After US President Donald Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threats of late 2017 gave way to summit diplomacy in early 2018, the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula looked bright. But by the end of 2019 these hopes had dimmed, and as 2020 dawns, peace prospects appear to be unravelling altogether. Charles K Armstrong specially for the East Asia Forum.
A confluence of factors suggested that the dangerous confrontation between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States, might have been significantly eased. Factors include a progressive government in South Korea reaching out to the North, a young leader in North Korea focussed on strengthening his country’s economy and a disruptive US president motivated to discuss directly with the North Korean leader. While there is still a chance the Korean peace process can be rescued, the coming year is more likely to see a return to the standoff that has defined the Korean Peninsula for the past 70 years.
As 2019 progressed, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made clear his government’s growing impatience with the lack of concessions from the United States — particularly in sanctions relief — following the historic 2018 Kim–Trump Singapore summit. Last April, Kim told the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s legislative body, that the United States had until the end of the year to make a ‘courageous decision’ to change its relationship with Pyongyang. This presumably meant lifting at least some sanctions and dropping its ‘hostile policy’ towards North Korea.
Then at the fifth plenary session of the seventh Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party held at the end of last year, Kim laid out a ‘new path’ for North Korea that offered little hope for improved US–North Korea relations in the near term. Kim declared an end to North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests that has been in place since 2017.
Despite ominous threats of a ‘Christmas gift’ to the United States, the end of 2019 came and went without any particular provocation from North Korea. Still, Kim promised a ‘new strategic weapon’. At the plenary session on 31 December, Kim declared that, ‘We should never dream that the United States and other hostile forces would leave us to live in peace, but make a breakthrough head-on on the strength of self-reliance to tide over the difficulties lying in the way of the advance of our socialist construction’.
Meanwhile the Trump administration insisted that the door to diplomacy remains open. Trump told reporters that he believed Kim was ‘a man of his word’ and would honour the Singapore Declaration’s promise of denuclearisation. But the United States did little to move forward on rapprochement with Pyongyang. If anything, sanctions are stronger at the beginning of this year than they had been two years earlier.
As with Iran, the Trump policy towards North Korea has long been one of ‘maximum pressure’. But North Korea faces a policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’, while Iran has been treated with all-round hostility, culminating so far with the targeted killing of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January in Baghdad. It remains to be seen how Soleimani’s death will affect North Korea, but it is safe to say that the drone strike will not inspire confidence in America’s peaceful intentions. It certainly will not reduce Pyongyang’s desire to maintain a nuclear deterrent against potential threats from the United States.
Trump may not be inclined toward any major foreign policy initiatives in 2020, particularly while he focuses on his re-election campaign and more immediately on his impeachment trial. Trump has already received domestic criticism for not getting any substantial concessions on denuclearisation from Pyongyang despite the spectacle of three summit meetings with Kim. Reaching out again to North Korea may not help Trump’s re-election prospects.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who effectively initiated the inter-Korean peace process by inviting North Korean participation at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, remains officially upbeat about Seoul–Pyongyang relations. In his 2020 New Year address, Moon repeated his longstanding invitation for Kim to visit Seoul. With US–North Korea relations stalled, South Korea is trying to engage with Pyongyang unilaterally — calling for family reunions, economic exchange and tourist visits to the North, among other initiatives. But besides their potential violation of UN sanctions, these recent proposals for inter-Korean cooperation have been met with indifference and even disdain from the North Koreans — who prefer to deal with the United States directly. Also, like Trump, Moon will be preoccupied with domestic matters over the coming months, including a shaky economy and National Assembly elections in April.
The Korean peace process has reached an impasse. For all its strong words, North Korea is unlikely to engage in a dramatic provocation such as a new nuclear test, as that might be a step too far for China and Russia, on whom Pyongyang relies for economic and political support. Emphasising once again its longstanding slogan of ‘self-reliance’, North Korea will remain inward looking and relatively cautious for now. What lies ahead is likely neither an explosive conflict nor a breakthrough to peace, but a return to the status quo ante of Korea’s never-ending Cold War.
Charles K Armstrong is Professor of Korean studies at Columbia University.