Moon’s tough challenges
The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.
In late 2017, I projected a 30 percent possibility for North Korea’s denuclearization within the following one or two years. China had been strictly administering sanctions based on U.N. resolutions. U.S. President Donald Trump pushed Beijing to comply with international sanctions, and China went along so as not to worsen bilateral ties. Beijing-Pyongyang relations were at their worst. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had not met with the Chinese leadership since coming to power. Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to be cold-shouldering Kim after he executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek and his repeated testing of nuclear devices and inter-continental ballistic missiles.
The odds of North Korea committing to denuclearization fell under 10 percent a year later for two reasons. One was the South Korean government. If stringent sanctions in late 2017 were kept up for more than a year, North Korea could have moved closer to some international commitment. But the government under liberal President Moon Jae-in could not wait. For the “peaceful” symbolism of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Moon beckoned Pyongyang too hastily to the negotiating table in early 2018. An inter-Korean summit between Kim and Moon at the truce village of Panmunjom without any regards for the geopolitical ramifications made headline news but bore little fruit. Beijing moved fast as it could not lose Pyongyang to the U.S. side. The North’s Kim was invited to China for a summit and Xi promised an easing of sanctions and economic support. Pyongyang felt more at ease in negotiating with Washington with Beijing on its side. That led to the collapse of the second U.S.-North summit talks in Hanoi in February 2019.
Trump’s rashness and thoughtlessness were other factors. He neglected the fact that America’s soured relationship with China could deter North Korean denuclearization. Even as Pyongyang was yet to become committed to denuclearization, Trump moved his warfront to China after North Korea stopped provocations. When the U.S. toughened economic pressure and waged a technology war against China, Beijing responded with the North Korean card. It defied repeated warnings about its violation of UN sanctions on North Korea. The North Korean denuclearization issue became a subset in the conflict between the U.S. and China. All the prominent scholars in China gave the same answer: unless relations between Washington and Beijing improved, China would not fully commit itself to the sanctions on North Korea.
Then, the unpredictable event of the Covid-19 pandemic pushed the odds for North Korean denuclearization up to 30 percent. After North Korea sealed itself off, it has faced greater hardships than the sanctions. Kim, who had called on Washington to come up with new bargaining terms, suddenly kept himself away from public appearances, stoking speculation about him being critically ill or dead. His sister Kim Yo-jong took up the fiery megaphone against South Korea on behalf of her brother amid simmering disgruntlement from North Koreans due to their harder livelihoods. In a symbolic move, Pyongyang blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. The blow from Covid-19 had been that big.
Kim resurfaced and took back control of everyday affairs from the second half. Presiding over a party convention in January, he tried to display his confidence at home and abroad of surviving the economic perils. He declared the relationship with the U.S. would not improve unless Washington abandoned its policy of hostility.
But tough talk no longer sells. I would call the Stalinist economic experiment today a “mission impossible” or “as hopeless as teaching pigs to fly,” as commented by Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar on Asian and North Korean studies. Kim has been administering big and small party meetings to suggest that much of fissures within the regime. He is desperately trying to prevent an economic crisis building up to a political threat through renewed drives on ideology and anti-corruption.
While the Covid-19 turmoil is still ongoing, North Korea has blasted short-range ballistic missiles for the first time in a year. The Joe Biden administration is set to reveal its new policy on North Korean affairs. The tense war of words will likely bring about more military provocations and conflicts. Within a few years, we will discover whether North Korea is really set to forego nuclear programs or become a nuclear weapons state. Or North Korea could face the kind of doom often born of the ignorance and arrogance of dictators.
South Korea has its work laid out. It must work with the United States in designing its approach to North Korea and some kind of roadmap for denuclearization. The outline must reflect the Covid-19 factor and the North’s domestic situation to make it choose between sanctions and engagement. Measures must be customized for the denuclearization process. The South’s direct attempt at putting a wedge between China and North Korea will backfire. South Korea cannot influence China’s policy on the North. That hinges on the relationship between the U.S. and China. Kim moves on internal factors and America, not on South Korea. The more attention the Moon Jae-in administration pays to North Korea and China, the farther it will find itself from a good relationship with America and its denuclearization goal. If it wastes its chances this year, the next century of the Korean Peninsula could be dark.