MACK WILLIAMS : Korea : Just what did the DMZ Reality TV show add up to ?

Jul 18, 2019

After the enormous Reality TV coverage of the hastily arranged Trump:Kim meeting at the DMZ and the wads of media commentary afterwards,have the prospects of an eventually peaceful Korean peninsular been enhanced? To a large extent the jury is still out on this but there are a few possible glimmers of hope. The crunch issue remains an agreed definition of “denuclearisation” along with an as yet unresolved roadmap for future negotiations.

One the best informed independent US commentator on Korean issues, Scott Snyder, has provided the following analysis of where things now stand – in beguilingly colourful terms:

“ An exchange of letters has kept the Trump-Kim relationship alive, but working-level contacts remain stalemated. Without proper preparations, what can a handshake at the DMZ deliver beyond a unique photo op?

Trump Sees Kim Jong-un as a Foil, not a Foe

Trump’s offer demonstrates that he sees political value in maintaining the drama of the relationship with Kim as a foil. For Trump, Kim delivers an archetypal relationship that translates directly from his World Wrestling Entertainment days straight into the world of international relations. The relationship is valuable regardless of what it accomplishes because it keeps people interested in the plot line: Will Trump win over Kim to a big deal on denuclearization? What makes the Trump-Kim relationship click? What would happen if Kim gets on Trump’s bad side again? The danger of the Trump-Kim relationship plot line is that Trump may value the drama of the relationship or make a bad deal rather than a deal that achieves the goal of a denuclearized North Korea.

Kim Jong-un has warmed to his role as Trump’s pen pal and foil because he is reaping enormous gains from a relationship that bolsters Kim’s legitimacy and normalizes him as an international leader. Every Trump-Kim meeting distracts from Kim’s reputation for ruthlessness, demands for unquestioning political loyalty, and subjugation of his population, while taking North Korea one step closer to acceptance as a nuclear state.

But Kim’s normalization to the outside world and his meetings with Moon and now possibly Trump at the DMZ may come at a hidden cost to Kim. When Kim Jong-un dramatically walked down the steps at Panmunjom to meet South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the military demarcation line marking the border between North and South Korea in April of 2018, it conjured images of Zeus descending to earth from Mount Olympus, in the sense that a ruler treated as a god in his own kingdom becomes just another human being in an earthly environment that he cannot fully control. The gods rarely benefited in Greek mythology from their interactions with humans. Meeting with Trump normalizes Kim Jong-un, but it also humanizes Kim Jong-un.”

In practical terms, the first thing to note is that both sides have agreed to change the composition and levels of their negotiating teams with the hardliners on the DPRK side having been moved aside or out altogether and the US bete noir for the North, John Bolton, seemingly also sidelined. Reportedly, both Trump and Kim appear to have accepted that the normal delegation of power needs to be accorded to both teams to allow negotiations to proceed – albeit on a very tentative level. But seeing will be believing as both leaders can be expected to continue to hold their cards close to their chest. Kim’s sister has re-emerged and been promoted while a singer and reportedly ex-girlfriend of Kim has been catapulted into the sister’s previously protocol job. Indications of when and where the two teams might meet remain unclear but the speculation is in a few weeks ,probably in Sweden.

In a widely reported briefing on Trump’s flight back to the US, the US team leader (Biegun) provided some background to the current situation. Prior to the DMZ meeting, he had confirmed to the media that there was still no agreement on the definition of denuclearisation stressing that this was fundamental to opening serious negotiations. He claimed that his DPRK counterparts had told him in previous negotiations that they had no authority from Kim to discuss this issue. He appears to have made the point that the US side accepted that there had to be some change from the previous demand for “complete, immediate and irreversible denuclearisation” (CIVD) before sanctions could be lifted by accepting that some sort of a step by step process would probably be needed. This has led to some speculation about a “denuclearisation lite” formula to allow negotiations to move ahead. While the ultimate shape of what this might be remains far from clear there has already been much speculation about a possible form in which the US could demand :

· a full, verifiable accounting of North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programmes, with specific geographic positions identified.

· a reduction in the total stockpile and held in a small number of locations which international inspectors could keep under permanent observation with a mandate to inspect the facilities at any time.

Biegun seems also to have hinted that the US might be prepared to offer some “non-sanctions sweeteners” in return for further DPRK movement on destroying nuclear facilities. These might include some food aid (after having reluctantly agreed to President Moon’s request for permission for the South to send some food aid to the North) and the opening of a US liaison office in Pyongyang. But he also introduced the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) word into the process. Until now the US side had always spoken of the nuclear and ICBM problem, skirting around mention of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) – of which the DPRK is generally regarded as having substantial stocks – as an issue for later. Bolton was reported to have first raised CBW in the aborted Hanoi Summit discussions. Time will tell how important that change may prove to be.

Early this month, Japan surprised the ROK by imposing tighter restrictions on exports to it of three key materials used in chipmaking and other industrial processes. Last week, Japan warned of further measures, reaffirming its plan to remove Korea by July 24 from its so-called “white list” of countries entitled to fast export processing for strategic goods. This would have very serious implications for the ROK’s automotive, appliance and electronics manufacturing. At first, Japan said that these actions were in response to the ROK Supreme Court rulings last year that Japanese and Korean companies must pay compensation to individual Korean victims of wartime forced labor. While Japan wants to address the forced labor issue through an arbitration panel, Korea made a proposal in June to compensate the victims through a settlement voluntarily funded by companies from the two countries. Tokyo immediately rejected that plan and later changed its position by claiming that the measures were in response to Korea’s poor management of strategic goods and a possible violation of sanctions against North Korea. It also came on the heels of the issues which Seoul has had with the US on Huawei’s operations in the ROK (including Huawei exploring with ROK industry the possible supply of critical parts which major US manufacturers were being prevented selling to Huawei) AND Prime Minister Abe’s discussions with Trump. President Moon has complained bitterly to Washington and called for an independent audit of the Japanese claims – which he asserts are groundless. An ROK politician has since alleged that it was Japan which exported the said products to the DPRK some years ago – providing invoices and shipping documents! The volatile ROK:Japan relationship has suffered another challenge with the ROK media carrying reports that the US would like to widen participation in the UN Command in the ROK to support the US effort and that this could include the addition of some Japanese Self Defense Force personnel. Of course, this would be complete anathema to the Koreans who still harbour extremely strong memories of their period of harsh Japanese occupation.

Then came the enraged comments from the DPRK about the ROK’s purchase of the new US fighter ( F35 similar to those Australia and many other countries are purchasing). Two arrived last year followed by another two now. Not surprisingly given their track record, the DPRK have claimed that the introduction of this aircraft has changed the military balance on the Peninsular which Kim and Moon agreed to stabilise in their joint agreement a year ago. The DPRK claimed that the new aircraft had a radar avoidance capability which it could not match without their introduction of new equipment. Notably Russia has already deployed the vaunted S400 anti-missile and aircraft system on its border with the DPRK in 2017.The DPRK are threatening to develop their own system with similar capacity to the Russian (and Chinese) and putting the ROK on notice that this will require more missile testing – and muddy the waters again in their negotiations with the ROK ( and obviously the US). Which in turn will likely revive the determination of the ROK to develop their own short anti-missile system independent of the US.

Although Trump repeatedly claims that he is in no rush to conclude a deal with Kim the truth (not unexpectedly) is probably otherwise. Everything he is doing now has a direct connection with the 2020 elections. And Kim (as well as Xi and Putin) is well aware of that time line. That is why he has repeatedly drawn the end of 2019 as his line in the sand for the conclusion of a deal with Trump. A new element in all of this in the past few weeks has been the views on the Korean question which the multiple Democrat aspirants have outlined in their proliferating debates and public statements. For example, current leading contender, Joe Biden, has been broadcasting the merits of the CIVD precisely at a time that it would seem Trump may be tracking a way to soften his commitment to it and get negotiations underway! Yet another wild card introduced into what is already an extremely complex scene.

Mack Williams is a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea

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