On the morning of February 10, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met some unusual guests: a high level North Korean delegation.
Technically, it was led by octogenarian Kim Yong Nam, often described as North Korea’s nominal head of state, but the actual leader of the team was Kim Yo Jong.
Officially she is a rather humble “deputy head of a Central Committee department” (roughly equivalent to a vice-minister), but she is the sister of Kim Jong Un and, arguably, one of the most powerful people in the country.
The North Koreans came to the Blue House to deliver a diplomatic coup: President Moon received an official invitation to visit Pyongyang in the near future. Being a good politician, he saw a possible trap, and did not give an immediate answer.
However, the new initiative once again confirmed what has always been known: the North Koreans are brilliant diplomats, who know how to exploit the weak points and divisions of their enemies.
Since mid-December, North Korean diplomacy has largely been about two interconnected goals. First, Pyongyang is working hard to reduce the probability of a U.S.-initiated military strike against it. Second, it is doing what it can to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
ROCKET MAN TAKES A BREAK
Until late November North Korea was determined to reach the Holy Grail of their nuclear and missile program: the development and deployment of an ICBM force capable of hitting the continental United States.
With the successful tests of the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 rockets, they have come very close to achieving this goal. In the recent past, they might have pressed even harder, but this time Pyongyang has encountered an unexpected but important problem: a very peculiar U.S. President.
In the recent months, we have seen numerous indications that a military option is being seriously discussed in Washington. It is often claimed that President Donald Trump is willing to neglect the risks of triggering a massive war and deliver a series of limited strikes against North Korean military targets.
One cannot be sure if such reports are genuine, or merely part of a well-orchestrated psychological pressure campaign, but all interested parties – China, North Korea, ROK, and Russia – have seemingly decided to err on a safe side, and assume that, this time, the White House means business.
Pyongyang has encountered an unexpected but important problem: a very peculiar U.S. President
The North Koreans do not like this turn of events. In the event of a major war, Pyongyang is capable of delivering massive damage on the U.S. allies, and perhaps even some on the U.S. itself, but at the end of the day it is bound to be defeated.
Even if total defeat is avoided, a war will cost many lives, including the lives of many members of the North Korean elite. So, the leaks from the White House made a deep impression, and the North Korean government has decided to slow down – in a face-saving manner, of course.
In late November, DPRK media declared that the country had completed the development of its nuclear deterrent, an apparent face-saving way to justify an undeclared moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches which, indeed, has been tacitly introduced following the Hwasong-15 launch in late November.
The absence of new launches now can be explained by the lack of need for further testing, since all work has been done and successfully completed.
TO THE OLYMPICS
This gesture was followed by the sudden decision to dispatch a North Korean team to the Olympic Games.
This move is aimed at killing two birds with one stone. On one hand, it creates the impression that North Korea is willing to talk and should not be seen as a missile-rattling menace. On the other, it is meant to build bridges with the Moon administration whose top members were equally uneasy about the looming threat of U.S. military strikes.
President Moon comes from a political camp which for decades has been skeptical of the U.S. and more soft on North Korea. His political mentor, President Roh Moo-hyun, was, arguably, the most anti-American ROK president ever and a strong proponent of the Sunshine policy. Moon on the campaign trail promised to improve relations with North Korea – even to the point of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Zone.
Moon Jae-in’s ideological inclinations might be not that important: any responsible South Korean leader would feel worried by the signals from the White House. If a war is about to erupt on the Korean peninsula, it will be Koreans, in both the North and South, who will pay the highest price. So, Moon acted accordingly, and welcomed the North Korean “charm offensive.”
Seoul’s freedom of action is severely limited
The assumption goes that if the North Koreans are engaged in some kind of diplomatic and cultural exchanges, they will appear less dangerous and more ready to compromise on the nuclear issue.
Such an impression will reduce the chances that U.S. cruise missile and bombs will descend on the Korean land in the immediate future – exactly what both Pyongyang and Seoul want.
LIMITED ROOM TO MOVE
But Seoul’s freedom of action is severely limited. Irrespective of his own ideological convictions, Moon jae-in is aware that in the new, increasingly unstable, situation in the region, the strategic alliance with the U.S. is vital for his country’s security, and that trade with the U.S. is important for its well-being. Hence, he has to listen carefully to what Donald Trump says and cannot challenge Washington.
In practice, this means that Seoul cannot restart any kind of economic cooperation with Pyongyang, since such actions will be seen as a breach of the sanctions regime. In practice, it also means that Moon has to limit himself to nice symbolic gestures.
And now he has to deal with the Invitation.
The North Korean logic is clear: if President Moon goes to Pyongyang, this, first, will help them win precious time and postpone the possible crisis. As long as the trip is being prepared, the U.S. will not shoot. This is what both Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in want.
A Pyongyang trip by President Moon will also annoy the Americans – even if the entire visit is limited to exchanges of diplomatic niceties and broad smiles. If North Korea gets any kind of the material assistance from the South, the U.S. will be really annoyed, relations between the allies will be strained to the extreme – exactly what the North Koreans want.
On top of this, Moon Jae-in’s willingness to go to Pyongyang will be seen by many South Korean voters as a sign of weakness and capitulation before North Korea. Given that North Korea is seen with growing dislike not only by aging conservatives, but also by the younger progressives, such a prospect is not good.
If President Moon goes to Pyongyang, this will help them win precious time and postpone the possible crisis
No doubt in the near future we will hear that the North Korean leaders will use President Moon’s visit as an opportunity to de-escalate the conflict. They might have such intention, but at the end of the day the current conflict is between the U.S. and North Korea, not between the two Koreas, and President Moon can, at best, deliver a message from Washington.
The fundamentals remain unchanged and no summit will change that. The North Koreans are determined to finish their nuclear and missile program and become the world’s third country capable of obliterating an American city or two.
They likely judge that in the current situation further advances are prohibitively risky, and are ready for a pause, but in the long run their goal is not going to change. The U.S. is not going to accept such a situation, so tensions are bound to return soon.
The Pyongyang summit, if it happens, will change little in the long run. But it will help to win time, and, given the real risk of war we are facing now, this is a good news indeed: a few months of relaxation are better than a few months of a slow-motion slide towards a possible war.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House