Peace in Korea: Is there a bumpy road ahead with Kim in the driving seat?

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“There is a real prospect of securing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, however, the narrative Kim Jong-un had unilaterally capitulated to American demands in fear of the Trump administration was staggeringly naïve. Kim’s latest move is a firm reminder that he is in the driving seat of this whole process and, as is typical of North Korean diplomacy, strives to leverage an agreement on his terms.” 

Tom Fowdy, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, examines the road ahead for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula…

Kim

Almost two weeks ago many were celebrating what they believed was the start of a new beginning on the Korean peninsula. 

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Panmunjom and met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, where they committed to “cease all hostilities” and move towards a reconciliation. 

Pundits very quickly jumped to praise the foreign policy of Donald Trump, whose “maximum pressure” stance was said to have compelled North Korea to the table to consider denuclearization. Trump himself arranged to meet with Kim in Singapore in June, widely seen as the final steps to securing a “deal” on the process.

While it should be carefully noted that meeting hasn’t been cancelled, all this rhetoric of hope, peace and co-existence suddenly looks naïve now. In a surprise move on Tuesday (May 15), North Korea cancelled scheduled high-level talks with South Korea and then cast doubt upon the summit with the American President.

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They cited “ongoing military exercises” between the South and U.S as a reason, lashed out at U.S National Security Advisor John Bolton for his proposal of a “Libya model” of denuclearisation and then attacked what they described as a “one sided deal” from the Americans forcing them to surrender their weapons for nothing in return.

Suddenly things don’t look so rosy any more. To anyone, however, who carefully follows North Korea’s foreign policy style, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

The idea that Pyongyang was forced into “submission” by Donald Trump was at the very best an exaggerated narrative wrapped in American domestic politics and media fanfare than empirical truth.

North Korea’s whole international strategy is about struggling against “fate” to re-shape the environment on terms exclusively favourable to them. The regime wants to preserve its survival and to do this involves securing a position whereby no other state can dominate or undermine them.

How this is achieved depends on the geo-political context, which it adapts to rationally, sensitively and carefully. It cycles between reconciliation and confrontation very much at will, not at the whim of a very egocentric American President. 

Kim knows how to play the states around him against each other, in this context he’s done it very well. He’s pulled the rug from under Trump’s feet by locking South Korea into a peace-regime, delegitimating a “military option” and all while securing rapprochement with China and getting sanctions relief.

The geo-political context and momentum have changed dramatically, they’re with him now and this undermines the American bargaining position: They cannot return to a confrontational posture without completely alienating South Korea. The idea that Kim was “over a barrel” with sanctions and a potential military threat was dramatically overhyped. Instead, he’s firmly positioned himself in the driving seat.

This of course, does not mean there is to be “no deal” between Trump and Kim. Rather, Kim is signalling the leverage he has in this situation and that he is not going to play ball unless America seriously consider some of “his terms”. This could be a number of things, such as de-facto acceptance of some nuclear or missile capability, more solid “security” assurances for his regime, US military concessions on the peninsula or so on.

He ultimately has to have something that can he can “win” from America that he can claim to his people. Unilateral disarmament is simply not possible, not least due to the ideological and political prestige that Kim has thrown onto his nuclear weapons development.

In this case, prospects for peace should not be written off by any means, but the myth that this is a one sided, “happy ending” and victory for Donald Trump has to end. Rather, it’s going to be a bumpy road ahead where North Korea strives to extract every concession possible from this process.

If not, then they are reminding us firmly they’re not scared to walk away. Be hopeful, be optimistic but be mindful of the geo-political realities of this situation.

Tom Fowdy is a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University. In 2015 he founded Visit North Korea, which promotes travel, cultural exchanges and human engagement with the country.

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