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North Korea: Disentangling a Gordian knot

The announcement by US President Donald Trump on 9 March in response to the invitation for a summit meeting with the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un came as a big surprise. Media analyses vary from being very positive to almost cynically negative. However, according to researcher on Korea Koen De Ceuster they all ignore the complexity and dynamics of the underlying problems. He explains the origins of this rapprochement.

A North Korean poster from 1992, expressing a clear anti-American sentiment.
A North Korean poster from 1992, expressing a clear anti-American sentiment.

‘Although the focus may now be on the possible summit meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, this breakthrough could not have been realised without the active mediation of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and his government team over the course of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The question is why the South Korean government is now advocating the North Korean case. South Korea would naturally be the first victim of a military escalation between the US and North Korea getting out of hand, but president Moon Jae-in is also driven by a clear political vision. He is focusing on rapprochement and commitment rather than a confrontation with North Korea, based on the conviction that it is only the Koreans who can decide the fate of the Asian peninsula. This conviction has formed the cornerstone of every inter-Korean agreement since 1972 and it is historically grounded in the unresolved past of the Korean divide. The ideological conviction does not, however, translate into political blindness. The present South Korean government is continuing to strongly support UN sanctions. In this sense, the current president distinguishes himself from the Korean humanitarian Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) of his political mentors, presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.”

Politically pragmatic

‘Despite evident South Korean support for the UN sanctions, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues his efforts to renew inter-Korean relations. This is one of the many recent indications that North Korea, too, is politically pragmatic without losing sight of ideological continuity out of sight. North Korea has always treated South Korea as a puppet of the US and it never resisted an opportunity to embarrass Seoul in the past. For instance, North Korea regularly refused to discuss the nuclear weapons programme with their southern neighbours; it was a matter between Pyongyang and Washington. Now, Kim Jong Un not only acknowledges that inter-Korean relations are linked to progression in the nuclear issue, he even embraces South Korean mediation.’

A different relationship between the Koreas

‘The different relations of North Korea with South Korea are also noticeable by the way in which, over the course of the Winter Olympic Games, North Korea did not once try to embarrass the South Korean authorities. They did not insist on the presence of the extremely popular though ideologically rigid North Korean girl band Moranbong Band. Instead, they sent a new orchestra specially formed for the occasion. Also noteworthy is that the third inter-Korean summit at the end of April will not take place in Pyongyang, but in the South Korean pavilion Panmunjom on the border. In both 2000 and 2007, South Korean presidents travelled to Pyongyang. In the North Korean media this was depicted as a pilgrimage to the revolutionary capital of the Korean nation. Now, the North Korean leader will visit the South Korean president, which is highly symbolic. Moreover, he is doing so despite his earlier invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang.’

Improving inter-Korean relations

‘Kim Jong Un also is also sticking his neck out for domestic matters. Improving inter-Korean relations was an explicit aspect of his New Year’s speech. The visit of North Korean representatives and their cultural entourage to the Winter Games was front-page news. After returning and in front of the local press, the representatives reported to Kim Jong Un and he instructed them  to speed up the improvement in the relations. The North Korean television also reported at length on his warm welcome of South Korean representatives during a dinner, however without mentioning Kim Jong Un’s pledge that denuclearisation should be the ultimate goal of the discussion with the US.’

Powerful negotiating position

‘Though Kim Jong Un remains non-committal on this omission, his political investment should not be underestimated. Since his New Year’s speech, he has committed to improve inter-Korean relations. Naturally, this has to do with the far-reaching economic sanctions against North Korea, but also with the fact that in 2017 the country persisted in proving that it has a nuclear missile that could target the US mainland. From a North Korean perspective, this puts the country on an equal footing with the US and allows it to negotiate a peace pact and standardisation of relations from a position of power, ensuring its international recognition.’

Chaos in Washington

‘In contrast to all that relative clarity is the confusion of Washington. There is not only institutional chaos and a lack of expertise as a result of the exodus at the State Department, but also political uncertainty. President Trump tweets like an oracle and his government speaks with different several voices. He repeatedly surrounds himself with hardliners when it comes to North Korea, and with his “America First” policy he shows no sign of willingness to consider the interests of the opposition. The question remains how in such an environment a summit meeting between these two historical rivals could ever take place. Does diplomacy stand a chance, or will there be a return to the confrontation and threat of a military escalation? The latter is without a doubt the scenario that is likely to give Moon Jae-in many sleepless nights.’

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