North Korea: is war on the cards again?

North Korea: is war on the cards again?

It looks like the party everyone was excited about won’t take place after all. After a few days of hinting that his mooted June 12 meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un looked compromised, Donald Trump sent a “Dear John” letter to Kim bluntly informing him that the meeting is off. In doing so, Trump has in fact kept his word; back on April 19, he said he was prepared to walk out if there was no chance of the summit being fruitful. But while the move might not have been entirely out of the blue, the consequences could be huge.

The last few months had transformed the security calculus on the Korean peninsula – and the end of diplomacy may be taking it back to the brink of conflict. So what’s changed, what remains the same, and what’s next?

This remarkable year on the Korean peninsula has been marked by both bitter enmity and genuine goodwill. Pyongyang’s missile tests not only provoked a lurid battle of insults between Trump and Kim, but also saw the US dial up the pressure on the north in the form of new sanctions imposed via the Security Council. The north urgently needs to get those sanctions lifted if its already threadbare economy is to survive.

Then came South Korean president Moon’s diplomatic gamble during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which led to an exchange of delegations between north and south, and a remarkably successful summit between the two Korean leaders.

Friends, for now: Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in. EPA

To be sure, North Korea’s inclination to talk is always going to have an economic component: an opening to the US could see sanctions removed, while a thaw with South Korea could help forge new economic connections. But whatever the source of the impetus, it was remarkable to think that this deadlock, which for decades seemed intractable, might at last be coming to an end.

The two Korean leaders’ meeting was broadcast around the world, Kim Jong-un projecting a surprising civility and charm while Moon Jae-In enjoyed the payoff from his diplomatic gambit. On the Korean side, preparations were made for further meetings, while the Trump administration proceeded with caution – at least, at first.

Falling apart

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s new secretary of state, shuttled back and forth to North Korea; John Bolton, Trump’s supremely hawkish national security advisor, concentrated his efforts on emphasising that the US was free to act as it saw fit, and unilaterally if needed.

For its part, Pyongyang has made a number of concessions. It freed three long-imprisoned American citizens; it froze its missile testing, and destroyed parts of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. And what did the US and South Korea offer in return? Not much.

Trump announces his about face in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

They went ahead with their annual joint military drills, which eventually led to Kim Jong-un cancelling a follow-up inter-Korean meeting. More importantly, both Bolton and Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, suggested that the north’s denuclearisation model could be inspired by the early 2000s climbdown by Libya, which gave up a rudimentary nuclear programme in exchange for rapprochement with the West. North Korea doesn’t see much appeal in the comparison; after all, less than a decade after Libya opened up, its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was killed by rebels while NATO backed a violent uprising against him.

As Bolton and Pence waded in while the routine military exercises unfolded, everything slowly collapsed. The international slanging match resumed, with insults traded via Twitter and North Korea’s KCNA news agency, and the atmosphere steadily turned poisonous again.

It’s true that North Korea’s willingness to compromise had its limits. It never actually said it would give up its nuclear weapons, just that it would no longer need them if a peace mechanism could be implemented. But now the US has pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal – a deal that also offered relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for compliance – it is no longer able to offer North Korea a credible commitment to peace and stability.

Back to the drawing board

And so the Koreas – and indeed the world – find themselves in a precarious and tense situation once again. South Korea in particular has been bypassed and blindsided by Trump’s letter, which was sent just a day after Moon visited Washington. For Moon, who initiated the diplomatic process and revived a long-dead inter-Korean peace process before the news of a US-North Korea summit stole the show, just about everything needs to be started from scratch again.

More importantly, Seoul cannot have full confidence in the US if their crucial diplomatic relationship is untrustworthy. The US doesn’t even have a South Korean ambassador yet; outgoing Pacific Command Head Harry Harris has been nominated to the post, but it isn’t yet clear when he will take it up.

The question for the Trump administration, though, is whether or not cancelling the summit means the end of engagement and a turn to hawkish moves to force the DPRK to denuclearise, or whether concerted diplomatic efforts will be made to hold lower level talks to iron out substantial issues before a symbolic summit in the future. What is clear is that the diplomatic approach will take months, if not years of engagement: there is no easy way to dispel 70 years of animosity and mistrust.

That’ll be the day. EPA/Eugene Garcia

North Korea, meanwhile, has apparently chosen to take the high road for once. Kim is invoking humankind’s desire to see peace on the Korean peninsula, and has already communicated via long time negotiator Kim Kye-gwan that he’s still willing to meet with Trump. Perhaps Pyongyang will also attempt to salvage the new relationship it has developed with Seoul, but it remains to be seen whether the two Koreas will continue to engage with one another while faced with an unreliable US.

Finally, this might be the moment when others in the international community start to take the lead. If Trump sticks to his strange blend of isolationism and belligerent unilateralism, other countries and actors will need to step in to help give the Koreas a moral and financial steer.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a dialogue to continue; France’s Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who were meeting in St Petersburg when Trump dropped his bombshell, have both lamented the cancellation, with Putin suggesting that the north had done everything it promised and received nothing but scorn in return.

With the Trump Nobel Peace Prize dreamboat rapidly sinking, eyes will turn to China’s Xi Jinping and what he might have whispered in Kim Jong-un’s ear during their meeting earlier this month. But whatever Xi does to change the game, Trump’s behaviour has thrown this promising process into chaos, and getting it back on track is of paramount importance.

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