A candle will hardly be noticed on a sunny day, but it will make all the difference if lit in the dark. This allegory holds particular relevance for the relationship between North Korea and South Korea and its western allies. The “sunshine” years of active engagement towards the North under South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun ended when Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2007. After a decade of mutual accusations and consistently failed bilateral cooperation projects between the two states, we have reached a point of near darkness.
In the past ten years, not a single South Korean tourist has travelled to Mt. Kŭmgang, a previously popular tourist spot in North Korea. Similarly, up to 50,000 North Korean workers formerly employed by over 100 South Korean companies at the once vibrant Kaesong Industrial Zone have been out of touch with their capitalist employers since 2016. The number of defectors from the North is decreasing, not least because controls on both sides of the border with China have been strengthened. In 2017, hostilities reached a new level when North Korea tested powerful nuclear devices and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and President of the United States Donald Trump publicly threatened North Korea with annihilation.
Against this pitch dark backdrop, it is not surprising that even the smallest gestures of peace related to the 2018 Winter Olympics generated hope and garnered international attention. However, most experts on North Korea have refused to join the chorus of optimists, even remaining skeptical when the two Koreas announced that they had agreed to hold a third summit meeting in late April of this year. A closer look reveals that there are indeed many reasons to be at least cautious, if not even concerned.
This is not the first time we have witnessed such signs of cooperation. The first joint sports team of North and South Korea was formed as far back as 1991 and teams from the two countries have played together several times since. Eighteen years and six nuclear tests ago, the first inter-Korean summit was announced and held in Pyongyang. In October 2005, a handful of Europeans and thousands of North Koreans sat in the gigantic May-Day stadium in Pyongyang, watching the mass-gymnastics performance, Arirang – along with a few hundred South Korean tourists who were frantically waving their light-blue unification flags. But even though dozens of similarly encouraging events of varying scales took place, we are still far away from a solution.
Despite past failures, the joint Olympics team, the exchange of political delegations, and even summit meetings cannot be dismissed as meaningless. Rather, they remain important gestures. Athletic cooperation can be a precursor for more substantial efforts; talks can lead to actual agreements, and these agreements might even be honored. But any optimism must remain realistic: all these outcomes are mere options and possibilities.
Importantly, the fundamentals remain unchanged. North Korea shows no sign of stopping its nuclear weapons program unless the U.S. itself agrees to a denuclearization, a peace treaty, diplomatic normalization, perhaps also reparation payments, a dropping of bilateral sanctions, and other far-flung demands. Meanwhile, the US has for over a decade regarded the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear stockpile as a precondition for peace talks. Both sides are adamant in their respective positions: North Korea points to the fates of countries that gave in to Western demands in hopes of avoiding a war but became the target of a U.S. military intervention anyway. Washington, on the other hand, emphasizes that North Korea has violated too many previous agreements to be trusted in political negotiations.
Moreover, many observers and decision-makers in the West are still optimistic that the problem might solve itself. Hopes in Washington about the supposed impending collapse of North Korea remain strong – even more so as China’s recent moves toward a more active role in international sanctions have fueled such expectations. China, however, has no interest in seeing a North Korean collapse and resulting Korean unification that would effectively expand the U.S. sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, and perhaps unwittingly, President Donald Trump is acting as a catalyst for a Cold War 2.0 as he systematically offends long-standing allies from Europe to Asia, destroys much of the soft power the U.S. has accrued since 1945, and antagonizes Russia and China to a point where these two traditional rivals are seriously considering a more active cooperation. North Korea expects a revival of the two-camp geostrategic setting that considerably benefitted Kim Il-sung, and is thus content to draw out the status quo.
It is within this global context that we still have yet to see the full impact of the Olympics and the bilateral meetings on the societies of South and North Korea. In the South, surveys have shown a declining interest in unification for many years. A majority, especially amongst the younger generation, now prefers a peaceful division. Accordingly, it is no surprise that some in the South saw the North Korean participation as a great success, while others thought that their government had allowed the enemy to steal the show.
In North Korea, support for unification is much more consistent across time and age groups, for a variety of reasons. Some hope their quality of life will improve, others expect unification will lead to a more tenable regional security position, and others still believe they will be able to dominate the South. In any case, the North Koreans expect their leader to work towards unification.
Kim Jong-un responded to that demand for unity and skillfully capitalized on South Korea’s desire to host a successful and peaceful Olympic Games. It is essential to recognize how simple refusal would have been. It only would have taken a stony-faced North Korean news anchor announcing that due to various circumstances, the DPRK government was unable to guarantee the security of the international athletes, followed by another missile test or nuclear blast to preserve tensions in the region. But to great relief of the Blue House in Seoul, this did not materialize.
By sending both his sister and the titular head of state, Kim Jong-un demonstrated that this mission had his personal blessings. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea remained calm and cleverly avoided immediately accepting a reciprocal invitation to Pyongyang. He did not want to alienate Washington by acting without prior consultation with his major ally, and needed to break the habit of all inter-Korean summits taking place in the North. By agreeing to meet right at the border in Panmunjom, he achieved that goal while at the same time allowing Kim Jong-un to save face by not travelling to the South Korean capital.
A lot depends on the next steps taken by all parties. North Korea has announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. But the US and South Korea nevertheless decided to launch their joint military exercises. North Korea could simply ignore the maneuvers as has happened in the past, or it could interpret them as a sign of ill will, exploit them propagandistically, and redouble efforts at improving and expanding its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.
Such an outcome would play into the hands of China. Beijing is nervous about a nuclear North Korea, but it is much more concerned about the continued and expanding military presence on the peninsula of its main global contender, the United States. China wants to establish itself as the new leader in the East Asian region. An inter-Korean rapprochement process that is openly undermined by Washington will delegitimize the U.S. In particular, South Koreans will wonder whether it is still in their national interest to stick to the transpacific alliance. In this context, it is remarkable that Kim Jong Un has travelled to Beijing – his first such visit ever since he took power in 2011 – to secure China’s support for his position in upcoming negotiations, and to ensure that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping do not bypass Korea.
Unless wisdom prevails in Washington and the U.S. gives up its blockade and becomes an active driver of the process of dialogue, we might have to prepare for darker days once again. The surprising anouncement that the President Trump is now willing to meet with Kim Jong Un without even metioning the previously stated preconditions is encouraging. But such a summit can easily fail to produce any tangible results. It might then be used as a justification for a military option as it seems to be the preferred way forward by John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor. This will serve as an extra motivation for the two Koreas to come forward with truly impressive results at their own summit in April 27, in order to make it difficult for the Trump-Kim summit to be classified as the end of diplomacy even in the event of its failure. In any case, we might witness the beginning of the end of the global order that emerged after the end of the Cold War, with unpredictable consequences.
Ruediger Frank is Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna in Austria.