So, we all know the news. In just a week, the situation in Korea has made yet another U-turn. A third Inter-Korean summit is planned, and an unprecedented North Korea-U.S. meeting appears possible. Pyongyang has indicated its willingness to talk and, for the first time since 2006, made a commitment to eventual denuclearization.
All these things are completely unprecedented, and it is quite normal to wonder “why is all this happening?” The answer is simple: like it or not, Donald Trump’s policy has been remarkably successful – so far, at least.
From the first days of his administration, Donald Trump’s White House has been busy sending signals that a possible military strike against North Korea is now under serious consideration, and the bellicose rhetoric of the President’s tweets was often remarkably similar to that hitherto used in the official pronouncements of the North Korean government.
Things were not limited to rhetoric alone. There has been a slow-motion increase in the American military presence in and around the Korean peninsula and many U.S. officials with reputations as soft liners have lost their positions.
We will likely never know whether Donald Trump really meant business when he was tweeting about a coming war. I’m inclined to believe that all this bellicosity was largely an exercise in good old bluffing – but who knows?
At least, the governments of the region were less sanguine: they all have chosen to act on assumption that Trump’s threats are real. The loud talk about “fire and fury,” combined with the sight of aircraft carriers sailing towards Korean shores, have not failed to impress concerned parties, including the North and South Koreans, as well as the Chinese.
Towards the end of 2017, the positions of all these countries underwent rather dramatic changes – and the best or only explanation for this is simple: these countries were increasingly afraid of a war breaking out.
Later last year, China began to properly implement exceptionally harsh sanctions targeting North Korea. For over a decade, China has constituted the major problem for supporters of a harsh sanctions regime. While no fan of the North Korean nuclear program, the country was afraid that excessive economic pressure on North Korea would provoke economic and even political instability in Pyongyang. Understandably, Beijing did not want to deal with a Syria-like situation in a nuclear-armed country nearby.
However, the looming threat of U.S. military action has provoked China to change its attitude. The possibility of an economic collapse and a political crisis in North Korea, however disturbing, is clearly a lesser threat to Beijing than a full-scale war waged on its border.
Therefore, China decided to do something it had never done before and introduce an unprecedented set of sanctions, quite close to an embargo on trade with North Korea.
Obviously, China believes that harsh pressure might make North Korea more susceptible to the idea of negotiations. It is also hoped that China’s full participation in the toughest ever sanctions regime can be cited when Chinese diplomats attempt to talk their American counterparts out of launching a military operation.
Washington’s bellicosity had an even greater impact on the two Koreas.
The Moon administration has been positively terrified by the news from Washington. While the general South Korean public remained blissfully unaware of the scale of the danger Korea faces in the Trump era, Seoul decision-makers have realized the gravity of the situation: in the case of a war it would be Koreans on both sides of the DMZ who would pay the heaviest price.
The looming threat of U.S. military action has made China change its attitude
However, Trump’s real or feigned bellicosity has had its biggest impact on North Korea. In the past, the country’s decision-makers were sure that the Americans were highly unlikely to react to any kind of action with the use of force: they understood the hostage value of Seoul and its 25 million population. It was long assumed that the Americans would not risk a war.
However, it took only a few months for them to realize that this U.S. president was different from his predecessors and he was indeed likely to apply force with little regard for the consequences for U.S. allies.
In this new situation, the North Koreans had to change their line. Under a different President, the DPRK would probably have successfully completed their ICBM development and then, perhaps, would start negotiations with the U.S., trying to squeeze as much economic and political concessions as possible.
However, it is not an advisable line when you have to deal with Donald Trump’s Washington. So, from November, North Korea suddenly changed from the usual bellicosity and threats to an unusually reconciliatory line.
OUR WORK HERE IS DONE
To start with, in late November 2017, after the successful test of Hwasong-15, the North Korean government suddenly claimed that it had successfully completed the development of its nuclear deterrence program.
This was patently untrue: the Hwasong-15 was tested only once and therefore could not be seen as a reliable weapons system. However, the declaration provided North Korea with a good face-saving opportunity to introduce a de facto moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests.
Pyongyang understood well that every new test or launch significantly increased the probability of an American strike.
The North Koreans are likely going to make serious concessions
The North Korean leaders know that in case of such a strike, they can inflict serious damage on the U.S., and above all, its South Korean ally. But they also realize that at the end of the day, they would have no chance of winning a major war and that even a limited conflict would still produce dangerous results for the regime. Therefore, their major task was simple: to pacify Donald Trump and reduce the chances of a U.S. military operation.
Additionally, they might be worrying about the eventual impact of sanctions which, as we remember, are also result of the U.S.’s new policy. Sanctions so far have not produced much influence on the local economic situation, but in the near future, they are likely to become a significant challenge. Pyongyang will want them reversed as soon as possible.
Willingness to talk and even pay lip service to the ‘denuclearization’ slogan, however, doesn’t mean that North Koreans are going to compromise on the fundamentals. Having learned the lessons of Libya, Iraq, and Ukraine, the North Korean leaders sincerely (and with good reason) believe that only nuclear weapons can be seen as a guarantee of their survival. They are not going to compromise on this, no matter what.
So what should we expect from the coming U.S.-North Korea summit and other negotiations? The North Koreans are likely going to make serious concessions. It is also possible that they will not demand much in return: they will be happy if the Americans don’t start shooting and if the more damaging sanctions are lifted.
CARDS ON THE TABLE
What are these North Korean concessions likely to be? The coming deal will almost certainly include a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches. It is quite possible that a certain level of international monitoring of nuclear sites will be permitted.
There may be some bans on ground testing of missile engines as well, and the nuclear reactor will be closed. All these measures are easy to verify – it is very hard to conduct a nuclear test in secret, after all.
The coming agreement is unlikely to be perfect
There are measures which are more difficult to verify – like a ban on further production of nuclear material. This ban would require regular inspections, and many of the sites where fissile material is produced are unknown. Judging by earlier experiences, the North Koreans will cheat, no matter how hard inspectors will try. If their cheating is exposed, it might trigger an even greater crisis.
One can wonder, of course, how long such a compromise will last. The honest answer is that it will last as long as North Korea remains in fear of possible U.S. military retaliation. In other words, Pyongyang is likely to honor the agreement until the end of President Trump’s term of office. What will happen next is a completely different story.
The coming agreement is unlikely to be perfect. First, it will not include denuclearization, even though North Koreans will probably pay lip service to their supposed commitment to giving up nukes in the distant future. Second, this agreement will be honored only as long as the use of force by the U.S. government looks reasonably plausible.
However, even such an imperfect agreement is significantly better than any realistic alternative – above all, a full-scale war. Over the last year, we have had seen a slow-motion slide towards such a conflict, and one cannot help but welcome signs of a improvement.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
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