By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
In a major of turn of events, US President Donald Trump has announced direct talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The US and North Korea have been loggerheads for a long time on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. The leaders of both countries, after attempting to stare each other down through provocation in word and deed, are signalling their willingness to come to the negotiation table. The credit goes mostly to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who actively insisted that diplomacy must be given another chance.
After coming to power, Moon Jae-in sought space for diplomacy amidst the irresponsible behaviour displayed by the US and North Korea. The South Korean administration had to go through a phase in which the country did not play a substantial role in determining the security scenario on the Korean Peninsula. The shrill ‘war of words’ between Trump and Kim made it impossible for the Moon administration to give diplomacy a chance in dealing with North Korea. Moon has been of the belief that through engagement, a genuine attempt to build trust with the North Korean regime is possible, and South Korea and the US should both make an attempt to do so. Improved trust and dialogue with North Korea could minimise the relevance of nuclear weapons and missile development for North Korea – at the very least, less than the aggressive pursuit being currently demonstrated – which may ultimately lead to the consideration of North Korean denuclearisation.
The Moon administration must thus be given credit for being persistent and deft in handling the situation. South Korea used the Pyeongchang Winter Games as an opportunity to reach out to North Korea. A cycle has emerged – with successive, encouraging developments – such as postponement of the South Korea-US joint military exercise, participation of North Korean athletes in the games, attendance by North Korean representatives, Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong’s presence in the opening ceremony, invitation from North Korea for a summit meet between the leaders of two Koreas, visit to Pyongyang by South Korean special envoys Kim Chung Eui-yong and Suh Hoon, and the outcomes of said visit.
More specifically, the six-point understanding between North and South Korea during the South Korean delegation’s visit to Pyongyang may prove to be a big milestone in the process, with the ability to bring diplomacy back into prominence in dealing with North Korea. In fact, the outcome of the visit was surpassed the expectations of even optimists. The understanding they reached has not only made possible a summit meet between the two Koreas in late-April and the establishment of a hotline between them before the summit, but has also likely induced an important transformation in North Korea’s approach towards denuclearisation.
North Korea had stated that if a security guarantee is provided to the regime, it has no reason to pursue nuclear weaponisation. It has also promised that until the summit meet, it will place a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. Finally, it has announced that nuclear weapons will be used against South Korea.
The Moon administration has put in the groundwork and made an extraordinary start, and it is now the Trump administration’s turn to take on the mantle of responding appropriately. The US has traditionally had two main demands as pre-conditions for direct talks with North Korea. First, North Korea should agree to the final goal of denuclearisation, and second, North Korea must demonstrate its desire for denuclearisation in more concrete terms. It seems that both these demands have been accepted by North Korea, leading to the willingness for talks on both sides. The US must show flexibility on the timeline for North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID), and adopt a comprehensive approach to arrive at its final goal. The US must be careful to avoid North Korea’s ‘olive branches’, which were shown by South Korea to be signs of Pyongyang’s weakness. It would be misleading to assume that the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ is paying off, and the pressure must instead be continued.
Although the Moon administration has passed the first test of diplomacy, it has many such tests still to go as trust between the Trump administration and North Korea is almost entirely absent. It is useful to keep in mind that the process will not be linear, and back and forth movement can be expected. Another important challenge for South Korea is how it will project these positive outcomes, which are largely thanks to Moon’s diplomacy and perseverance, as joint US-South Korea achievements. After all, the essence of statesmanship is attributing success to everyone involved, while taking sole responsibility for mistakes.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, SIS, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS
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