By now, the situation around the Korean peninsula has become relatively stable. Meanwhile, the events that were taking place during 2016 and 2017 appeared almost as much of a shock to the international community in North-East Asia, when viewed from their local perspective, as did the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 from the global one. Initially, engaged in a series of acts of brinkmanship, Pyongyang and Washington were sliding to the very edge of an abyss, but later they both managed to demonstrate reserve and even caution. Moreover, in 2018 and 2019, negotiations that had earlier seemed unimaginable did take place. Thus, US President Donald Trump had three consecutive meetings with head of DPRK Kim Jong-un, while the latter traveled to Beijing several times; also the first-ever visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang happened, talks between Kim Jong-un and President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in were held, and the former’s first-ever meeting with Russia’sRussia’s President Vladimir Putin occurred. Also, numerous talks between the countries’ diplomats were underway. So far, however, no palpable results have been yielded, while the North Korean nuclear missile programme still remains the most destabilising factor in North-East Asia.
Still it has to be admitted that a major impediment to achieving an agreement on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula has not only been caused by the contradictions among the states of the region but also by the ongoing general trends in international relations globally. Today, there seems to be an erosion of the entire system of agreements in the area of arms control, which were established during the times of the Cold War. By now, the Russian-American Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles Treaty of 1987 have become defunct, while the chances for a prolongation of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms of 2010 are minimal. The multilateral agreements on arms control now are also subject to criticism from various quarters; therefore, their future survival seems even more problematic. Under these circumstances, the probability of signing any new agreements, even those concerning specific issues such as North Korea or Iran, appears even less likely.
Moreover, both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are keen on bilateral rather than multilateral talks. This doubtless increases the political weight of the dialogue between the USA and the DPRK, which makes it more difficult to find those solutions that would be palatable to all the participants in the affairs in North-East Asia.
Presently, the gap in the positions of the United States and North Korea is so significant that one could fathom finding a compromise between them only in theory. Some politicians and experts hope that Pyongyang could give up its nuclear missile weapons under international supervision in exchange for lifting sanctions, generous economic assistance, and security guarantees. It is unlikely that Pyongyang would go for it both due to foreign and domestic reasons. The North Korean leadership is convinced that if they agree to dismantle their nuclear missile weapons, they will follow down the path of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, therefore lacking trust in any international guarantees. The Cuban case where, in the wake of its missile crisis, Cuba forwent stationing nuclear missile weapons on its territory in exchange for US assurances not to attack it, is not particularly convincing to Pyongyang. Besides, the possession of nuclear weapons has boosted the standing of North Korea in international affairs, owing to which its leadership has acquired its own significance. The nuclear missile weapons and the summits with Donald Trump have strengthened the authority of Kim Jong-un domestically. The current North Korean leadership has relied on the nuclear program so much that giving it up would be possible only with a regime change. However, there is no sign of such a change in the present time.
A possible compromise could come in the form of a partial disarmament of North Korea (preserving its nuclear potential while liquidating the carrying capacity, particularly those missiles capable of striking the US territory), and at the same time the recognition of its de-facto nuclear status with a gradual lifting of all or most of the sanctions. This would also facilitate a gradual improvement of relations if not rapprochement with the United States. The reaction of Pyongyang to such a development is hard to predict. On the one hand, this would allow it to retain advantages of possessing nuclear weapons and concurrently improve its economic situation, but on the other hand, this could force it to give in to significant concessions. So far, there has been no evidence of North Korea’s willingness to do this. Most likely, Washington is not ready for that either. Its sanctions against North Korea are backed by legislation and cannot be lifted without the consent of the US Congress, where hard-liners currently have the upper hand. Besides, given its flagrant violations of human rights, North Korea appears much too odious in the public eye of the Americans.
All things considered, the most likely scenario is for the status quo to hold, while the precarious balance is going to linger for the foreseeable future. None of the parties is interested in exacerbating the situation. Effectively in the United States, the 2020 presidential race has already started, and it is in Donald Trump’s interest to tout his policy vis-à-vis Pyongyang as ‘very successful” and to continue the dialogue even if no practical improvements occur as a result. For Moon Jae-in, who has worked tirelessly for building dialogue between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, it is also politically beneficial to continue negotiations. China surely would like to scale back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, strengthen its influence over the latter, and prompt it to conduct a more substantial economic transformation. Destabilization of the situation on the Korean peninsula, which is within the direct proximity of its border, is hardly in Peking’s interest. Russia’s influence over North Korea is somewhat limited. Some political circles in Russia have sympathetic feelings for North Korea. Some of them regard its nuclear missile program as a burr in the saddle for the US, and others view the situation within the broader context of different social systems competing wherein, according to them, the authoritarian state-capitalist model is taking over the liberal and democratic one. They even predict that in the future, a united Korea will be under the dominance of the North. Yet, the volume of trade between Russia and North Korea has been steadily shrinking with Pyongyang mostly purchasing raw materials. The United States admits that Russia could play a specific role in solving the problem of the Korean peninsula, but for various reasons, neither Washington nor Pyongyang sees Russia as a mediator. North Korea does not fear Russia, nor does it trust it. Thus, every now and then, Russian commercial ships and sport yachts get arrested even when they sail in international waters near North Korea’s military installations. The latest episode of this kind took place on July 2019 after the summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. The international sanctions have some measure of containment effect on North Korea and should be continued. The North Korean economy is certainly hit hard by the sanctions, and Kim Jong-un is going to seek their relaxation by upping the ante, although expectedly staying within restricted guidelines. Politically, North Koreas is more interested in conducting dialogue with Donald Trump since in case of a victory of the Democrats in 2020, the U.S.-North Korea summits could cease to exist entirely.
Finally, it should be noted that the situation in North-East Asia has become less dramatic; however, the existing balance is quite fragile and could be disrupted at any moment. A solution to the problems created by the North Korean nuclear missile programme is nowhere in sight either in the near or the medium term. This will surely continue to complicate the situation in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as continue to weaken the nuclear non-proliferation regime and undermine the authority of the UN Security Council which has been unable to get its resolutions implemented.
*** The author is a professor at School of International Relations, Saint Petersburg State University (Russia) and coordinator of the working group “Politics and International Relations” at Forum “Dialog Russia – Republic of Korea“