One of the most volatile regions of the world, the Korean Peninsula also never fails to surprise. In March, North Korea’s 34-year-old ruler Kim Jong-un startled the world by offering to denuclearise and meet United States President Donald Trump. It was to be a historic first. In late April, Kim walked across the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) for a summit (only the third in 70 years) with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Yet on May 16, North Korea (DPRK) threatened to call the summit off. But it was Trump who actually pulled out of the summit on May 24, alleging “tremendous anger and open hostility” by Kim. Bewildering as it may seem to the uninitiated, there is indeed a method to this ostensible madness.
DPRK is virtually friendless, except for China. It is one of the most impoverished and heavily-sanctioned countries in the world. South Korea, on the other hand, poorer than DPRK in 1953 (at the end of inter-Korean war), has a per-capita GDP that is 20 times that of DPRK. Pyongyang is a ruthless dictatorship, while Seoul is a vibrant democracy. South Korea, under the American security umbrella, has emerged as a hi-tech and innovation power. DPRK, perceiving an existential crisis, with some justification, has gone about developing a lethal armoury of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) to deter a possible US-led military strike. Last year it conducted its most powerful nuclear test and fired an ICBM (Intercontinental ballistic missile) that can hit mainland America with its 13,000-km range.
However, realising its vulnerability in the face of Trump’s muscular diplomacy and having developed a WMD deterrent, Pyongyang offered an olive branch of peace, dialogue and denuclearisation, on January 1, provided its security was guaranteed. Things moved quickly thereafter. DPRK and China patched up, albeit for different reasons, through two quick summits in Beijing (March 25-26) and Dalian (May 7-8). Kim wanted to enhance his leverage with the US and South Korea. China’s President Xi Jinping, feeling left out, wanted to reclaim China’s primacy in the Korean Peninsula.
Kim, painted as a brutal autocrat all these years, emerged as a brilliant strategist and nimble-footed leader, in merely a matter of weeks. He appears to have realised the need to embrace economic development. He also knew that the South was keen on reconciliation and under the liberal government led by Moon, open to mutual accommodation. Seoul shudders at the thought of conflict and has little interest, unlike Washington, to engineer a regime change in Pyongyang.
As expected, the inter-Korean summit was productive, with the sides agreeing to conclude a peace treaty within this year, hold regular military-to-military dialogue, disarm in a phased manner and enhance economic and people-to-people engagement. The catch, however, is that everything hinged on American endorsement and a successful Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.
“The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” Kim stated in Beijing.
The Americans, however, sought complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) upfront by DPRK. Just the other day, national security advisor John Bolton mooted the idea of a Libya-like disarmament by North Korea, which is the latter’s worst nightmare, having closely studied the fate of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Trump was quick to contradict Bolton, but the damage was done. Hawk-like secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Bolton have been votaries of regime change in DPRK.
Successive North Korean leaders have staked everything in pursuit of developing credible WMD assets, which are meant to ensure regime-safety. Kim describes them as the “treasured sword of justice”. He knows the transactional disposition of the US leaders. This belief must have been further reinforced by Trump’s decision to unceremoniously pull-out of the Iran nuclear deal, which Tehran was adhering to.
Pyongyang craves respect and wants to engage in talks as an equal, not as a supplicant. It will do everything to have sanctions lifted, secure financial assistance and forge détente, so long as it feels secure. It will even agree to permanent moratorium on further tests and a freeze on its WMD programme under IAEA safeguards or a variant thereof. Yet, it rightly trusts nobody, especially the Americans and will not completely roll back its WMD programme. China and Russia have no difficulty with such a stance.
The US and DPRK were holding quiet discussions at various levels to prepare for the big day. Pompeo had travelled twice to Pyongyang to meet Kim in recent weeks. As promised, Kim halted WMD tests and blew up the nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri on May 24. However, the Americans brusquely kept demanding CVID. They also recommenced joint military exercises (at a lower key) with South Korea, which riles DPRK as a rehearsal for invasion.
And hence, DPRK’s threat to pull out of the summit that it eagerly seeks. Having painted themselves in a corner and knowing that a ‘bad deal’ was not an option (as Pompeo put it), Trump was forced to cancel the Singapore engagement. Kim emerged a winner in the process. He came across as reasonable and measured. He has made up with China and created daylight between the US and South Korea. However, the enthralling play is far from over as all sides get back to the drawing board.
Vishnu Prakash is former Indian ambassador to South Korea