A month ago, we left open the possibility of a political breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula, but the progress rates of the new game developing here exceed the wildest expectations. During the whole previous year, the major opponents on the Korean Peninsula were comparing their nuclear missiles, while the possibility of a large-scale military conflict using the same nuclear weapon sometimes seemed inevitable.
What is extremely important is that the game is developing rather positively although the position that is being formed can be differently evaluated by the direct and indirect participants.
It took not so much time after the leader of the DPRK called for the resumption of the inter-Korean dialogue on January 7 on the occasion of the staging of the next Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Actually, it was the first move of the “white figures” in the new, let us repeat, political game in one of the most dangerous zones of the modern global chessboard.
The response move of the aggregated “black figures”, which was represented by the leadership of the Republic of Korea at that stage, involved the agreement to such negotiations. We should note that colouring of the direct participants of this game does not involve any preferences of the author.
The second move was the holding of the inter-Korean negotiations at the highest level. They took place in the Republic of Korea and then in the DPRK. Upon completion of both stages of the negotiation process, the leaders of the Republic of Korea and the DPRK received the delegations. These formal receptions also resulted in the (many-hours-long) negotiations.
Their major result (which is the third move of the white figures, in fact) was the invitation submitted to the leader of the black figures (i.e. the US President) to come out of the shadow and engage in the negotiation process. The specified invitation was sent to the addressee by the head of the South Korean delegation on March 8. On the same day, Donald Trump posted on his Twitter that his meeting with the North Korean leader “being planned”. Thus, the third move was completed.
It can be said that a significant part of the new game debut on the Korean Peninsula has already passed, and we may discuss the forming position, the losses and benefits of the direct and indirect participants, as well as possible versions of the game progress.
In this respect, the next fourth move of the parties is gaining exceptional importance as it is conditioned by the “planned routine” joint military exercises of the USA and the Republic of Korea. They were postponed due to the Olympic Games (as if) but, in fact, it was necessary condition to start new political game on the Korean Peninsula.
The current attitude of the parties to the denuclearization problem is of the same importance. The USA still consider the denuclearization as the full nuclear disarmament of the DPRK.
The position of the “black figures” team on these two important issues is set forth both in the same Twitter record by Donald Trump as well as in the statement of the head of the delegation of the Republic of Korea that arrived in Washington. The “black figures” insist that “Kim Jong Un have discussed with South Korean representatives not only freezing, but denuclearization as well”.
They also state that the North Korean leader promised to suspend the missile and nuclear tests during the “routine” US-South Korean military exercises.
However, the DPRK state that the negotiations with the USA planned for May 2018 are not the consequence of meeting some preliminary terms.
This is a typical behaviour of the parties that recently have had mutually exclusive claims to each other and finally have decided to try finding areas of common interest. In this respect, one has to agree with the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov who proposed not to pay attention to propagandistic statements of the conflict participants on the Korean Peninsula and to assist in everything that leads to its settlement.
Let us express the private opinion on the fact that the more moderate scale of the upcoming military exercises (which are better to be carried out to the south of the 38th parallel) would allow “saving face” of all participants of the game and would contribute to its positive development. In particular, this would help the DPRK refrain from the already habitual “retaliatory missile and nuclear” campaigns.
As for the position after the fifth move, which the parties will hopefully make in May 2018, there is no sense in talking about it now.
It should be noted that the parties are too far from reaching the generalized “Korean problem”, which was born back in 1945 after dividing (temporarily as it seemed at that time) of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel. Only this general problem format will allow solving various “details”, including the problem of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
However, judging by indirect signs we may guess that this general problem has been discussed in the framework of the inter-Korean dialogue in the first instance. Let us note in this connection that the ultimate goal of the whole game on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the sequence of the planned moves, may cause a discord in the “black figures” team.
In comparison with the Republic of Korea, the USA is interested only in keeping the reason for their military presence on the Korean Peninsula. This reason will disappear upon the settlement of the “Korean problem”.
Let us evaluate the positions of the three other (rather indirect) participants of the game on the Korean Peninsula, as well as their attitude to the ultimate goal. It concerns Japan, China, and Russia, which were involved in the six-party talk format formed to solve the problem of the DPRK denuclearization together with the USA and two Koreas till the end of the last decade.
Perhaps, Japan experiences the greatest concern about what is happening on the Korean Peninsula in the last few months, which is explained not only by the complexity of the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul but also by the general uncertainty surrounding the further development of the situation in Northeast Asia. Given the continuing overall growth of China and a possible trade war with the key ally, Tokyo is alarmed by a prospect (though distant and improbable) of the unified Korea emergence.
The Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sharply increased the frequency of contacts with Donald Trump in order to clarify his position on the Korean issue. His has a planned visit to Washington is April to negotiate with the American President on a number of issues, the main of which is the coordination of positions in respect of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
China’s position on the latest events around the Korean problem can be described as composedly optimistic. Beijing constantly highlights the necessity of the direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. At the same time, China supported the UN Security Council resolution initiated by the USA, which strengthened the sanctions against the DPRK. Pyongyang felt abandoned by the key ally and, apparently, decided to make (yet unclear) concessions in relations with the main enemy.
Perhaps, it was unexpected for Beijing and certain disappointment of being “outplayed” to some extent is seen in the Chinese media.
In this respect, it should be noted that the proverb “brawn instead of brain” does not refer to the Washington game of the last months on the Korean Peninsula. The availability of force, that in the case of the US has a complex structure, raises no doubt, but it is used smartly in this case.
However, let us repeat that we are talking about some results of the very initial stage of the new game on the Korean Peninsula, which do not determine its further development. Both world’s major players are keeping more or less permanent connection probing the “partner’s” intentions. The last telephone conversation of the US and Chinese leaders on the Korean problem took place on March 9.
As for Russia, this is almost the only major regional country that is fully and frankly interested in the creation of unified, neutral, and nuclear-free Korea.
However, the latter refers to the sphere of political fantasy. We should be satisfied with the fact that the latest moves of the main players on the Korean Peninsula have not ended with the chessboard strike on the head of the partner.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”