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[2018 Peace Report-1] Pyeongchang Olympics and the Great Shift in Korea
- 2018.04.10 (09:47:05)
Pyeongchang Olympics and the Great Shift in Korea
LEE Seung-hwan South-North Korea Exchanges and Cooperation Support Association
Korean Peninsula, Spring 2018
The series of events that began with the participation of North Korean athletes in the Pyeongchang Olympics and the accompanying visit by the North Korean delegation headed by Kim Yeo-jeong, followed by the visit to North Korea by the South Korean delegation, completely transformed how the Korean Peninsula entered spring this year, by putting an end, at least for the time being, to the nuclear and missile experiments and military drills that had raised the tension between the two Koreas every spring. With the volatility characterizing the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula so quickly dissolved and the groundwork for the historical summits between the leaders of the two Koreas as well as between the North Korean leader and the U.S. president completed, the Pyeongchang Olympics will likely be remembered as a watershed moment in the Korean struggle for peace.
The background to the “nearly miraculous situation in East Asia,” as described by the Japanese government, can be found in the so-called March 5 Accord between Kim Jong-un and the South Korean delegation to Pyongyang. North Korea took the world by surprise by completely reversing its position and embracing the accord encompassing the organization of the third inter-Korean summit, the resumption of the North Korea-U.S. dialogue on the denuclearization of North Korea and the restoration of relations between the two countries, and the possible cessation, by North Korea, of its nuclear and missile experiments, contingent upon the successful continuation of dialogue with the United States. Through the accord, Pyongyang eagerly expressed its willingness to cease the nuclear and missile provocations that have fueled the escalating military tension on the Korean Peninsula and even to contribute to détente by tolerating without any changes to intensity ROK-U.S. joint military exercises slated for April.
Background of the March 5 Accord
Experts offer a number of different explanations as to the factors motivating the dramatic shift of attitude on the part of North Korea as displayed in the March 5 Accord.
The most widely accepted theory is that the international community’s prolonged sanctions against North Korea forced the country into accepting the terms of the accord. Notwithstanding the attendant controversies, these sanctions have been working. UN Security Council Resolution 2270 of March 2016 broadened the scope of the sanction to include comprehensive measures beyond responses to the country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) development, and significantly strengthened the intensity of sanctions exercised by China, a country that holds the key to the success of sanctions against North Korea. However, detractors of this theory argue that it is still too early to determine the true effects of these international sanctions, and that sanctions alone could not have changed Pyongyang’s policies so dramatically, given the nature of the Kim regime. These critics alternatively point to the innate change in Pyongyang’s strategy as the more direct source of the about-face displayed in the March 5 Accord. As the Kim Jong-un regime aspires to transform North Korea into a “strategic country” (with normal relations and a capability to shape the order it faces), it has had to address the reality that the extensive development of nuclear programs has failed to significantly improve the North Korean economy. In other words, it has had to embrace the opportunities for increased aid, the removal of sanctions, the signing of a peace agreement, and restoring relations with the United States even if embracing such opportunities would require the denuclearization of North Korea.
Even more important than the effects of sanctions and the change in the Kim regime’s strategy are the efforts being made by the Moon Jae-in government. By delaying the joint ROK-US military exercises last December, the Moon government succeeded in inducing Pyongyang’s decision to send North Korean athletes to the Pyeongchang Olympics and to accept the March 5 Accord. By responding, belatedly, to Pyongyang’s offer made in January 2014 that it would cease nuclear and missile experiments should Seoul cease the joint military exercises with the US military, the Moon government enabled Pyongyang to turn its stance around on the state of inter-Korean relations. Without the Moon government’s efforts at persuading Washington and postponing the joint military exercises, neither the sanctions nor the North Korean strategy would have led to this “nearly miraculous situations in East Asia.”
Why Sanctions Are Not the Cure-All Solutions to Problems Involving North Korea
Both Washington and the general American public view the recent development on the Korean Peninsula with a wary eye, regarding the shift in Pyongyang’s attitude as motivated by the strategic goal of increasing economic gains by putting the option of denuclearization on the negotiation table. President Trump denied that the decision to hold a summit with the North Korean leader was impromptu, but has expressed both doubts and hopes in his tweets: “May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction” and “Great progress being made, but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached.”
Accordingly, the Trump administration’s new line of diplomacy with North Korea features hardliners like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, a testament to Washington’s resolve to challenge North Korea even further with military options should its talks with Pyongyang fail.
The Liberal Korea Party and conservatives critical of the Moon government in South Korea, on the other hand, have blatantly characterized the change in Pyongyang’s attitude as “a mere security show put on by a hard-pressed North Korea,” expressing distrust and discontent even in the face of Washington’s new willingness to give talks a try. These detractors keep demanding sanctions as the only solutions to all problems involving North Korea, claiming that only stronger and continued sanctions would induce positive change in Kim Jong-un and lower the risk of an armed conflict.
Blind trust in sanctions, especially in the absence of a strategy for engagement and dialogue, can have fatal results, however. The current level of sanctions is already so high that it threatens the daily livelihood of North Koreans. Additional sanctions could backfire by tempting North Korea into accelerating its nuclear development program with a view to breaking through the uncomfortable status quo with violent actions. Unlike other countries, South Korea, too, stands to lose much from continued sanctions against North Korea. The May 24 Sanction Measures, the restriction on tourism to Mt. Kumgang, and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park all intended to hurt the North Korean economy, but also ended up damaging South Korean businesses just as much. Unconditional sanctions against North Korea, in other words, presents a self-destructive strategy from the South Korean perspective that increases the risks of war. Unconditional sanctions should not form South Korea’s strategy on long-term relations with the North.
Trilemma of Peace on the Korean Peninsula
The three main goals the South Korean government seeks to achieve with the Great Shift on the Korean Peninsula are denuclearization, the establishment of a peace regime, and the continuation of the Korea-US alliance. Two of these three goals may be achieved without much conflict, but all three cannot be achieved at the same time. Until now, all the parties involved have been pursuing different goals—South Korea, the establishment of a peace regime on the peninsula; the United States, the denuclearization of North Korea; and North Korea, its own rise as a “strategic country.” The three countries are now compelled to find effective measures to overcome this trilemma in order to achieve their objectives.
The Pyeongchang Olympics and the March 5 Accord created a new opening in this search for possible solutions to this trilemma. Pyongyang has so far sought to become a strategic country by amassing a nuclear arsenal. Through the March 5 Accord, however, it has offered to sit down for a summit with the US president and showed a willingness to make political and economic gains by giving up (allegedly) “completed” nuclear programs. Note Kim Jong-un’s remark to the South Korean delegation that North Korea “would like to be taken seriously as a partner of dialogue.”
Recall the five conditions of denuclearization Pyongyang demanded in an official statement released on July 6, 2016. The five conditions included in this July 6 Proposition were: (1) the disclosure of U.S. nuclear weapons brought into South Korea; (2) the abolition of all nuclear weapons and their bases in South Korea; (3) the prohibition on the introduction of nuclear strike assets into the Korean Peninsula; (4) the confirmation of the prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea; and (5) the declaration, by Washington, of the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea with their ability to launch nuclear weapons. The proposition repeats much of the conditions listed in the Joint Statement on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula of 1992, with the withdrawal of US troops additionally demanded. Washington has stated that it has either already satisfied or is willing to entertain the four earlier conditions. The only remaining problem between Washington and Pyongyang is therefore the latter’s latest demand that the former withdraw its troops from South Korea.
Pyongyang, however, was careful to hedge its last demand, limiting the scope of troops to be withdrawn to those with the ability to launch nuclear weapons, and also demanding not the immediate withdrawal per se, but the declaration to that effect. Pyongyang, in fact, has expressed much willingness to tolerate the American military presence in South Korea at every major opportunity for negotiation. At the South-North Korean Summit of 2000, Kim Jong-il famously remarked that the US troops in South Korea should remain not as a force hostile to North Korea, but as the keepers of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
A Bold Proposition for the Inter-Korean and DPRK-US Summits
There are, in other words, a number of measures that all three parties may adopt toward solving the trilemma involving the denuclearization of North Korea, the continuation of the ROK-US alliance, and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. These include guaranteeing the security of North Korea by implementing the Joint Statement on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, guaranteeing North Korea’s entry into the international community and its prospects for future prosperity by lifting sanctions, and guaranteeing the United States’ continued influence on East Asia by agreeing to keep US troops in South Korea without nuclear capabilities. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula without the withdrawal of US troops is perhaps the best possible scenario to which both Koreas and the United States could agree. The realization of that scenario would amount to the establishment of a joint security regime involving all three countries on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. The rise of such a regime, in turn, would imply the accumulation of sincere and mutual trust among the three countries.
The establishment of a military alliance between North Korea and the United States, as demanded by some hardliners, would represent a more advanced form of such joint security regime. Hardliners like Hong Seok-hyeon thus demand that the Trump administration ought to work on enhancing the pro-US stance of Pyongyang by explicitly saying “No” to toppling the Kim regime, working towards the collapse of the Kim regime, accelerating the Korean unification, and moving US troops north of the 38th Parallel.
Once the three countries begin to develop mutual trust in one another by exercising new and bold ideas unbounded by the conventional mold of hostile relations, they will be able to maintain the impetus for denuclearization notwithstanding differences in detail. The peacebuilding process based upon such mutual trust would differ significantly from the step-by-step denuclearization and peacebuilding processes envisioned by the September 19 Joint Statement of 2005. In order to capitalize upon the current “miracle-like” opportunity created by the Pyeongchang Olympics and the Great Shift, bold actions akin to cutting the Gordian Knot are required.
Multilayered Approaches to North Korea and Expanding Civilian Exchange
The current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula differs markedly from similar opportunities for peace that arose in the past, as the current situation requires bold actions and a firm commitment to peace. The solution required by the current situation would involve solving the major obstacles to peace on the Korean Peninsula early in the negotiation process. This, in turn, requires mutual trust and friendship among the two Koreas and the United States, which is crucial to maintain the drive for peace until the final end of the negotiation process, i.e., the permanent denuclearization of North Korea.
Another interesting characteristic of the current situation is that the peacebuilding process is guided in a top-down fashion with the strong commitment of the leaders involved. Given the complexity of the Korean Question and the history of distrust among the countries involved, a top-down approach involving a series of summits is crucial for solving the problems early on and establishing sufficient trust in a short span of time. At present, civilian exchange among the three countries involved would be restrained until local elections are held in South Korea in June, even all the while preparations are being made for the summits and high-level official talks.
Nevertheless, peacebuilding between South and North Koreas should be a multilayered process, and civilians have as important a role to play in the unification process as governments. Efforts should therefore be made in various areas in order to expand the opportunities for civilian exchange between the two Koreas shortly after the summits are held.
Both the South and North Korean governments, in particular, ought to address the issue of promoting exchange at multiple levels as part of the summit. Although the upcoming South-North Korean summit will mainly focus on denuclearization, peacebuilding, the evolution of inter-Korean relations, and economic cooperation with the United States, the leaders of both Koreas should not neglect the importance of restoring the ecosystem for rich civilian exchange at multiple levels. The two Korean leaders could provide a significant boost for continued and stronger civilian exchange if they embrace a written resolution to guarantee and support civilian exchange at various levels irrespective of political and military tension. By embracing such a resolution, the two Korean leaders could effectively declare their commitment to diversifying inter-Korean relations over and beyond government control.
This essay is the first essay written for the 2018 Peace Report Project of the Civil Peace Forum,
under the sponsorship of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Korea Office.
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