Authors: Wang Li & Yang Yi-zhong
After the two-year stalemate between North Korea and South Korea, the warm air seems to return to the Korean Peninsula. According to the latest news from two Koreas, the two sides have kicked off their first high-level talks since 2015. Just previously, the Korean peninsula was from time to time nearly moving towards the brink of the nuclear war.
For the decades, China has reiterated that it welcomes any positive trend on the Korean Peninsula, as long as the relevant parties of the Korean Peninsula issue can take sincere attitudes to work for the shared goal and make concrete effort to ease tensions in the region, bring the issue back to the right track of peaceful settlement through dialogue and realize the denuclearization of the Peninsula.To that end, China has closely worked with the parties involved.
During the state visit of President Moon Jae-in of ROK to China in December 2017, President Xi Jinping held talks with him in light of the principles of respecting each other’s core interests and major concerns and to promote sound and healthy development of the strategic cooperation. The two leaders agreed to cement bilateral political mutual trust and enhance communication and coordination on international and regional affairs. Regarding the Korean Peninsula situation, Xi reiterated that China and ROK must firmly adhere to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and no war or chaos is allowed on the Peninsula. Due to this, China can accept only that the Peninsula would be resolved through dialogue and consultation, with readiness to support the two sides on the Peninsula in improving relations through dialogue and contact. Moon Jae-in reaffirms that the ROK is firmly committed to resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through peaceful means, and stands ready to work with China to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the region. As a result, on January 8, 2018, Seoul formally announced that the United States and the ROK have agreed to delay joint military exercise during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Here, it makes no sense to argue which country has played the key role in facilitating the high-level dialogue between the two Koreas. Rather, consider the geopolitical and cultural links,China’s stance in response to the situation on the Korean Peninsula is always that itsincerely welcomes and supports the DPRK and the ROK’s recent positive moves to improve their relations. It also indicates that the international community can give its support and work together to find a viable path to easing tensions, enhancing mutual trust and resuming dialogue.China’s insistence on the dialogue is due to the nature of diplomacy and the core interests of China that has been involved in the Korean Peninsula crisis.
First, China deems that states can receive so much benefit from uninterrupted negotiations, if they are conducted with sincerity and prudence. As the classical diplomacy argues, it is absolutely necessary to the well-being of the state to negotiate ceaselessly, either openly or secretly, and on all occasions, even in those from which no present fruits are reaped and still more in those for which no future prospects as yet seem likely. Actually, negotiations are innocuous remedies which never do harm. Today, under the complex and sensitive circumstances on the Peninsula, China has spoken in a rational and calm manner, worked on various parties and promoted peace talks.Second, in international politics, lesser powers are clearly as careful and diligent in involving the great powers in treaty or moral obligations as they are feeble in aiding them, although they are fully obligated to do so. Historically, they frequently put themselves above obligations to those they have committed to the cause perhaps against their will.
As the closest neighbor to the two Koreas, China appeals to diplomacy because it has called persistently on all relevant parties to play their collective role and fulfill due responsibility. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has been strictly implementing all resolutions adopted by the Security Council and also have in place a set of functional mechanisms and practices to ensure that relevant resolutions are carried out effectively. Since peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.We can’t expect that North Korea will change or abandon its nuclear plan in a short term, but all sides concerned can exercise mutually-respected efforts to persuade the Pyongyang leaders to return to the negotiation table. In light of this, the denuclearization issue was predicted to be put on the dialogue agenda during future inter-Korean talks as the eventual goal would be the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As President Moon said recently, “the spirit of the United Nations is to realize global peace through multilateral dialogue, and the Korean Peninsula is where that spirit is most desperately needed.”
The resumed talks on January 8 were at a very initial stage, thus the two countries were unable to talk about the eventual goal of denuclearization. However, the most important thing is to “keep a momentum” for dialogue between the two Koreas as a first step in the right direction. China has endorsed the talks, saying that the most important role of diplomacy is to come up with fundamental measures to stop the vicious cycle of increased provocations from the DPRK and the sanctions from the world community. Due to this, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is not only a sport game but also plays a pivotal role in encouraging dialogue on the peninsula.
Ideally, it would naturally create an atmosphere for denuclearization talks.
Where is America’s common sense in foreign affairs?
In 2000, the United States was evidently at the apogee of its power, exercising an unparalleled ascendancy around the globe. Yet, in the face of perhaps the most profound and volatile sea-changes the world has ever seen, the policy-makers in Washington have failed to develop core concepts relevant to the emerging realities. Victory in the Cold War has made the United States satisfy with the status quo and lead to smugness as well. It is true of America’s diplomacy today.
On January 16, the United States co-hosted with Canada a foreign ministers’ international meeting in Vancouver on security and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) crisis. James Mattis and HarjitSajjan attended this meeting along with foreign ministers from 20 countries. This is simply normal since as sovereign states they have right to invite whoever is seen properly. Yet, this time the co-hosts only invited the countries that were members of the UN coalition during the Korean War (1950-1953) while the key players, namely the DPRK, China, and Russia, were conspicuous by their absence. It is reported that Canada did invite both China and Russia to the meeting, but only at the last minute to send the invitation which was not for the meeting itself but for the post-meeting briefing once the main sessions were over to merely notify both China and Russia of the meeting’s agreements.
What a ridiculous protocol in foreign affairs. Both the United States and Canada like to treat China and Russia as the defeated powers after a world war.
Chinese foreign minister’s spokesman reiterated that China’s position is clear and consistent. Since the nature of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is one of security, both China and Russia have strongly and permanently committed to achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability on the Peninsula, and peacefully and properly resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation. However, it is self-evident that UN Command, as a product of the Cold War era, has long lost its relevance. As initiators of the meeting, the US and Canada co-hosted the meeting under the banner of the so-called UN Command sending states. That is Cold War mentality pure and simple, and will only drive a wedge among the international community and undermine the concerted efforts to seek proper settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
China argues that when major parties to the Korean Peninsula issue are not present, such a meeting will not contribute to properly resolving the issue, as it shall be approached and addressed mainly through the framework of the Six-Party Talks and the UN Security Council. That is why, from the very beginning, the legality and representativeness of this meeting is extensively questioned by theinternational community. In effect, China and Russia have worked dedicatedly to address the legitimate security concerns of all parties in a fair and transparent way through dialogue,including the dual-track approach and suspension-for-suspension proposal. Although it is not accepted by the United States, China always welcomes the positive move such as the DPRK and the ROK gradually resuming dialogues and contacts in light of situation on the Korean Peninsula remaining complicated and sensitive. It also argues that all parties should cherish the hard-won momentum of easing tension on the Peninsula and of promoting the inter-Koreas’ dialogues.Otherwise, coercive diplomacy and isolation alone are counterproductive.
True, both Canada and the United States argued, it is still too earlier to invite the DPRK to the meeting since there is the lack of mutual trust among all the parties concerned. Yet, both China and Russia insist that diplomacy is a process of continuous negotiations, steady persuasion and mutual compromises if necessary. As two great powers having the leverages in terms of nuclear capabilities and the veto power in the UN, China and Russia simply refused to present them at the meeting with no full consultation and cooperation. Clearly, it is impossible to effectively settle down the global issues if any country calculates to only further alienate and infuriate two great nuclear powers. Given this, China and Russia have warned against a return to “Cold War mentality”.
Recently, Chinese FM Wang Yi expressed more the official line, that is, the inter-Koreas dialogue before the Olympic Game is worth being cherished by all. Due to this, it is the time to test sincerity of all parties. The international community should keep its eyes wide open to see who is a promoter of the peaceful settlement of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and who will become a saboteur that causes a return to tensions of the situation.Appendix:
As China and Russia have indicated, a UN institutional framework or a resumption of the Six-Party Talks is more conducive to coming up with a solution that will satisfy all parties involved.This is what China and Russia are aiming for. Since the roles of China and Russia remain capital, the good faith of all parties (especially of the US) is mandatory to kick-start another round of talks (using an open and positive mindset) that may lead to fruitful results.
Post 19th Congress of CPC: Where does Xi Jinping leads China to?
Xi Jinping “The Dream Seller”
Xi started 2018 by dream-selling that all rural Chinese living below the poverty line would no more be poor by 2020. Internationally he projected himself as the crusader for world peace and climate change, insurer of international order (Despite ignoring the ruling of PCA and violating UNCLOS), with a resolve to push through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fulfill Chinese dream. It indirectly amounts to declaring himself as tallest leader on the planet, in the manner he got himself re-elected for second term and did everything possible to make himself great under the banner of ‘Making China Great’. He seems to start 2018, assuming that the world accept him as tallest autocratic leader, as China has accepted him without worthwhile checks and balances.
Post 19th Congress of CPC1, Xi Jumping’s election, enshrinement of his thoughts and ideas like BRI in the Chinese constitution, resulted into his self achievement of a parallel status to Mao Zedong in China. He has been on a title grabbing spree holding over 12 top class appointments in China. It includes becoming the Commander in Chief of Joint Battle Command of PLA, and now reorganizing CMC as its Chairman, with his loyalists holding top hierarchy, to rein PLA for him. He was able to sell the dream of prosperous life and freedom from poverty. He also demonstrated that mainland China is the safest place in the world with no terrorist attack so far1, in an era when no country feels safe from terror attacks of varying variety (Even if amounted to overlooking some Pakistan based militant groups support to ETIM, active in Xinjiang, isolation in support to Masood Azhar).
His anti-corruption drive was most popular amongst masses seeing powerful people in jail, notwithstanding the accusation of systematically eliminating the entire dissenting elements and all his possible competitors through every possible means including this drive. Many critiques in China and abroad feel that his real achievements do not match his elevation to the status of Mao, which would have definitely created some disgruntled elements in his system, and powerful lobbies who may be quiet now, because disagreeing with Xi ‘The Core’ is anti national and may lead to jail.
Internal risks ahead for Xi Jinping: creation of a boiling pot?
2018 sees ‘Financial Battle’ as the greatest challenge for Xi Jinping. Despite global slowdown his record of financial growth has not been good. He took over in 2012 with 7.9 percent GDP growth and his economist does not see him going beyond 6.5 in 2018. It is quite clear to the dream seller Xi Jinping, that so long he delivers economically, the people will tolerate his autocracy, and his opponents will be quite. So long CPC ensures economic progress and the people of China get a decent life, they will tolerate the forced praises of Xi Jinping. When his regime stops delivering economically, the democratic winds will start flowing from Hongkong and Taiwan, and the educated youth may not tolerate the autocratic system of Xi Jinping, having no worthwhile grievance redresser mechanism. After all China is third most popular educational hub, with largest number of PhD’s in the world, where population understands the entire power play. Xi’s loyalists assuming every key appointment in China including chiefs of State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s), which are surviving on bank loans. They cannot be assumed to be quiet forever. Hongkong continues to protest for more autonomy (the last one in the beginning of 2018, in City Square). Xi realizes the need for economic delivery and he continues to repeatedly emphasise on success of BRI. He did deliberate on economy in a mega economic conference, but his catchy slogans like “Xi Jinping’s Economic Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese charecteristics in New Era” have to deliver.
Riding the Tiger: PLA
Suppressing/sidelining PLA is like riding a tiger, because historically PLA had a major role in creation of PRC and has been having a stronghold in the CPC. In successive reorganizations of PLA, anyone who thought differently than Xi Jinping has been sidelined, with his puppets propped up including manning CMC. This has created a powerful lobby which has suffered in such reorganisation, with hidden potential to explode. Xi is also planning another watchdog body ‘National Supervisory Commission’ likely to be above law indicates that dissent has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent. It will also make PLA commanders extra cautious in exercising command, causing further disgruntlement. In fact Xi is pushing his country to a state where there is only one leader and everyone else is a worker. It is also fair to assume that whenever anyone gets more than his dues, everyone else becomes jealous of him and disgruntled, hesitant of cooperating willingly with him thus creating a boiling pot.
China can boast of speeding up its ammunition manufacture by utilizing robots, but with over centralization of power, the PLA hierarchy also has no choice but to behave like robots and no scope for dissent which is not a very happy state of affairs for any military force. It is learnt that PLA sidelined more Generals in anti corruption campaign than poor performers in any war, with suspicion of falling out of Xi’s thinking, besides genuine corrupt cases.
Amongst many firsts post !9th Congress, China places its internal security force PAPF being placed under CMC, which is being managed by loyalists of President Xi Jinping. Message which comes out is that the internal security will also have much better grip of CMC and the role of NPC under which it has been traditionally, will have a limited role. The speculation can also be that with total autocratic style of hierarchy, China may be expecting much greater dissent than earlier.
No dissent with “The Core” XI Jinping, or be declared anti-national: A new normal
The biggest threat to China comes from within. The viability of “Implosion theory” is worth analysation with a totalitarian regime. Besides taking control of powerful PLA, with dissenters sidelined, some powerful civil members who held important positions in CPC, and booked under anti-corruption drive also add on to this lobby of disgruntled elements. The resolution of 19th Congress includes that adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent even in the society. The legal system stands hostage to party leadership justifies the boiling pot theory. The people’s belief that Xi will make China great and his popularity amongst the masses is his greatest strength, a dent on which is a great risk. Some of his actions like forcing Christians to replace Jesus Christ photos by Xi Jinping’s photo to avail government benefits, laying restrictions on religious practices on Uyghurs’ in Xinjiang, use of force in trying to prevent democratic thoughts and autonomy in Hongkong may be too risky, as it may break the internal cohesion of China. Xi’s efforts like forcing students to read Xi’s thoughts (Equivalent of Mao Redbook) can be seen as an effort to change societal fabric may not go very well in China of New era having educated population. The strict censorship of media and internet, and electronic isolation of thoughts indicates attempt to bring societal changes in a manner that chances of student unrests/disagreements are minimized.
With Xi Jinping holding all key appointments with no room for dissent, the over-centralisation of power with him will lead to decision paralysis, with everyone in governance looking up to him for every decision, which might affect effective execution and growth of the country.
External Risks for Xi Jinping: Has he pushed others together?
The second major risk comes from reactions of the external environment to the autocratic, over ambitious Xi Jinping challenging the entire global system. Xi has left no ambiguity in conveying that he wants to ‘Restore’ China’s position as the ‘Global Superpower’ replacing US, and have a world class military by 2050.He has forced other countries not in tune with him, and some neutral countries to come closer to US against his aggressive designs. His direct threats to Taiwan and indirect ones to potential adversaries in his speech in 19th Congress, and the Resolution thereafter, indicate unprecedented arrogance. The threat to Taiwan, is being demonstrated with increased number military drills and air exercises around Taiwan, notwithstanding the Tsai call for mainland trying to destablise the region.
China’s aggressive posture is visible in incremental encroachment of features and converting them into islands in South China Sea, stretching its sovereignty claim as per its perception based on impractical historical logic, over-riding UNCLOS and ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of Philippines. Having done that his claim to be “Insurer of world order and peace” in his New Year message of 2018 does not make sense to the world outside China. China also continued to convert features to islands to military base (Announcing completion of infrastructure development in Ferry Cross Reef), without any physical opposition by taking advantage of window of opportunity due to US engagement with North Korea, Afghanistan, and controversies regarding Iran and Israel, besides certain internal controversies. China may have projected North Korea as a concern and supported UN sanctions, but the alleged leakage of oil despite, more so with impounding of Hongkong ships by South Korea, keeps China under scanner for not being serious about UN sanctions.
His direct messaging for PLA to be ready to realise China’s reunification at any cost (Implying use of force), take expeditionary roles to ensure world peace, leaves no doubts about his hegemonic design and uncontrolled autocratic stance. He challenges the law based global system but wants to impose it inside China. This has pushed all other powers which are immediately affected by it, to get closer. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) may be at official level talks on sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits, to discuss regional and global cooperation in Manila may be an old idea with limited scope today, but it signals thinking and talking about balancing China’s growing assertiveness. The signal seems to have reached China as its foreign office shows concern that it should neither be politicised nor exclusionary. It is seen that China is trying to deal with each country bilaterally, thereafter. Malabar exercise in Bay of Bengal and global use of word ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (cutting out China from it), Asia- Africa Growth Corridor are some examples of it. Quad may not be a relevant balancer today, but it may become formal, relevant and powerful in future, in case Chinese stance continues to be aggressive.
Notwithstanding larger than life image of Xi Jinping inside China, Post 19th Congress most reactions from other countries do not indicate any global swing in Xi’s favor. Pakistan, the closest ally of China refused to accept Yuan as global currency in Gwadar SEZ in favor of Dollar initially, till US announced cuts in financial aid. It pulled out from Diamer-Bhasha dam deal over China’s ‘too strict’ conditions. CPEC is being criticized in Pakistan to be against their interest, raising questions on viability of CPEC. In fact China itself has apprehensions on CPEC, concerning security and corruption of officials, and has recently stopped its fund flow to Pakistan to revisit terms and conditions, leaving some other energy projects in jeopardy. Nepal has already scrapped the deal of $ 2.5 Billion Budhi Gandaki hydropower project. Its BRI programs seem to be slowing down after symbolic progress initially, starving for funds.
While Xi may claim to have reached in US neighborhood for investments in South America, as a counter to US influence in South and East China Sea, but his idea of replacing US as global peace provider is still not acknowledged by anyone and does not indicate the practicality of its dream of being leading superpower. If China’s Defense budget for 2017 was $ 215.7 Billion and US had allocated $ 611.2 Billion for defense (SIPRI Factsheet), there is no way that it can replace it as global security provider. The largest military need not be the best in the world, despite such aspirations. In my opinion his ambitions, aggressiveness and arrogance is moving faster than its capacity building. Xi’s idea of proving to the world that the authoritarian, socialist model of governance with Chinese characteristics in new era is better than liberal democratic model of West has no takers. China’s next door neighbours like Nepal going for complete democracy and Vietnam moving towards more liberalism post 19th Congress justify the point.
The global strategists have reason to expect a more confident, assertive, foreign policy from China in light of Xi Jinping’s announcement that China would continue to seek a greater role in world affairs in a new era, as it strides towards the global centre-stage. He is following it up with military build-up in expeditionary design in places like the South China Sea, and soft power play through economic schemes like the BRI.
History is full of examples where a totalitarian regime whenever started making threatening postures with no internal checks and balances, it led the country to disaster, like the way Hitler led Germany to a disaster when his ambition grew beyond his capability. It also need to be noted that in future the idea of having one or two superpowers is getting outdated, because all countries work as per their national interest and do not follow the dictate of any one country. North Korea standing up to US, Vietnam standing up to US and China, India and Bhutan standing up to China in Doklam stand-off, are some examples to prove that a well determined country cannot be forced to adopt a particular course by any power.
Strategic Encroachment in India’s Neighborhood, post 19th Congress
Post 19th Congress of CPC, China continues to encroach in Indian neighbourhood without talking about the core issues and points of divergences as earlier. To that extent I do not think 19th Congress of CPC has made any major difference to India China relations. While China has talked of better relations with India in 2018, but the visits of its Foreign Minister alongwith Russian Foreign Minister did not yield anything worthwhile, with each side quite firm on its stance on issues of divergences like BRI. On the controversial border issue there is a crying need of delimitation, definition and demarcation of LAC, and the demarcation be known to the troops manning it, if both sides want to avoid stand-offs. The Chinese however seem to be singing the old tune of better border management and confidence building measures to prevent it, which to my mind is a quick fix solution; with China again postponing the core issue even after 20th round of talks.
The only difference which affects India indirectly is that some of our common neighbors may give in to more aggressive ‘Chequebook diplomacy’ and ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’ of China or may get coerced/influenced by it. China’s decision for extension of CPEC into Afghanistan may affect Indian influence in that country. It indicates the clear strategic intent of getting Afghanistan into its strategic orbit, attempt to play as a mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan by ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’, take Afghanistan away from US strategic space and Indian influence, mitigate Indian Chahbahar connectivity, besides using Afghanistan mineral resources. China has achieved rail connectivity with Iran, which does generate fresh concerns for Washington. Maldives signing FTA with China, land grabbing efforts of China in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan are few such examples affecting Indian security adversely for which India needs to find an answer.
China is also trying to play the role of mediator in Rakhine state of Myanmar, emphatically increasing its influence over Myanmar, advertising its capability for humanitarian development, checkmating Indian stance towards Rohingyas to show India in poor light. China is not concerned about the terror potential of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army duly supported by ISI/Pakistan. China with little investment of money power expects to get a pat from UN, as a responsible state .
On diplomatic side India needs to not only ‘Act east’ but ‘Act west’ also. India is better located to be the hub of global sea lanes with lesser choke points either side, and is working towards this capability to provide an alternate model of global connectivity like Asia- Africa Growth Corridor connecting further West.2 Domination of Indian Ocean is going to be another strategic competition, which will become unavoidable in due course. China can keep increasing bases in Indian Ocean, but whether they will be its strength or vulnerability will be a question mark due to distance involved, choke points and growing strength and operability of Indian Navy with other global Navies.
The National Security Strategy of United States calls China and Russia as competitors3. Although rubbished by China as ‘Cold War Mentality’, still brings the inclusion of China into a new arena of cold war with many more regional players getting in, looking for check and balance to aggressive China, even if they do not say so openly. A beginning of new cold war which may lead to a trade war is evident and reality. While China may be confident to ensure that the ‘Implosion theory’ will not work by its super strict checks, but will this narrative sell outside, I have my doubts. It remains to be seen that a country having an autocratic system, with only one decision maker and rest executers, with educated population will continue in this form for decades. Any slowdown in economy might result in democratic winds flowing inside to an extent that it may be difficult to control. The exact evaluation of Yuan is a suspect hence China may claim to stand tall on economic front, but is there a bubble inside only time will tell.
The views expressed are of Major General S B Asthana (veteran) and do not represent views of any organization. The General is reachable on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, also on website http://www.asthanawrites.org
- Resolution of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on the Report of the 18th Central Committee, October 24, 2017, Xinhuanet.
- Asthana S B, Opinion: What does Xi’s autocratic position mean for India?WION News, December 07, 2018. URL http://www.wionews.com/world/opinion-what-does-xis-autocratic-position-means-for-india-26100
- National Security Strategy of United States of America, December18,2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/…/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
Korean Conciliation: Will it Last?
2018 started with a sensation in Asia – a “New Year’s gift,” if we are to use the words of Ri Son-Gwon, head of North Korea’s delegation at the inter-Korean talks held on January 9, 2018 in the South Korean segment of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom.
In his traditional New Year’s speech, supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un proposed that an inter-Korean dialogue be launched. The proposal was timed to the participation of North Korean athletes in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Moon Jae-in’s government agreed immediately, which is understandable: the President of South Korea needs a success to increase his domestic political support. He also needs “join the game” on the peninsula, the stakes in which (peace or war) have been set over recent months by the United States and North Korea, without the participation of South Korea.
The talks (the first since 2013) are being held at the highest possible level (ministers in charge of the relevant matters from both countries), which allows the parties to discuss all manner of problems, and not just those related to sports. The results of the first round instil a certain amount of optimism.
In addition to North Korean athletes (who may even walk out under the same flag as their counterparts from the South) being allowed to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, the two Koreas also agreed that a North Korean governmental delegation, a demonstration taekwondo team, fans and a support group comprised of dancers and musicians could also attend. In total, an estimated 500 people will travel to South Korea. Perhaps, as we have seen in the past, the occasion will be used to develop political contacts both between the North and the South and between North Korea and the United States.
The agreement to restore the communications hotline between the militaries of the two countries (which the North Koreans cut it in 2013) and hold military consultations to reduce tensions was sensational news. Humanitarian and sports exchanges are expected to be stepped up.
It is also important that the two parties have outlined the prospects of continuing high-level consultations. Moreover, on January 10, President Moon said that an inter-Korean summit was possible. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that both parties confirmed their respect for former agreements which had been ignored for the last decade by South Korea’s conservative administrations.
What caused such an unexpected turn of events, which has given hope for a détente on the Korean peninsula?
The initiative is in the hands of North Korea. Kim Jong-un played a brilliant diplomatic gambit, breaking out (at least temporarily) of a seemingly hopeless dead-end where he had been driven by international sanctions stemming from his country’s nuclear missile programme. The entire world welcomes news of his initiative to ensure a safe and successful Olympic Games. Having played the “South Korean card,” Pyongyang used it as a “vent” to reduce pressure in the “Korean cauldron” by eroding the united front of its enemies. China and Russia eagerly supported these initiatives, and South Korea is on now on Pyongyang’s side as well, as it is extremely interested in the dialogue being a success. This means South Korea will be against initiatives to increase the pressure on North Korea and oppose Washington’s belligerent threats. Pyongyang has thus weakened the United States–South Korea military union. South Korea will no longer follow in the wake of the U.S. policy of coercion, which had made the country hostage to a possible military operation spearheaded by the United States. And Japan is unlikely to be particularly active, breathing a sigh of relief at the reduced threat of war that would inevitably hit it too.
The unprecedented regime of sanctions and isolation imposed on North Korea, the principal “achievement” U.S. diplomacy attained in the last few months (at the cost of an uncompromising dialogue with both allies and dissenters, including China and Russia), is now also up in the air. South Korea has already announced it will be limiting the sanctions due to the Olympics, and this creates an unpleasant precedent for the United States. Is there any reason why Russia or China should not organize a North Korea-related event that would also justify exceptions? And calls for new sanctions on the part of Washington will hardly be embraced in an atmosphere of dialogue. It is no coincidence that the United States appears to have lost hope in the United Nations. It now seems to be thinking about creating a “coalition of the willing” to defeat North Korea, choosing the “willing” from its allies.
The United States was forced to back down. The American leaders abruptly changed their tone: President Trump, who had recently rebuked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for “wasting time” in trying to negotiate with North Korea, suddenly announced that he had always favoured negotiations and that the inter-Korean dialogue had started because of his efforts since Kim Jong-un was allegedly scared of pressure. Even avowed “hawks,” such as Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, suddenly started to pay lip service to political solutions. Moreover, plans for a “limited” strike against North Korea which, according to The Wall Street Journal, have been secretly discussed within the U.S. administration, are now hanging in mid-air.
Kim Jong-un has thus scored a tactical victory. In fact, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” – stopping North Korean tests in exchange for restricting U.S.–South Korea military drills – was implemented at his initiative. The United States had already postponed the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills until after the Olympics. The postponement and possible modification of drills are conducive to the world getting used to North Korea’s nuclear status.
Using inter-Korean relations in this manner is a tried and tested manoeuvre on the part of Pyongyang. The method was first employed back in the early 1970s during a period of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, when South Korea was searching for “approaches” to North Korea’s allies, and when North Korea was attempting to gain economic aid from developed western countries. North Korea probably tested the manoeuvre in order to decrease its dependence on the great powers, and South Korea played into its hand. On July 4, 1972, unexpectedly for many, the North and the South published a Joint Statement recording the principles of the country’s unification, which was to be achieved independently, peacefully and democratically, on the basis of national consolidation .
Later, for declarative purposes, the North proposed the idea of creating a confederation based on the principle of “one nation, one state (with a single national government) – two systems, two regional governments.” In the 1990s, the idea was augmented with the principles of consolidating the nation, national sovereignty, patriotism and the struggle against external interventions .
Pyongyang pulled the same trick in the early 1990s. The country was in crisis at the time: political ties with Russia had been severed; Russia had cut economic assistance to the country; and the United States and South Korea had stepped up pressure on the North, believing that North Korea was about to collapse and preparations should be made for “subsuming” the country “German style.” North Korea played a double game: on the one hand, it accelerated its nuclear missile programme, which had been conceived as a “deterrent” against foreign intervention; on the other, it played the “Korean unity” card, signing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North.
Pyongyang strove to drive a similar “wedge” between South Korea and the United States during the “liberal decade” (during presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun). At the 2000 and 2007 summits, Pyongyang and Seoul attained a consensus on the prospects of separate state-building with growing economic and later cultural integration of the two states. As a result, South Korea in essence started acting as North Korea’s principal global sponsor and advocate, unseating China in that role. South Korea’s economic aid became the principal factor in North Korea’s “survival,” and the role of the United States dropped, causing its displeasure.
Washington is hardly pleased with Seoul’s current pro-active stance, although Seoul is protecting its own existential interests and is striving to prevent a war. As far as the United States is concerned, Seoul’s consent to North Korea’s nuclear status, as well as its cooperation with North Korea, are unacceptable. Although Moon Jae-in tried to convince Trump otherwise during their recent telephone conversation.
We can thus assume that the United States will undermine the inter-Korean dialogue. For starters, massive pressure will be put on Seoul to push the nuclear issue to the centre of the talks, which is patently unacceptable for North Korea. At the very first meeting, North Korea’s representative put a definitive stop to all such approaches by the South Korean side. He stressed that North Korean missiles are aimed not at South Korea, Russia or China (a reminder to the great powers of North Korea’s new status and capabilities), but at the United States, and North Korea hold talks on that subject with the United States. Apparently, in the current situation, the United States cannot avoid such a dialogue. The policy of pressure and blockade and threats of force essentially failed.
Will that last? It would seem that the forces hostile to North Korea will soon regroup. They grudgingly consented to the moratorium on military drills for the duration of the Olympics, but they will hardly let this hiatus last any longer, especially since the pretext of “strengthening defence capacities against the crazy regime” is always at the ready, since they are fully cognizant that such provocations will prompt a response from North Korea (for instance, new underwater missile launches or another nuclear test) and that will warrant a return to the customary tactics of isolation and an economic blockade.
That is, unless a miracle happens and the two Koreas achieve a breakthrough in their talks on cooperation and reconciliation, thereby forcing the United States to agree to a semblance of a compromise. At least until the situation escalates once again.
The active stance of China and Russia is of crucial importance for a positive scenario. Russia should make the Korean issue one of the crucial points in its relations with the United States, insisting that the U.S. obstruction of the diplomatic process is unacceptable. In particular, Russia should strive to reduce the scope of possible military drills and move them to regions far removed from the North Korean border and push for the United States to engage in a direct dialogue with North Korea as soon as possible. Russia may also offer the two Koreas a venue for a summit – in Vladivostok or Irkutsk, for example, since, for security reasons, Kim Jong-un cannot travel to the South and he hardly wants to travel to China, and because holding a third successive summit in North Korea is fraught with political costs for the South Korean leader.
- G. Toloraya. The Republic of Korea. Moscow: Mysl, 1990, p. 44.
- The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Moscow: Nauka, 1985, pp. 260–262; Nodon sinmun, Pyongyang, 7.4.1993.
First published in our partner RIAC
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