By Sheel Kant Sharma*
Mixed signals have come from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics but they are once again wrapped in fierce and heightened rhetoric; from Washington, about the dire consequences of North Korean defiance in word and deed, and Pyongyong calling sanctions and “all blockades” (of ships) acts of war. The thawing at the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in South Korea is prominently traced to President Moon who took the initiative and invited the North Koreans to participate, warmly welcomed them, and held meetings with their titular leader along with Kim Jong-un’s sister at the inaugural ceremony, and with the former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-chul at the closing ceremony. The US vice-president, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, added greater value through their presence, albeit maintaining the standoff with North Korea.
The net outcome of whatever overt or covert diplomacy was at play in Pyeongchang is couched in paradoxical messages. First came word about North Korean willingness to talk with the US after Moon’s meeting with General Kim Yong-chul. Then appeared the latest advice from Seoul to the US to “lower the threshold for dialogue,” and to North Korea to “show willingness to denuclearise” for talks to make headway towards defusing the situation. And the latest from Washington, with President Trump expressing his willingness to talk with North Korea but “only under the right conditions” at meeting of state governors.
The atmosphere for talks already shows the severe effects of the harsh new US sanctions just announced on North Korea, including on “ships registered in China” in order to maintain maximum pressure, and Trump’s warning that should sanctions fail, phase two of US action may be “very, very unfortunate for the world.” The angry Chinese reaction that this would harm cooperation with North Korea coupled with North Korea calling new sanctions ‘acts of war’ and rejecting any talks about its nuclear weapons bespeak of troubles that lie ahead for diplomacy.
However, not all avenues are closed, given that South Korean president remains open to the invitation from the North for an inter-Korean summit in May. In addition, if a preliminary dialogue between the US and North Korea were to begin as averred by both sides, it might give cause to extend suspension of US-Korea joint military exercises until a possible summit. That Moon’s homily to the US and North Korea was after his meeting with the Chinese vice-premier, who also attended the closing ceremony, may strengthen the view that both Beijing and Seoul are together in tapping the diplomatic openings given by the Winter Olympics. Skeptics in the US voice fears that this Beijing-Seoul commonality of interest and Moon’s warming up to North Korea may have the effect of loosening the US-South Korea alliance. So, what are the chances of a possible headway at this juncture?
Can Washington and Seoul countenance at some point a mutation of the double freeze proposed by Russia and China in the course of the tension-prone developments since January 2017? Can a freeze, as a preliminary step, be reached on further US sanctions or their further implementation (or lifting of the latest sanctions, as China has demanded) in exchange for no further nuclear and missile tests and provocations by North Korea? North Korea’s diplomatic aims from heightened brinkmanship so far remain enigmatic as well as suspect due to their past record. Be that as it may, will a relaxation in its stand and the ensuing inter-Korean thaw facilitate resumption of dialogue if its nuclear weapons were not under the axe to begin with – notwithstanding US insistence on denuclearisation? White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stated that, “denuclearisation must be the result of any dialogue with North Korea.” The finer print of these various assertions might reveal some space for traction away from the stalemate. At what stage, if at all, will US threats about dire consequences persuade China to draw some red lines with regard to Jong-un? Can there be, in principle, a realistic threshold below which military action is conceivable and if so, might that impel China to move to more action to defuse the situation? (Trump in his latest expressions has praised China.)
In fact, none of the redeeming features in an analysis of the Pyeongchang outcome would be strangers to Korean history. Jimmy Carter’s diplomacy progressed without North Korea accepting all the conditions of that time; Bill Clinton tried his best to make a breakthrough in the last years of his presidency – including Albright’s visit to North Korea and the then South Korean president’s Sunshine Policy; the Six Party Talks struggled on and off despite further setbacks; and the whole policy of strategic patience which, though formally dumped, still hides in the background even as Trump cracks the whip. The avoidance of a nuclear exchange was the métier of diplomacy – as during the Cold War at several extremely frightening junctures.
As for the uniqueness of the present crisis, the North Koreans in their threats to the US mainland are nowhere near Russia and China, whom the new US Nuclear Posture Review darkly paints in adversarial terms. Thus, unlike the two-person zero-sum game that Cold War strategic crises comprised, this time there are more actors with axes to grind, even if not as overt participants. A US comparatively weaker than what it was during previous crisis situations in the Korean Peninsula is a fact of life. At the same time, there are considerable stakes for a rising China in keeping the situation from boiling over. And Kremlin’s denial notwithstanding Russia is coming under fire from Washington particularly in regard to ducking UN sanctions. So, while the rise of hostile talk and angry exchanges do persist, there is also a plurality of stakeholders, who seem to be pushing the envelope, to avoid an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula and its unintended consequences.
* Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative of India to the UN Office in Vienna & the IAEA