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East Asia

Why is North Korea interested in Peace Talks?



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.

Cherry Hitkari is a former history graduate from Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi and is currently pursuing her Masters in East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China



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There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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East Asia

Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question



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The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?



Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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