Does inter-Korean summit signal peaceful spring on the peninsula?

By Jin Kai Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/24 21:18:39

The coming inter-Korean summit can be a prelude to the proposed meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump that will draw global attention. When South Korea's special envoy visited Pyongyang in early March, talks with the US were requested as a precondition for any summit between the two Koreas. What does this imply? Clearly, North Korea has successfully, although indirectly, mobilized South Korea's national resources to secure a long-awaited direct contact with the United States. Washington did not take the initiative, but probably accepted this arrangement as a kind of free ride.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Korean reconciliation and denuclearization, Pyongyang seems to act rather confidently.

It all seems to have begun with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's new year address, almost the highlight of enduring tensions between the North and the South. On January 1, Kim delivered his new year address for 2018, in which he made the extraordinary declaration that North Korea had accomplished a nuclear capability. He skillfully stressed North Korea's national image as "a peace-loving responsible country with a strong nuclear capability." In fact, Kim's speech set up all subsequent inter-Korean exchanges and the visits that finally brought about an inter-Korean summit. Kim has tried so hard to earn his nation respect in the past few years, and has made extraordinary strategic gains in the first half of 2018.

A US meeting was requested by North Korea as a precondition for an inter-Korean summit. North Korean denuclearization was the other sides' precondition for any US-North Korea talks. If North Korea did not agree to denuclearize, there would be no US-North Korea meeting, no mention of an inter-Korean summit. The term "denuclearization" has thus appeared in Pyongyang's announcements.

But at the same time North Korea has also officially proclaimed its nuclear status at least twice to the world: in the 2018 new year address by Kim and in a resolution passed at the third plenary meeting of the seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea held on April 20. The above resolution declared the party's "parallel routes" including sub-critical nuclear tests, underground nuclear tests, the miniaturization and lightening of nuclear weapons, the development of ultra-large nuclear weapons and their means of delivery were completed in sequence. "Thus the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets has been reliably realized," the announcement said.

This does not seem much like a total surrender to the United States and South Korea, rather more a proclamation of national dignity. Thus it is premature to conclude that denuclearization of the peninsula is actually going to take place, that North Korea is opening up and the arrival of spring on the peninsula.

There are quite a few reasons for us to think twice. As the plenary resolution indicates, substantial progress in North Korea's nuclear program has led to qualitative improvements including a substantial missile capability. There are no adequate excuses for North Korea to instantly demolish this progress, at least not before it receives some actual security assurances and economic benefits.

Pyongyang meanwhile has announced economic reform plans. This is absolutely normal as economic construction was always one of the two parallel routes for the regime. With one tank filled - or at least half-filled - Pyongyang now intends to fill up the other and so to ultimately stabilize the regime.

Some including South Korean academics suggest the "Ukraine model" might be applied to denuclearize North Korea: international cooperation over economic compensation in return for a total denuclearization. This is more or less wishful thinking. Ukraine was desperate to escape from the shadow of the former Soviet Union and join the Western democratic order, whereas North Korea does not yearn for Western acceptance or democratization. North Korea seeks mutual respect and a recognition of its national dignity as a peace-loving responsible country with a strong nuclear capability. The question still remains at what price would North Korea be willing to trade in all its nuclear capacity?

The inter-Korean summit might reveal some answers in respect to North Korea's strategic calculations. Of course that is only one side of the whole story. The United States, as Player One in world politics and many regional issues, has a big say in the Korean Peninsula. There is a simple but clear fact: It has always been a totally asymmetric game between Pyongyang and Washington. The smaller nation has every reason to hang tough and drive a hard bargain, whereas publicly it may play more softly, softly and collect the handshakes.

The author is an assistant research fellow with Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences.


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