Détente in Pyongyang-Seoul-Washington Ties and the Challenge of Making America Great Again

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The aftermath of the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games in South Korea has become the new foundation for the improved ties between South and North Korea. The impediments to better understanding between the two Koreas, which used to be one country before their 1950-1953 war, on the one hand, and the mésentente that has characterised the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, are gradually being removed and thus making the dream of re-unification of the two Koreas now possible.

For instance, on Monday, 5th March, 2018, Pyongyang government played host to a ten-man delegation from Seoul, South Korea. The purpose of the South Korean visit was first, to respond to the kind invitation by President Tim Jong-un of North Korea to his brother South Korean counter-part, President Moon Jae-in, to visit Pyongyang and therefore to begin preliminary discussions on the modalities of the visit. Second, the visit was to enable discussions on the removal of the misunderstanding between the United States and North Korea, especially in terms of possible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, as well as dowsing the Pyongyang-Washingtonian tension on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Put differently, as revealed from the membership of the delegation, there are two main points of interest being pursued by the delegation: security and reunification. Mr. Suh Hoon, the South Korean Intelligence Chief and Mr. Chung Eui-Yong, the National Security Adviser are part of the visiting team. Hoon and Eui-Yong, who led the delegation, are of cabinet-level ranking. Their membership of the delegation reflects the security interest. Additionally, the delegation was received at the airport by Mr. Ri Son-gwon, the North Korean Reunification Chief, a factor reflecting common interest in re-unification.

As noted by Eui-Yong during the visit, the South Korean President had resolved ‘to maintain the dialogue and improvement in relations between the South and the North… (and) to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.’ For this purpose, Chung said he wanted to ‘hold in-depth discussions on various ways to continue talks between the South and the North’ and also ‘between North Korea and the United States.’ In fact, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un has said that he wants ‘to write a new history of national reunification.’
Thus, the world is currently witnessing a policy declaration favouring tension-lessening in Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang tripartite ties.

With this declaratory intention to reduce tension in the relationships, to what extent is the declaration predicated on sincerity of purpose? Does Kim Jong-un really want a better tripartite understanding among South Korea, United States and North Korea? In the event of a better understanding among the three countries, what will be the impact on Japan? How will Japan react to it? In the same vein, how will China and Russia react to such development in light of the current Cold War in the making? What about the international nuclear politics of some countries being considered responsible and trustworthy in the handling of nuclear matters and some others are considered to be rogue states? Why should some countries have the right to nuclear power status and other sovereign states should not, and yet the international community is expecting their understanding? And perhaps more interestingly, how can President Donald Trump make America great again with the increasing global opposition to US foreign policy in many ramifications? Can the United States enjoy international support beyond the level of its allies with its policy of aggressive deterrence on nuclear proliferation as it affects North Korea?

In responding to these questions, it should first be stated that, as good as the non-belligerent approach of South Korea may be, as good as the lessening of tension in the relationship may also be, and no matter how the initial hostility of the United States to South Korea’s methodological framework to the participation of North Korea in the Olympic winter games and its aftermath may also be, there is no disputing the fact that the final resolution of the crisis as a basis for a lasting peace and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula cannot but be largely dependent on a sincere removal of the dynamics of the misunderstanding at the bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral levels.

The removal of the dynamics at the bilateral level should be considered from a tripartite perspective: Seoul-Washington, Washington-Pyongyang, and Pyongyang-Seoul. Regarding Seoul-Washington ties, the most critical dynamic and impediment to better understanding between Seoul and Pyongyang is the annual military exercises jointly organised by South Korea and the United States. The drilling exercises, code-named Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are held in March and April every year.

For reasons of the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic games held in Pyeongchang in South Korea, and more so, with the indication of North Korea’s interest to participate in the games, the usual dates of the drilling exercises could not be maintained as scheduled. This was why, on Friday, 26th January, 2018 the South Korean Defence Ministry made it clear that the joint military exercises, involving tens of thousands of troops from the United States and South Korea would resume after the conclusion of the Olympic and paralympic winter games.

North Korea considers the holding of the exercises as a direct threat to its national security and survival and has therefore always vehemently opposed it. Pyongyang has not only denounced the exercises scheduled for March and April 2018, but has also promised to take counter measures in the event the exercises do hold. Even though there are fresh reports on the willingness of the Pyongyang authorities to stop their nuclear and missile programmes subject to security guaranty, will security guaranty imply stoppage of the US-South Korean exercises? Will it also imply maintenance of North Korea’s nuclear arsenals and simply prevention of further missile tests and development of plutonium for purposes of nuclear weapons? Will the possible détente among South Korea, United States and North Korea prevent North Korea from supplying nuclear materials to Syria? Will that also prevent Russia from supporting Syria? Many questions but few answers!

The truth is that North Korea wants to be globally acknowledged as a sovereign nuclear power on merit and not on the basis of national sub-servience. It is therefore quite apt to ask at this juncture the extent to which the new willingness of North Korea to dialogue can be fruitful. This question is necessary because both pressure and past efforts at dialogue have woefully failed. Sanctions have also not prevented North Korea from pursuing its nuclear and missile agenda.

Even though some analysts are suggesting that the additional sanctions taken against North Korea are simply biting harder and that is why North Korea is now compelled to accept to dialogue, there is no disputing the fact that North Korea is already satisfied that it had not only defied the international community, but has also achieved its nuclear status objective, fully or in part. The position of North Korea may therefore not be different from that of China and France both of which initially refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but later came back to do so after perfection of their nuclear and missile tests programmes. It really makes little sense for any sovereign state to leave its national security to the call and beck of another sovereign state. This was what China and France tried to avoid during the making of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968. This raises the issues involved at the level of Washington and Pyongyang.

The United States has given a condition for possible bilateral dialogue between it and North Korea, which is North Korea’s acceptance of prior denuclearisation. The United States says North Korea must first ‘denuke’ and North Korea has responded that that is ‘preposterous’ and unacceptable.

At the level of North Korea and South Korea ties is the desire of complete denuclearisation of the whole peninsula, as well as reunification in the mania of the former West and East German which brought down the Berlin Wall. Both countries are eager to reunite. In fact, South Korea has a whole institution dedicated to the matter. In this regard, will denuclearisation at the level of the United States facilitate reunification? If so, how will this impact on the relationships with the neighbouring countries of the new Korea? Answers to these questions bring us to the analysis of the plurilateral and multilateral impediments.

The United States President, Donald Trump, has made clear his intention to make America great again but he did not indicate how. What is made clear are the pointers to the greatness, which have to be articulated through a deductive methodology: the re-definition of some factors, such as immigration control; self-reaffirmation, with greater emphasis, on US interests in international relations; non-acceptance of any international agreements hitherto agreed to by the US but now considered to be inimical to US interests, raising tariffs on importation of steel and aluminium and imposing trade wars; promotion of conflicts of interest in the governance of the United States, which he says he adores much, etc.

In the context of US policy on North Korea, Washington has maintained that North Korea must first comply with the 2005 nuclear obligations contracted with the United States. Meeting this conditionality cannot but be difficult in light of the geo-politics of the region. China is a close ally of North Korea but China does disagree with North Korea on the question of its nuclear and missile agenda. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and China needs North Korea as a strategic buffer zone against possible threats from the United States and its allies. More important, China needs a closer entente with North Korea to be able to contain and control the influence of Russia there.

At the level of Russia, it wants to lend active support to a positive dialogue between South and North Korea. As confirmed by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mr. Igor Morgulov, Russia wants to ‘provide assistance to promoting dialogue between South and North Korea, expanding and deepening it, including in the economic area.’ How do we understand economic cooperation in the context of the international sanctions placed on North Korea?

Russia is on record to have been aiding and abetting the failure of international sanctions against North Korea in many ways. For instance, in August and September 2017, North Korea exported coal to Incheon in South Korea and even to Rumoi in Japan by first going through Russia. As noted by Tara Francis Chan in the Washington Post, “North Korea reportedly laundered Coal through Russia in an Apparent Breach of Sanctions.” In order ‘to evade sanctions, North Korea ships regularly paint over or obscure identification codes, falsify cargo documents, and intentionally disable location transponders.’

Additionally, on seven different occasions, North Korea used three North Korean ships and one Chinese-owned ship, but using the flag of Togo, and turning off its transponder while picking its cargo. This practice might have largely informed the comments and unhappiness of Donald Trump in January 2018, when he said: ‘Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea… What China is helping us with Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.’ Put differently, if China could accept to restrict exportation of oil and coal to North Korea, why is Russia doing the contrary?

Without doubt, Russia is another reliable ally of North Korea, especially as from 2015, when both countries agreed on 2015 as their special ‘Year of Friendship’. Russia invited Kim Jong-un to visit his country as part of activities organised to mark the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation and the victory of the great Patriotic War in Russia, that is, the defeat of Japan and Nazi Germany in 1945.
It should be recalled that Moscow also cancelled about 90% of North Korea’s bilateral debt, which was to the tune of 10 billion US dollars.

The balance of about $1.09 billion was to be invested in infrastructure projects and paid back over 20 years. And true again, Russia has pledged to invest $25 billion in North Korea’s creaking rail network but subject to being given access to North Korea’s mineral resources. This is the environment of bilateral ties between the two countries against which the understanding of any détente should be put.

Additionally, Japanese interests cannot be ignored. As explained by the Japanese Defence Minister, Mr. Itsunori Onodera, ‘in order for there to be meaningful talks with North Korea, it must commit to complete, verifiable and irreversible abandonment of its nuclear and missiles programmes and take concrete steps towards denuclearisation… Our country will continue cooperation with the US, and among the US, Japan, and South Korea, there is no change in our stance of pulling maximum pressure by all means to get North Korea to change its policies.’

In the thinking of many Japanese strategic thinkers, ‘if North Korea sits down with Washington, it will have absolutely no interest whatsoever in sitting down with Japan.’ In fact, some of them see Donald Trump ‘as an unpredictable guy. If anything will help elevate his approval domestically, he’ll jump.’

Perhaps, most fearfully, Brad Glosseman, a visiting professor at the Tama University, has put the main concern of Japan thus: ‘Japan’s eternal fear is that it will be cut out of negotiations over the state of relations with North Korea… If America goes with talks, it aligns more closely to South Korea than Japan at a time when relations with South Korea are rocky’ (vide Linda Sieg’s “Possibility of North Korea détente Stirs Diplomatic Angst in Japan; Reuters, March 7, 2018).

Without any scintilla of doubt, Glosseman cannot be more correct, especially in light of the unending controversy over the issue of ‘Comfort Women,’ that is, South Korean women, who were forced into sexual enslavement in the Japanese wartime military brothels. In 2015, an agreement was reached to cast the issue into the dustbin of history, but since the accession of Moon Jae-in into power in May 2017, the issue has been given a recidivist character. The Japanese may not be wrong by thinking that if there is to be any war between the United States and North Korea, the first victims are not likely to be South Koreans but the Japanese.

The foregoing is to simply show the extent of inclemency of the plurilateral and multilateral environment of a would-be reconciled relationship between and among North Korea, South Korea and the United States. In this context, how far can Donald Trump go in making America great again?

Trump’s Bastardisation of US Greatness
Donald Trump’s foreign policy has drastically reduced the international respect hitherto enjoyed by the great people of the United States. Put differently, if we consider the various opinion polls, public debates in various countries, and particularly in the European Union Member States, which are the most credible allies of the United States, the US under Donald Trump, has only succeeded in increasing the number of its enemies. The enmity has the potential to be seriously deepened in the foreseeable future.

For instance, Trump came up on Thursday 8th March, 2018 with an increase in tariffs on steel and aluminium imports: 25% on steel imports and 10% tariff on aluminium. US major allies are not only against the increase, but are also prepared to reciprocate, implying that a trade war is in the making, and Trump is reportedly to be happy with such a war because US trade with many countries is in deficit. More important, the current trade practices of many foreign countries, Trump has argued, threaten US national security, hence the need to address the problems through a review of the trade policy. Is this the truth? How do other Americans look at the issue and the implications?

Mathew Yglesias, in his “The Real Danger to the US Economy in Trump’s Trade Policy: It’s Not the Tariffs, It’s What Happens Next,” on March 8, 2018, says, to consider that ‘Trump doesn’t understand trade policy correctly sounds almost redundant, as he doesn’t appear to understand any aspect of federal policy correctly. A critical difference with trade is that a protectionist viewpoint is something Trump has clung to strongly over the years even as much of the rest of his political thinking has evolved.’ More important, ‘Trump is governing in a vortex of ignorance.’
Perhaps most disturbingly, 107 House Republicans wrote a letter to Trump pleading with him not to impose any tariff. Many Senators also did advise. Trump failed to listen and Republican Senator Jeff Flake has proposed a bill to nullify the tariffs. This means that Donald Trump has enemies at home and abroad.

Second, Donald Trump does not have any diplomatic culture, especially in terms of his capacity to relate with courtesies to his counterpart Heads of State and correctly communicating US foreign policy interests. For instance, in responding to the nuclear missile tests of North Korea, Donald Trump said those of the United States are ‘bigger and more powerful.’ He even warned North Korea that the US would respond with ‘fire and fury.’ The bitter truth, most unfortunately, is that, as at today, it is the North Korean leader that is dictating the direction of the détente. The détente cannot be rightly said to have been prompted by international sanctions as they had hardly worked in the past with the backing of North Korea by China and Russia.

Consequently, in light of Donald Trump’s inability to reconcile his errors of aggressive deterrence in US relations with North Korea, with the uncertainty of outcome that has come to characterise international reactions, especially in terms of US economic protectionism which can lead to a renewed 1823 US isolationism, there is no way the journey to the making of America great again can be said to have begun. Diplomacy is a culture. It is an art. Its application requires great tact and logic. Success in business does not mean possibility of success in diplomacy. Donald Trump must therefore learn how to be diplomatic and making haste slowly. He is already killing America softly without the people making him to slow the speed.