THE PENINSULA STANDSTILL: WILL THE PANDEMIC OPEN THE DOOR OUT?

Sergei M. Smirnov, PhD

The process of normalizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula, after the dramatic events of 2018, which gave hope for a quick and decisive success, is now at a standstill. We can hardly see any area where progress nay be achieved, to say nothing about a breakthrough. The COVID-19 pandemic has almost nothing to do with current situation.

Let us consider several factors that contributed to the development of a negative scenario.

The main disappointment, undoubtedly, is the failure of Washington’s “cavalry attack” attempt to resolve “overnight” the sluggish crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

First, this is the selfish policy of the countries that were once participants in the Six-Party talks. This term attributes to all countries without exception. The format of Six-Party talks is not mentioned by chance – formally, this mechanism still exists, career diplomats representing their states continue to imitate activities, calmly waiting for retirement benefits. Political scientists also periodically recall the Six-Party talks, elaborating on the possibility of its transformation into a permanent regional security structure.

The main disappointment, undoubtedly, is the failure of Washington’s “cavalry attack” attempt to resolve “overnight” the sluggish crisis on the Korean Peninsula.  In my opinion, ex-President Trump missed his historic chance when, at the summit in Hanoi, he applied not the wisdom of a true political leader, but the negotiation tactics of a corporate executive. However, Trump is actually a businessperson who had managed to occupy the Oval Office by chance, without going through any of the obligatory stages of public service. It was not worth insisting on the deliberately unacceptable conditions of “complete and unconditional renunciation of the nuclear program”; it was necessary to agree on a formal end to the Korean War and the conclusion of a peace treaty instead.  It was also imperative to involve the most interested party in negotiations with the DPRK – the Republic of Korea. That would practically guarantee Trump the Nobel Peace Prize and a second term in the White House.

The decisive steps of President Biden to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, which his three predecessors dreamed of but did not dare to do, inspire a certain optimism. Let us hope that the Democratic administration will act with the same rationality and pragmatism with regard to the Korean Peninsula. In the 1990s, it was under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton that the US-North Korean relations moved off the ground and the “Framework agreement” on the DPRK’s nuclear program was concluded. The Republican majority in Congress later thwarted its implementation, but today the initiatives of the Biden administration are much easier to pass through the Capitol Hill.

President Moon Jae-in may have tried too hard to accommodate the unpredictable Donald Trump, and it is likely that the conservative South Korean establishment has successfully sabotaged the president’s attempts to force the process of national reconciliation in Korea.

The Republic of Korea has also not fully realized its chance to move closer to national reconciliation. The powerful impetus of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics with a single team of the two Korean states lasted a little over a year, and after the failure of the Hanoi Summit, RoK’s initiative seems to have dwindled. President Moon Jae-in may have tried too hard to accommodate the unpredictable Donald Trump, and it is likely that the conservative South Korean establishment has successfully sabotaged the president’s attempts to force the process of national reconciliation in Korea. In any case, Moon Jae-in’s tenure at the Blue House is ending, and he failed to do even the minimum necessary – to repeal the National Security Law or even the odious May 24 sanctions.

Beijing is quite happy with the current situation around the DPRK. One can only guess how much the Chinese leadership “contributed” to the slowdown of the 2018-2019 detente processes.

China is pursuing perhaps the most consistent policy towards the Korean Peninsula. Xi Jinping, who positions himself as a tough authoritarian leader, adheres to a strictly pragmatic approach to the DPRK. Beijing did not hesitate to support UN Security Council Resolutions 2270, 2321, 2371, 2375, imposing tough sanctions against North Korea, because they did not harm the Chinese economy, to some extent protected the PRC labor market from North Korean immigrants, and maximized North Korea’s overall dependence upon the PRC.

Beijing is quite happy with the current situation around the DPRK. One can only guess how much the Chinese leadership “contributed” to the slowdown of the 2018-2019 detente processes. In any case, China (Russia as well) defiantly ignored the ‘PyeongChang Spirit’ rallies that took place in South Korea after the Olympics. In the foreseeable future, Beijing will try to maintain a monopoly position on the DPRK’s foreign trade market, maintain stability and order in the North, ensure that no external force is used against Pyongyang and, at the same time, toughly suppress any attempts by the DPRK to diversify its foreign policy. In this regard, one cannot expect the emergence of new radical initiatives on the Korean Peninsula on the part of the PRC.

It seems that Japan is gradually moving towards a “New Isolationism”, which is facilitated by the peculiarities of the national mentality and the development of virtual reality technologies. A good example of this is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, held in August 2021, with empty stands, closed borders and restrictions on sexual and personal interaction between the participants.

The policy of Japan towards the DPRK may also be called consistent. However, this “consistency” is distinguished by passivity and gradual withdrawal from participation in solving the most pressing regional problems. In fact, after the Koizumi-Kim Jong Il summit in 2002, Tokyo did not put forward a single real initiative to resolve the situation on the Korean Peninsula. It seems that Japan is gradually moving towards a “New Isolationism”, which is facilitated by the peculiarities of the national mentality and the development of virtual reality technologies. A good example of this is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, held in August 2021, with empty stands, closed borders and restrictions on sexual and personal interaction between the participants.

Russia‘s policy towards the DPRK is very peculiar. On the one hand, Russia had written off almost the entire national debt of the DPRK in 2014 without any real obligations of compensation on the part of Pyongyang. “Russian Railways” paid for most of the project cost to modernize the Rajin – Khasan railway, but since 2015 there has been no noticeable increase in freight traffic along this line. On the other hand, Russia did not use its veto right when voting on UN Security Council resolutions imposing tough economic sanctions against the DPRK. Moreover, the ban on the use of labor force from the DPRK abroad, introduced by these sanctions, is definitely not beneficial to Russia. North Korean construction and agricultural workers covered a significant part of the labor market needs in the Far East of the Russian Federation, and there is no one to replace them.

North-East Asia in the first half of the XXI Century is fundamentally different from Europe at the end of the XX Century, when Germany united and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. For Russia, the emergence of a unified Korean state should be regarded not as a threat, but as favorable opportunity in all respects.

Maybe it is worth agreeing with the opinion of some experts that for Russia, despite its declared ‘Pivot to the East’ policy, the North Korean affairs are considered secondary, and that Moscow has recognized the DPRK as the Chinese sphere of influence. Nevertheless, everything is much more complicated and confusing in this issue. The principle of ‘equidistance’ in relations between Russia and the two Korean states creates a good basis for maintaining the potential for “strategic mediation”. The attitude of the Russian Federation to the problem of the DPRK’s nuclear status seems to be rational and pragmatic. The same pragmatism Russia should apply in other areas, in particular, in the issue of national reunification, the signing of a peace treaty that puts an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War and in bilateral trade with the DPRK. North-East Asia in the first half of the XXI Century is fundamentally different from Europe at the end of the XX Century, when Germany united and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. For Russia, the emergence of a unified Korean state should be regarded not as a threat, but as favorable opportunity in all respects.

DPRK is not behaving very constructively, too. Indeed, there is a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and long-range ballistic missile launches, which is undoubtedly good. However, it is impossible to say with certainty whether the reason for the introduction of this moratorium was the desire to demonstrate good will to the world or simply the lack of available technical and financial resources to carry out these very costly activities. We observed an inadequate reaction on the part of Pyongyang in connection with minor incidents near the DMZ, for example, the demonstrative destruction of the inter-Korean communications center in Kaesong in June 2020. Propaganda and tactical considerations clearly prevailed over long-term strategic priorities, because such actions only contribute to the chances of South Korean conservatives (strongly opposed to the DPRK) to come to power next spring. Later, Pyongyang apparently realized that loyal partners in the South were preferable to outright opponents, and agreed to restore a “hot line” of communication between the two countries from July 27, 2021.

Pyongyang used the situation as an opportunity not to return home its citizens who fell under the aforementioned UN Security Council sanctions. However, the continuing complete closure of its borders plays against the DPRK today, making it impossible to develop economic ties and receive financial support from abroad.

Kim Jong-un’s policy regarding the COVID-19 pandemic also looks not very consistent. Some experts assessed the Kim’s decision of February 2020 to completely close the borders of the DPRK in connection with the outbreak of a new coronavirus infection in neighboring China as an act of statesmanship, which is probably highly exaggerated. At that time, there was absolutely no reason to believe that the countries of the world and international organizations would turn out to be so helpless and inadequate in their actions to neutralize the spread of a new viral disease. Rather, Pyongyang used the situation as an opportunity not to return home its citizens who fell under the aforementioned UN Security Council sanctions. However, the continuing complete closure of its borders plays against the DPRK today, making it impossible to develop economic ties and receive financial support from abroad.

Coronavirus pandemic as an external factor

When the thesis about the COVID-19 pandemic as some kind of existential threat to humankind became a dogma almost equal to the Tablets of Moses on Mount Sinai, other problems forcefully faded into the background. However, these problems have not gone away, they are completely real, objective and dangerous.

The role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the current stalemate on the Korean Peninsula can be assessed in different ways. On the one hand, national governments and international organizations have driven themselves into a corner, allowing the situation to unfold along the same inexorable logic that led to the outbreak of World War I more than a century ago. When the thesis about the COVID-19 pandemic as some kind of existential threat to humankind became a dogma almost equal to the Tablets of Moses on Mount Sinai, other problems forcefully faded into the background. However, these problems have not gone away, they are completely real, objective and dangerous. In particular, it is the threat of a full-scale armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula with many millions of potential victims.

North Korea today is highly unlikely to initiate aggression deliberately. It is necessary to understand that fanning the threat of a military attack by North Korea is a method of psychological warfare. Similarly, the DPRK population is being constantly frightened with the threat of “imminent aggression from the United States and their puppets in the South”. Both sides need to abandon the logic and rhetoric of the Cold War.

At the same time, the threat of major armed conflict escalating from possible incidents in the DMZ area remains high. Mutual nervousness arising from the decades-long confrontation along the border is the source of potential dangerous incidents, like the sinking of the ‘Cheonan’ corvette in March 2010.

doubts are growing about the feasibility of the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which gives Beijing too many levers of influence on trans-Eurasian transportation.

On the other hand, the current pandemic situation is forcing us to reevaluate the existing stereotypes and approaches to the development of cross-border economic ties. This mainly refers to the need to diversify global and regional networks of value chains, transport and logistics routes. Otherwise, unilateral restrictions on a certain logistics hub / seaport /border crossing point, introduced even under the most plausible pretext, can lead to the collapse of an entire industry or region. We have seen such negative cases in North-East Asia in 2020-2021 more than once. In this regard, doubts are growing about the feasibility of the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which gives Beijing too many levers of influence on trans-Eurasian transportation. At the same time, the diversification and implementation of spatial network-centric technologies opens a new window of opportunity for normalizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula – through the DPRK’s involvement in the creation of such network structures and new logistics routes. Necessary precondition – this involvement should take place on the basis of equal partnership and mutual responsibility of the parties, without any ideological pressure from outside, but also without blackmail or demands for a special treatment on the part of Pyongyang. Elaborating on the idea of ​​network-centric spatial development in North-East Asia, it may be worth considering specific options for involving third countries in inter-Korean reconciliation. Here, a variety of combinations of interaction in the economy, diplomacy, and humanitarian ties are possible. It is likely that it will be effective to stimulate the involvement of countries that have made the transition from a socialist model to a market economy. For example, of Mongolia, which is directly interested in the development of transport and logistics cooperation with the DPRK. The convincing victory of U. Khurelsukh in the June 2021 presidential elections in Mongolia inspires optimism in this regard: two years ago, as Prime Minister, he sought to actively contribute to the peace processes on the Korean Peninsula.



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