The 2019 North Korea-US Hanoi Summit highlighted that the US has the proverbial wild card— the promise of economic boom that may open a diplomatic window and shape future negotiations.
Recently, both ends of Asia were on fire—India-Pakistan (South Asia) and North Korea-America (Northeast Asia). Given the historical reality of partition and attendant problems, Indians may empathise with the intractable complexities arising from the partition of Korea. Winding the clock back on peninsular partition is, no doubt, complicated. This constituted the backdrop to the second summit between North Korea and America in Hanoi, Vietnam, eight months after the first summit in Singapore in June 2018, which came to a standstill sans agreement, news conference or even a cursory handshake.
The Korean partition north of the 38th parallel along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) into North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea) can be traced back, it is said, to a line drawn up by two young American officers, who fell back on a National Geographic map. Despite the fact that the Korean War (1950-53) ended in an armistice agreement (technically, the two Koreas are still at war), the Koreas not only share a notion of minjok (one race), hope of reconciliation that echoes in the (unofficial) moving anthem Arirang, so also Hangul (script) that North Korea adopted much earlier but South Korea adopted fully in the last two decades (historical texts in the Koreas are in Chinese, Hanja).
Whilst the situation at both ends of Asia has lacked neither theatrics nor updates via social media, and neither grandiose statement by political leadership nor voluminous newsprint, peace has been elusive. The solution in the Northeast Asian peninsula hasn’t been forthcoming because North Korea and the US are not on the same page.
North Korea and the US literally occupy two ends of the spectrum in their interpretation of what ‘denuclearisation’ means. The American interpretation of denuclearisation is ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearisation’ (CVID), which entails North Korea to place all its cards on the table—a comprehensive list of missiles and test sites, inspections and the possibility of North Korea’s entry into the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT 1970) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT, opened for signature in 1996). The American logic of denuclearisation stands for denuclearisation of North Korea.
On its part, North Korea seems committed to denuclearisation. Speaking off-the-cuff to the foreign press in Hanoi, Chairman Kim Jong-un clarified that North Korea would not have been at the summit if not committed to denuclearisation.
But just how North Korea interprets denuclearisation has not seen the light of day, at least in the Anglo-Saxon press. North Korea articulated its standpoint in the ‘Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ back in 1992. To North Korea, denuclearisation means denuclearisation of the peninsula (not denuclearisation of North Korea per se), implying American removal of nuclear umbrella in the peninsula—in effect, asking for America’s retreat in the critical geostrategic hotspot. The US has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, and views China as a strategic competitor in Asia.
On its part, North Korea has refrained from nuclear and missile testing (the last nuclear and ballistic missile test took place in 2017). It has closed down Punggye-ri nuclear site and dismantled Sohae (also called Dongchang-ri) satellite launch site, but this was a clever move considering that both had clearly outlived their utility.
Satellite pictures have shown (vehicular) traffic outside Yongbyon (prominent nuclear site), but little is known of what is happening inside. At the summit, North Korea offered to disable Yongbyon in exchange for sanction relief, but did not broach disabling other (undeclared) facilities including a suspected uranium enrichment complex that the US has cognisance of.
However, North Korea pressing for sanction relief in lieu of (dismantling) Yongbyon should be seen in the context of its continued economic downslide. Chest-thumping nationalism juche (self-reliance) and byungjin (simultaneous development of economy and military) aside, North Korea’s economic downslide is somewhat held in abeyance by its only ally, China. North Korean diplomat-turned-defector Thae Yong-ho (who defected in 2016 to South Korea) has said as much that nuclear weapons ‘justify current (economic) problems’. It also helps that nuclear weapons provide a shield for ‘regime stability’ and prevent North Korea from being recast by the US as the Libya of Northeast Asia.
The North Korean conundrum also stems from the fact that the bonhomie, good press and diplomatic cheer following the inter-Korean meets have not translated into economic moolah. Despite three successful inter-Korean meets, the first of which concluded in April 2018 in Panmunjom with the ‘Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula’, the second inter-Korean meet in May 2018 and the third meet in Pyongyang with the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, little has come out of it.
North Korea has validated family reunions, supported demilitarisation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with guard posts being shut down, a full-time liaison office between North and South Korea, and given the assurance of participation in the 2020 Summer Olympics. But North Korea’s ‘give’ appears more than the ‘take’ (the ‘take’ includes the US ‘reorganising’ military drills with South Korea as low key)—economic sanctions have left it high and dry.
The repatriation of North Korean workers, blockade on North Korean exports of iron-ore, seafood and textiles (even by China, which partly explains North Korea’s export of fake American money and narcotics), and the closure of inter-Korean projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang (tourism) tours that brought in tourists from China and South Korea have not helped either.
For South Korea, sanctions on North Korea do not augur well either. In September 2018, unemployment in South Korea rose to a record eight-year high with a rise in mandatory minimum wages. President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating crashed below 50% (since the time he took office in 2017).
Under such circumstances, President Moon sees the opportunities of North Korea’s cheap labour, untapped tourism potential, natural resources and opportunities to engage South Korean workers, companies, technology in rebuilding and reconstructing North Korean infrastructure and economy.
South Korea has dovetailed detailed plans to resurrect the inter-Korean rail network (built by the Japanese), calling for an East Asian Railway Community. The railway connection envisages a west-coast line (connecting the capitals, Seoul and Pyongyang) and an east-coast line that would connect Busan, South Korea, through to Mount Kumgang in North Korea (tourism hotspot), Hamhung (industrial city) and end at Rason junction (seaport at Russia’s door, near Vladivostok). This would enable the Korean peninsula access to Russia and Europe.
With the abrupt end to the summit, neither has North Korea/South Korea gotten what they hoped for, nor, for that matter, the US. Beyond ‘failure’, ‘collapse’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, the American strategy of moving forward without pre-conditions (almost a sheaf out of the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s that engaged America and Soviet Union), keeping North Korea engaged and nuclear test/missile test free, deserves some credit, as does Chairman Kim, poised between the devil of sanctions and the deep sea of denuclearisation.
An unexpected winner is China, whose strategic interest has been well-served—the fact that Chairman Kim has met China’s President Xi Jinping four times, and also took the train through the length of China to reach Hanoi, Vietnam (and back), has not escaped notice, which says a lot about North Korea, economic health included.
In perspective, the summit highlighted the reality of the complexity of the slow process, the dramatic asymmetry of power and that the American, not North Korean goalposts, are hogging the limelight—obscuring the ‘take’ that economic underdog North Korea wants. Realistically, too, in the power asymmetry, the US has the proverbial wild card—the promise of economic boom that may open a diplomatic window and shape future negotiations.
(The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal)