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Kim Jong-un’s Olympic truce

As the two Koreas move closer US intransigence risks leaving the US out in the cold

In the aftermath of the joint parade of Korean athletes from the two Koreas at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and there has been much discussion about how Kim Jong-un’s brilliant Olympic diplomacy has supposedly outmanoeuvred the US.

A classic expression of this was recently provided by an editorial in The Times of London, a newspaper which can usually be expected to take a strongly pro-US position on any international questions

When the whole world is watching, images carry more weight than a thousand diplomatic cables. The pictures of a beaming President Moon of South Korea standing beside the sister of Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, to applaud the triumphant entry of the joint team of athletes from the Korean peninsula have already changed the dynamics of the stand-off over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Suddenly, across the divide, a touch of warmth and diplomatic courtesy has produced a temporary rapprochement unimaginable only three weeks ago. Could this global festival in the snow halt the drift to military confrontation and even nuclear war in northeast Asia?…..

…….Kim has a keen sense of diplomatic theatre. First, he agreed to a joint team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to represent two countries technically still at war. Then he sent Kim Yo-jong, a sister with an engaging smile, to represent him at the ceremonies and give his own family imprimatur on this volte-face — an important symbol in a dynastic regime.

The result has probably exceeded his expectations. The talk and the pictures have focused on little else except this coup de théâtre. President Moon has been invited for face-to-face talks in Pyongyang, and despite his commendable caution, it is clear he intends to make only the third such visit north since the end of the Korean war. South Koreans, who have been living on their nerves for the past year as the North escalated its threats and missile launches, have suddenly felt a moment of relaxation. A renewal of the “sunshine policy” towards the North, pursued with much publicity and few results by the former president Roh Moo-hyun, may now win the liberal Mr Moon some much needed domestic support.

Mike Pence, the US vice-president, has tried to dampen the euphoria. But both his gestures and his words have appeared churlishly out of place. He remained seated, stony-faced, when the Koreans stood to applaud their joint team. He left the leaders’ reception after only five minutes. He repeatedly made clear that the United States would not support any relaxation of the pressure on North Korea unless it was prepared to discuss a reduction in its nuclear arsenal.

The Trump administration is right to take a tough line. But, it has to be admitted, this has run into the brick wall of North Korean pride and the sands of Chinese evasion. Washington should keep up its pressure. But if the nation it is meant to be safeguarding itself wants to try another tack, it would be foolish to shut off that avenue.

All of this is true, save for the claim that it “unimaginable only three weeks ago”.  On the contrary the real mystery is why any of it should have come as a surprise when the tell-tale signs that it was about to happen were there for all to see for months.

Back on 22nd October 2017 I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran in which I discussed the diplomatic moves the Russians were taking to get the two Koreas talking to each other and the growing risk this created that US intransigence might leave the US cut out of talks to achieve a Korean settlement

If the US persists in its present posture – saying it is ready to talk to North Korea but refusing to do so, saying it has no plans for regime change in North Korea but refusing to give North Korea any security guarantees, saying North Korea must disarm but ruling out any withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, criticising Kim Jong-un for imposing hardships on North Korea’s people and then searching for ways to increase the hardship which is inflicted on them, and demanding that China solve the Korean crisis for the US without the US giving anything in return – then sooner or later the point will come when the Russians will tell the South Koreans that the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea but the US.

At that point the Russians will no doubt point out to the South Koreans that they have a far greater interest in a peaceful settlement of the crisis than the US does, since a failure to resolve the crisis is putting the future survival not just of North Korea but also of South Korea and of the whole Korean nation at risk.

At that point the Russians will no doubt also point out to the South Koreans that it is in their hands to end the Korean crisis by coming to terms directly with North Korea, and that they do not actually need the US to achieve this.

It is not after all as if the contours of a possible Korean settlement are difficult to see: a non-aggression pact between the two Koreas, a withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, and an agreement by North Korea that it give up its weapons in return for formal security guarantees from the Great Powers (in this case this means the two Eurasian Great Powers, Russia and China).

There is no logical reason why any of this should require the agreement of the US, and if the two Koreas were to agree to this the US would not be in a position to prevent it…..

That after all is how the big breakthrough came in the Syrian crisis, with Russia and Turkey agreeing a deal with each other after the fall of the Jihadi stronghold in Aleppo, which did not involve the US.

……..given the strong interests all three parties have in a settlement, if the US is not careful it may not be so long before it comes to that……

Whilst this outcome objectively speaking would not be contrary to US interests, for the “indispensable nation” which “can see further” than all the others such an outcome would qualify as a total humiliation.  That however is the most likely outcome to which US intransigence on the Korean issue is leading.

The US still has time to avoid this outcome, and there are some people in Washington – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson probably being one – who are prepared to take the necessary action to do so.  However there is little sign of their opinions prevailing at the moment, if only because few people in Washington seem to recognise the danger.

It subsequently became clear that what looked in October to be essentially a Russian diplomatic initiative, was actually a joint Russian-Chinese diplomatic initiative, with the Russians working with the North Koreans and the Chinese working with the South Koreans in order to get the two Koreas talking to each other.

Here is what I wrote about that in an article The Duran published on 10th November 2017

…….The Chinese and Russian objectives are in all respects identical, conclusively confirming that the two Eurasian Great Powers are acting in concert towards the same objective,.

Clearly there is an agreed division of labour between them, with the Chinese talking to the South Koreans over whom they have substantial economic leverage (see this article by Reuters), and with the Russians talking to the North Koreans, with whom – unlike the Chinese – they have traditionally always had good relations…..

………the possibility of an eventual South Korean realignment with South Korea agreeing to become part of some sort of regional structure bringing together however loosely the two Koreas and China and Russia does not seem to me altogether farfetched.

Whether Kim Jong-un and his officials would be interested in such an arrangement is another matter.  Doubtless the Russians are working hard to try to find out, and in time they will no doubt point out to Kim Jong-un its very obvious advantages to him

Such an arrangement would obviously distance South Korea from the US. However it would not mean that South Korea would have to become an enemy of the US.

The Chinese and the Russians know that that is something to which the South Koreans would not agree, and from their point of view it would not be desirable anyway.

However South Korea – unlike say Germany or Turkey – is not a member of a tightly structured US-led alliance like NATO in Europe.  A shift by South Korea away from its current close security relationship with the US would not therefore require a formal break with the US.  That makes a realignment easier to achieve.

As the article in Global Times shows, the Chinese and the Russians – being the highly practical and realistic people that they are – are not proposing such a realignment to Seoul at the moment.

Rather they are pressing Seoul and Pyongyang to begin direct talks with each other.  At the back of their minds they will hope that when such talks begin the idea of a realignment will emerge naturally out of them.

The prospects are in fact better now than they have ever been.

A rapprochement bringing together the two Koreas and China and Russia would have been inconceivable during the Cold War when Kim Il-sung first proposed it because of the bitter ideological divisions of that period.

In the early 2000s, when it was again mooted, the US was still very much the hyper-power with an effective veto over any move by South Korea and with the Chinese and the Russians having little to offer.

By contrast today the huge growth of Chinese power and the strong recovery of Russia mean that for the first time a rapprochement between the two Koreas, China and Russia looks both attractive and viable.

Whether the negotiations currently underway between the Chinese and the South Koreans and the North Koreans and the Russians eventually lead to that outcome remains to be seen.

However already Chinese diplomacy has achieved a dramatic success, with South Korea’s agreement to limit THAAD deployments on the Korean Peninsula, the South Koreans ruling out the idea of a tripartite alliance between themselves the US and Japan, and with the South Koreans also agreeing to re-start defence talks with China.

My guess is that a rapprochement bringing together the two Koreas and realigning them closer to China and Russia is both fully viable and much closer than many realise.

Indeed its logic is so strong that if or rather when the two Koreas finally begin to talk to each other I expect it to come to the forefront quickly.

The challenge is to get those talks started.

The Russians have made a strong pitch to the North Koreans, whilst the Chinese breakthrough with the South Koreans suggests that the start of direct talks between Seoul and Pyongyang may not be as far off as most people think.

(bold italics added)

Just two months after those last words were written the start of direct talks between North Korea and South Korea has begun, with Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong meeting South Korean President Moon in PyeongChang, and extending to him an invitation – which President Moon has accepted – to visit North Korea and to meet there with Kim Jong-un.

Assuming this visit takes place, it would be the first occasion that a world leader – specifically President Moon of South Korea – will have set foot in North Korea and will have met with Kim Jong-un since Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011.

What is truly remarkable about all this is that even as it is happening the US remains in denial.

The surly behaviour of US Vice-President Mike Pence in PyeongChang mentioned in The Times of London editorial obviously reflects US anger – and bafflement – that the South Koreans are acting independently of the US, and that the US has been sidelined in a diplomatic process in which it has played no role, and which it does not welcome.

I came across the same attitude of denial during a debate on Press TV on 2nd January 2018 with Michael Lane, the founder of the American Institute for Foreign Policy

When I explained to Michael Lane the diplomatic moves between the two Koreas which were by then already underway, and when I explained to him that if the US maintained its intransigence it risked finding itself faced with agreements reached between North Korea and South Korea and backed by China and Russia to which it was not a party, he simply dismissed all this as a play by Kim Jong-un to “drive a wedge” between South Korea and the US, which he confidently said would have a “much less than 50-50 possibility of success”.

He then went on to talk of financial sanctions against China, and of an economic blockade of North Korea intended to bring North Korea to its knees.

In reality it is US intransigence – not Kim Jong-un’s brilliance or Russian or Chinese diplomacy – which is driving this process.

It is exasperation with US intransigence which has driven the Russians and the Chinese to push the two Koreas to talk to each other – cutting out the US – and it is US intransigence which has alarmed the South Koreans, creating a diplomatic opportunity which Kim Jong-un has exploited.

No agreement the two Koreas agree with each other presents any conceivable danger to the US.  On the contrary a detente between the two Koreas which stabilises the situation in the Korean Peninsula benefits the US, even if it comes at the price of a stronger Korean alignment with China and Russia, and even if it leaves North Korea in possession of all or some of its nuclear weapons.

Even The Times of London is able to understand this, as these words in its editorial show

The Trump administration is right to take a tough line. But, it has to be admitted, this has run into the brick wall of North Korean pride and the sands of Chinese evasion. Washington should keep up its pressure. But if the nation it is meant to be safeguarding itself wants to try another tack, it would be foolish to shut off that avenue.

(bold italics added)

The US urgently needs to rethink its approach to North Korea and try another tack.

The way to do that is to do what the Chinese and the Russians have been urging the US to do for months: freeze its military deployments and its military exercises in and around the Korean Peninsula, and talk to Pyongyang.  An offer of a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is an obvious and necessary step.

The alternative the US risks – if it insists on maintaining its present belligerent and intransigent course – is that North and South Korea will come to agreements with each other and realign with China and Russia in a way that leaves the US out in the cold.

It is impossible to see how that makes sense for the US.

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