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Analysis: North Korea has no choice but to back down
April 26, 2018, 12:28 pm

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is no longer being depicted by the White House as the insane leader of a rogue state. Here, he is addressing the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang [North Korean Central News Agency]


All eyes are on the Korean Peninsula this week as the leaders of the North and South prepare for a historic summit which comes after years of tensions and war rhetoric.

The summit is the third such meeting of Korean heads of state in the past 65 years.

It also will serve as a precursor for another summit between North Korea and the US later in May.

In the past four years, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has emphasized his country’s defensive and offensive capabilities, increasing the pace of nuclear arms development and the frequency of ballistic missile tests.

The last test was held on November 28, 2017 in defiance of a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and increased Western sanctions.

The UNSC resolutions were designed to tighten the noose on Pyongyang. They restricted coal, iron and iron ore, seafood, lead and lead ore exports, and banned textile exports from North Korea while applying a cap on refined petroleum product imports at two million barrels per year, and freezing the amount of crude oil imports.

But North Korea remained defiant.

Despite the threat of all-out war with the US (with US President Donald Trump threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea) and its allies in the Pacific and the weight of new UN sanctions, Pyongyang pushed ahead with full-scale development of its nuclear and missile technologies.

During the Second Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held in early October North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that military development was a key defensive strategy against the US.

On September 3, North Korea successfully tested a hydrogen bomb which caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in the region. Initial estimates about yield indicate the bomb is equal to 120 kilotons, far more powerful than any of its past five nuclear tests.

The UN Security Council passed the harshest set of sanctions yet on September 12. The measures included restricting the North’s oil imports and its textile exports, among a list of other items.

Kim wouldn’t budge. And neither would the Americans.

But then came the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea in February 2018, and North Korea’s strategy appeared to abruptly change.

What happened?

Despite Kim’s defiance and his pursuit of nuclear weapons development as a deterrent, the leadership in Pyongyang realized that it was running out of time … and friends.

China, which had historically backed – and protected – North Korea, was now running out of patience and excuses.

The apparent close relationship publicized in the media between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping went a long way to convince the Chinese that a diplomatic solution brokered in Beijing would earn them considerable points on the world stage.

The Chinese were also angry with Kim that he had placed them in the untenable position of having to push back against Washington’s fiery war rhetoric and simultaneously persuade Pyongyang to back down on its nuclear ambitions.

During a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2017, Xi agreed with the Russians that they had to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A war with the US would be a lose-lose scenario for both countries as well as the entire Asia-Pacific, and set diplomatic initiatives back decades.

It would also be an entry point for increased US military presence in the region, something both countries absolutely did not want to see happening.

Both Putin and Xi agreed that their joint policy was to ensure denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In late September, Putin signed a decree to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea.

In line with the UNSC resolutions, Putin ordered that increased restrictions be applied to North Korea in the trade, financial, and scientific sectors even though Russia has no existing economic ties to the country.

China quietly did the same. While violations of UNSC resolutions on North Korea did continue, these were now much more restricted.

China tightened the pressure on North Korea while also calling for multilateral talks to “put out the flames of war”. But it also warned Washington against any notions of regime change – a popular US foreign policy gambit – in North Korea.

Pyongyang was beginning to feel it had less room to maneuver. Its own policies were forcing it into a corner.

And while Kim said he would fight to the last ballistic missile, any armed conflict would irreversibly end his rule – and his family’s legacy – in North Korea.

Is that how he wants history to remember him?

Perfect timing

The Winter Olympics provided the perfect cover for North Korea to slowly back out of the quagmire it – and Trump’s Tweets – had helped create.

By suggesting that the North and South field a unified Korean Olympic delegation, Kim was now openly signalling Seoul that he was ready for some fashion of talks.

Kim also knew he had a South Korean leader he could do business with.

Unlike his predecessor President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted on corruption charges, South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in March 2017 with a clear sight on resuscitating talks with the North.

He quickly overhauled Seoul’s foreign policy with particular emphasis on easing tensions with the North.

Moon was seeking to reform the South’s way of dealing with the North amid the continuing tensions and war of words between Pyongyang and Washington.

He moved quickly to draft a unification approach with the north; this has long been an initiative both Koreas had discussed during more peaceful times.

Moon believes taking a hardline with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will only make matters worse.

He advocates a mix of diplomacy and economic incentives to get North Korea to back away from its belligerent footing.

Moon had long said that he was willing to meet with Kim to ease tensions along the Demilitarized zone – a reality that will be realized on April 27.

As the war rhetoric flew between Pyongyang and Washington, Seoul was quickly working behind the lines to bring the two Koreas to some kind of understanding – perhaps, finally signing a peace treaty which has eluded them since the 1950s Korean War.

Kim dispatched his sister to the Games, while Trump sent his daughter to PyeongChang. More importantly, all missile tests were halted.

Washington announced a new line of sanctions against North Korea, but secret talks were already afoot.

By March 5, everything was set as the two Korea’s announced a summit of leaders along the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.

Senior South Korean advisors then flew to the US to brief the Americans on the summit initiative.

On March 8, Trump announced that he was ready to meet with Kim.

In various Tweets and announcements, Trump praised the Chinese for their pressure on North Korea.

Trump’s announcement caught Washington by surprise. He was a straight-shooting president who didn’t play the realpolitik of most of the power elite in the US.

China quickly stepped in to help Trump when the Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed his announcement and appreciated his efforts to deescalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

It said bold political decisions and restraint were need from both sides to ensure the success of the talks, but that the face-to-face meeting was only a first step.

“China will continue to make unremitting efforts toward this outcome,” the ministry said.

On March 9, Trump called Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss the anticipated talks with Kim Jong-un.

Xi told Trump that he appreciated Trump’s resolve to find a peaceful resolution to tensions with North Korea.

“I believe that as long as all parties adhere to the general direction of political and diplomatic settlement, we will surely push forward the Korean Peninsula issue in the direction that the international community has been looking forward to,” Xi said.

On March 25, Kim landed in Beijing for three days of talks with Xi.

It was his first such visit to China.

Kim made his most significant peace overture to the US following meetings with Xi.

“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” he said.

The Kim-Trump summit would be a coup for the US president who would go down in history as the first American leader to meet with as-yet a North Korean enemy.

It would also make up for the drawbacks from the failed Bill Clinton effort to meet with Kim’s father in the late 1990s.

Trump appears to be cautious as media pundits sound off against his risky venture with Kim.

He said he would walk out on talks with North Korea if negotiations go nowhere or it appears Kim is just biding for time.

On April 22, indications from North Korea were that it would suspend its nuclear program.

On April 24, however, Trump Tweeted that Kim was an honorable person.

The Korean summit on April 27 should be a good indication of what to expect from a Kim-Trump meeting next month.

By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies

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