping industry of the country, as well as Chinese shipping and energy firms engaging in business with North Korea. The most stringent sanctions yet imposed are aimed at further isolating the country economically – especially from its largest trade partner China, which accounts for 83% of North Korea’s exports and 85% of imports. North Korea’s unique economic dependency on China poses an opportunity for United Nations sanctions. With China in compliance, the decrease in revenue will make it increasingly financially challenging for North Korea to maintain or expand its nuclear weapons program. Trump’s strict line shows its effect: following U.N. sanctions on coal, iron and textiles in August and September 2017, Chinese-North Korean trade volume dropped by a total of 50%, exports to North Korea by 20% and imports from North Korea by 80%. Upholding China’s commitment to the sanctions may prove challenging, since the collapse in trade also hurts the nation’s own economy.
North Korea’s concession to nuclear disarmament is certainly a milestone in the diplomatic stalemate of the past years. However, a positive relationship with the U.S. and South Korea alike requires a political and cultural commitment beyond military denuclearization. University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier died in June of 2017 after he visited North Korea while studying abroad in Hong Kong. Warmbier was arrested for stealing an item bearing a propaganda slogan and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Shortly after the sentence, he fell into a coma and after one and a half years of detention was medically evacuated to the United States, where he died of severe brain damage a week after his arrival. The case is a drastic example for the vast differences in political ideology and approach to human rights that have to be bridged between North Korea and the Western world before diplomatic relations of any kind can be sustained. However, Pyongyang’s proposed denuclearization would be a good first step.