High-level inter-Korean talks at the border village of Panmunjeom not only represent a vital step in Winter Olympics’ diplomacy but also offer a tantalizing chance of a breakthrough in stalled six-party discussions.
In stark contrast with the usual tweet barrage, United States President Donald Trump even told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the meeting could yield a positive outcome.
Among the possibilities are that Seoul and Pyongyang could resume civilian exchanges. The hotline between South and North Korea could reopen along with the joint Kaesong Industrial Region, which was closed in 2016.
The potential of reinvigorating the sidelined six-party talks, involving China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, the US and North Korea, is another possibility.
Beyond the Winter Olympics, the fierce divide between North and South, of course, will not be breached, even though North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has stressed that his country will not go nuclear unless “hostile forces” attack his regime.
He appears confident that there will not be a preemptive US nuclear strike because of the North’s deterrent. So, the question now is where will China position itself after the Panmunjeon talks?
Rumors that Beijing was resigned to an imminent war between Washington and Pyongyang were never credible. Certainly, one view that came out of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October was that President Xi Jinping would protect Beijing’s complex relationship with Washington in parallel with relationships with major trade partners across Asia.
But that does not necessarily mean abandoning North Korea. The number one strategic imperative for Beijing is to keep the country as a cushion against the US presence in Northeast Asia. A reunited Korean peninsula, with American soldiers stationed at China’s northwest border, has to be prevented at all costs.
Yet that also means averting any escalation that could lead to a direct confrontation with the US. So, it is fair to argue that Xi has concluded that business with the US far outweighs unconditional support for the North, which does not advance Beijing’s interests.
Leading Chinese adviser, Professor Shi Yinhong, has famously described North Korea as a “time bomb,” so contingencies plans have been put in place. The building of a six-lane highway between Shuangliao, a city in western Jilin, through to Ji’an, a prefecture-level city in the central region of Jiangxi, and on to the Korean border is significant.
It can be interpreted as a roadmap to secure the North’s nuclear arsenal in an extreme case. This would involve the Kim dynasty crumbling or a move by Beijing to change the Pyongyang regime – something that has been discussed by Chinese think tanks for years.
Indeed, that scenario ties up with suggestions that China’s People’s Liberation Army would not interfere even if the US launched a preemptive attack. Officially, though, Beijing’s position is in favor of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
This would start with a “double freeze” mechanism, allowing for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Beijing is acutely aware that containing the North’s nuclear program will have a direct effect on the military upgrading of Japan and South Korea. China is also keen to improve relations with Seoul.
Since 1953, only a flimsy armistice exists on the Korean peninsula. And no geopolitical actor has attempted to alter the status quo. After all, any wobble would generate a tectonic shift in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical chessboard, with unforeseen consequences.
Now, though, a nuclear North Korea is changing the dynamics as competition between the US and China in the region intensifies along with Russia’s eastward tilt. Then, of course, there is Japan and South Korea, two major economic powers.
As much as the North may fear the impact in its own internal market of Beijing’s trademark geoeconomic onslaught, it is not far-fetched to imagine Kim looking toward Washington to throw a wrench into China’s New Silk Roads, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Just like Trump, Kim may not be a stellar reader. But he is certainly aware, as the Pentagon sees it, that the Western Pacific, coupled with the Indian Ocean, is absolutely strategic for the containment of China.
Studies such as Michael Green’s By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 make it clear that the US will not tolerate another power establishing “exclusive hegemony.”
Still, Washington is at a loss when dealing with North Korea. Russia and China oppose any military solution which would interfere with their geopolitical aims. At the same time, Pyongyang wants to be accepted as a nuclear power and a key actor on the Asia-Pacific chessboard.
Therefore, there are only three options on the table. The first is a devastating preemptive strike, nuclear as well as air and sea forces. This would lead to an immense loss of life not only in the North but also in Seoul, which would be within range of Kim’s artillery.
The talks in Panmunjeon are yet more evidence that President Moon is doing everything in his power to prevent a march toward war.
The second option is to accept North Korea as a nuclear power under stringent international controls from the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The de-escalation would have to include a deal to freeze the North’s nuclear program.
There are signs that secret channels used by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are still open. This improbable redemption of a nuclear rogue state, though, would mean a slight alteration of the status quo. It would also hand China a huge advantage in the region.
Finally, the third option is to admit this is an insoluble problem, and turn Kim into a rational actor and let the North keep its bomb. Kim’s regime would then be warned that any attempt to use it would result in “fire and fury”.
Call it the art of the non-deal.