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What’s Next in Korea?
By Peter O’Brien

Kim Jong Un (KJU), North Korean Dictator, traveled to Beijing to meet with Xi Jinping, Chinese Dictator. One suspects they discussed a lot. There are some who’ll tell you (often to include Xi's spokesmen) that China can only make suggestions to KJU, that they have little real ability to pressure Kim. In fact, 2/3rds of North Korea's oil comes from China, grains come from China (to help North Korea through their perennially poor harvests), China is far-and-away the North's number one trading partner (85% of North Korea's exports, 90% of North Korea's imports), and China functions as a pressure release valve for North Korea, the destination for many North Koreans who need work.

Further, China has clearly helped the North with elements of KJU's nuclear weapons and missile program and has regularly blunted efforts in the UN and elsewhere to tighten the screws on the Kim regime.

So, when President Trump agreed to a meeting between him and KJU - as suggested by the Republic of Korea (ROK), Beijing was going to be involved. And they are.

But what does that mean to the US as the White House prepares for this summit? The simple answer is that the goals of the different parties are quite distinct. There’s room for hope, but what the US the ROK mustn't do is lose sight of the real goals in order to get some sort of settlement.

Beijing's goals in Korea rest on one central issue: they want the US out of South Korea. Any steps in that direction will be welcomed, but the real goal is for the US to leave. Does Xi want to eliminate the North's nuclear weapons program? I would suspect he doesn't care. He knows those weapons will never be used against China. As such, they represent simply a bargaining chip, a very large bargaining chip, but a bargaining chip none-the-less.

Beyond the US departure from Korea, Xi understands that the ROK would then fall into China's orbit. After that, any other details can be worked out.

North Korea and KJU want four closely linked items: regime survival - a guarantee of no attack; a peace treaty ending the Korean War (which would presumably include ending any embargos, and access to economic development funds); the departure of the US; and eventual unification with the South, under his rule. He sees his nuclear weapons as central to each of these goals.

So what should be the goals of the ROK and the US? Unification of the peninsula under the ROK government, and an end to the Kim regime's rule.

The problem here is that the long-term goals are almost diametrically opposite of each other. And while each party will want to come out of the talks with something to show; KJU and Xi can walk away with little immediate political loss; the pressure on the ROK and the US Presidents will be to produce some "tangible” results. What then is possible?

An immediate removal of the North’s nuclear weapons seems unlikely, nor should we consider removing US forces or materially changing the US – ROK relationship. However, there is reason to consider one step: diplomatic relations.

While signing a peace treaty in the near term may not be of any benefit to the US, leaving the armistice in place while recognizing the North, and establishing full diplomatic relations might be of benefit to us and to Seoul. A fully functioning embassy would allow the US to establish and maintain continual contact with Pyongyang and KJU’s regime without having nearly everything filtered through Xi and his foreign ministry. The US has had diplomatic relations with all sorts of evil regimes in the past, in an effort to serve US interests; this would be no different.

An offer of a freeze in nuclear testing and long range missile tests in exchange for an embassy would give each side a clear "win,” without going too far, or leaving the US and the ROK in a situation from which there is no easy withdrawal.

But a US Embassy in Pyongyang, and a North Korean Embassy in Washington, would both allow us to begin to understand exactly what is in the realm of the possible with KJU, and would give the Kim regime visibility into a Washington that they clearly do not understand. And that would be a good start.


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InBrief 13dec18

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