Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s olive branch to Seoul and the eager reciprocation by South Korean President Moon Jae-in has led to the resumption of previously dormant inter-Korean talks and plans to cooperate in various ways during the upcoming Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. From an agreement to walk together under one flag to the possible fielding of a joint women’s ice hockey team, the talks have fostered a new, if still tentative, reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Although events continue to develop, it is helpful to take stock of how we got here, where things currently stand and, most importantly, what might come next.
With this in mind, I asked a diverse group of Korea-watchers to give their impressions on recent events and some implications moving forward. Christopher Green is senior advisor for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and a senior editor at the website Sino-NK. Green is currently completing his doctoral work at the University of Leiden. Dr. Van Jackson is a senior lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington and author of Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations. He is also a senior editor at War on the Rocks and is currently writing a book on the causes, consequences, and risks of the ongoing nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula. Tim Shorrock is a Washington D.C.-based investigative journalist who grew up in Japan and South Korea and is a long-time observer of the Korean Peninsula. He has written numerous articles in such publications as Salon, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, and The New York Times, and is a regular contributor to The Nation Magazine. Harry Sa is a Senior Analyst at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. In addition to his work at RSIS, he is a regular media contributor and has written articles for The Diplomat and The National Interest.
The Diplomat: What do you think was Pyongyang’s main motivation(s) for initiating talks with Seoul?
Green: Even the best laid policy plans don’t yield perfectly predictable outcomes, but it seems clear that North Korea initiated talks in order to foster a general sense of psychological instability across several areas: instability in South Korean society; instability in the ROK-U.S. alliance; and instability in the international consensus on UN sanctions. Broadly speaking, this falls into the customary pattern of North Korean actions; raise tensions whilst pursuing goals inimical to the interests of regional powers, then move to diffuse those tensions by engaging at weak points in the consensus, with Pyongyang ultimately emerging in a better position (from its own perspective) than it went in.
Jackson: It’s hard to deny that Kim Jong-un was pursuing a wedge strategy, but he may have also been seeking an off-ramp from the nuclear crisis. The Trump administration’s posture has foreclosed any off-ramps from crisis that would involve direct interaction with the United States, so Kim exploited the very obvious gaps between the U.S. and South Korean positions on North Korea. On some level, Kim may have wanted North Korea to be included in the Olympics as well, but that could hardly be the driver. If you look at what he said in his New Year’s speech compared to previous years, it was virtually identical; it’s not like he went out on a limb. South Korea’s Moon is the one who really went out on a limb, and Kim just took advantage, consistent with a wedge strategy.
Shorrock: I think its primary motivation was both political and economic. After North Korea’s last ICBM test, the Kim Jong-un government declared that it had accomplished its goal of creating a “state nuclear force” by the end of 2017, as Kim had predicted in his last New Year’s address. Initiating talks was part of this policy; Kim believes he has reached rough parity with the U.S. with what he believes is a nuclear deterrence, and is therefore ready to negotiate with the South on issues of common concern. I believe Kim wants to de-escalate the situation on the peninsula and is also eager to reduce the sanctions that will limit his ability to improve North Korea’s economy, as he has promised.
Sa: The popular theories seem to be sanctions relief or to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. Pyongyang might also be looking for an excuse not to test any weapons during the Games. Testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles while the world’s best athletes are a mere 50 miles away from the border is reckless even for North Korea. The reaction from the international community would be harsher than ever. However, it might not want to give the impression that it is being cowed into making such a rational decision. With North Korea you never really know. I’m sure all of these considerations played a role behind this decision to agree to talks.
As events continue to develop, what do you see thus far as the most notable outcome or agreement reached at Panmunjom?
Green: Nothing notable has happened thus far.
Jackson: I’m a bit cynical about the talks at Panmunjom because I know what most Korea hands know but don’t necessarily like to acknowledge: North Korea thinks of the South as inferior, and an object to be won. North-South interactions have always been bounded by the constraints of great power dynamics; engagement initiatives never go anywhere strategically consequential unless they occur within a larger accommodating posture between North Korea and the U.S. So to me, the North-South talks are trivial at best; the most important outcome was to ratchet down tensions on the still simmering nuclear crisis. I say that as someone who’s pro-engagement. It’s just that I know North Korea only values engagement with the U.S.
Shorrock: The most notable outcome was the initial agreement to allow North Korea to fully participate in the Olympics. The agreement to march under one flag is incredibly important as well; it will win wide support in both North and South Korea.
Sa: So far, the accomplishments are largely soft and cultural cooperation: North Korean participation in the Olympics, a united Olympic team, and art performances. The conflict on the Korean peninsula has calcified at such a low point that having the talks at all is a step forward. As for progress on denuclearization or peace, there just hasn’t been much, but it’s still far too early to condemn the Panmunjom meetings for that.
Looking ahead, do you believe the talks at Panmunjom and cooperation at the Olympics, will lead to further negotiations, and, if so, why? Or, will the peninsula return to the same recent pattern of escalating actions and rhetoric, and, if so, why?
Green: That very much depends on North Korea’s time horizon. Is North Korea happy to dilute tensions for three months and then let them rise again when the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises take place in spring, or is Pyongyang playing a longer strategic game that incentivizes it to turn a blind eye to the exercises? There are other important questions; for example, will progress in the current phase of negotiations be unexpectedly impressive enough to prompt the U.S. and South Korea to seriously consider further, more noteworthy steps to facilitate a good environment for negotiations?
Jackson: I think the talks are inconsequential, except perhaps to secure North Korean participation in the Olympics. But I see that as inconsequential too, except that it buys down the risk of any conflict during the window preceding and during the Olympics. The core problem is not the division of Korea into two nations; the world could exist stably and peacefully with two Koreas. The issue is North Korean nuclear weapons and the threat the United States sees in that, especially given North Korea’s renewed aim of unification. To North Korea, the problem and the solution to regional stability rests with the United States. Everything else is a sideshow.
Shorrock: I think the Moon and Kim governments could accomplish a great deal. But even as they speak, the U.S. is escalating the military situation by sending B-52s and other strategic bombers to Guam as if war is about to break out. What happens between North and South will depend in part on what the U.S. does during this period. Judging from the statements from [U.S. Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, Trump, and other officials over the last two days, the military “option” is still under consideration and remains the favored strategy. If the DPRK believes it remains under siege, it could test more missiles or even explode another nuclear device to show that its ability to defend itself is still strong. Over the next few months, I believe the ball is in the U.S. court – much depends on what Trump and the Pentagon do.
Sa: The cynic in me wants to say it will all come to nothing. None of the strategic factors on the ground have changed and the talks will run into the same walls again and again: denuclearize, cease joint military exercises, remove rockets/artillery from the border, dissolve U.S.-ROK alliance, etc. Also, we’ve been at this point before. All it takes is one wrong comment or, in 2018, a single tweet from our president, and I can see it all coming down.