The best situation for the Korean Peninsula to be in has been clear for quite some time now—free of nuclear weapons, with a formal peace treaty and integrated into East Asian economic and diplomatic institutions. Sadly, 2010 was a bad year for progress on all three of these aspirations.
Three events were particularly troubling. In March, North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean corvette, firing a torpedo from a submarine that killed 46 sailors. Then, in early November, North Korean officials showed visiting American scientists a new uranium enrichment facility, consisting of some 2000 recently constructed centrifuges. And finally, in late November, the North Koreans launched an artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, a South Korean possession located in the disputed border region, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.
Needless to say, North Korea has excuses for all of these incidents. In the case of the Cheonan, Pyongyang consistently denied having anything to do with it, despite the findings of an international inquiry to the contrary. On the question of its nuclear programme, Kim Jong-il’s regime claims the facility is intended to manufacture fuel for nuclear power. However, uranium enrichment can also be used to make weapons-grade fissile material. (Until now, North Korea has used the plutonium produced by its Yongbyon nuclear facility to manufacture fissile material for its nuclear explosive devices, including those it detonated in 2006 and 2009).
As for the Yeonpyeong shelling, North Korea accepts responsibility for that attack, but claims it followed a South Korean military exercise that violated the Northern Limit Line, the maritime sea border in the Yellow Sea, as well as earlier provocative joint Korea-US military drills.
Meanwhile, the Six-Party Talks involving China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the United States, which were established in 2003 to bring about North Korea’s de-nuclearization in return for various concessions, remain deadlocked over verification of Pyongyang’s claims. Talks haven’t taken place since December 2008, with Pyongyang formally withdrawing from them in April 2009, saying that it refused to participate further in the process. Admittedly, it has since offered to return, and most recently has dropped earlier demands for the lifting of UN sanctions and a US commitment to discuss a peace treaty. But South Korea and the United States, under its policy of ‘strategic patience,’have demanded that North Korea give some concrete indication that it will actually make major nuclear concessions.
It’s unclear what, exactly, prompted North Korea’s actions last year, although one likely explanation is that it was an effort by the regime to help demonstrate ‘toughness’ in the face of foreign pressure of Kim Jong-un—the youngest son of Kim Jong-il and his presumed successor.
Yet despite the rambunctious approach for most of the year, North Korea in the end unexpectedly declined to respond to the December 20 live fire exercises by South Korean forces in the border area. Instead, the leadership has issued several proposals calling for renewed inter-Korean defence talks, citing the need to relax cross-border tensions. Indeed, only a few hours after the summit between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, North Korea’s Armed Forces Ministry sent a telegram to the South Korean government calling for high-level talks and committing to address ‘all currently pending military issues,’ including the March and November incidents. The last meeting between Korean defence chiefs occurred in Pyongyang in November 2007.
So what prompted the turnaround? Pressure from China likely contributed to the softer line. Whereas Chinese officials previously called for a resumption of the multilateral Six-Party Talks without preconditions, they’ve now accepted the South Korean demand, backed by the United States and Japan, for a resumption of bilateral inter-Korean talks first.
Chinese policymakers are in something of a bind. Although they would prefer that Pyongyang refrain from provocative actions, and would welcome a denuclearization and Korean peace agreement, they aren’t willing to impose substantial pressure on the Kim Jong-il regime for fear that it might collapse. A sudden demise could, after all, lead to mass refugee problems, the end of a buffer state separating Chinese territory from the US military and other maladies for Beijing.
Yet at the same time, Chinese officials have become alarmed by the strengthening of the South Korean-US alliance in recent years, and are particularly irritated by the joint military exercises in the West Sea. In addition to the joint exercises, the United States is considering a South Korean request to acquire longer-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in parts of China as well as all of North Korea. The South Korean government has also decided to shorten its timetable for purchasing advanced stealth fighter planes.
But what most likely prompted the Chinese government to change course last month was the warning several US officials gave to their Chinese counterparts during Hu’s visit to Washington. They were told that the United States would deploy additional military forces in East Asia, on both short-term exercises and long-term deployments, if North Korea continued to develop its capacity to threaten the United States.
During his trip to Beijing a few weeks before, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had explained that North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear weapons using its longstanding plutonium reprocessing and its newly unveiled uranium enrichment capacities, combined with continued progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, would soon expose Americans to the danger of nuclear missile strikes from North Korea. In addition to exploding nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, North Korea test launched long-range ballistic missiles in 1998, 2006 and 2009, with each vehicle travelling farther than the previous one. If current trends continue, it will eventually be able to place a nuclear warhead on a functional intercontinental ballistic missile capable of obliterating an American city.
Although the United States officially tolerates a mutual deterrence relationship with China and Russia, this has never been seen as an acceptable option with North Korea. If the United States were to be vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear strike, then the credibility of its extended deterrence guarantees to its Pacific allies would be called into question—South Koreans and Japanese could legitimately doubt that the United States would defend them against an attack if North Korea could destroy Los Angeles in retaliation.
So, in a warning that a direct North Korean nuclear threat to US territory would result in a US military build-up in East Asia, the wily White House cleverly exploited one of Beijing’s worst nightmares regarding North Korea—that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests would trigger an American military response that could threaten China. A strengthening of the US military alliances in East Asia would enhance their capacity to counter China, while the deployment of additional US missile defences, warships and warplanes in the western Pacific region would also bolster the capacity of the United Statesto defend Taiwan and Japan from Chinese threats.
Interestingly, the joint China-US statement signed during Hu’s visit expressed concern about North Korea’s new uranium enrichment capacity, a subject the Chinese had previously avoided. Still, although there’s been a shift in the Chinese approach, it’s a limited one—officials still haven’t blamed North Korea for the Cheonan attack, criticized the artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, or demanded an end to the uranium enrichment programme.
So, is there any chance of the deadlock being broken? One opportunity for progress is the inter-Korean defence talks, which are scheduled for February 11. However, with US officials indicating they want some evidence that renewed Six-Party Talks would make progress toward ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, it’s unclear whether next month’s talks will result in a breakthrough.
Indeed, it’s not just the US side that is wary. Unlike its two immediate predecessors, the administrations of South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, the current government under President Lee Myung-bak has joined the United States in insisting that North Korea end its nuclear weapons programme as part of an inter-Korean peace deal. Chun Hae-sung, spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, characterized denuclearization as ‘the most important pending security issue.’
In the past, North Korea has declined to discuss its nuclear weapons programme in bilateral talks with the South—North Korean officials claim that these weapons are designed to defend their country against the United States and therefore don’t threaten South Korea. But if Pyongyang does decide to participate in an inter-Korean dialogue over its nuclear weapons programme, these talks would provide an excellent mechanism for demonstrating a willingness to dismantle its nuclear capacity.
There is an alternative to the current approach—a grand bargain that would abandon the step-by-step approach in favour of seeking a comprehensive denuclearization and peace agreement. But securing the elimination of North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme through either method is going to prove an uphill struggle, especially since South Korea already has one of the largest and most advanced civilian nuclear industries in the world based on uranium enrichment.
The likely reality is that Lee is right in believing that rather than reflecting a genuine change of heart, North Korea’s recent softer approach is actually an example of its traditional strategy of first trying to intimidate South Korea through provocative actions and then demanding food, fuel, economic assistance and other concessions to cease its threatening activities. With this in mind, Lee’s government, which suspended aid to North Korea last year, has correctly conditioned any new assistance on an end to North Korean provocations, demonstrations of contrition regarding its past misdeeds and concrete concessions regarding its nuclear programme.
Ultimately, resolution of the Korean conflict will require a change in the North Korean regime. Until then, the best the inter-Korean dialogue can achieve under present circumstances are expressions of North Korean regret at the loss of civilian lives and possibly some confidence-building and transparency measures, such as formal advanced notification of military activities in border areas, which might make the Korean confrontation more manageable.
But who knows? Perhaps having earlier displayed his ability to act as provocatively as his father, Kim Jong-il could confound expectations once again and try to demonstrate Kim Jong-un’s negotiating skills as a peacemaker.