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Why is North Korea interested in Peace Talks?

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The Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong recently hinted at Pyongyang’s willingness to hold Inter-Korea Peace Talks to mutually end the Korean War. It is a welcome move but what goes behind this sudden interest?

Peace with Conditions applied

Kim Yo Jong’ statement came as a reply to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s renewed calls for ending the Korean War at the 76th United Nations General Assembly meeting earlier this week.

Kim dubbed impartiality, end of a hostile policy towards the North and mutual respect as the prerequisites for peace talks.

She justified Pyongyang’s “self defensive actions” in the Peninsula and blamed the United States and South Korea for their “illogical and childish” denunciation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which are a “disregard of and challenge to the sovereignty of the DPRK”.

She enlisted a few suggestions for improving relations which includes the reestablishment of the North-South Liaison office which Pyongyang bombed in June 2020 , Convening an Inter-Korea Summit as well as the “timely declaration of the significant termination of the War”.

Kim’s statement succeeds and precedes some interesting events. A week before the statement, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea conducted two missile tests after a break of six months,which included the newly developed strategic cruise missile and two railway borne ballistic missiles. For the first time, Seoul too tested an indigenously developed ballistic missile which President Moon justified as a response to North’s “asymmetric capabilities”. Before Kim displayed willingness for dialogue, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song had rejected Seoul’s calls for ending the Korean War, claiming it to be a “smokescreen covering up the US hostile policy”.

After the statement was published, Japan and South Korea alleged North Korea of firing an unidentified projectile, possibly a ballistic missile, from the Jagang Mountains into the East Sea at 6:40am local time (21:40 GMT) on September 27 . This third missile test preceded Pyongyang’s UNGA address by less than an hour. The DPRK’s UN Ambassador Kim Song vehemently criticised Washington’s “anachronistic hostile policy” towards Pyongyang and stated that North Korea would “willingly” respond if  the US permanently ends joint military exercises with the South and scraps its hostile policy in a “bold and complete manner” which he added, did not appear to be the case. Ambassador Kim further stated that the Korean War had not officially ended and the possibility of a new war on the Peninsula was controlled “not by US’ mercy” but by his nation’s increasing ability to act as a “reliable deterrent against hostile forces”.

On Our Terms

These events paint an interesting though a complex picture. On the one hand, Pyongyang displays willingness to sit at the high table after a bitter war of words and severing of communication lines with Seoul while on the other, its actions further add to the instability on the Peninsula. These actions can be understood as the DPRK’s attempts to compel Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to initiate a peace dialogue with it but on terms favourable to Pyongyang.

All previous multilateral attempts to denuclearise North Korea have broken down due to Washington’s non negotiable stance that Pyongyang de-nuclearises before sanctions could be lifted and North Korea’s insistence that sanctions be lifted first which when denied, follows yet another missile test as a display of its disagreement. For decades, this cycle has reduced all hopes of negotiations to a stalemate and Pyongyang is right to judge that the US is nowhere close to transforming its North Korea policy.

US President Joe Biden began his presidency by carrying out a thorough review of policy options with the DPRK and recognised that the previous four regimes had failed to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The process concluded that complete denuclearisation would remain the Biden administration’s goal and Washington would be “open to and will explore diplomacy”. However,it would neither adopt Obama’s strategic patience or Trump’s grand bargain and rather opt for a “calibrated, practical approach” while dealing with the DPRK. North Korea has also voiced its opposition to the  recent AUKUS deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States under which Washington and London would grant Canberra nuclear powered submarines. While the move is targeted to counter China’s claims in the South China Sea, it strengthens powers in Pyongyang’s neighborhood which do not view it favourably. This explains the North’s paranoia but its willingness for peace talks are linked to a much greater domestic challenge, a matter of its very survival.

Crumbling Inside

While the coronavirus pandemic has severely jolted economies worldwide, it has pushed North Korea in its worst economic crisis till date which reversed the 0.4% growth rate achieved in 2019, the first expansion in the past three years.

South Korea’s Central Bank, the Bank of Korea (BOK) publishes the most reliable data on Pyongyang’s economic statistics. The BOK reported that recently North Korea’s GDP contracted by 4.9%. While the share of industrial output declined from 28% to 5.9%, output of agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors fell by 7.6%.  The service sector shrank by 4.0%. Trade volume which comprised 21.9% of the GDP in 2016 slid to 2.9% in 2020. The exports of non sanctioned items such as watches and wigs decreased by 86.3% and 92.7% respectively.

The BOK blamed Pyongyang’s harsh lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus; strict quarantine measures; ban on domestic travel; United Nations sanctions as well as natural calamities and  bad weather conditions for the worsening state of the economy.

Pyongyang faced an extremely severe food crisis with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reporting that food shortage amounted to 860,000 tonnes this year. Prices of food sharply rose as the cost of a packet of coffee went up to $100. Prices of rice and corn too increased tremendously. The situation worsened after Pyongyang closed its borders to trade with China,its biggest source of trade and aid.

Furthermore, as of 2019, 11 million people which amounts to over 43% of the population are malnourished. Over 60% of North Koreans live in absolute poverty. International sanctions on North Korea which include United Nations sanctions as well as unilateral sanctions put by the United States, have severely impacted the DPRK’s economy with over 4000 lives lost due to delays caused by sanctions on necessary materials and aid.

Though official State data is not available in the public domain, it is obvious the pandemic has further worsened the condition. Peace talks to lift sanctions hence, become a necessity for Pyongyang to ensure its survival.

A Decade in Power

Other than an immediate necessity, initiating peace talks on its own terms is favourable for North Korea for another  reason political in nature as Kim Jong Un inches closer to celebrating his tenth year as the Supreme leader. The Party propaganda machine has already glossed over the burgeoning economic crisis to celebrate ’10 Years of Great Revolutionary Leadership’. Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un,who assumed power in December 2011, has largely remained absent from grassroots organisations or holding leadership positions prior to succeeding his father at the highest position. Nor does he have any big achievement associated with his name.  Though the authoritarian nature of the North Korean state leaves next to no space for political changes owing to public opinion, ensuring the support of the people is crucial for the sustenance of the North Korean regime in the long run,for no matter how authoritative a regime is, it rests as much on consent as on coercion. Getting South Korea, the United States and Japan to agree for peace talks on its own terms would not only enhance and justify the mandate of the Workers’ Party of Korea to rule but would also add sheen to Kim Jong Un’s persona as a capable leader.

Winds of change down South

Approach towards North Korea forms a major election debate in South Korea. As Seoul prepares to elect a new President in 2022, the possibility of the Inter-Korea talks is bound to affect the course of the electoral process.

Though Moon Jae-in can not contest following the South Korean Constitution which limits the Presidency to a single term, the ability to bring North Korea to the table will enhance his stature. Moon’s attempts to negotiate with Pyongyang have often been dubbed as the ‘Moonshine Policy‘, comparable to former President and Noble Peace Laureate Kim Dae Jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’. Moon has often drawn flak from Conservatives for ‘appeasing’ North Korea and was also blamed whenever the talks broke down. If the talks succeed to mark a step ahead in denuclearisation or even if it stops at formally ending the Korean War, Moon would join the ranks of not only one of South Korea’s greatest leaders but also one of the greatest peacemakers known to the world.

It would also benefit his liberal Democratic Party of Korea which reportedly performs well in elections whenever signs of peace with Pyongyang appear.

On the other hand, if the talks fail to materialise yet again, the Conservatives in general and People’s Power Party in particular would benefit. Though a Conservative government too would have to negotiate with North Korea considering the rapid acceleration of arms proliferation, it would not be as willing to compromise as the Liberals and the talks might end in a stalemate.

Negotiations with Pyongyang are also crucial for Japan and the United States. Public Opinion in Tokyo has been against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in its inability to contain the spread of the coronavirus as well as to revive the sluggish economic growth. Steps towards denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula might at least allay the security concerns among the populace.

The image of the United States as a global power on the other hand, has suffered a severe blow after its irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Washington manages to negotiate with Pyongyang on successful terms, it might not just help in correcting the United States’ image but might also help Biden in carving a niche in the history of American diplomacy.

Balmy Breeze or A Storm?

In her statement, Kim Yo Jong stated that she could not predict if the offer for the talks would result in a “balmy breeze or a storm”. Either way, it depends as much on Pyongyang as on Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.

It is time the North Korean regime acts responsibly in accordance with the norms of international politics. Denuclearisation is essential,for nuclear proliferation not only aggravates the threat of unimaginable destruction but also raises the bar of tolerance for more lethal weapons.

However, Pyongyang’s concerns must also be taken into account. All previous attempts broke down due to the United States’ ,particularly the Republicans’ non-negotiable condition that North Korea de-nuclearises before sanctions could be lifted. Washington has also refused to commit to its own arms reduction and now is encouraging allies in the vicinity of North Korea such as South Korea and Australia to nuclearise.

Left with very few allies (probably just one,China) after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 and crippled with sanctions, North Korea does live in a world which views it unfavourably.

At present, Pyongyang neither enjoys a diplomatic nor an economic clout to negotiate on its own terms and nuclear proliferation is its only bargaining point. Hence, it scares other countries, with much higher stakes in stability in the region, into negotiation.

The point is not to show any clemency towards Pyongyang which has left no stone unturned in stirring instability not to forget its gruesome human rights record, but it must be realised that its call for being treated equally is not unjustified by the standards of international relations. A mutual commitment to arms reduction is not just beneficial to both sides but is the only practical way to get Pyongyang to commit.

As noted above, Sanctions have consistently failed to deter Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation and have only emboldened the North Korean regime to make it a rallying point for gaining support by playing the victim card,further radicalising its stance. It is the innocent North Korean civilians who bear the brunt of these sanctions. Both sides must arrive at a mutual agreement to restore peace and stability, this time with a firm commitment to make this world a better place.

Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.

East Asia

Assad’s visit to China: Breaking diplomatic isolation and rebuilding Syria

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Hangzhou, capital city of east China's Zhejiang Province, Sept. 22, 2023. (Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

The visit of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to China to participate in the opening of the Asian Games came as a serious step to try to break the diplomatic isolation from Syria.  Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” was keen to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China, where the Asian Games are being held, as this was the Syrian president’s first visit to China since 2004.  According to the Syrian regime’s Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Assad will attend the launch ceremony of the (nineteenth edition) of the Asian Games, which will open on September 23, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.  This visit to Bashar al-Assad reflects the great coordination between Moscow and Beijing, as it is likely that the Russians pushed for this visit at this precise time.  Perhaps, through his visit to China, Bashar al-Assad is trying to deliver a specific message about the start of “international legitimization” of his regime.  Syria’s accession to the Belt and Road Initiative in January 2022 is an indication of the possibility of implementing vital Chinese projects, especially since it is located between Iraq and Turkey, making it a vital corridor for land routes towards Europe.

 Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China also comes in an attempt to attract it to reconstruction projects in the affected areas in Syria, as China has the ability to complete reconstruction infrastructure in residential and civilian areas with exceptional speed. This is the same as what the Chinese ambassador to Syria “Shi Hongwei” announced in August 2023, that “Chinese companies are actively involved in reconstruction projects in Syria”. The war in Syria led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of many vital sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, while the Syrian government is subject to harsh international sanctions.  We find that the Chinese side has shown great interest in the reconstruction projects in Surba, such as the presence of more than a thousand Chinese companies to participate in (the first trade exhibition on Syrian reconstruction projects in Beijing), while they pledged investments estimated at two billion dollars.

  China played an active role through diplomatic movements in Syria, as it participated in the “Astana” process, and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its position in support of Damascus, using its veto power more than once in the Security Council, against resolutions considered to be a blow to Assad’s “legitimacy”.  In September 2017, the Syrian regime classified China, along with Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would give priority to reconstruction projects. Therefore, Al-Assad affirmed during his meeting with Chinese President “Xi Jinping” that: “this visit is important in terms of its timing and circumstances, as a multipolar world is being formed today that will restore balance and stability to the world, and it is the duty of all of us to seize this moment for the sake of a bright and promising future”.

  According to my analysis, China follows the policy of “breaking diplomatic isolation on presidents and countries against which America is angry”, so the visit of “Bashar al-Assad” comes within a series of visits that China witnessed during the current year in 2023, to presidents who are isolated internationally by the United States of America, such as: Venezuelan President “Nicolas  Maduro”, the Iranian President ”Ibrahim Raisi”, and the Belarusian “Alexander Lukashenko”.

  China is also keen to conduct interviews in its newspapers and official websites affiliated with the ruling Communist Party with many presidents and officials of countries isolated internationally and diplomatically by the United States of America and the West, such as the Chinese keenness to conduct and publish an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister “Faisal Mekdad” on September 21, 2023, and the Chinese reviewed his statements, saying that “the United States of America has plundered oil, natural gas, and other resources from Syria, causing losses worth $115 billion”. The Chinese newspaper “Global Times”, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, also focused on the United States’ greater role in the deterioration of “Syria from stability to chaos” . The Chinese newspaper compared this to China’s policy, which constantly calls for peaceful dialogue and opposes “foreign interference” .

   Through his visit to China, Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” is trying to lay the foundations for joint cooperation between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, with full Chinese support for Syria’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. China has always affirmed its firm support for Syria’s efforts against foreign interference, with the Chinese rejection of the stationing of illegal forces on Syrian territory. China is also making great efforts with many countries to lift sanctions and the illegal economic blockade on the Syrian people, in addition to Chinese support for building Syrian capabilities in the field of combating terrorism. Knowing that despite its alliance with President “Bashar Al-Assad”, China did not participate in supporting him militarily, but it used the right of criticism to obstruct the passage of resolutions against him in the Security Council.

   We can reach an important conclusion that Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China has a greater political track, and that Beijing is trying to play a greater role in the issue of resolving conflicts or to have a greater actual role in negotiations related to sensitive issues in the region. The implications of Assad’s visit to China are also politically significant, as China is trying to play a greater political role in the region, as China has been trying since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the emergence of a vacuum in the Middle East as a result of the decline of Russian influence due to its preoccupation with the war, so Beijing is trying to expand in the Middle East and Africa. 

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East Asia

China’s Inclusive Diplomacy for Global Cooperation

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President Xi Jinping’s address at the recently held 2023 CIFTIS resonates as a powerful call for inclusive development and cooperation in the services trade sector. China’s commitment to expanding market access, increasing connectivity, and aligning policies with global standards demonstrates its commitment to ensuring a level playing field for all nations.

This commitment extends across different sectors, including telecommunications, tourism, law, vocational examinations, and the larger services sector. President Xi’s address emphasized China’s intention to expand broader, broaden market access, and support inclusive development in the services trade sector. His sentiments resonate with the global world as China seeks to create new prospects for openness, cooperation, and economic equality.

Over the last few decades, the services trade landscape has changed drastically, becoming an essential component of international business. However, this expansion has not been uniform, with developing countries frequently encountering difficulties such as limited market access, complex rules, and capacity limits that prevent them from fully participating in international services trade.

Notably, China is committed to promoting inclusive growth in the services trade sector. It assured of taking continuing steps to accelerate Chinese modernization through high-quality development, to open up new avenues for openness and collaboration for all countries.

Through openness, cooperation, innovation, and shared services, China emphasized the need for inclusive growth and connectivity. Recognizing that a rising tide in services trade should raise all boats, particularly those from nations with limited resources, China has launched a series of ground-breaking initiatives. Additionally, China is actively expanding its network of high-standard free trade areas, participating in negotiations on the negative list for trade in services and investment.

China is setting an example by aligning its policies with international standards. President Xi highlighted in his speech that national integrated demonstration zones for increased openness in the services sector, suitable pilot free trade zones, and free trade ports will be at the forefront of aligning policies with high-standard international economic and trade regulations. These zones demonstrate China’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to international cooperation and growth.

Real-world examples vividly demonstrate the practical impact of China’s assistance to developing countries in the services trade. China’s investments in transport infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, have considerably facilitated the flow of goods and people in Kenya, boosting the services sector indirectly.

Pakistan’s experience with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is similar, with improved physical connectivity catalyzing the expansion of digital services and e-commerce. Various infrastructure developments in Indonesia have resulted in spectacular advances, opening up new potential for services trade.

Ethiopia, too, has reaped the benefits of China’s commitment, with active participation in industrial parks reviving the services sector, which includes logistics, banking, and education. These real-life success stories highlight China’s critical role in facilitating the expansion and development of services trade in developing countries.

China’s commitment to capacity building and technical aid is critical in its support for developing countries in the services trade. China provides these countries with the knowledge and skills they need to participate effectively in the services trade by offering specialized programs. Furthermore, China’s significant investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, logistical hubs, and telecommunications networks play an important role in facilitating the smooth flow of services.

Furthermore, China’s commitment to reducing entry barriers and optimizing regulations indicates the country’s persistent commitment to creating an equitable environment. This approach not only promotes equitable possibilities but also simplifies market access, making it easier for developing countries to export their services to China’s enormous and dynamic market.

Furthermore, China gives significant financial support in the form of loans and grants for service trade-related initiatives, recognizing the financial problems that many developing countries confront. This financial assistance enables nations to overcome economic challenges and invest in the expansion and improvement of their service sectors, thereby encouraging economic equality and cooperation.

As the world continues to evolve, services trade will play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, and China’s leadership in this realm is helping to shape a future where opportunities are shared, disparities are reduced, and cooperation knows no bounds. It is a vision worthy of appreciation and support since it is consistent with the ideals of justice and equality, moving the globe closer to a more linked and wealthy global community.

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East Asia

China’s Multilateral Engagement and Constructive Role in the G20



Image source: X @narendramodi

The recent G20 Summit in India has once again taken center stage, attracting global attention as it gathered together leaders and delegates from the world’s 20 most powerful economies. This high-profile event was significant in shaping international relations and addressing serious global concerns due to its broad presence and crucial talks. This high-stakes gathering occurs at a pivotal juncture, marked by escalating divisions among major powers on a multitude of pressing global issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic recovery, food security, and climate change.

The recent inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member within the G20 serves as a positive signal, signifying consensus among major economies. However, lurking concerns persist about the formidable challenges involved in achieving unity and issuing a joint declaration in the midst of these complex global dynamics.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s opening remarks at the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi resonate as he underscores the paramount importance of unity and collaboration among G20 member nations. He emphasizes the critical need for effective coordination of macroeconomic policies to restore hope and generate momentum for long-term economic growth.

 Premier Li eloquently highlights the interconnectedness of humanity’s destiny and calls upon nations to demonstrate mutual respect, seek common ground while momentarily setting aside differences, and work tirelessly towards peaceful coexistence. In a world characterized by profound crises and shared hardships, he aptly observes that no nation can thrive in isolation. Therefore, the only plausible pathways for guiding humanity forward are those rooted in cooperation and harmony.

The G20, originally established to navigate global financial crises and forge collective strategies for addressing economic challenges while fostering global economic development, has, regrettably, experienced a decline in consensus and a rise in differences among major powers. This shift has been particularly evident since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the United States’ strategy of containment against China. Consequently, the G20 is increasingly devolving into a forum marked by discord, rather than the once-productive and constructive multilateral mechanism it was intended to be.

Nevertheless, the G20 retains its significance as a pivotal forum for international collaboration in confronting global challenges. With the increasing contributions of developing nations like China, India, and African countries, the voices within the G20 have diversified, no longer solely dominated by Western perspectives. As a response, the United States seeks to regain control of the multilateral process to further its agenda of great power competition. However, this approach is unlikely to be warmly received by the broader international community.

China remains steadfast in its commitment to deepen reforms and open up further to foster high-quality development and its unique brand of modernization. China views itself as a catalyst for additional momentum in global economic recovery and sustainable development. China stands ready to collaborate with all stakeholders to contribute to the well-being of our shared Earth, our common home, and the future of humanity. Despite Western media’s attempts to sensationalize China’s stance and magnify perceived differences, China continues to play a constructive role within the G20, dedicated to its multilateral mission.

To ensure that the G20 remains a platform focused on global governance rather than being overshadowed by geopolitical conflicts, China remains determined to fulfill its constructive role within the group, regardless of attempts by Western powers to politicize the mechanism. China’s efforts have expanded the G20 to include the African Union, effectively transforming it into the “G21.” China was the first nation to endorse African Union membership in the G20 and advocates for the African Union to assume an even more significant role in international governance.

The growing divisions and disputes within the G20 have eroded its effectiveness as a platform for addressing global challenges. These divisions, primarily driven by American actions and policies, have spawned tensions with far-reaching global implications, from the Ukraine crisis to escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. These developments underscore the critical role the G20 plays in promoting cooperation and unity.

Amid the current geopolitical landscape characterized by major powers’ divisions, tensions have surged, resonating globally and causing ripple effects. From the Ukraine crisis to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the significance of the G20’s role in fostering cooperation and unity cannot be overstated.

All G20 member nations must recognize the urgent imperative of cooperation in building a world that is safer, more prosperous, and increasingly peaceful. Given the global challenges that transcend narrow national interests, effective responses can only be crafted through international cooperation. The G20 stands as a pivotal arena for this cooperation, with China’s positive contribution being indispensable in promoting cohesion.

Despite Western media’s efforts to sensationalize China’s position and magnify perceived gaps, China remains a committed multilateral partner within the G20, dedicated to constructive engagement. The G20 continues to serve as a critical platform for addressing global concerns, fostering unity, and promoting international collaboration. As the world grapples with intricate issues, it remains imperative that nations adhere to the principles of multilateralism and collaborate relentlessly to secure a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.

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