As South Korea relays the news that North Korea may be ready to open new negotiations over its nuclear weapons, it’s important to keep track of just how quickly this long-running crisis has changed.
Less than a year ago, the world seemed to be steeling for a full-on war with North Korea. Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia. As fingers pointed to Pyongyang as the likely culprit, the Kim regime’s ongoing nuclear weapons programme drew furious ire from the newly-inaugurated US president, Donald Trump, with tit-for-tat sanctions and weapons tests alternating at breakneck speed.
But with the South Korean Winter Olympics, a warm wind started to blow. The games could have been a political and security nightmare, but it turned into a stunning picture: Korean athletes walked under one flag, while Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-yong and Kim Yong-nam, the north’s head of state, watched the opening festivities next to South Korean president Moon Jae-In. (The American vice-president, Mike Pence, sat and ignored the northern delegation in stony silence.)
Once the remarkable Olympic moment had passed, the world waited to see if the north would simply collect its athletes and revel in the attention, or reciprocate an invitation from the south to launch a new dialogue. In the end, it chose the latter path. Now, not only is there new hope for the first full inter-Korean summit in 10 years, but the north might just might have hinted at the possibility of denuclearisation.
But the operative word here is “might”. When it comes to Korean affairs, semantics have always been crucial.
Reading the runes
For example, the September 19, 2005 deal negotiated within the Six-Party Talks collapsed partly because of the clause that stated so-called “light water reactors” would need to be discussed at an “appropriate” time. For the north, “appropriate time” meant September 20, while for the US, “appropriate time” meant as late as possible, and preferably never.
Similarly, for the north, the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula has always meant the removal of all nuclear weapons from the entire peninsula, which would extend to any potential American nuclear weapons stationed in the south. The US, however, has usually understood it to apply solely to the north’s weapons, and not as a binding agreement on future American deployments.
The Olympics and their aftermath do not change the fundamental security dilemma on the Korean peninsula. The structure of the problem is the same: a combination of unfinished inter-Korean business (starting with the 1953 armistice), the US’s continued military presence and strategic role in East Asia, and the north’s dramatic development of nuclear weapons. What has changed, however, are the diplomatic conditions.
The North Koreans are neither simplistic nor omniscient. Just like any other country, they rely on intelligence, diplomatic contacts, and general event analysis to make sense of the world around them, and especially their nemesis, the US. And the picture they currently see is very confused.
There is currently no American ambassador to South Korea as the Trump administration has been unable to appoint one and the White House has ultimately decided that the one potential nominee, Victor Cha, a North Korea expert who served under the Bush administration, was not “hawk” enough.
There also isn’t a lead American negotiator. Until he resigned a few days ago, the principal figure was Joseph Yun, a longtime career diplomat and Asia specialist who served first under Barack Obama and then under Trump.
Yun was recently most influential in negotiating the release of American student Otto Warmbier, who was returned to the US after a lengthy incarceration in the north and died shortly thereafter. Given the Trump administration’s high rate of personnel churn, it seems unlikely that many qualified diplomats and experts want to take on these extremely challenging jobs.
To cap it all, the north has started to answer Trump’s offhand comments and tweets via its official state media, the Korean Central News Agency. With Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric now fully engaged with Trump’s embellishment and vagueness, this could be a recipe for disaster.
The promise of a north-south summit in April is an exciting event in itself, and might allow the two Koreas to resume an in-depth dialogue that has been chaotic for many years. But at the same time, we can expect the north to get up to some of its old tricks.
For starters, Pyongyang will probably fully exploit any wobbles in the south’s relationship with the US. It played a similar game in the 1950s and 1960s when it exploited the ideological schism between Russia and China, playing them off against one another to attract support and concessions. We can also expect a lot of frantic parsing of North Korea’s every statement, and plenty of misinterpretation and misapprehension.
This has already begun. A day after the official South Korean delegation left Pyongyang and returned to Seoul, the story was that the north had suddenly opened up to denuclearisation and direct talks with the US. But the north is always seeking engagement with the US one way or another, and has stated numerous times that, just as the South Korean statement published in the New York Times said, “it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the north was eliminated and its security guaranteed”.
And there’s the rub. North Korea will not consider its security “guaranteed” until the US withdraws from the Korean peninsula and the armistice is transformed into a permanent settlement. The north will not entertain denuclearisation as a precondition for talks, since its very survival depends on its nuclear deterrent. It might not even freeze its programme while talks are underway: even as the 2003-7 Six-Party Talks were taking place, Pyongyang tested its first nuclear weapons in 2006.
But today, something crucial is different: the talks will not revolve around an overbearing, coherent and predictable US. Instead, the north and the south are centre stage – and they might finally have the breathing room they need.