By Bola A. Akinterinwa
There is a recent détente in the nuclear stalemate between the United States and North Korea. The détente has the potential to reduce the tension and speed of the journey to a possible nuclear war of which the two countries are currently the co-pilots. Détente is an important diplomatic word in peace-making and international relations lexicon. Unlike entente, also a French word, which means an ‘understanding,’ of the type of ‘gentleman agreement’ or a ‘memorandum of understanding,’ détente is about easing of tension and pressure, the outcome of which is improvement in a relationship.
An entente can be cordial in objective, but belligerent in style and implementation. For example, the Entente Cordiale of April 8, 1904 done by Great Britain and France, was to enable diplomatic cooperation against Germany, considered then as a common enemy. In fact, the entente cordiale was a direct resultant from the belief of Théophile Delcassé, French Foreign Minister as from 1898, that a ‘Franco-British understanding could give France some levels of security against German system of alliances in Western Europe.
What is noteworthy about the 1904 Entente Cordiale is that it granted freedom of action to Great Britain in Egypt and to France in Morocco, but bearing in mind the interests of Spain in Morocco. Additionally, the Entente Cordiale not only required Great Britain to cede the Los Islands (off French Guinea) to France, but also defined the international borders of Nigeria in favour of France, as well as gave France the control of the upper Gambia valley. In return, France renounced exclusive right to certain fisheries off the Newfoundland. In this regard, the ultimate purpose of the Franco-British understanding was targeted at Germany, the main agent provocateur of World War I. Eventually, when the first World War broke out in 1914, the 1904 Entente Cordiale came in handy as one of the good bases of the anti-Germany struggle.
On the contrary, détente, the origin of which is traceable to a Latin word, detendita or detendere (past participle), is essentially about slackening or loosening. In fact, détente is a compound word in origin: de, meaning ‘far away from; and tendere, meaning stretch. Consequently, when discussing détente in the context of diplomatic negotiations, it simply refers to the taking away of irritants in a relationship. It refers to relief. In this regard, in order to understand the fundamental difference between an entente and détente, we must look at entente as a fait accompli, as a concluded agreement, on the one hand, and détente as a process of achieving an entente, on the other hand. Détente is more about means or an instrument. It is transitory in nature and can take different forms.
For example, the nature of the new détente in the US-North Korea is limited in scope to the disagreement over acquisition of nuclear capacity by North Korea. The nature is very political, especially in light of the conflicting national interests involved, as well as the conflict between the supranational authority of the United Nations and the authority of the Member States of the international community. How do we explain and understand the emergence of the détente and its dynamics? US President, Donald Trump has declared his intention to teach the North Korean leader some lessons, probably in the manner of the 1945 little man in Hiroshima and the ‘fat man’ in Nagasaki. In the eyes of Donald Trump, Jong-Un of North Korea is, at best, a nuclear neophyte who will require the type of ‘little man’ dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. More importantly, what is the prospect of the détente in light of the international politics of it?
The Issues Involved
There are three main issues on which US-North Korean political stalemate is largely predicated: unity of North Korea and South Korea, North Korea’s nuclearisation efforts, and the controversy over whose national sovereignty is superior. Regarding national unity, it should be recalled that the Koreans fought a civil war for three years, one month and two days, that is, from 25 June, 1950 to 27 July, 1953 at the Korean peninsula. North Korea invaded South Korea following border clashes but the invasion did not succeed as South Korea enjoyed the active support of the United States.
In the same vein, the United States-led United Nations invasion of North Korea amounted to nought because China and the former Soviet Union also supported North Korea. It was therefore a war in which North Korea, China and Soviet Union faced South Korea, United States and its allies. Even when China invaded South Korea, it was successfully repelled. The war was brought to an end on July 27, 1953 with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, done in English, Korean and Chinese, and which provided for the ‘complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.’
Most unfortunately, however, the armistice agreement was not, stricto sensu, a peace agreement but essentially for demilitarisation. It established a demilitarised zone, and by so doing, a new border. It compelled a cease-fire and enabled the repatriation of prisoners of war. Consequently, the issue of unity of the two Koreas has always remained on the front burner.
There is no disputing the fact that both countries want to unite in the same way West Germany and East German did by breaking the Berlin wall. In fact, there is a special Ministry for Unification in South Korea but the international politics has been a major impediment. For instance, many countries, including some veto powers of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, and France), as well as some very prominent developed countries, such as Canada, Belgium, West Germany before unification, Australia, Netherlands, the Nordic countries, Spain and New Zealand are backing South Korea. The main reason is the need to sustain capitalism and market economy. North Korea also has its supporters: China and Russia as veto power supporters, Eastern Germany before unification, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, India, Mongolia.
From the foregoing, the supporters have various vested interests. The United States does not appear to be interested in the unity of the two Koreas because of the need to sustain democracy and capitalism in South Korea. North Korea has a socialist system. China does not also appear to have much interest in a united Korea for reasons of national security. China shares international border with North Korea. In this regard, North Korea serves as a buffer zone for China.
Besides, it should be recalled that the United States is not only considered an enemy state in the eyes of North Korea but also particularly in the perception of the Beijing authorities. For instance, the United States favours two Chinas (Mainland China, which is socialist and Taiwan, which is capitalist) but China is vehemently opposed to this. China is only interested in condoning ‘One China, Two Systems.’ Hence, China and the United States have their own Cold War within the context of the Korean nuclear saga. In light of the foregoing, to what extent can there be a lasting détente in the context of a divided or unity-seeking Koreans?
This issue of unity should also be underscored in light of the foundation of the détente, which is the manifestation of a quest for togetherness. The North Korean leader, Jong-Un, proposed that the two Koreas show togetherness by marching together at the Winter Olympic Games scheduled to take place in February 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This was not the first time. The two Koreas initiated sports diplomacy as far back as 1957 with the ultimate objective of forming a united team at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The objective failed. The 2000 attempt succeeded as athletes from both sides operated under a single flag that depicted the Korean peninsula during the opening ceremony of the games in Sydney.
North Korea’s proposal to participate in the coming Olympic winter games in Pyeongchang could not have been rejected in light of the common quest for national unity. It is useful to also remember that the South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, was on record to have also been calling for reunification of the two Koreas. As noted by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith, President Moon Jae-in was once ‘an advocate of former President Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with the North’ (vide their “The Challenge of Turning inter-Korean Thaw into Long-term détente” (Reuters, World News, January 10, 2018). He therefore saw North Korea’s request for participation in the Olympic winter games as a new possibility to douse the nuclear tension between the United States and South Korea, on the one hand, and North Korea, on the other. This brings us to the second dynamic of the relationship: nuclearisation or non-nuclearisation?
Politics of Nuclear Capacity Acquisition
The international politics of nuclear capacity acquisition is largely responsible for the tension in the bilateral relationships between North Korea and the United States. The politics is located at the level of the distinction between the nuclear-weapon-states and the non-nuclear-weapon-states as provided for in the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, generally referred to as Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The nuclear weapon-states are countries that had tested a nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967 and these countries are essentially the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.
The NPT, which was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970 for an initial period of 25 years, before it was renewed indefinitely by consensus on 11 May, 1995, is predicated on three main pillars: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; disarmament; and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
North Korea ratified the NPT on December 12, 1985 but gave notice of withdrawal on January 10, 2003 following US allegations of non-faithfulness by North Korea to the NPT. The notice of withdrawal came into effect on April 10, 2003. Why the withdrawal? ‘As provided for in the NPT, the NPT non-nuclear-weapon-states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon-states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.’
However, the NPT is only good on paper as it is not seriously adhered to: the nuclear-weapons-states do not want to disarm. They still have more than 22,000 nuclear warheads in their combined stockpile, And yet, they do not want new nuclear-weapons-states. The argument often advanced is that others cannot be well trusted with the use of nuclear energy. When other world leaders reflect on the experiences of the 1945 US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially that the United States prohibited by law the transfer of its nuclear weapons to any other country; if we take note of the 1961 United Nations General Assembly resolution seeking to negotiate a treaty that would ban countries without nuclear weapons from acquiring them and from transmitting information necessary for their manufacture to nations not possessing nuclear weapons; when the lessons of the 1962 Cuban nuclear missiles are also considered; if we remember that the 1963 Sovieto-American agreement on the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which did not ban nuclear weapons tests underground; and more importantly, if we consider that some countries refused to sign the NPT because they too wanted and still want to become nuclear-weapon-states; the struggle by North Korea to underscore sovereign equality, right to self-reliance in the area of scientific development cannot but be well understood. This brings us to the consideration of the third dynamic: North Korea’s non-acceptance of American hegemony.
The main rationale for North Korea’s nuclearisation struggle is how the United States is perceived. North Korea considers the United States as its number one enemy, a belief that informed the need to prepare to repel any eventual American aggression. As noted above, North Korea ratified the NPT in 1985 and withdrew from it in 2003. The withdrawal was to have free hands in the acquisition of nuclear power status. This was why in 2005, on February 10, North Korea made it clear to the whole world that it had already had nuclear weapons and therefore pulled out of the Six-party talks, which was hosted by China.
As the United States is considered the main target of North Korea’s nuclear missile tests, let us recall what the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in 2005: ‘we had already taken the resolute action of pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and have manufactured nuclear arms for self-defence to cope with the Bush administration’s evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ In this regard, North Korea’s nuclear strategy is to nip in the bud any attempt to isolate it by the US Bush administration in international relations.
More recently, following the acceptance of South Korea to consider the possible participation of North Korea in next month’s Olympic winter games, the delegations of both countries met in the Truce Village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on January 9, 2018. The two delegations met for eleven hours and agreed to hold military talks and facilitate North Korea’s participation in the February Olympic games. However, when South Korea raised the issue of North Korea’s ICBM tests, North Korea flared up and made it clear that its nuclear missiles are not meant for their kith and kin in South Korea but for the Americans. Therefore, North Korea’s nuclear policy was not meant for discussion.
In essence, the détente, the origin of which should be credited to North Korea’s request to participate in the winter Olympic games in South Korea, can be taken advantage of in preventing a nuclear war. The request and approval has become a win-win result for the three main stakeholders, in particular, and the international community, in general.
For President Moon Jae-in, it was a commendable success as North Korea will not only be participating in the games but has also accepted to hold further military talks. Even if there was no agreement on North Korea’s nuclear tests, it was generally still believed that the holding of the games would not be disrupted by fresh nuclear tests by North Korea. At the level of both the United States and North Korea, the request has been a major face-saving mechanism as the two countries have been moving towards an unprecedented nuclear war before the North Korean request. North Korea cannot but have more time for perfection of its tests if need be.
With this win-win situation, what is the future of the détente? Will it last or it was simply coincidental, accidental or incidental? Whatever is the case, the détente cannot but have three main challenges to be addressed: unification of South Korea and North Korea; what to do with North Korea as a new nuclear-weapon-state because North Korea has not only successfully tested nuclear devices but is also defying UN sanctions; and badly damaged image of the United States under Donald Trump, especially in terms of his uncouth mania of conduct and management of foreign policy. The dignity, credibility and respect to which the United States used to lay claim has been seriously tainted beyond repairs. Most unfortunately!