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All bets off on the Korea summit outcome

by Ramesh Thakur

The pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place on the Korean Peninsula. But the overall picture — a denuclearized North Korea, a nuclear-weapon-free zone for all of Northeast Asia and a U.S. withdrawal from East Asia — remains fuzzy.

Reaction to the March 8 announcement of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was mixed. Some thought Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” had spooked Kim into a climbdown. Others argued a one-on-one meeting with the U.S. president will confer legitimacy on the North Korean leader as an equal.

Kim’s trip to Beijing on March 25, accompanied by his wife, to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping caught the world similarly unawares. Commentators are again divided whether it signifies that Trump’s strategy of bluster and threats is producing results, frightening Kim and China — the enabler and protector of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — to call a halt to it.

With the installation of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as the U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively, the neoconservative hawks are ascendant in Washington, to the point where Harvard University’s Stephen Walt calls this “the Dick Cheney administration.” To them, diplomacy is a sign of U.S. military weakness and lack of resolve. Negotiation does not mean give and take and mutual accommodation but the issuance of an ultimatum which, if not met, will pave the way for war.

Bolton wants regime change in both Iran and North Korea, believes no price is too high to get this and is willing to do whatever it takes for it. To some, this makes him a national security threat. By giving rein to Trump’s instinct to disengage with international diplomacy, Bolton will help to isolate U.S. allies and empower its enemies. With Pompeo and Bolton as Trump’s top security advisers, the summit suddenly is a trap for North Korea — and by extension for China — because a refusal to meet U.S. maximum demands would provide Washington with the excuse to move immediately to military strikes.

There is an alternative explanation and the choice between the competing narratives depends very much on analysts’ political preconceptions and leanings. Kim’s agreement to meet Trump might have signaled to China that Pyongyang has diplomatic options if pushed too hard by Beijing, despite a 90 percent trade dependence on China. His Beijing visit is a public demonstration that China still has North Korea’s back. It reaffirms China as a central player in Korean geopolitics and strengthens Kim’s own diplomatic hand in dealings with the United States.

Or was it an effort to realign priorities, strategies and red lines before the summits with South Korea and the U.S.? China and North Korea may also be seeking to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, with the latter almost as desperate as Pyongyang to avoid a military conflict.

Meanwhile the escalating China-U.S. trade war and the toughening diplomatic action against Russia for its alleged role in poisoning Sergei Skripal will decrease their willingness to play by U.S. rules in efforts to resolve the Korean issue.

Previously, some thought if Trump jettisons the Iran deal on May 12, his Korea summit might be dead on arrival and the U.S. would be isolated in the international community. International relations expert Mohammed Ayoob argued that news of the Korea summit would undermine the moderates in Tehran and confirm the hardliners’ belief that the U.S. only respects nuclear-tipped diplomacy. Now the U.S. hawks argue that pulling out of the nuclear deal and bombing Iran will signal U.S. military resolve to North Korea and concentrate its mind on bending to the demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

North Korea is the nuclear problem from hell. Neither South Korea nor the U.S. can control the narrative, while definitions of success and failure are highly relative. A deliberate nuclear attack is unlikely by either side, but the risk of war from miscommunication, misperception and miscalculation is real.

A Korea deal is still possible, provided Trump is clear in his mind about a minimally acceptable outcome, does not exaggerate U.S. leverage, works with and not against Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, and is prepared to acknowledge and accept Pyongyang’s bottom lines. Trump’s ignorance and lack of foreign policy experience could be turned to advantage. If a good deal is on the table, nothing that the U.S. or Trump himself has said in the past will stop him from seizing the moment while insisting there is no contradiction.

The American public is largely ignorant of the fact that during the Korean War, North Korea was the victim of “obliteration bombing” by the U.S., which was unconstrained by the requirement of proportionality or the need to avoid unnecessary civilian suffering. Article 13(d) of the 1953 Armistice Agreement prohibited all sides from introducing new weapons into Korea. The U.S. unilaterally abrogated this clause and introduced atomic weapons into Korea in January 1958, having announced the intention to do so in September 1956. This background does not excuse but does help to explain North Korea’s firm attachment to the bomb.

To Pyongyang, “denuclearization” means the entire peninsula and an end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella for South Korea, while “security” means an end to the U.S. alliance, a withdrawal of U.S. troops and no criticism of the North’s human rights record. A U.S. retreat from Asia is also part of China’s agenda while North Korea’s nuclear capability has not generated the same urgency in Beijing as in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

A good starting point for an internal conversation in Washington and with South Korea and Japan would be, first: Are we willing to live with a nuclearized North for some years if it freezes its nuclear and missile program at current levels (that is, a comprehensive and verified cap on numbers and quality); and second, can we consider a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, diplomatic relations with the North, and economic and security assistance, while holding firm on the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea that includes the nuclear umbrella? Kim can afford a cap because he has achieved a credible level of a weaponized nuclear capability, while the world acknowledges the reality of a nuclearized but containable North Korea and halts further advances.

If everything goes right that can, and peace in a denuclearized Korea is achieved in our time, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, not Trump, will be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for having broken the stalemate with bold and creative diplomacy.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.