A year ago the situation in the Korean Peninsula appeared to be sliding rapidly towards war, with North Korea pressing ahead with its ballistic missile and nuclear tests, with Donald Trump, the US’s newly elected and highly inexperienced President tweeting threats of military action, with General H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s hawkish National Security Adviser lobbying for military action, and US fleets moving backwards and forwards towards the Korean Peninsula alongside wild talk that they might be about to be used in action.
A year later the mood is transformed.
Kim Jong-un – North Korea’s much demonised Great Leader – has now held successful summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and is negotiating the terms of a summit meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile North and South Korea have fielded a joint Olympic team at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, North Korea has announced a freeze of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme, and the leaders of the two Koreas – Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in – have publicly committed themselves to negotiating a peace treaty between their two countries and to the total denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
Firstly, it is clear that the major moves since the start of the year have come from Kim Jong-un. It was he who proposed that North Korean athletes participate in the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, who sent his sister to attend the Games, who received a high powered South Korean delegation in Pyongyang, and who has now had highly successful summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom
President Trump and his officials obviously claim it was the mounting sanctions pressure on North Korea.
The North Koreans strongly reject this and say that by repeatedly making this claim President Trump and his officials are ‘poisoning’ the mood in advance of the Kim-Trump summit. A recent North Korean statement makes the point in trenchant terms
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea gave the following answer to a question put by KCNA on Sunday as regards the U.S. increased pressure against the DPRK:
Recently, the U.S. is misleading the public opinion, arguing as if the DPRK’s clarification of its intention for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula made through the Panmunjom Declaration adopted at the historic north-south summit is the result of so-called sanctions and pressure.
At the same time, it is making open remarks that it would not ease the sanctions and pressure until the DPRK gives up its nuclear weapons completely and also moving to aggravate the situation on the Korean peninsula by deploying strategic assets on the peninsula and increasing its attempt of taking up “human rights” issue against the DPRK.
The U.S. is deliberately provoking the DPRK at the time when the situation on the Korean peninsula is moving toward peace and reconciliation thanks to the historic north-south summit and the Panmunjom Declaration. This act cannot be construed otherwise than a dangerous attempt to ruin the hardly-won atmosphere of dialogue and bring the situation back to square one.
It would not be conducive to addressing the issue if the U.S. miscalculates the peace-loving intention of the DPRK as a sign of “weakness” and continues to pursue its pressure and military threats against the latter.
The reality is that though the sanctions have undoubtedly hurt the North Korean economy, China and Russia have consistently refused to cut off crude oil deliveries to North Korea, limiting the amount of pain the sanctions are causing.
All the reports of Kim Jong-un’s discussions with the South Korean dignitaries, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and with South Korean President Moon Jae-in speak of him being in a confident and even buoyant mood, a fact which speaks against him having been forced into negotiations he didn’t want.
All the indications in fact are that Kim Jong-un on the contrary feels that North Korea’s successful development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have put him in a position of strength. That is why he has now acted to start negotiations with China, South Korea and the US, as he seeks to cash in the advantage North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have given him.
In fact this has almost certainly been the North Korean game plan right from the start, with the North Koreans having decided a decade ago that they would not be able to force the US to the negotiating table until and unless they were seen to possess intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
As to what facts has spurred the blizzard of initiatives which have poured out of Pyongyang over the last few months, they are in fact almost certainly traceable to two events which took place last year.
The first was China’s confirmation in August 2017 that it would defend North Korea in the event that the US were to launch a military attack on North Korea intended to overthrow the government there.
I discussed this Chinese commitment to defend North Korea in an article for The Duran dated 11th August 2017. In it I said the following
Yesterday in an article for The Duran I said that China’s patience with the US was almost exhausted and the Global Times editorial straightforwardly says this, putting the US on the same level of childishness as North Korea and saying that China has given up hope of persuading these two countries to start behaving like grown-ups. It says that in light of this “reckless” behaviour by both sides – with the greater onus to behave responsibly being however first and foremost on the US since it is by far the stronger party – China is obliged to make clear to both sides what its red lines are
Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand thatwhen their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.
(bold italics added)
Then comes the clear statement of what the red lines are, and what in the event of armed conflict China will do
China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral.If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.
(bold italics added)
In other words if North Korea is so stupid as to launch an unprovoked attack on the US – which in this context probably covers the wild and reckless North Korean threat to launch a missile demonstration against Guam – it is on its own. However if the US attacks North Korea – either as part of some ‘pre-emptive’ strategy or in order to achieve regime change there, China will come to North Korea’s defence.
The Global Times editorial – wisely – does not spell out what China would in that case do. However since the discussion is one of war the necessary implication must be that in the event of a US attack on North Korea China will respond militarily.
Probably that response will be graduated and will depend on how severe the US attack on North Korea might be. However since the editorial says that the survival of the North Korea is a matter of Chinese national interest, the necessary implication must be that in the event of a straightforward US-South Korean invasion of North Korea to achieve regime change there the Chinese response would be direct intervention by the Chinese armed forces to prevent that happening.
China and North Korea have a defence treaty which they agreed with each other in 1961 and which is still active. Article 2 of the treaty reads as follows
The Contracting Parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state. In the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.
The Global Times editorial of August 2017 which I discussed in my 11th August 2017 article reaffirmed that China would fulfil its commitment to North Korea under article 2 of the 1961 treaty, something which because of the increasing strain in Chinese-North Korean relations many had started to doubt.
That gave Kim Jong-un and his advisers the vital guarantee of China’s continued commitment to North Korea’s continued independence which they needed in order to press ahead with their opening to the US and to South Korea.
The second event was the coming to power in South Korea of Moon Jae-in, who won South Korea’s Presidential election of 9th May 2017 following the impeachment and removal from office of South Korea’s hardline and (as it turned out) corrupt previous President, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s former dictator Park Chung-hee.
That provided Kim Jong-un with a South Korean leader known to favour dialogue with North Korea whom he could negotiate with as a partner.
The result is North Korea’s proposal for an end to the state of war which has existed in the Korean Peninsula since the 1940s, its proposal for a process of reconciliation and peaceful reintegration of the two Koreas, and lastly its proposal for the total denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, which the North Koreans are quite clear must include the removal of US nuclear forces from the Korean Peninsula as well as their own.
There is also no doubt that the long term plan of the North Koreans (and of the Chinese and the Russians) is to see US military forces removed from South Korea in their entirety.
Donald Trump has publicly ruled that out, as has the South Korean government. That some people within the South Korean government are however willing to at least consider that possibility has however been confirmed by an article by South Korean Presidential adviser Moon Chung-in which reportedly said that the continued presence of US troops in South Korea would be “difficult to justify” if the two Koreas agreed a peace treaty between them.
As I have previously discussed, diplomatic moves to break the impasse in the Korean conflict first became visible in September and October when a senior North Korean diplomat, Choe Son Hui, engaged in high level contacts in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Anyone who observed those moves closely – and subsequent diplomatic moves involving South Korea and China – would not have been surprised by the sudden breakthrough at the start of the year.
The key to the end of the Korean conflict is not as many insist in sorting out the differences between North Korea and the US. Rather it is in achieving a reconciliation between the two Koreas. It is that process which is now underway, and which took a further major step forward in the Kim-Moon summit in Panmunjom.
Neither North Korea nor South Korea have any wish or desire to exclude the US from the discussions, and nor do the other Great Powers which are involved in the conflict: China and Russia.
On the contrary the intention is to replace the present state of war on the Korean Peninsula with a peace treaty of which the US and China would be co-guarantors, with the US and China participating with the two Koreas in what would in effect be a supplemental security treaty.
However, as I have said in the past, if the US digs in its heels and makes demands which appear to obstruct the course of peace in the Korean Peninsula, then North and South Korea and China are perfectly capable of moving ahead with the peace process by themselves without the formal participation of the US.
Not only does the danger of war in the Korean Peninsula create an incentive for such a thing to happen, but the benefits of peace for the two Koreas are so obvious and so strong that if the US tries to impede the process they are highly likely to continue without it.
Suffice to say that directly after his meeting with Kim Jong-un South Korean President Moon Jae-in telephoned Russian President Putin not only to brief him about the talks but in order to obtain Putin’s assurance that the long proposed rail and pipeline projects linking the Korean Peninsula with the rest of Eurasia will immediately proceed as soon as a peace treaty between the two Koreas is in place.
That assurance Putin was fully able – even anxious – to give, as the detailed report of the conversation between him and Moon Jae-in provided by the Kremlin website confirms
The President of the Republic of Korea provided a detailed account of his meeting with the DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un in Panmunjom and its outcomes.
During the conversation, the two sides gave a positive assessment to the agreements that were reached at the meeting, with special focus on the provision in the Panmunjom Declaration stating the intention to achieve the full denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. The two presidents expressed confidence that coordinated steps to promote cooperation between the two Koreas would help the region move toward peace and stability.
Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Russia’s readiness to continue facilitating practical cooperation between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK, including through major trilateral projects in infrastructure and energy.
Vladimir Putin stressed the importance for all the parties concerned to keep up their efforts to achieve a political and diplomatic settlement, including by following the principles set forth in the Russia-China roadmap for a settlement on the Korean Peninsula.
The two presidents also discussed topical bilateral matters focusing on ways of expanding mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas. They also agreed on a schedule of future top-level contacts.
(bold italics added)
The North Korean statement accusing Donald Trump and his officials of ‘poisoning the atmosphere’ in advance of the Kim-Trump summit should be seen for it is: a warning to Donald Trump that his position in advance of the talks is not as strong as he appears to think it is and that he should not overplay his hand.
Conciliatory noises from South Korea – such as the frankly bizarre suggestion that Donald Trump should be given the Nobel Peace Prize – do not erase this warning.
Donald Trump will be given all the plaudits he wants – and more arguably than he deserves – if supports the peace process which is now underway.
He risks being isolated and the US marginalised if instead he obstructs it.