In the wake of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s August 15 remarks on his “audacious initiative” as a masterplan for the denuclearization of North Korea, Pyongyang slammed the plan and said it does not want to engage in any dialogue with the current South Korean administration.
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, showed Pyongyang’s belligerent stance over the key assumption of the audacious initiative – that the North will take preemptive action for denuclearization – and humiliated Yoon by using the North Korean style of provocative words and insults.
Now, as Kim has clearly stated that Pyongyang would not negotiate with the Yoon administration, the power game without room for diplomacy might push the two Koreas to the brink of war, as occurred in the early 2010s.
Pyongyang’s belittling assessment of Yoon’s audacious initiative makes it very clear that his plan to denuclearize North Korea will fail.
The North Korea Factor
First, Yoon’s audacious initiative boils down to the offer of an economic package for the North, provided it takes concrete steps toward denuclearization. This approach would never be able to make a breakthrough for inter-Korean dialogue as North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons – something the Kim regime has made abundantly clear, including through Kim Yo Jong’s harsh criticism last week. The Yoon administration’s offer of an economic package and the lifting of sanctions is pointless as it will never take place. Yoon has made it clear his “audacious initiative” is contingent on the North taking steps for denuclearization first – which has never happened and will never happen.
It is very clear that North Korea has never seriously considered the denuclearization of the country. Despite the country’s devastating economic state since the 1990s, North Korea has never halted its steps to develop powerful nuclear and missile programs. Outside experts view the current status of the North’s nuclear and missile programs differently, but Kim Jong Un already stated that he had completed his country’s nuclear force in 2017.
Then the failed Hanoi summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019 exacerbated the security of the Korean Peninsula, leading Kim to build up still more powerful nuclear weapons to confront his so-called adversaries – the United States, South Korea, and Japan – in the region.
Considering Kim Jong Un’s five-year military modernization plan and his ambition to revive his country’s crippled economy through internal resources, he might feel humiliated by Yoon’s audacious initiative, as it simply looks like an offer of economic aid for a poor country.
Unlike his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un is still determined to improve his country’s economy without receiving outside resources, except from China, even after his five-year economic plan failed to meet his high standards. And even with regards to China, Kim Jong Un is also seeking to be independent of his larger neighbor’s economic pipeline to increase his leverage in the region.
The fundamental assumption behind Yoon’s audacious initiative – that North Korea is breaking under economic sanctions – set the proposal up for failure, as Pyongyang cannot accept that assumption. By comparison, North Korea had a different reaction to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposal for the declaration of the end of the Korean War at the United Nations Assembly in September of last year.
The U.S. Factor
The second problem with Yoon’s plan is that the Biden administration seems to have no deep interest in fully engaging in the denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula at the moment. Considering the other pressing international issues, including the Ukraine crisis and Taiwan, it is hard to say that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a priority during Biden’s term.
U.S. officials have consistently said that they are ready to sit down with their Pyongyang counterparts “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions” since President Joe Biden took office in 2021. Also, Washington has kept reiterating it has “no hostile intent” toward North Korea, even as Pyongyang has repeatedly criticized Washington’s so-called “hostile policy” and has cited it as a main reason for the deadlocked nuclear talks.
Biden seems to prefer tackling the issue through a bottom-up approach. His officials have been trying to make room for dialogue with Pyongyang by sending gentle messages again and again so that the groundwork can be laid out for potential negotiations with Kim Jong Un. However, as Kim already debuted on the international diplomatic stage by sitting down with Trump in a one-on-one summit meeting in 2018 and 2019, Pyongyang has shown no interest in going back to the old approach of working-level talks preferred by Biden. Instead, North Korea has set a new record for its missile testing this year.
The United States is now conducting expanded joint military drills with South Korea, which the North considers one of the “hostile policies.” Those exercises would be another excuse for the North to play hardball by accusing Washington and Seoul of a “double standard,” as the North is banned from testing and developing ballistic missiles under the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Also, as long as the United States sticks to the approach of imposing and strengthening sanctions over the North’s missile testing, without considering any preemptive measures to renew the stalled nuclear talks, Pyongyang would interpret such actions as another sign of hostile intent from the U.S. to make it as a justifiable reason for its nuclear missile developments.
The China and Russia Factors
Lastly, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the power game between the United States and China, the Yoon administration cannot achieve united and practical messages from the neighboring countries over the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
Washington is now focusing on the power game with China. U.S.-led coalitions, including the Quad, have been formed in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific region to confront the rising power of China. Given those circumstances, it is impossible to garner support and attention from China on South Korea’s efforts to address the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
As China and Russia already vetoed a proposal to impose additional sanctions over the North’s ballistic missile testing at the U.N. Security Council months ago, the current geopolitical environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula seems to have been explicitly divided.
Although the main actors in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula are the two Koreas, it is impossible to carry out a long-term plan to completely denuclearize the peninsula without the support of the United States and China. Although Seoul’s previous attempts to bring more neighboring countries to participate in the denuclearization process in the form of the Four-Party and Six-Party Talks failed, it is still important to bring more countries – including the European countries – to be involved in the issue so that North Korea will face pressure to return to the negotiating table and comply with the agreements.
In light of the history of the North’s unilateral withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumption of missile testing, some raise questions over the efficacy of diplomatic overtures to tackle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. However, there is no way to peacefully construct permanent peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula without diplomacy.
In order to carry out the plan, Yoon needs to recalibrate his audacious initiative on a larger scale with the participation of other neighboring countries. So far, he does not seem to have garnered much interest even from the United States. However, to some extent the ultimate fate of Yoon’s proposal is out of his hands. As long as Russia and China – the allies of North Korea – seek to construct a coalition of anti-U.S. countries to kick off the new Cold War in the region, his audacious initiative would eventually fall.