By K. V. Kesavan*
The Korean peninsula is at a crucial turning point now. For the first time in many years, there is an opportunity for both North and South Korea to come together to reduce tensions and build a new path for peace and cooperation. The inter-Korean summit which is scheduled to take place in the last week of April and the first Trump- Kim summit which is to follow in the month of May have aroused some optimism for a significant breakthrough in their relations. Many important changes in the equations among Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington and Beijing have occurred in quick succession proving that diplomacy could still be a useful instrument for paving the way for reconciliation among rival countries.
The starting point to the whole unfolding drama in the Korean situation should be seen in the invitation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the participation of North Korea in the Winter Olympics and North’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s response to send a high level North Korean delegation that included his own influential sister. The joint participation of North and South Korean athletes created a great deal of excitement among the Koreans. This was followed by the extension of an invitation from Kim Jong-un to Moon for a formal visit to North Korea. Things started moving rapidly culminating in the visit of an official South Korean delegation to meet Kim Jong-un. During the discussions, the South Korean delegation surprisingly found Kim in a very conciliatory mood, offering to meet President Donald Trump and agreeing to halt his nuclear weapon and missile programme in return for an assurance that the US would not threaten his regime. In addition, Kim also agreed not to insist on the halting of the US-South Korean military drills.
The South Korean delegation then visited the US and informed President Trump about the unexpected outcome of their meeting with Kim. Pleased with this major change in Pyongyang’s position, Trump expressed his readiness to meet the North Korean leader at a palace and date most convenient to both countries.
Analysts, long associated with studying the US-North Korean relations, have been completely puzzled by the sudden shift in Pyongyang’s attitude, because until last December, both Trump and Kim were locked in mutual abuses and recriminations. Some analysts entertain serious skepticism about the trustworthiness of Pyongyang’s gesture. They suspect that the real objective of Kim could be to gain time for further developing his country’s nuclear and missile capabilities. They recall how North Korea used the long-drawn-out six-party talks in the past as a ploy to develop its nuclear technology. Similarly, many believe that Kim, while ostensibly professing to promote peace and reconciliation, might have the true intention to loosen the tough economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. As against this, there are others, including Trump himself, who believe that the current peace overture has been caused by the “strong pressure” enforced by the US and other countries.
One country which seems to have been somewhat overtaken by the rapid diplomatic developments is Japan, a strong ally of the US. When its Prime Minister Abe received the news about the planned summit meeting between Trump and Kim, he was quite dismayed.
To be sure, Abe and his colleagues knew that a dialogue between Trump and Kim was expected to happen eventually, but they wanted certain pre-conditions like the inspections by the IAEA to happen prior to that. Further, since his return to power in 2012, Abe has considered North Korea as posing one of the biggest threats to Japan’s security. Japan’s first National Security Strategy (NSS ) published in 2013 talks about the serious threats emanating from North Korea. In October 2017, when Abe opted for a snap national election, he considered North Korea’s threat as one of the reasons for his political decision.
Further, Abe also has some concerns on the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit. Japan has always demanded Pyongyang’s commitment to final, comprehensive, and irreversible denuclearisation. Abe is, therefore, worried that any agreement that Trump signs with Kim should address not only the concerns of the US but also those of Japan. Japan is wary that both Trump and Kim may reach an accord on intercontinental ballistic missiles but not include North Korea’s medium and short-range missiles which are more relevant to Japan’s security. Second, Japan also wants Trump to address Tokyo’s interests on the long-pending abduction issue by making it a part of his summit agenda with Kim. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono made a visit to Washington to lobby for his country and met important US leaders, including the Secretary Of State and the National Security Adviser.
But what has increased Japan’s feeling of wariness was the sudden and unexpected visit made by Kim Jong-un recently to Beijing – from 22 to 25 March. During this visit, Kim reaffirmed his commitment to the denuclearisation of the peninsula and his upcoming meetings with Moon and Trump. Chinese President Xi on his part assured that his country would uphold its friendship with North Korea. There is no doubt that Kim’s meeting with Xi has considerably bolstered Pyongyang’s bargaining strength before negotiating with Trump in May.
Finally, since Trump announced his readiness to meet Kim, there has been a major change in his team of negotiators. Both John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompou, the new Secretary of State, are known for their “hawkish views” on North Korea and given the unpredictable temperament of Trump and Kim in addition, one can expect the talks to be marked by hard-bargaining from both sides.