Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1431, (21 - 27 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

A promising engagement

The upcoming US-North Korean summit in Vietnam is make or break, not only for the Korean Peninsula, but also for North Asia, writes Hussein Haridy

US President Donald Trump announced, in his recent State of the Union address, that he would meet Chairman Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean leader, in Hanoi, Vietnam on 27-28 February in their second summit in less than a year.

The two leaders had met in Sentosa, Singapore, 12 June, in the first official face-to-face between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader since the Armistice on the Korean Peninsula in 1953.

The first summit raised hopes that the two sides have come to realise the futility as well as the dangers of continuing confrontation between their respective armies in the Korean Peninsula. The growing advances that North Korea has made in its nuclear arsenal and its intercontinental missiles programmes assured Pyongyang of nuclear deterrence. 

The election of South Korean President Moon Jae-In in mid-2017 proved to be a major factor in bringing Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The warming-up of inter-Korean relations has facilitated the growing rapprochement, albeit hesitant at times, between the United States and North Korea.

The second summit next week could prove to be a milestone despite deeply-entrenched misgivings in Washington concerning the true long-term aims of Chairman Kim. Some American officials doubt if he will ever accept de-nuclearisation. And these doubts have given rise, lately, to misgivings that the talk of denuclearisation of North Korea would shift, in time, to nuclear arms control. In other words, North Korea would be allowed to keep a minimum of nuclear deterrent capacities, without acknowledging this capacity publicly, and in return of iron-clad commitments that Pyongyang will not develop in the future more advanced nuclear arms, nor launch further missile development programmes.

General Robert Abrams, US Forces Korea commander, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing held on 12 February that the announcement of the Hanoi Summit is “a positive sign of continued dialogue, because it certainly [is] the alternative of what we were living with in 2017”. He was referring to the threats and counter threats exchanged between American and North Korean leaders of war breaking out in the Korean Peninsula.

According to his testimony, the United States has not seen a “verifiable change… in North Korea’s military capabilities” of late. He added that the American and South Korean militaries are continuing to “train, conducting combined training and exercises… But it is adjusted in… size, scope, volume, and the timing, so that we can continue to preserve space for negotiations”. American-South Korean military exercises have always been a major concern for North Korea which feared that, at any given moment, they could be a prelude for a land invasion of the North.

In the latest American intelligence assessment that was discussed before the Senate on 30 January, the US intelligence community pointed out that, “[we] continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearisation steps to obtain key US and international concessions.”

Moreover, the Missile Defence Review released in Washington on 17 January stated that, “While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant.” Needless to say, President Trump took exception to this conclusion.

This space that General Abrams talked about is much needed in negotiating with the North. No one should expect that Pyongyang will agree to completely denuclearise in the foreseeable future, if at all, in the absence of an official termination of the Korean War; that is, transforming the 1953 Armistice into a binding peace treaty in the Peninsula, with American and international guarantees that the North Korean system of government won’t be threatened once the nuclear and missile capacities of Pyongyang are reduced. A peace treaty in the Peninsula means, from the perspective of the North, the removal of all American nuclear weapons from South Korea, on the one hand, and a reduction of US troops stationed there, on the other.

What has been interesting to note in the last few months is the change in American expectations, in the near and medium term, as to the limits of North Korean concessions. Ambassador Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, delivered a speech at Stanford University on 31 January in which he argued that there is “little indication that North Korea has decided on complete denuclearisation”. He stressed that the American strategy is, “to change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own”. This kind of realism in the overall American approach to the negotiations with the North is a new and a welcome development and could prove to be the most effective way to deal with the fears, worries, concerns and deep distrust of the North Korean leaders as to the long-term intentions of Washington with regards to the North Korean regime. The way the United States is dealing with Iran and Venezuela right now is not reassuring at all for the North Koreans. Maybe the question uppermost on the mind of Chairman Kim right now is what would have been the attitude of the Trump administration towards the North if Pyongyang has not possessed a nuclear deterrent? Definitely, it is a legitimate question with strategic implications. The fact that President Trump decided to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that had been signed back in July 2015 by the previous Obama administration is not reassuring for the North Koreans.

One interesting development in inter-Korean relations that could give a boost for the upcoming American-North Korean summit in Hanoi is the eagerness demonstrated by some senior South Korean officials to pave the way for an accelerated process of normalisation with the North without waiting for major breakthroughs in American-North Korean nuclear negotiations. For instance, President Moon Jae-In proposed last month to lift international sanctions against the North, as soon as possible. He also wants to reopen jointly-operated industrial complexes inside South Korea and to break ground on North-South railway links, “within a year”. Such positions bode well for the Hanoi Summit. On the other hand, the mayor of the second-largest city in the South, Busan, Ohe Keo-don, said on 14 February that Busan should be the headquarters of a future North Korean Development Bank and that the North could, “open to the outside world more rapidly than expected”. The choice of Hanoi as the venue for the upcoming summit was no coincidence. It meant to convey a powerful message to Chairman Kim that if an Asian country like Vietnam, after decades of wars and destruction, and a former enemy of the United States, pulled off such a spectacular economic miracle, why can’t North Korea repeat the same?

Ambassador Biegun went to Pyongyang lately to prepare for the high-stakes Hanoi Summit. He told a South Korean parliamentary delegation that met him in Washington afterwards that the negotiations he held with his North Korean counterparts were, “constructive and productive”. However, there are doubts on Capitol Hill as to how far the Trump administration is willing to go to accommodate Chairman Kim without meaningful concessions from Pyongyang. Senator Ted Cruz (Republican, Texas) and Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week to urge him to keep the pressure on the North and to persuade Seoul to do the same. The two senators wrote that it is impossible to be sure that the South Korean government is not weakening the American negotiating position with the North with its policy of rapprochement with Pyongyang. Senator Cruz believes that the North Korean leader is trying to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea.

In his remarks at Stanford University, Ambassador Biegun said that, “President Trump and Chairman Kim… have decided to pursue a top-down approach with a breadth of actions that — if successful — will fundamentally transform relations between our two countries.”

Speaking of his relations with the two Koreas, President Trump said last week that, “We are doing great things [with the South Koreans], and North Korea is coming along.” 

The Hanoi Summit could be the long-awaited game changer in the Korean Peninsula and in North East Asia as well.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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