The upcoming inter-Korean summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is laden with complexity and uncertainty. What is more, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion considering North Korea’s track record of diplomatic brinkmanship to extract concessions from South Korea and interests of stakeholders such as the United States, Japan, China and Russia.
To achieve long-term peace on the peninsula, the North has to transform its security calculus and carefully crafted post-Korean War ideology stressing a Pyongyang-imposed reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the leadership of the North.
In the case of the former, using conventional weapons and now nuclear-capable ICBMs, Pyongyang has seemingly consolidated its strategic nuclear deterrent to prevent regime change through a decapitation strike or other form of military operation. Dismantling this defensive measure will require a radical shift in North Korea’s military industrial complex and its strategic thinking about the utility of a strategic nuclear deterrent.
In the case of the latter, the regime in Pyongyang has built a post-Korean War identity and argued for its leadership stressing its role in defending Koreans (North and South) from outsiders and pressing reunification of the peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule. While unrealistic considering the level of South Korean development and its alliance with the U.S., shifting Pyongyang’s nearly 70-year position on reunification may be a bitter pill to swallow for North Koreans who have sacrificed so much under the Kim dynasty.
These two challenges are further complicated by stakeholders in and out of the region. First and foremost is the U.S. Without complete dismantling and removal of all nuclear technology and ICBM systems and subsequence intrusive verification, the U.S. will not back down from its “maximum pressure” campaign.
Japan and South Korea have shared concerns. Mere denuclearization will not be sufficient for either state. A de-escalation of tensions will necessarily include short- and mid-range missile systems as well as submarine-based systems that Pyongyang has invested heavily in.
China and Russia are also important stakeholders in this diplomatic kabuki theater. While arguably both could live with a nuclear North Korea, their preference is to find an outcome on the peninsula that leaves a pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow regime intact. Any negotiation between the North and the South or the North and the U.S. that does not produce that outcome would be opposed for geopolitical reasons.
That leaves us with the question of what will be the likely outcome of the North-South summit on April 27, and the subsequent potential meeting between Kim and Trump. In short, the only outcome we can expect is a commitment to future talks and an agreement about investing in confidence-building measures to demonstrate each side’s commitment to de-escalation and the charting of a path toward a permanent peace. Here, the North has done some of the hard work already by not testing its ICBM systems since November. This hiatus, forced or intentional, must continue. In lieu of a cessation in tests, the U.S. and South Korea can in part or in full accept the Chinese-Russian “double-freeze” agreement for a trial period. To allay U.S. and South Korean concerns about the North, Beijing could forge a temporary security agreement with the South. Russia could be included in this security umbrella until strategic trust between stakeholders takes hold.
An overnight transformation of the North’s military strategic thought, military industrial complex and ideology is not possible. Some of the above suggestions may decrease the threat perception the North has concerning regime survival, but they do nothing to transform the North’s economy, which depends heavily on its military. Nor do they speak to the ideological nature of the North.
Without aid to shift the North Korean economy away from its militarized nature, it would be difficult for Kim’s regime to provide public goods to its elite and citizens, whose current livelihoods may be dependent on the militarized economy. Here, North Korea’s neighbors, including China, Japan and South Korea, can be of help through an incremental increase in aid as the verification process shows sincerity in the dismantling process.
North Korea’s carefully nurtured ideology may be the biggest hurdle to overcome in the complex path toward peace on the peninsula. This will require years of cultural exchanges at the state and grass-roots level to equilibrate sensibilities and understandings.
As a result we should be realistic about what a “permanent peace” timeline means. If the seed of permanent peace is planted on April 27 by Kim and Moon in Panmunjom, we should expect to see its fruits in the decades ahead rather than in the short life spans of political leaders and their associated political cycle.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at the International Christian University, Tokyo, and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation in Canada.