Event ReportsPublished on Apr 24, 2018
Will Korean Peninsula see peace this spring?

“The Korean peninsula is witnessing a new momentum towards peace and stability. With President Moon Jae-in’s coming into office, power dynamic in the Korean peninsula has drastically changed with South Korea now driving the effort to defuse the tension and settle peace on the Korean Peninsula,” said Shin Bong-Kil, the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to India.

He was speaking at a seminar on ‘Prospects of Peace and Denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula’ at Observer Research Foundation on 17 April. The seminar, organised in association with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, was moderated by ORF Chairman Sunjoy Joshi. He pointed out how events can disrupt narratives, and “how the rhetoric around North Korea changed from a looming war to one of reconciliation and negotiations, due to President Moon Jae-in’s quite but deft diplomacy amongst a barrage of affronts from DC and Pyongyang against each other.” The summit will set the tone for the meeting between Trump and Kim later this May, and ‘fire and fury’ of 2017 may pave way for ‘quiet diplomacy’ in 2018.

Ambassador Shin spoke about how President Moon’s persistent peace efforts beginning with his Berlin speech, triggered a more conciliatory tone from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in his 2018 New Year’s Speech. He explained how President Moon Jae-in’s Berlin Peace initiative led to the two Koreas, who had no contact with each other since December 2015, exchanging New Year’s greetings and then marching together under a unified flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Following which, President Moon dispatched special envoys to North Korea and the United States sequentially. This resulted in agreements to hold an Inter-Korean Summit titled ‘Peace: A New Start’ on April 27, and a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in late May. Meanwhile, a significant meeting took place between President Xi of China and North Korean leader Kim, repudiating rumors that China had lost its grip on the situation. These stream of events, which can be seen as a process, offer a chance to restore peace to the Korean peninsula after decades of a diplomatic impasse.

ORF Chairman Joshi remarked that these events have disrupted some very complex relations between Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, Washington D.C, affecting the larger strategic dynamics of the region.

Ambassador Shin Bong-Kil raised a pertinent question about the role India can play to ensure peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, a responsible nuclear state and an emerging global power.

Dr. Kim Ki-jung, Professor of Political Sciences and International Studies, Yonsei University, and a close political advisor to the current South Korean administration on inter-Korean issues, lauded the South Korean government for its diplomatic efforts, especially those of President Moon Jae-in, who has earned himself the reputation of being a master negotiator in recent times. ‘A good negotiator is also a good initiator,’ he said. According to him, the slew of recent developments signals an oncoming ‘spring’—remarkable because change is being initiated by two Koreas themselves and not global powers like the US or China. “This paradigm shift”, according to him, “could be the starting point for an integrated Korean market.” Denuclearization could be a culmination of unprecedented economic cooperation.

Ambassador Cho Tae Yong placed considerable weight on the issue of denuclearisation -- “the nuclear issue is the top priority, without the resolution of which, the North and South Korea relations cannot be sustained.” He outlined the developments in the North Korean nuclear program over the past year, and how the consequent international sanctions hurt the regime’s economic standing. He emphasised that multiple points still require clarification: North Korea’s concept of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, meaning of North Korea’s ‘conditions’ for denuclearisation, and reasons for North Korea’s public silence on denuclearisation.

There was a concerted focus on the various demands and security assurances the North Korean regime might make at these summits. Ambassador Cho Tae Young mentioned some of the policy recommendations that the South Korean side should adopt in the negotiation process – a tightly defined nuclear freeze inside a short of time, was one of them. He warned that, “there is a need to maintain a ‘laser like’ focus on denuclearization and not surrender strategic preponderance to North Korea.”

As the conversation shifted to the discussants of the seminar, the more contentious aspects of the summit meeting were mentioned. Dr. Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, one of the discussants of the seminar, while commending President Moon’s approach to the inter-Korean issue, was critical of the approach to make denuclearisation the focal point. His criticism stemmed from the fact that it could derail a nascent peace process. According to Professor Chellaney, the focus should be, “on establishing nuclear weapon free zones – a neutral term that emphasises shared responsibility.” Moreover, he emphasised the need to devise a peace framework and revisit the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

The other discussant, Rakesh Sood, a former ambassador and now Distinguished Fellow, ORF was in full agreement with Dr. Chellaney’s assertions that there was a need to revisit the 1953 Armistice Agreement since nuclear talks between the two countries have usually collapsed. Both discussants agreed that North Korea’s problem has evolved into a problem of nuclear deterrence rather than nuclear proliferation and it is unlikely North Korea will denuclearise, given it is the only leverage they have as an isolated state. Sood further cautioned that “with the exception of re-entry — there is little that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities cannot achieve.” He outlined the various objectives with which the different parties are approaching these talks. While North Korea as a nuclear power is a credible threat, it is unlikely that it will be a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A big challenge before North Korea is that of regime acceptance before regime survival.

In the Q & A session, engrossed exchanges took place between the audience and the presenters. There were queries if an agreement similar to the Iran nuclear deal can be made with Pyongyang. Another question focused on the absence of Japan in the entire peace process.

Chairman Joshi struck an optimistic note to conclude the seminar. He drew a parallel between the fear psychoses that existed a few months ago, when war seemed imminent on the Korean peninsula to the present day when Korean denuclearisation and unification is an actual talking point in strategic circles. There may indeed be a positive prospect for peace in the Korean Peninsula this spring.

This report was prepared by Tuneer Mukherjee, Junior Fellow, and Priya Dua, Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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