One year ago, the Korean Peninsula had a rendezvous with history. After almost 12 months of threats of an impending doomsday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un surprised the world with a conciliatory message to South Korea on the occasion of the new year, 2018.
One month and a half later, the sister of the supreme leader of North Korea travelled to South Korea as head of the North Korean national team taking part in the Winter Olympics.
It was a repeat of what is known as “ping-pong diplomacy” that paved the way, four decades earlier, to the normalisation of relations between the United States and China. Many had thought that the same dynamics would apply to relations between Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul.
This turn of events in the Korean Peninsula was made possible by the election of Moon Jae-In as president of South Korea in 2017. From the outset, he left no doubt that he would work for peace and security in the Korean Peninsula by engaging the young and assertive leader of North Korea.
In the first half of last year, he brought about something that never happened before since the end of the Korean War in 1953, that is, an American-North Korean summit on 12 June in Sentosa, Singapore. It was the first summit ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.
The summit raised hopes that a peace process for the Peninsula would begin in earnest and that the world was about to see the end of the last vestige of the Cold War.
However, many, especially the hawks in the United States and South Korea, were very sceptical of the true intentions of the leader of North Korea. Most of them have believed that he was just manoeuvring in order to alleviate the effects of the sanctions regime imposed on his country.
Still, the North and South Korean leaders met in three summits in the course of last year and agreed on a roadmap for the future normalisation of inter-Korean relations.
From following developments in these relations, there is no doubt that the two sides are looking forward to the day when sanctions would be alleviated on the North and won’t be an obstacle towards the fulfillment of the hopes of the peoples of the two Koreas for peace and security on the Peninsula, and ultimately the reunification of Korea.
The major stumbling block in this respect has been the US definition of denuclearisation. While North Korea thinks in terms of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula as a whole, and that the process should not be limited to the North, American leaders have insisted on a narrow definition; namely, denuclearisation applies only to North Korea.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to travel to Pyongyang in October to hold talks with the leaders of North Korea and prepare the grounds for a second American-North Korean summit.
For various reasons, mainly public American insistence that denuclearisation means the nuclear disarmament of the North without specifying what the United States would give in return, in terms of security guarantees to Pyongyang and bringing to an end the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, the trip was postponed.
It goes without saying that the North Korean leader needs to achieve a breakthrough in American positions concerning the future security architecture in the Peninsula.
It is highly doubtful that he would agree to the complete denuclearisation of his country and willingly lose the formidable deterrence capabilities that Pyongyang already has in return for sanctions relief and economic assistance.
Short of such a breakthrough, North Korea sees no advantages in pursuing a limited peace process in which it becomes the party that makes major concessions without anything concrete in return.
The strategic cost is too high to be contemplated from the perspective of the North. In this, no sensible mind could fault them.
On 31 December, Kim Jong-Un addressed his nation, and the world, in a New Year’s Eve speech. He was quoted as saying: “We have announced that we will not produce, test nor proliferate any more nuclear weapons, and have taken practical measures accordingly.”
He stressed that, “if the United States responds to our pre-emptive and autonomous efforts with credible measures and corresponding actions, the relationship between the two countries will accelerate for the better.”
The message could not be clearer to American negotiators. It says no nuclear disarmament in North Korea without ending the deployment of American nuclear assets in South Korea, as well as the necessary delivery systems. And an official end to the state of war on the Korean Peninsula.
The North Korean interpretation of such a political and legal declaration would entail the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, or at least a drawdown of American forces, including nuclear arms, so that it ceases to pose an existential threat to a nuclear-free North Korea.
Lest he be misunderstood, he warned that if the United States “does not keep the promises it made in front of the world, misjudges the patience of our people, forces a unilateral demand on us and firmly continues with sanctions and pressures on our republic, we might be compelled to explore new ways to protect our autonomy and interests, and establish peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
During the outgoing year, the North Korean leader met Chinese President Xi Jinping three times in China. It is expected that a return visit by President Xi to Pyongyang would take place in 2019.
In the meantime, there are press reports that Kim Jong-Un would pay an official visit to Moscow, which would be his first trip to Russia since he came to power in 2011.
These visits prove that Kim Jong-Un has played his diplomatic cards quite intelligently with both China and Russia, something that would help him in an upcoming summit with President Donald Trump.
2019 could prove to be a decisive year for the two Koreas, and expectedly the South Korean president would spare no efforts in trying to bridge the gaps in American and North Korean positions with respect to the question of denuclearisation and its linkage to ending the state of war between North and South Korea.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The year of decision