On June 12, the world’s attention will be on the Singapore Summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un. Since the Second World War the divided Korean Peninsula has been beset by war, then an uneasy peace punctuated by alternating periods of agreement to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons and the breakdown of these accords. North Korea now has significant nuclear weapons capability, and its missiles are reportedly able to reach the US. The North’s recent belligerent rhetoric has been matched by the US. South Korean President Moon Jae-in to defuse tension made an overture to the North, reviving the sunshine policy approach of Kim Dae-jung.
Will there be an agreement where North Korea agrees to verifiably denuclearise and roll back its ballistic missile programme? Will this, improbably, be unilateral and in one go; phased to synchronise with the easing of sanctions; or, more probably, dependent on reciprocal conditions to prohibit American nuclear weapons in and around the peninsula and the phased reduction of US troops? The 1994 Framework Agreement states: “Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (1) The US will provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the US (2) The DPRK will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.’
Both sides have grounds for distrust. To the US, North Korea has been reneging on its commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. The North sees itself as reactive, in that the US introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula in violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement. It feels the 1994 Accord was breached by the US: in not setting up diplomatic representation in Pyongyang, and by President Bush’s stopping construction of two light-water nuclear reactors, and ending assured shipments of heavy oil in 2003.
If an agreement is reached, whatever be its scope, it would be wise to keep in mind the overarching context. A North Korea that is not a threat to its neighbours and beyond is the first objective. For many in both South and North, ending this enforced division — reunification — is the ultimate objective and not just a declaratory aspiration.
But who wants a unified Korea? That question struck me when I was there during President Kim Dae-jung’s tenure. South Korea views the prospect of an imploding North Korea with apprehension. The resulting dislocation, refugees, and security risks from potentially loose nuclear weapons. The cost of reunification in such a scenario has been calculated as far higher than borne by West Germany when reunited with East Germany.
The North’s ruling regime has the most to lose if the status quo were radically changed. In Germany, coming from the East has not been a bar to becoming the chancellor, but minimal military or diplomatic personnel were integrated. The North would not be unaware of de Tocqueville’s analysis on the fall of the ancient regimes. Regimes fall not when they became more oppressive, but conversely when reduced restrictions unleash increased and uncontainable expectations. An eventuality that President Trump cannot guarantee the regime against.
If the North is innovative, it could try to balance opening up the country and safeguarding its position by offering to explore the prospects of a loose confederation in which two autonomous though different systems symbolically unify under one flag. It would be more like extending the precedent in international sports of both teams marching under one flag.
I asked my South Korean friends how reunification would handle the presence of American troops. For China, the North has been a buffer heavily paid for in blood during the Korean War: sending over a million volunteers with 180,000 killed when America-led UN troops pushed almost to the Yalu River border with China. The response acknowledged this problem, suggesting that by prior agreement American troops would not be stationed north of the present dividing line/DMZ the 38th Parallel. That would not allay Chinese apprehensions in view of the post-Soviet break-up and Nato’s incorporation of most Eastern European and the Baltic states near the Russian borders.
As a Chinese diplomat observed informally at a recent dinner if an agreement is reached what is the need for American troops in Korea? For that reason, the US too would also be wary of any developments that might lead towards reunification.
It would also be a consideration for Russia which shares a small land border with North Korea, and like China, which regards the North as a buffer and an ally, however difficult it may be.
Japan would also be very cautious. Its issues with South Korea pale in comparison to its strategic convergence with the South and the US to mitigate and remove the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by the North. However, a united Korea within a few years would become an even more powerful economic and technological rival. The uncertain impact on Japan’s ethnic Korean minority and its assertiveness would be an additional concern.
Undoubtedly reaching a sustainable agreement towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is critical for peace and security in the region and beyond. The complexity is compounded by what it could eventually lead to; and how that is viewed not only by the two Koreas and the US but also by the three important and powerful neighbours with their vested interests.
Tariq Osman Hyder was Pakistan’s Ambassador in Seoul, Republic of Korea, 1998-2002.