The Korean Peace Process after Hanoi

The Panmunjom Joint Security Area on the inner-Korean armistice line. One of the most visible legacies of the Cold War and site of the first summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un. Picture: CC by Pascal Abb

On February 28, 2019, the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi ended without an agreement between both sides. Once more, the crux proved to be diverging interpretations of what the “denuclearisation” of North Korea meant, and what steps on this path would be enough to lift the international sanctions on the country. In the end, the two sides did not even agree on which proposed trade-off caused the summit to fail. This speaks to a lack of preparation that left major issues unresolved until the summit.

However, the direct negotiations between the US and North Korea form just one part of the complex web of relationships surrounding the Korean peace process. Relations between both Korean states as well as China have been marked by a much more promising dynamic that could form the foundation for a lasting peace regime. Many of the solutions advanced by regional actors are pragmatic, creative and consensus-oriented and could allow for progress despite the impasse over denuclearisation.

South Korea: a new dawn for the sunshine policy

2017 saw a dramatic turning point in South Korea’s domestic politics, with the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, the fragmentation of her ruling party, and the election of Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in. Despite an escalation in tensions throughout 2017, Moon outlined an ambitious programme of inter-Korean high-level dialogues, economic integration and people-to-people ties to break the stalemate over the nuclear issue. This strategy started to bear fruit in 2018, when North Korean participation in the Pyongchang Olympics gave way to a rapid thawing in relations and a mutual commitment to peace and denuclearisation.

Moon managed to pull off a rare diplomatic feat – simultaneously coaxing North Korea out of its isolation, brokering the Trump-Kim summit, and bringing China on board with his initiative while defusing the bilateral spat over the US-Korean missile defence program. Moreover, he has also built a substantial domestic consensus for his North Korea policy, which received the backing of 60% of respondents in a recent poll. With the traditionally detente-sceptic conservative opposition sidelined and fragmented, Moon currently has a rare amount of political leeway to pursue closer inter-Korean ties.

However, seeing this through will also require external events to go in his favour. Large-scale cooperation projects like rebuilding the North’s railways or restarting the Kaesong industrial complex would require a relaxation of the international sanction regime. If progress stalls and tensions mount again, growing popular goodwill towards the North could quickly be extinguished and replaced once again by perceptions of the country as a fundamental threat.

North Korea: from swords to ploughshares?

South Korea’s pivot to a new “sunshine policy” has coincided with a similarly important reorientation in Pyongyang. Having followed a dual policy of developing a nuclear deterrent and pursuing economic reconstruction since 2013, Kim Jong Un declared the former successfully finished in his 2018 New Year’s speech and announced a full concentration on the economy.

This shift is highly significant for several reasons. First, an economic focus dictates cooperation with would-be investors in South Korea and China and concessions on denuclearisation in order to lift the sanctions regime. Second, it represents a change in the regime’s legitimation strategy towards a Chinese-style model of delivering economic development while maintaining a one-party state. Finally, it could signal a decisive ideological reorientation away from a worldview that considers the outside world a threat to North Korea’s survival, and towards participation in East Asia’s economic boom and the kind of ‘win-win’ cooperation that many of its neighbours already engage in despite political differences. However, this reorientation is not without its own risk and will likely require a protracted internal struggle against the beneficiaries of military primacy.

China: the regional lynchpin

As a party to the Korean War and 1953 armistice agreement, subsequent guarantor and main trading partner to North Korea, as well as the region’s rising power, China is the second most important external stakeholder in the Korean peace process. This has been acknowledged by both Korean leaders, who have scrupulously kept Xi Jinping updated on their bilateral reconciliation in frequent meetings.

Beijing has backed the aim of denuclearising the Korean peninsula in the abstract and supported the international sanctions regime against North Korea, but its position diverges from the American one in several important aspects. First, denuclearisation is understood as a very gradual process that begins with a test ban and moves on to dismantling nuclear facilities. While desirable, scrapping the existing weapons arsenal is seen as a long-term goal that requires prior breakthroughs in providing North Korea with security guarantees and a withdrawal of offensive US military capabilities. Second, sanctions relief should not be dependent on the maximalist aim of “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearisation, but allow Pyongyang to reap some early economic benefits in exchange for good behaviour – a view shared by Russia, and which also converges with South Korean designs for economic integration. Third, the denuclearisation of North Korea is not seen as the be-and-end-all of Northeast Asian security, but one goal among several. These include stabilizing North Korea as a viable state, an end to tensions that could spur further proliferation, and most controversially, the withdrawal of US forces from the region.

Starting from this position, China has long advanced its own proposals for how to resolve the issue. Beijing was an early champion of multilateralising negotiations and introduced its own format in the (now-defunct) six-party talks. More recently, it proposed a so-called “dual freeze”, whereby North Korea refrains from further missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a similar US-South Korean moratorium on military exercises. This proposal is already being observed in practice. Chinese observers have also advanced suggestions for how China could share in North Korea’s economic opening, e.g. by rebuilding its crumbling infrastructure as part of its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. Finally, another proposal is splitting nuclear and peace talks into two separate paths, allowing for progress on the latter even as the former (inevitably) stall. While necessarily rooted in China’s strategic self-interest, most of these proposals fit well with current North and South Korean objectives and could offer a creative way forward.

Key implications

The current configuration of interests in Northeast Asia offers a rare opportunity for peace, but it is important that early benefits are achieved in order to further build public support for reconciliation. External actors could help this process along in several ways:

  • Talks over denuclearisation should be accompanied with efforts to end the Korean war with a peace agreement. While a largely symbolic act, this would go a long way to reducing North Korean threat perceptions and reinforcing Washington’s recent commitment not to seek regime change in North Korea.
  • A roadmap for sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearisation should be built around gradual steps and immediate benefits instead of an all-encompassing deal. Ideally, these steps should be designed to clear the way for intra-Korean cooperation projects on infrastructure and jointly-run factories.
  • While the resumption of direct, high-profile talks between the US and North Korea has been a catalyst for reducing tensions, setbacks in this relationship also negatively impact the rest of the peace process. A multilateral format like a formal resumption of the six-party talks would keep all involved parties on the same page, mitigate against downturns in bilateral relations and provide a platform for confidence-building measures.
About the author

Pascal Abb is a senior researcher at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR). He is a member of the Regional Powers Network that studies the effects of ongoing power shifts in different world regions. His research focuses on the international relations of East Asia, Chinese foreign policy and the role of experts in policymaking. He recently published an ASPR Policy Brief on the state of the Korean peace process and the positions of major regional actors.