Like 2018, this year was dominated by foreign policy. Like in the previous one, this policy failed to produce much in the way of meaningful results. And, unlike the previous one, we enter the New Year with little certainty of what the future might hold.
Since January 2018 and until roughly April 2019 we have seen what the South Korean opposition nicknamed a “fake show of peace,” when Seoul and Pyongyang regularly engaged in smiles, handshakes, and promises of a new age of peace. This new age lasted for slightly more than a year, and then it all stopped. Since April’s “elections” to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the DPRK has shut the door to South Korea, refusing all future calls.
Why did this happen? Since he was elected in 2017, President Moon Jae-in has had very little room to maneuver in his policy towards the North. He has wanted to engage, but the strict sanctions regime has prevented him from doing so – the “maximum” pressure policy of the U.S. has not budged.
Moon was thus caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Should he go too far to the left, the White House would have been displeased. Should he go too far to the right, North Korea would have walked away from talks.
Moon Jae-in was thus forced to settle for a show in the place of an actual policy. Lots of smiles meant that Korea was much less likely to see a war in the future – a prospect many feared in 2017 – and they also helped a great deal with the President’s approval ratings.
However, the strange peace of 2018 was, to quote the Gospel of Matthew, “like a person who builds a house on sand.” The difference between President Moon and the character from Jesus’s parable was that Moon was not a foolish man – he would rather have built this house on a rock, but had no other choice.
Nevertheless, the result was the same. “When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash,” continued the biblical story – as we see, this is exactly what happened.
Ultimately, Moon Jae-in’s policy was too right wing for North Korea, and the inter-Korean peace charade was stopped by the DPRK, the same power which had initiated it.
Perhaps the readers are familiar with the conspiracy theory, promoted by some on the South Korean right, that Moon is a pro-North Korean nationalist actively working to surrender South Korea to Pyongyang. When you hear this nonsense again, you may want to remind whoever shares it that it is the fact that Moon was so unwilling to cooperate with the North that the DPRK cut talks with him.
Moon could have, perhaps, tried balancing for a little longer. There were some options he did not use. For example, meetings of divided families could have been conducted on a more frequent basis. Next, restoring tourism to Kumgang Mountains – and expanding it to other parts of North Korea – would have not violated any sanctions. Yet, for the President, the most important thing was relations with Washington. As a result, the rapprochement never went beyond rhetoric – and ultimately failed completely.
In five days, we will face a day that will bring sorrow and destitution to many North Korean families, a sorry fate imposed on them not by the regime but by the international community. That date is December 22, 2019, when the two-year deadline set by Resolution 2397 of the Security Council expires – after which each and every North Korean worker abroad must be deported back to the DPRK.
This resolution was interesting because of the position of the Kremlin. Moscow’s usual line on the DPRK is “everything that Beijing says is true, as a matter of fact we were going to make an exactly identical suggestion, so please call it ‘Joint suggestion of Russia and China’ from now on,” but here the delegation actually voiced its own opinion – and forced the deadline to be two years, not one, as the U.S. and China suggested.
One should note that there were two more signatures to this cruel resolution – that of the UK and France. Like Moscow, London and Paris also recognized that North Korea’s policy is conducted through the great power they support – and their duty is to sign what they were given.
In five days, we will face a day that will bring sorrow and destitution to many North Korean families
Still, while in this particular case Moscow, uncharacteristically, exercised some independence, neither Paris nor London did. It is sad to see how both countries are willing to rubber-stamp everything the United States suggests on North Korea, even when it means hurting innocents for no good reason. When Sergey Lavrov’s diplomats are the only ones in the room who consider the plight of the common North Korean, it is truly a sorry state of affairs.
It is quite possible that the Russian delegation was driven by a logic similar to that of a famous parable about Hodja Nasreddin – that something would change within two years and the deadline would not have to be enforced. But here we are, in December 2019, and nothing has changed. There are five days left before the workers can say goodbye to their salaries and any freedom they have from the ruling Kims.
From what this author has heard, there will be moves to circumvent these resolutions by admitting the workers back on tourist and educational visas. If this actually happens, this author would like to express his full support to officials working to help these North Koreans to stay overseas, as there are laws which are to be obeyed and there are laws which must be actively opposed.
Assuming the rest of December will see no miracles; on January 1, we will likely listen to a highly-militaristic New Year’s day speech by Kim Jong Un. What will happen next? More tests? More sanctions? Or, perhaps, the beginning of a Second Korean War?
Remember, the current U.S. President is the one who once threatened to totally destroy North Korea. Even if he does not want to – and from what we have seen, Donald Trump is, in most cases, reluctant to use armed force, he still cares a lot about being re-elected, and once North Korea stops behaving itself, you can be sure that all Democrats will use this as a political weapon against Trump.
The sad lesson of the First World War teaches us that a political crisis can escalate into a major war even when both sides do not want it to happen. For example, this author understands, a North Korean artillery division stationed at the inter-Korean border has been given an order to attack Seoul in case of a war breaking out, without additional authorization from Pyongyang.
Should the coming crisis escalate, the general in charge may execute this order. This is just one of many scenarios in which something may go wrong – and if it does, the death toll of the Second Korean War could easily rise up to the millions.
Kim Jong Un is truly his father’s son
If, hopefully, reason prevails, and as of now this is still a much more likely scenario, then we are likely to see further isolation of North Korea, with even more militarism and an even grimmer fate for the North Korean people.
Kim Jong Un is truly his father’s son. Like Kim Jong Il before him, he is willing to enact some reforms – but only as long as long as they do not threaten his power.
The decentralization of the economy, conducted in the first half of the 2010s, allowed the country to sustain itself, as otherwise it would have faced economic collapse instead of stagnation. Yet it has been about four years since the reforms ceased, and some were even reversed.
What we have now, then, is a outlook where reforms are unlikely and there is a small but real chance of a full-scale war breaking out.
The immediate future for North Korea does not look bright. Let us hope it will be dark, but not catastrophic – as the current situation does not allow us to hope for much more.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.Tomorrow is December 17, 2019, and it has been eight years since Kim Jong Il died and eight years since Kim Jong Un ascended to the North Korean throne.Like 2018, this year was dominated by foreign policy. Like in the previous one, this policy failed to produce much in the way
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.