Changing Course on the Korean Peninsula

Changing Course on the Korean Peninsula
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The Korean peninsula’s deservedly been labelled a ‘flashpoint’ for well over a half a century but flare-ups in tension appear to be happening more frequently. Under the Trump administration, Washington’s seemingly more inclined to allow matters to come to a head, hoping to then put the issue on a new trajectory. And certainly, the sensible way to think about the peninsula is in terms of a change in the trend of developments, rather than an abrupt and decisive transformation.  

Even today, a reliable North Korean missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US mainland is an aspiration. The DPRK’s closer to this capability than it was 10 or even 5 years ago, but it’s not imminent or readily within reach. What’s newish, is that Donald Trump, both as a candidate and in office, has declared that the DPRK won’t be permitted to confirm that it has achieved this technological milestone.

Although hardly an original posture, the Trump administration’s wisely focused heavily on the role that China could play, even suggesting that the US could be a more accommodating partner on other contentious issues if Beijing were more assertive with the DPRK. Unfortunately, China has for decades skillfully fostered the impression—also supported emphatically by the DPRK—that the Korean question’s essentially a Washington-Pyongyang affair. In fact, the DPRK, in terms of its creation and subsequent evolution and the division of the peninsula, is overwhelmingly the creation of the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. There has been more than a hint of late of a new attitude in Beijing, but breaking down Beijing’s studied distance from the issue will still call for some skillful and persistent diplomacy on Washington’s part.

If we can (a) get China to accept that it’s a core participant, and, (b) persuade all the key players that there’s no swift and final solution but rather a question of putting the peninsula on a different path, then the following steps might take us to a starting point:

  1. China has to have a new conversation with the DPRK that stresses both its commitment to ensuring that the DPRK gets a good and fair deal but also its new resolve that the status quo on the peninsula cannot endure. Pyongyang must also be persuaded of Beijing’s conviction that reversing its nuclear weapons program lies at the core of a peaceful and stable peninsula. Should it be necessary, China could make clear that its support for the DPRK takes as given the latter’s full and constructive cooperation in all the negotiations, with unilateral abrogation precluded;
  2. The players should collectively revive the September 2009 package from the 6 Party Talks as a guide to the scope of an enduring settlement. Importantly, and because it did not do so in the past, China should underscore its solidarity with the other parties by associating itself conspicuously and unambiguously with the revival and re-endorsement of this package;
  3. The parties could agree that, while the US-DPRK axis is important, the DPRK-ROK axis will have equal status and progressively become the primary negotiating mechanism;
  4. With China stepping away from its posture of detachment (which included being the ‘host’ for earlier negotiations), there needs to be prior informal discussions to agree on where to conduct the negotiations and who’ll take care of the logistics.

The Trump administration, almost characteristically, has declared that if China doesn’t help fix the problem of the DPRK, the US will do so unilaterally. All states in the region should have a keen interest in the US and China not evaluating these issues in such black and white terms. Similarly, all states in the region have some capacity to bring influence to bear to encourage stronger convergence in the approaches currently preferred in Beijing and Washington.

Ron Huisken is Adjunct Associate Professor at the ANU’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.

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