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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Crucial Moment for Regional Diplomacy



With North Korea’s self-imposed year-end deadline for nuclear negotiations with the U.S. approaching, the involved countries are engaging in a flurry of diplomatic activities to find a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear issue. South Korea, China and Japan shared their views on the need for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a solution of relevant issues through dialogue during a trilateral summit on Tuesday. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has stressed that the U.S. would deal with any Christmas gift from North Korea successfully, whatever it is. Here’s Professor Cho Jin-gu from the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University with more. 

In the midst of a stalemate in denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S., North Korea said early this month that it conducted an important test at its western satellite launch site. No doubt, Pyongyang’s aggressive attitude will negatively affect its relations with the U.S., inter-Korean ties and the security situation in East Asia. 

The three-way summit involving South Korea, China and Japan early this week came at an important time. The three Northeast Asian countries are all concerned about the prolonged deadlock in nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S., and see eye to eye on the need to make efforts to resume the talks. 

The South Korea-China-Japan summit took place in China on Christmas Eve, a week before the end-of-year deadline set by North Korea for the U.S. to come up with a new proposal in their nuclear negotiations. The summit also came amid Pyongyang’s threat to give the U.S. an unwelcome “Christmas gift.” During their meeting, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo agreed that dialogue would be the only way to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization. Separate from the trilateral summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a bilateral summit with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday to seek ways to keep the dialogue momentum of denuclearization talks afloat. 

China and Russia submitted a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council on December 16th, calling for an easing of some sanctions on North Korea. Easing sanctions is what North Korea wants, of course, although the Security Council is unlikely to pass the resolution. 

President Moon positively evaluated China’s role in facilitating peace on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, North Korea cannot ignore China’s opinion entirely, given the traditional relations between the two communist allies. China could tell North Korea about the need for dialogue with the U.S., prodding the North into coming to the negotiation table. Moon discussed pending issues with Xi in this context, reminding him of the current grave situation. Xi agreed with him, which I think is significant. 

Notably, Moon and Xi discussed the recent draft resolution submitted by China and Russia to the U.N. Security Council. In a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, Moon also mentioned his vision for the East Asian Railway Community. Apparently, the South Korean president is trying to induce North Korea to come to the dialogue table by showing that South Korea and China could cooperate on the issue of easing sanctions on the North—something North Korea is most interested in. 

As South Korea, China and Japan have reaffirmed their commitment to closer communication and cooperation in regards to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea may find it difficult to make provocations. 

2020 is the final year of North Korea’s five-year economic development plan. In this crucial year, leader Kim Jong-un should show some results to his people and solidify his status further domestically. To this end, cooperation from China is essential.

North Korea has held negotiations with the U.S. so far, including two summit meetings. A military provocation from Pyongyang at this time, like an intercontinental ballistic missile launch, will ruin all its diplomatic efforts. It is also an act of turning against the international community. I think North Korea is well aware of this. 

Early this month, North Korea said that its so-called Christmas gift would depend on Washington’s attitude, hinting at the possibility of a provocation. Some analysts predicted that the North might test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, but no signs of provocations were detected by Christmas. It is speculated that Pyongyang felt pressured by the leaders of South Korea and China, who were publicly opposed to any provocation from North Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump said on Tuesday that he could successfully deal with whatever Christmas gift North Korea sends. The U.S. president even added that he may get a nice present from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un like a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test. 

I think Trump made the remarks in his typical style, in contrast to many analysts who held pessimistic views about North Korea’s “Christmas gift,” saying it might be a missile test or a local provocation. 

According to a recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News, Kim Jong-un ordered his officials in February of 2018 to produce many mobile launchers. If it turns out to be true, North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization is mere words. To prevent North Korea from conducting nuclear and long-range missile tests, as its leader promised Trump it would do, the U.S. finds it necessary to appease Pyongyang in some way. I think that’s why the U.S. is calling for the North to come out for talks, while warning against any provocation at the same time. 

Trump’s comments show Washington’s confidence that it is ready to deal with any negotiation card taken by North Korea. Actually, the U.S. flew four surveillance planes over the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday to closely monitor North Korea’s air, ground and sea. However, it refrains from any threatening rhetoric against the North. Clearly, Washington is trying to prevent Pyongyang from deviating from the dialogue track, while managing the situation properly. 

Still, it’s too early to say that regional diplomacy has become stable. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may convene the plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party’s central committee late this month. We cannot rule out the possibility that he might declare an end to negotiations with the U.S. during the party meeting and take provocative action. 

We have to wait and see when the party meeting will be held and what decision will be made at the meeting. I don’t think North Korea will return to 2017 when tensions were so high, considering its relations with neighboring countries. But it remains to be seen which way it will choose. It is highly important for neighboring countries to cooperate to draw North Korea back to the dialogue table. South Korea, in particular, should play its own role in persuading the U.S. to do what North Korea wants. For that purpose, Seoul needs to devise a new strategy. 

North Korea seems to be preparing the new path it will take after its leader announces his New Year’s message on January 1st, while the U.S. is closely watching North Korea’s move and considering different scenarios. With the year-end drawing closer, diplomatic activities surrounding the Korean Peninsula could provide a turning point for denuclearization negotiations.

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