Monday, April 23, 2018

Peace Breaking Out on the Korean Peninsula

A lot of this stuff is cut-pasted, mix-and-matched, or snatched from the ether that is Twitter: it's great for getting bite-sized insights, but really hard to find back a comment read one time, so parts of this post will be combinations of things other people have said, but which I can't find back. John Delury, Sino NK, Jonathan Cheng, Robert Kelly and Ask A Korean's twitter feeds have been covering this stuff in detail, so do take a moment and spend time clicking the links they share, and if anything here was in a tweet you saw, please leave a link so I can attribute it properly.

News outlets reported that North and South Korea are working on officially ending the Korean War, a war fought from 1950-1953, but which never moved beyond an armistice to an actual peace treaty or normalized diplomatic relations. After announcements of planning a summit, and indications that denuclearization is on the table, Kim Jong-un's visit to China, and Mike Pompeo's visit to North Korea, it is starting to look like the ducks are getting in a row for some actual, substantive progress in the area, something I have not suspected to be possible pretty much since I came to South Korea.

Now, prognosticators have been wrong time and time again about North Korea, both when it looked like things were headed toward normalization, and when it looked like things were headed for war. In fact, on this very blog, during my Pyeongchang Olympics downer post, I predicted that nothing would come of the two nations marching together at the opening ceremonies, and fielding a unified women's ice hockey team. Of everything I've written on this blog, and I've stuck my foot in it a whole bunch of times, I don't think there is anything I've ever said, predicted, or concluded on which I'd be happier to eat crow.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves or anything!

While we try to keep our hopes guarded at Roboseyo whenever it could just be that Kim Jong-un opened a new box of girl scout cookies and "All The Single Ladies" came on the radio at the same time, there are indeed indications that this is not your run-of-the-mill repeat of North Korea's patented "Global Media Attention Maximizing Friendly/Unfriendly Yo-yo Diplomacy" actTM. Let's go through some of them, and let's read/write quick, before everything goes squirrelly again.

North Korea's Strongest Position Ever

First of all, let's start off with the notion that getting together for the Pyeongchang Olympics laid some groundwork for this.

In fact, let's go a little earlier than that. The point at which the Obama Administration was using the phrase "Strategic Patience," and Park Geun-hye's official North Korea policy was some weird modge-podge of trust-building language, greedy "bonanza" lip-smacking over potential riches to be gained upon unification, and inaction supposedly forced upon them by an unmet demand for an apology over North Korea's sinking of a South Korean boat in 2010, while North Korea recycled boilerplate threats without backing away from their weapons development program, I got the feeling that South Korea and USA had played every card they had, and didn't know what to do next. North Korea, too, seemed to be working from the same playbook they had used since the "Axis of Evil" speech. It was an uncomfortable stalemate, and North Korea was clever enough with its brinksmanship that they always backed away from the line before drawing too serious consequences, while also always pushing the envelope and getting away with further nuclear tests and missile launches.

With their final successful test of a missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States, however, the situation had changed for good. North Korea had the negotiating chip it had been working towards all this time. Previously, I've written on this blog that developing nuclear weapons is mostly a dumb show for North Korea's domestic politics: its own people need to see NK's leaders working to defend the nation, because that's the only type of legitimacy available to NK's leaders. Meeting an urgent military threat is a great way for a government to deflect criticism of its leaders, create a sense of national unity, and justify or at least hand-wave deprivation if there are shortages in areas like material goods or freedoms. Until North Korea had that final, ultimate bargaining chip, it made sense for North Korea to play the hot-cold game to buy time, run a little distracting brinksmanship to buy time, but also occasionally play nice to buy time, just to keep'em guessing, and buy time!

While North Korea had a lot to gain from those delaying tactics, and going back on the promises it made at that time, because its nuclear program was not developed yet, that is no longer the case. Denuclearization and joining the global community are the two main chips North Korea has to negotiate with, and by having functioning intercontinental missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads before heading to the negotiating table, North Korea has put itself in the strongest bargaining position it possibly can. Successful PR at the Winter Olympics helped demonstrate that North Korea could be receptive to overtures, and respond in good faith, and South Korea finally had a president who was willing and capable of coming to the table as well: the optics would never get better than this, either. The time was right!

From here, North Korea probably doesn't have anything more to gain from delaying, and a lot to lose by further flip-flopping. If there ever was, this is the time to show good faith in bargaining.

Between writing the above paragraphs and today, a few days later, this has been borne out: North Korea is promising no more nuclear testing and closing down testing sites, which cedes ground that is no longer useful anyway: they are finished with the testing phase, so it does not hurt them to do this, but it sure looks nice on a headline!

Is China Making its Move?

It has been taken as a truism for years now that the North Korea situation will never be resolved to NATO's satisfaction as long as China is around to throw Kim Jong-un a rope. China's veto on the UN Security Council, and their willingness to trade with North Korea just enough for the country to keep its head above water quite may have stopped the state from collapsing a few times, especially given that North Korea has no petroleum.

I've generally believed that China likes keeping North Korea around: every eyeball focused on North Korea's shenanigans is an eyeball not focused on China's own Human Rights record, its political prisoners, its heavy censorship, etc.. North Korea was a great distraction from China's own domestic issues! Also, North Korea served as a buffer between China's own landmass and South Korea, a nation with a US military presence. Having a state that borders China hosting US military bases was not something China wanted, so China had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo in the region.

That said, backing North Korea after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan cost China a lot of credibility internationally, and North Korea's repeating of its tired brinksmanship and bluster in a world where Barack Obama and South Korea's leadership stifled yawns at it, followed by South Korea's moves to ensure its own security, like the installation of the THAAD missile defense, which China took as a threat to its own national security, and which wouldn't have been necessary if North Korea had been better kept in line... it wouldn't be that difficult to believe China was starting to rethink the incentives of maintaining this status quo.

Enter Donald Trump. His style of leadership, his diplomacy, his temperamental knack for changing his mind, making rash decisions, or starting trade wars for spite and a failure to understand how comparative advantage works in complex economies with large-scale manufacturing, his willingness to scuttle international agreements that don't fit a narrow view of "Good for America"... USA was basically pissing away its international goodwill and, even worse, its international credibility as a global leader/stabilizer. If there was ever a time to make a move, this was it, and a guy who flatters himself as a dealmaker, but has also complained about the cost of maintaining troops on the Korean peninsula... might be just the patsy to invite to the table in order to flatter him into deals that make him look good but down the road, weaken USA's position in Asia and set up China as the regional leader.

Before agreeing to meet with the USA, Kim Jong-un had a visit to China. I don't know what they talked about during that visit, but it seems China wanted that meeting to happen, and wants North Korea-US meetings to happen, too. While we all see Donald Trump puffing and rutting for credit and maybe a Nobel Peace Prize, things like leaving the TPP and questioning the cost of keeping troops in South Korea show that Trump is also unconcerned about abdicating the role of regional stabilizer in Asia. That power vacuum is ripe for Xi Jinping, who just recently consolidated his own power as leader of China, and I wouldn't be that surprised if analysts look at the terms of whatever deal North Korea, South Korea and USA hammer out, and spot a few easter eggs that benefit China. It doesn't help that on the US/South Korea side, the most powerful person in these negotiations will also be the dumbest, while the probable best negotiator, Moon Jae-in, will most likely struggle to have his voice heard by Trump.

Madman Theory 2018

The Madman Theory was invented by Nixon to scare communist leaders into concessions, by trying to convince them Nixon was just crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons on them. Some have suggested that Trump is hailing back to the madman theory with North Korea, as he tweets about "Fire and Fury." Frankly, he comes across as unstable and impulsive enough to sell the madman theory, and naming warhawk John Bolton his National Security Adviser is another "I'll do it! You'd better look out! We're crazy over here!" move. I think some of my readers will say it is giving Trump too much credit to think his behavior is part of a calculated act... but between his apparent unconcern for the stabilizing international institutions the US has always put stock in, his own personal impulsiveness, his complaints about stationing troops abroad, and the shit he tweets, we get a chance to see a different kind of world: a world where the US has abandoned its place as the guarantor of global stability, and different countries have to actually work things out amongst themselves.

In fact, it might well have been a very effective strategy for Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in to to basically play good cop/bad cop here... more on Moon in just a minute...

(side note: it's interesting to see the Madman theory used on a leader who has used it himself)

In the Absence of...

When the US was positioning itself as the global stability people, it could be pretty well relied upon to tamp things down when feelings got chippy between allies -- who could forget those awkward get-togethers when South Korea and Japan's leaders were press-ganged into pretending to get along?
Source: Reuters
But in the end, however many police boats Park sent to Dokdo, and however many Japanese Diet members visited Yasukuni Shrine, both knew that the USA would slide in before either could make a move that would permanently disturb the security or economic infrastructure of the region. And everybody in the region knew that, all things being equal, USA tended to prefer the predictability of maintaining the status quo (a status quo where USA was preeminent) to the unpredictability and possible chaos of radical change.

feel a chill? source
With the Trump presidency, the world is coming to grips with a US that is fickle, perhaps even capricious, in its overseas involvements, blown by the winds of whatever crap #45 says on Twitter, and whoever is around to put a bug in his ear (and with the installation of "Bomb-em" John Bolton, those ear-bugs are getting more worrisome). In this atmosphere, it suddenly becomes a lot more important for the rest of the world's leaders to hammer things out on their own, because North and South Korea have a much better chance of working out these delicate issues than the orange-haired bull in a china shop.

What will the world look like if the US abandons its support of the international institutions it helped establish? A lot less certainty than before. But one thing we can be sure of is that the other major powers will be pitching their weight around as hard as they can to maximize their influence in it, and the medium powers -- countries like Australia, Canada, Norway, Thailand or South Korea -- will have a lot more leeway and opportunity to set the agenda, and assert themselves, if their leadership has the talent and ambition to do it.

The Real Engine of Detente

Now, ol' Donnie has been soaking up as much credit as he can for Kim Jong-un's sudden openness to talks and cessation of tests. I'll not hold my breath on actual denuclearization until we've seen a little more of actual meetings and actual agreed upon results, where step-by-step processes are agreed upon and then executed in good faith. In case we've forgotten, North Korea has even gone so far as to demolish a reactor tower in 2008, in a so-called show of good faith which, ten years later, we know was bullshit. So... talk is cheap, k?

But the thing that has been missed as The Orange One once again sucks up all the oxygen in the room, is Moon Jae-in, doing the ol' duck routine: serene on top, paddling like hell under the water.  Blogger Ask A Korean's twitter feed has been helpful in pointing this out. Moon's negotiations brought North Korea to the Olympics, brought important North Korean statespeople to the Olympics, and the positive press and good reception from that got the ball rolling for everything that is happening now: without Moon, Trump and Kim would be in a holding pattern of tweeting mean things and issuing nasty press releases at each other.

Some critics on Twitter argue that heading straight for summits between heads of states is putting dessert before dinner: a lot of lower level negotiations and processes should really be agreed on before presidents are stamping important-looking papers for photographers. Other critics say North Korea's freeze on testing means less than it seems to mean. This is not a perfect chain of events, and different than probably anyone could have imagined.

A lot is still up in the air, and a lot could still go sideways when you have two parties that have zig-zagged in the past doing negotiations, but if this new round of talks goes anywhere useful, I predict that it will be because of Moon Jae-in's steady hand reassuring both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump that they can set up a process to end the war, normalize relations, maybe even re-integrate North Korea into the global economy, and denuclearize North Korea, in an order and with a speed that is satisfying to everyone. There is a long ways to go -- I said on twitter that marching a unified Korean team in the Olympics was step R when we hadn't yet done steps A, B or C. Now it looks like there is enough goodwill and the beginnings of trust to proceed with steps A, B, and C. That's great! I'm thrilled! But if things go as well as we're hopeful they do (and I sincerely do think we have more cause to be hopeful now than we ever have in the time I've watched North Korea), let's at least make sure the credit goes where it belongs: to our man Moon.

Looking Forward...

So about those steps a, b, and c.

We've seen North Korea play nice before, only to pull the rug. As I said above, North Korea has more reason than ever before to act in good faith now, as it runs out of allies and holds the strongest negotiating chip it has ever held, or ever will hold, frankly. Speaking of that chip, my most confident prediction is that it will be harder and slower to persuade North Korea to surrender that chip than just about any other point of the negotiations. I predict it will be the stickiest sticking point in a tough set of negotiations, that North Korea will ask for a lot of shows of good faith before starting the denuclearization process, while USA will want denuclearization to BE North Korea's show of good faith. If these negotiations fall apart anywhere, it will be there.

But things can still go sideways in lots of spots along the road: there are about a zillion ways Trump or Kim could fuck this up. So here are things that might happen in the future, which would be positive signs. The effect of these kinds of things is cumulative: if one or two happen, it could just be for the cameras, but the more of these appear, and from the higher tiers, the more confident we can be that this is a change that will stick.

Tier 1: Might just be Window Dressing

Announcements of any kind.
 --which are announced by Ri Chun-hee
A summit with heads of state.
A declaration or a peace treaty to end the Korean War (which, as pedants everywhere will tell you, never really ended)
Any exchange between North and South Korea that is one-time only (for example, family reunions, mail exchanges, symbolic highway or railway openings where highways or railways are never actually used, cultural exchanges like performances)
Re-opening of venues for North-South exchange that were open in the past (Gaesong Industrial Complex and Geumgang Mountain Resort) but closed down during a time of heightened tensions.
More unified teams at sports events and stuff

Tier 2: Meaningful

Establishing North-South exchanges on a permanent basis: a permanent site for family reunions, establishment of cinemas or media outlets in Seoul and Pyeongyang where media from the other side can be viewed or even broadcast
Permanent infrastructure for mail exchange from north to south
Opening of new highways or rail ways for trade or transit
Loosening of restrictions on tourism to North Korea for non-Koreans
New countries opening diplomatic relations with North Korea and sending ambassadors there
North Korea allows nuclear inspectors into the country
A "No First Use" pledge

Tier 3: OK this is for Real

Negotiations of a step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea
North Korean efforts at renewing/reimagining their economy and integrating it into the world economy
Opening North-South highways or railways to civilians
Removing some soldiers and artillery from the Demilitarized Zone, and changing the rules of engagement for soldiers there.
Establishing protocols for tourism of Koreans from North to South or South to North
Establishing protocols for North-South Migration border-opening for family members (next level after family reunifications) to allow family members to cross and live together
Discussions about the citizenship status of North Korean defectors living in South Korea, in the event of South Korea recognizing the North as a sovereign nation (this is going to be touchy)
Meaningful, brass-tacks discussions about changing the nature of the US military's presence in North Korea
North Korea negotiating trade agreements with different countries
North Korea promises to re-join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Tier 4: EVERYBODY Gets a Nobel Peace Prize (AKA Pie in the Sky: even if these things don't happen, achieving most of tier 3 would probably make most people happy)

Execution of the step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization
Constitutional change in North and South Korea to recognize each other as sovereign countries
Establishing procedures for migration from north to south or south to north
Discussion of the legal ins and outs of a Korean federation.
Removing all soldiers and artillery from the Demilitarized Zone.
Establishment of a civilian government in North Korea
Democratic elections in North Korea, transition of the Kim Dynasty to figurehead status
North Korea opening its economy to foreign or South Korean investors

Whatever process has been negotiated survives the shifts and twists in political climate that come from regular electoral cycles, especially the next South Korean and the next US presidential elections, and extra-especially the next set of presidential elections where the incumbent party loses.

Weigh in in the comments, readers: what signs are YOU looking for, and which tier would you put them on?

Further reading:
Some Cold Water
Moon Jae-in's position on defense issues is strong enough on defense to satisfy many conservatives. (Sino-NK)
A US/North Korea timeline
More detail on that pledge to halt nuclear testing

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