In a modern world seemingly riven with potential military flashpoints, few have given international observers as many sleepless nights as the simmering tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
With its huge military and nuclear weapons programme, closed society, and close — albeit increasingly fraught — relationship with its neighbour China — North Korea has been a source of consternation for many US Presidents over the years.
But hopes were high almost a year ago — prompted by the highly unorthodox foreign policy approach of self-proclaimed ‘deal maker’ Donald Trump — that a meeting between the US President and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un could usher in a new era. Perhaps some degree of reconciliation, not just between the USA and North Korea, but the North and South too, could be possible.
Assistant Professor Yongwook Ryu is an expert on international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He thinks that despite a flurry of early activity around the Inter-Korean summit and the Trump meeting, the process has since stalled. “I don't think there's been much progress since 2018,” he says.
Before last year’s meetings, the region had been on a knife edge prompted by the North’s continued testing of nuclear weapons as well as the test-firing of rockets.
These belligerent activities prompted Donald Trump’s now infamous riposte that the “little rocket man,” as he had christened Kim, and North Korea would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
More than a year on and the issue of the North’s nuclear programme remains the key issue, says Dr Ryu.
“North Korea actually wants to keep a few nukes. It certainly does not want to give up all or eliminate its entire (stock of) nuclear weapons.
“After all, it has spent at least two decades spending its very scarce resources, despite international pressure, to develop these weapons and technologies. So it's not in their mindset to give up.”
If the North can be persuaded to dismantle its research facilities and irreversibly scrap its nuclear weapons programme, Dr Ryu says it would eliminate a major source of regional instability, as well as allow aid and investment into the North.
He says, “This would really improve North Korea's socio-economic situation. We'd also pave the way for establishing a more permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. The two Koreas are still technically at war and they've never signed a truce agreement.”
Regardless of what degree of agreement is achieved between North and South Korea, one other actor looms large in the shape of the world’s only superpower: the United States, which has 28,000 troops stationed in the South.
And Dr Ryu wonders whether this could even one day be viewed as a barrier to peace by ordinary South Koreans.
“If the North denuclearises, the South also has to, and this means getting rid of the US nuclear strategic weapons. Some Koreans might argue that US troops should be removed from the Korean peninsula believing that there is no elimination of nuclear threats with the presence of US troops.
“By then, the tensions will disappear and then there would be some segments of South Korean society that may say ‘well, it's actually the United States that's causing the trouble, not North Korea.’”
In April, Kim surprised many observers by meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. And Dr Ryu thinks that, due to progress between the North and USA stalling — seemingly with Trump in no rush to reignite it before the 2020 Presidential election — it could be part of an effort to bring a powerful new player to the table.
He says: “So the dynamic between North Korea and United States is not happening.
“It's not producing the desired outcomes for Kim Jong-Un, so he wants to bring Russia into play and with some hope that this could change the dynamics. So we might see some (more of) those (diplomatic) activities.”
The key to North Korea’s survival in the long term is economic reform, with sanctions and an economy dependent on support from China having a devastating impact on ordinary North Koreans.
According to Dr Ryu, Kim Jong-Un is, “much more serious than his father,” when it comes to economic reform and development. His father, Kim Jong-il, engaged with China and toyed with the idea of tax havens along the border, but quickly gave it up when he realised there were potential “adverse ramifications for political stability.”
Because of the younger Kim's seriousness, Dr Ryu feels the South Korean plan for more economic engagement with the North, the so-called “Sunshine Policy” could work — but not the way President Moon is trying to implement it. He feels Moon’s approach gives away too much, too quickly and that it will reward North Korea for bad behaviour.
“First, we need to make sure that North Korea is deadly serious about denuclearisation, which I don't think North Korea is at the moment.”
It comes down to a balance between incentives and punishment, according to Dr Ryu. That means keeping up economic pressure to give up nuclear weapons while avoiding overt hostility. The message should be that it is the will of the international community that North Korea give up their nuclear weapons, but if they do, they can have a, “bright future which will also improve (their) political legitimacy.”
Ultimately it is a straightforward choice — no nuclear weapons and economic stability, or nuclear weapons and continued economic strife.
He says: “I think in the end the decision is up to Kim Jong-Un.
“You keep your nukes but you're not going to have any food.
“No nuke, and a bright economic future.”
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