On October 10, North Korea held a military parade commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. While Pyongyang first tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-14, in July 2017, the latest ICBM rolled out during the military parade earlier this month was massive in size, implying an enhanced ICBM capability.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the threat, pointing out that North Korea has not conducted any ICBM tests since the Singapore Summit held in June 2018. Speculation is rife as to whether Pyongyang’s showcasing of a new ICBM amounts to a real threat or whether it is merely rhetorical. The prevailing view is that North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un continues to display military prowess so as to deflect attention from internal issues and strengthen domestic unity.
Though North Korea has stopped short of firing another ICBM, the recent military parade implicitly cemented its permanent status as a nuclear power. At the same time, Kim is also wary that pushing the envelope too far would not only jeopardize North Korean security but also prolong sanctions, which would strain the economy further. Unlike the launching of ICBM and nuclear tests, which is a red line that cannot be crossed, public displays of missile and nuclear arsenals are accepted by the Trump administration.
Nuclear and ICBM development has served as an important leverage and bargaining chip for Pyongyang. However, to date, it has pursued nuclear capabilities at the expense of lifting sanctions and providing the much-needed economic relief for its people, including 40 percent of its population that are facing starvation.
In a striking scene, Kim shed a tear during the recent military parade as he apologized to his people for their recent struggles amid the challenges in North Korea induced by COVID-19, natural disasters, and economic distress. While this was not the first time that Kim had made an emotional appeal to the public, his apology hinted at the internal pressures faced within North Korea, as Kim sought to justify the development of nuclear and ballistic capabilities for deterrence purposes.
By underscoring the principles of defensive neorealism, Kim’s statement unwittingly bolstered the Moon Jae-in administration’s call to declare the end of the war with North Korea – a priority agenda that it vigorously pursues.
However, this is also a time of increasing scrutiny in the wake of North Korea’s killing of a South Korean official, who was shot dead after disappearing near the border in Yeonpyeong island while on a patrol boat in September. The incident sparked domestic criticisms as President Moon faced increased political pressure. Kim Jong Un’s apology letter, which was issued a few days after the incident, did little to assuage public anger.
There is a lack of consensus and a clear blueprint for the future of the Korean peninsula. While South Korean public opinion on inter-Korean relations remains highly divisive, it has shifted away from the initial euphoria seen leading up to the 2018 inter-Korean summit and in the aftermath of the 2019 Trump-Kim meeting at the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The optimistic outlook for inter-Korean relations and the prospects for reunification were short-lived, as North Korea reverted back to its hostile behaviors, as demonstrated by the symbolic action of blowing up the joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong in June. Kim has also threatened to abandon the moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.
From the start, there has been a lack of clarity and accountability on the conditions and timeline for denuclearization, which greatly undermined public confidence. The initial call for ending the Korean War dates back to the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Shortly after the U.S.-South Korea summit in November 2006, there were talks about the possibility of ending the Korean War on the condition that North Korea gives up its nuclear ambitions. However, the Moon administration has gone from calling for a conditional end-of-war declaration to an unconditional end-of-war declaration.
The absence of clear criteria for denuclearization from previous summits also paved the way for a lax framework of nuclear regulation. The sudden shift from Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) to Final Fully Verifiable Denuclearization (FFVD) in 2018 led to considerable confusion. It was unclear what “complete” or “final” denuclearization entailed. The nuclear negotiations between 2018 and 2019 were bound to fail considering the unresolved conundrums surrounding the semantics of the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” (Pyongyang’s framing) as opposed to the “denuclearization of North Korea.”
The domestic politics of South Korea are highly polarized between the liberals and conservatives and their supporters. This has obscured the path forward. Presently there is a lack of both consensus and a viable vision for peace on the Korean peninsula given the starkly contrasting interpretations of an end-of-war declaration. Adding to the difficulties, past peace talks have not brought about tangible outcomes beyond eliciting piecemeal concessions and generating short-term political gains. Humanitarian aid to Pyongyang over the years has led to public rage for draining national resources without incentivizing behavioral change from the North Korean regime. After all, North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on testing makes little difference as it has already achieved nuclear capability.
The path from armistice to a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula continues to face headwinds. While South Koreans wish to pursue an independent foreign policy, that appears to be a far-fetched vision. Recently, South Korea’s K-pop supergroup BTS faced a backlash from China after thanking Korean War veterans for their service while accepting an award for promoting U.S.-South Korea relations on October 13. This incident sparked questions about the role of external actors in peace and reconciliation of the two Koreas. According to a survey conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, while 69 percent of respondents feel that reunification, if it were to happen, should be pursued without foreign intervention, 49.5 percent also believed that foreign involvement in peace process is inevitable. Equally important is that 40.5 percent of the respondents support peaceful coexistence whereas just 31.6 percent see reunification of the two Koreas as a possibility.
The roadmap for a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula would not only require resolving differences among external parties, but also ensuring Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization and restoring trust from the South Korean public. The latest developments, which culminated with South Korean National Security Advisor Suh Hoon’s unannounced visit to the United States, raises many questions and issues. Considering that security in the Korean Peninsula would figure low on the Trump administration’s priority list amid the upcoming U.S. elections, the tension with China, and a host of other internal issues in the U.S., there is little incentive and time for the Trump administration to proceed with the plan.
It remains to be seen what the Moon administration’s agenda for formally ending the Korean War fully entails, and to what extent, if at all, it deviates from the status quo. There are also valid questions about the urgency of pursuing a peace declaration in light of North Korea’s hostile actions and lack of commitment to denuclearization.
Hae Won Jeong is an assistant professor of international relations at Abu Dhabi University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.