30 April 2018

The Korean talks involve risks as well as rewards

By Robert E Kelly

This weekend brought remarkable imagery and hope from the Korean peninsula. The leaders of the two Koreas met and signed a declaration of principles for the future. The pageantry and optics were remarkable. The hype in South Korea is tremendous; the sense that a break-through is near is in the air and all over television. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un then added that the North would destroy its primary Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This too is another good sign.

There is naturally much scepticism. As pundits around the world are noting, we have been here before. Previous inter-Korean summits have released similarly lofty declarations with meagre details. These then dissipated into acrimony as implementation foundered on the specifics. And it is rather disappointing that despite this well-known legacy, Friday’s “Panmunjom Declaration” once again avoided specifics.

But one does not want to be unnecessarily or recalcitrantly hawkish on this. Even the most jaded sceptic must admit that the North Koreans are saying the things we have wanted to hear for awhile. If they genuinely mean it – if they make real concessions such as allowing inspectors in or closing a gulag – this round of Korean negotiation might really be different.

The acid test is North Korean concessions. The North must give up things we want which are costly to it. If they bargain with that in mind, then we can propose similarly serious concessions.

Here is where this year’s happy atmospherics cloud our vision. North Korea has not, in fact, yet offered genuinely costly concessions. For example, the closing of Punggye-ri is almost certainly a faux concession. There is much evidence that the site is damaged and that further testing might rupture the mountain and release radioactive material. No one, including the North Korean elite, wants a Korean Chernobyl, so Pyongyang may have been planning to close down the site anyway.

Similarly, the North is offering family reunions. These are certainly important for us. As democracies, the US and South Korea worry about the emotional well-being of their citizens, and no one who has seen these reunions of family divided for decades can be unmoved. But crucially, these too are not really costly concessions for the North, no matter how much we want them. Bussing several dozen elderly people to a gymnasium for a few hours does not require North Korea to change.

The sorts of concessions we want are much more serious – a missile count, a fissile material stockpile inventory, details on nuclear safety, maintenance, and possible proliferation, inspectors and cameras in North Korea facilities, and so on. An outcome akin to the current Iran deal would be a major achievement and is something we should bargain for, by making concessions on sanctions, for example.

Importantly, all this is still up in the air. The North has not actually put these serious issues on the table; it is still offering up mostly costless fare, such as not provoking along the inter-Korean border or suggesting economic partnerships from which it will benefit.

Herein lies the risk. South Korean President Moon Jae In’s summit with Kim has got the ball rolling, but it is US President Donald Trump who must actually finish the deal with the North. It is ultimately the United States which North Korea fears. It is fear of US-led regime change, as in Iraq 2003, which motivated the North’s nuclearisation, as they have told us many times. And it is just not clear if Trump can alleviate decades of anxiety in such a short period of time.

The strategic and political divisions between the US and North Korea are enormous. Yet Trump is scheduled to meet Kim in just a month. Previous rounds of US-North Korean negotiation took years and still fell through. It is hard to believe that big divides can be bridged this fast.

Trump himself is a huge wildcard. He does not like to prepare or even read. He often dismisses his briefing notes and ignores his aides. His attention span is short; he gets bored quickly; and he is prone to vulgarity and insult when he gets frustrated. One wonders how he will deal with Kim in a one-on-one environment.

Finally, the US is starting the negotiation process at the end of the chain. This seems like an efficient way to short-cut years of tedious negotiation, but it also raises the stakes dramatically. What if the summit fails? It could be dramatic – Trump and Kim could start insulting each other as happened last year in the media.

But even if it is just a bust, it is not clear what happens next. The whole point of setting up the summit at the end of a diplomatic process is to allow for failures and cul-de-sacs among lower-tier officials. But a summit is the highest diplomatic track. If it collapses, it is not clear where diplomacy would go next. Trump and his hawkish cabinet might then well conclude that diplomacy has failed and that last year’s threatened strikes are now a more legitimate option.

The possible rewards – a peace treaty, denuclearisation – are enticing, but the risks of this speedy process are real. Let’s hope Trump is up to it.

Robert E Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.