Korean diplomacy: all not so quiet on the DMZ

Korean diplomacy: all not so quiet on the DMZ

The symbolic demolition of the liaison office does not spell the end to talks on the Korean peninsula.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

North Korea has ramped up pressure on South Korea and the US, demolishing an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong and dampening hopes of a new summit with President Trump.

KEY INSIGHTS

– North Korea has suddenly escalated tensions along the DMZ, citing feelings of betrayal by Seoul and frustration with little action following summits with the US and South Korea.
– Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has become the spokesperson for these frustrations, helping to establish her as a likely successor to her brother.
– The possibility of peace on the peninsula is at a low point, and dependent on the results of the upcoming US presidential election.

On June 16, the North Korean government made a surprise move to demolish the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong. According to Pyongyang, the demolition was in response to defectors in South Korea continually sending anti-North Korea leaflets across the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) via balloon. Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un and alleged organiser of the demolition, blamed South Korean President Moon Jae-in for having “betrayed the North’s trust by failing to act,” and said that a recent speech by Moon calling for further diplomacy was merely “bald faced sophism to dodge responsibility.”

A flurry of activity on the North Korean side of the DMZ followed the destruction of the office, with troops massing along the border and propaganda speakers — removed following the 2018 Panmunjon Declaration — reinstalled.

While Kim Jong-un ultimately pulled back troops, the flare-up demonstrates that diplomatic efforts by Moon and US President Donald Trump have failed to de-escalate tensions or progress denuclearisation efforts on the peninsula. These failures have not gone unnoticed in Seoul: the Minister for Unification, Kim Yeon-chul, resigned in mid-June, and Moon’s high approval rating has dropped 5 points, according to a Gallup poll on June 19.

WHY THE BIG KABOOM

Photo: UNC – CFC – USFK/Flickr

There are several reasons that may explain the sudden spike in tensions between the two Koreas. The sudden lashing out can be better understood by seeing the current diplomatic stagnation from Pyongyang’s perspective. Since the high profile meeting between Kim and Moon in 2018, there has been little substantial action on de-escalation and denuclearisation. North Korea remains under heavy UN and US sanctions while the North’s nuclear weapons program continues unabated. Kim was reportedly shocked and angered by the collapse of his second summit with Trump in early 2019; Seoul had given him the impression that a deal could easily be made with the US. Kim and his advisers felt that they were misled by South Korea and have concluded that, at least with Trump, the possibilities of favourable improvements are limited.

The Kaesong Liaison Office demolition is the latest step by Kim Yo-jong to establish herself as the likely successor of Kim Jong-un. Chairman Kim is frequently the subject of rumours about his health and possible death. To keep the Kim dynasty at the helm of North Korea if he suddenly dies, Kim Jong-un has elevated his sister to become the second-most visible member of the government. Since her attendance at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, Kim Yo-Jong has increasingly been at her brother’s side, including joining him at the summits in Panmunjon, Singapore and Hanoi. The recent provocations are partly a way for Kim Yo-jong to gain credibility with the hawkish North Korean military and prove herself as a worthy successor to her brother.

Amongst all this, there is one other factor that decidedly pushed North Korea towards greater aggression and isolation — COVID-19. Since late January, the country has closed its borders to all foreigners as it did during the SARS pandemic in 2003. In early July, Kim Jong-un declared that, due to these strict measures, the country had “prevented the inroad of the malignant virus and maintained a stable situation.” Foreign observers have suggested, however, that this claim is false. Additionally, the drastic border closures are likely to have exacerbated the already dire situation of food shortages and malnutrition. Pyongyang is clearly afraid of the virus and the threat it poses to the North’s poor healthcare system, and recent events could be a way to further isolate themselves as protection.

THE WAY FORWARD

Photo: Shealah Craighead/The White House

The Kim family remains devoted to their nuclear weapons program, as they see it as the primary way to maintain power and influence. However, due to the crippling sanctions and a more desperate populace, they may be more amenable to limited concessions, as long as they get concessions in return. Kim Jong-Un now appears warier of summit diplomacy and is unlikely to agree to another one unless agreements are made beforehand. South Korean diplomats have reportedly been working on a “small deal” on denuclearisation; this watered-down text could be their only way to advance talks with Pyongyng.

Moon now finds himself stranded in relations with the North. The lack of movement towards improved diplomacy will damage his reputation as a peacemaker and has already resulted in domestic political blowback. Thanks to South Korea’s initial success in managing the pandemic, Moon’s Democratic Party decisively won the 2020 elections, securing an absolute majority in the National Assembly. However, continued inter-Korean tensions could harm Moon in the long run if he does not change tactics. The rise in tensions with the North may convince Moon to not rely too heavily on promises from Washington as he has in the past. Faced with domestic political issues including a weakened economy and housing crisis, Moon’s approval rating has dropped to 47%; a diplomatic success with the North could provide Moon with a political reprieve.

A potential turning point for diplomacy on the Korean peninsula will be the US elections in November. Trump and presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden have conflicting views regarding diplomacy with the North. Trump has heralded his talks with Kim as evidence of his supposed strength in foreign policy. Despite facing criticism for the talks, including from former members of his inner staff, Trump could make a play for another summit, but one backed by clear prior demands. A breakthrough would allow him to finally tout the foreign policy success he has sought during his presidency. However, it is extremely unlikely for that to happen before the November election, as North Korea made numerous statements noting their opposition to another summit.

Biden, who is currently maintaining a strong lead in the polls against Trump, is seeking to take a more hardline approach towards the North. The former vice president has been critical of Trump’s North Korea policy and believers the summits were hollow and endowed Kim, whom Biden calls a “murderous dictator and a tyrant,” with a sense of legitimacy. Biden’s approach towards relations with North Korea would likely involve repairing and improving strained relations between South Korea and Japan, while simultaneously placing “enormous pressure” on China to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Biden has stated that he would only ever meet with Kim if preconditions had been set, such as a clear reduction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In comparison to Trump, who has been willing to come to the negotiation table without such prerequisites, this makes a Biden-Kim summit near impossible. North Korea has realised this and has acted aggressively towards Biden, calling him “a rabid dog only keen on getting at others’ throats.” If Biden wins the presidency, his steeper demands could prevent further summits. However, it also means that if talks do occur, they are more likely to be backed by action.

The possibilities of another summit with North Korea this year are currently very low. Although South Korea is eager for another leaders’ meeting, and US officials have expressed interest, North Korea clearly does not want another summit. From Kim’s perspective, it is important that further summits do not occur without concessions. South Korea has come to understand this as well, as shown by the current movement towards a small deal with the North, though Seoul’s bargaining power is limited by US sanctions. Trump and his cabinet are eager for another summit this year, as domestic concerns hurt his presidential campaign, so they could find a small deal agreeable. If there is no summit this year and he is re-elected, Trump could lose interest in Korean diplomacy altogether, seeing no further political value in engagement. In Biden’s case, as president, he might find a summit with clear prior promises more amenable. But there is still the chance that he would revert to the traditional hawkish approach of US foreign policy towards North Korea, discounting summits altogether.

Although it seems that diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula is at a low ebb at this point, the situation isn’t entirely frozen. However, it will require a willingness on the part of South Korea and the US to rethink their approaches to North Korea. Come November, the US president may have that willingness.