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10 July, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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After the smiles and handshakes, what hope is there for peace on the Korean peninsula?

Robert Kelly
After the smiles and handshakes, what hope is there for peace on the Korean peninsula?
US President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the DMZ separating the two Koreas, Panmunjom

Barely four days after smiles and handshakes on the border of the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas, the walls have gone up once again. North Korea has accused the US of being “hell-bent on hostile acts” and said it was “obsessed with sanctions”. Pyongyang has taken particular umbrage with the fact that at the same time as US President Donald Trump was pressing the flesh with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Washington was adding its name to a joint letter, together with the UK, France and Germany, calling on UN member states to abide by sanctions on North Korea.

So has all the goodwill of Sunday’s impromptu summit between  Trump and  Kim completely evaporated – or is there still an impetus for the US president to triumph yet in extracting a deal on denuclearisation from North Korea? No other US president has successfully managed to do so. Indeed, bad faith and cheating are endemic to US-North Korean negotiations – and not just on the Korean side. In the 1990s, the US government dragged its feet over implementing a deal known as the Agreed Framework, which would have seen Pyongyang freeze the escalation of its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors. It broke down when US intelligence discovered North Korea was enriching uranium. Amid strained relations, the deal was scrapped by the Bush administration in 2003 and North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. John Bolton, who was then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said it was “the hammer I had been looking for the shatter the Agreed Framework”.
Both sides suffer from massive commitment problems. Each deeply distrusts the other, not only for obvious ideological and strategic reasons but based on past behaviour. The status quo of continuing hostility is deeply set. The previous US administration of president Barack Obama was committed to maintaining the status quo. But for one effort in 2012 called the Leap Day Deal, which would have involved a moratorium on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programme in exchange for food aid and concessions,  Obama was content with what he called “strategic patience”. The US would contain, deter, isolate and sanction North Korea. Ideally this tightening vice would encourage the country to negotiate. But in practice, this meant holding firm to US-South Korean containment of North Korea going back to the 1950s.
 Trump entered office determined, apparently, to up-end this status quo. By 2017, North Korea had attained both an intercontinental ballistic missile which could reach the US and a fusion nuclear warhead – one with 50 times the energy released in the 1945 Hiroshima bombing. North Korea could now strike America with a very powerful weapon.  Trump felt compelled to respond.
His first effort was to veer to the right, to follow the counsel of the hawks in his administration and threaten force. In 2017, the Korean peninsula was racked by the worst crisis since the Korean War. Rumours were rife that various US exercises were actually practice drills for pending airstrikes. The Japanese government practiced air raids. In South Korea, my wife and I stocked a “go-bag” packed with money, water and crackers.
 Trump’s hawkish line toward North Korea was deeply unpopular though in South Korea. No US strike on the North would spare the South. Northern retaliation would likely fall on the South. And if strikes escalated into full-scale warfare, possibly involving nuclear weapons and neighbouring countries such as China, Russia and Japan, South Korea would be obliterated in the crush.
So severe was southern anxiety that South Korean President Moon Jae-In publicly stated that the US could not attack North Korea without South Korea’s permission. No South Korean president had ever asserted a veto right over the US use of force and  Trump would certainly have ignored it. But it symbolised the deep crisis that  Trump’s “fire and fury” threats had created.

The writer is professor of international relations in the department of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University, South Korea

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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