The geopolitics behind the Korean Peninsula talks

The geopolitics behind the Korean Peninsula talks
From Al Jazeera - January 8, 2018

On New Year's day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivered an address full of mixed messages. He issued nuclear threats but also offered to engage in a dialogue with South Korea, restore a hotline between the two capitals, and schedule talks at the demilitarised zone in Panmunjom. He even suggested that North Korean nationals participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

It is difficult to say what pushed the North Korean leader to relax his otherwise belligerent rhetoric. There is little intelligence available on the inner workings of his regime and these days even high-ranking visitors from China, North Korea's main ally, are denied the courtesy of an audience with Kim Jong-un.

Nevertheless, it seems that Washington's carrot and stick strategy might have worked. Although most of the world's attention has been focused on US President Donald Trump's provocative tweets on North Korea, his administration has been quite busy working on the issue on various fronts.

Talks and military pressure

During a June 2017 meeting with then newly elected President Moon Jae-in, President Trump stated that the era of strategic patience is over, which clearly informed Kim Jong-un and other stakeholders that the failed polices of past US administrations would not be repeated.

Subsequently, the Trump administration led international efforts to increase pressure on North Korea. This includes United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions in August, September, and December of 2017- a significant achievement given the tensions between the US and Russia on Ukraine and Syria, and between the US and China on a wide range of security and trade issues. Meanwhile, Washington put North Korea on the list of state sponsors of "terrorism".

At the August ASEAN Regional Forum, the Trump administration also urged the ten-nation bloc not to serve as a safe place for North Korean business and diplomats to conduct illicit activities.

At the same time, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a number of occasions reiterated Washington's readiness to sit down for talks with Pyongyang. In December, he even declared that the US was willing to talk to North Korea without any "precondition".

The US has kept up military drills in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula, including, Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises in the spring and summer. In December, the Vigilant Ace 18 exercise brought into South Korea the largest concentration of fifth-generation fighter jets.

With military exercises an important part of a comprehensive strategy, the Trump administration is unlikely to accommodate calls to pause military exercises in return for a North Korea pause in nuclear and missile tests. However, Washington conceded to postpone military drills until after the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

South Korea's weak institutions

Often overlooked as a motivation for North Korea accelerating its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in recent years is the institutional instability (despite its economic strength) of South Korea. In recent years, Seoul has been shaken by the arrest of a member of the National Assembly accused of operating a North-Korea-sponsored plot to overthrow the government; days-long filibusters; corruption investigations of politicians and business leaders; the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye; and an early presidential election.

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