The inter-Korean Summit and prospects for a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula are fraught with complexities and challenges.  The April 27th, 2018 Summit comes after almost 18 months of deepening of tensions on the peninsula as Pyongyang accelerated its missile and nuclear development in the wake of President Trump’s electoral victory. Acerbic tweet diplomacy and an escalation of the US military footprint into the region has contributed to a vicious circle in the increase in the brinksmanship in the region.

Shift in North Korea’s Strategic Mind-set?

On April 21st, 2018, North Korea released a statement committing itself to stopping nuclear and missile development and to the dismantling of its current nuclear testing sites. Hand-in-hand with this commitment, along with Seoul, Pyongyang has put on the table the potential signing of a peace treaty between the North and the South. If realized, the peace treaty would be a basis for broader discussions on the future evolution on peninsular relations which will necessarily include the signing of the end of the Korean Armistice Agreement.

Realities of a Permanent Peace?  

Here is where the fate of the peninsula becomes more complicated. The original signatories of the armistice agreement were the U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korean General Nam Il representing the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA). South Korea was not at the table. This has implications for the direction of talks on the peninsula and highlights China’s role in contributing to a permanent peace. Another important consideration is how emerging geopolitical rivalry between China and the US might affect how the outcome of inter-Korean dialogue.

Denuclearization and Demilitarization

A second complexity regarding the inter-Korean Summit is regarding Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization and demilitarization. The initial statement made no mention of the dismantling of existing nuclear and missile capabilities nor the production of fissile material which may be enough to make 12 nuclear warheads a year. Pyongyang’s WMD are not limited to nuclear weapons either. The North is alleged to have chemical and biological weapons (but denied by Pyongyang) in addition to short/ mid-range missiles and submarine based launch systems.

Such existence or suspicion dictates that there is no “deal” to be had between Washington and Pyongyang without a sustained, long-term, invasive verification. The US and its allies South Korea and Japan will not compromise on a comprehensive verification process as the threat emanating out of North Korea does not just stem from its nuclear tipped ICBMs but also from its other capabilities listed above.

This will require China’s cooperation in the verification process but also in two other important areas. The first is the provision of security guarantees as North Korea denuclearizes/ demilitarizes. The second is that China may need to maintain sanctions against the North until there is progress on the denuclearization/ demilitarization front.

In the case of a security guarantee, this will be uncharted waters for China. First, extending a security guarantee over North Korea goes against China’s longstanding practice of respecting sovereignty and non-interference in other countries political affairs. If extended though, this would insert China into North Korean mercurial politics, increasing the possibility that Beijing would be entrapped in a situation where Pyongyang may trade its strategic nuclear deterrent for a military force from China. This is the conundrum for Beijing, how to help Pyongyang shift its security anxieties through security guarantees without being drawn into any re-escalation of tensions.

Federation of Korea?

The trajectory of dialogue following the inter-Korean Summit will also be of interest to Beijing. President Moon Jae-in seems to be taking a page out of his predecessor Kim Dae-Jung’s North Korean playbook by putting on the table the idea of some kind of loose form of a Federation of Korea. What this means for China will depend on the ultimate form of federation that might emerge. A federation in which the North and South co-exist peacefully while Pyongyang remains “pro-China” would be an acceptable outcome to Beijing. In contrast, if the two Koreans can find a way to peacefully co-exist and they both lean towards Washington, Beijing may feel that its regional security environment to be compromised.

Geopolitics: Deepening Sino-US Mistrust

The divided Korean peninsula has its roots in the Cold War and decades of strategic mistrust between all stakeholders. The inter-Korean Summit comes at a stage in history where we might be entering another Cold War or at least Cool War between an emerging power, China and the current leading power, the United States.  Both China and the US have concerns as to the evolution of the Korean peninsula in terms of its political, economic and security character.

For China, given its century of humiliation experience, there’s a deep sense of insecurity over the presence of outside powers near its territories. The US-Japan alliance, the US-South Korean alliance and the numerous security partnerships that the US has in the region further heightens China’s concerns of a US containment strategy against China with the Korean peninsula being part of that strategy.  From this perspective, the geopolitical consequences of any future evolution of the peninsula that further bolsters the US presence in the region is of great concern for China.  As a result, the inter-Korean Summit will be closely watched by Beijing as a litmus test in terms of what direction the Korean peninsula will evolve.

In a similar manner, the US will be watching the inter-Korean Summit closely for its own preparations for an upcoming Trump-Kim Summit. Importantly, the US will be closely monitoring how the evolution of the peninsula may affect the US’s long-term interest in remaining an active stakeholder in the region but also its ability to develop Sino-US relations in a direction that is competitive but not conflictual.

The fragility of long-term political commitment

The excitement and anticipation for the inter-Korean Summit and Trump-Kim Summit has masked the reality that sustainable, permanent peace on the peninsula will require long-term political commitment by leaders over a generation or more. The recent black swan political events such as Brexit and the election of Mr. Trump are strong indicators that we have entered a period of political uncertainty fuelled by populism and a rejection of internationalism. If these trends gather further momentum, the essential patience and detailed political leadership that is necessary to unravel extricate puzzles like the Korean nuclear problem may dwindle away as political leaders prioritize the populist agenda’s their constituents yearn for.

China may not face these issues domestically however they may be impacted by populism and erratic leadership in other countries that have shared interests in solving the North Korean problem.

(This article was published on China Plus on the 27th of April 2018 and is republished on Glos Review under Dr. Steven R. Nagy’s expressed consent.)

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