Written by Shivani Singh.

The much awaited North-South Korea dialogue which took place on January 9th rode on ‘Sports Diplomacy’, employing it as a possible and effective means of easing the security tensions in the Korean peninsula. Although the agenda for the talks were officially limited to North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympic Games being held in PyeongChang, South Korea, there were expectations regarding a possible dialogue on toning down of the nuclear tensions in the Korean Peninsula, which obviously didn’t follow through.

While some may think that a South Korea led solution to North Korean nuclear crisis may be an overstretch, it is also true that between China – keeping its vested interests in a tensed Korean peninsula alive –  and the U.S – with its heated and inflammatory rhetoric towards Kim Jong-un – if there is one country that can possibly put an end to this stalemate, it is South Korea. This is owing to its geographical proximity with North Korea and mix of dovish yet stern style of diplomacy towards North Korea.

South Korean strategic interests and incentives in resolving the Korean nuclear crisis are quite different since it shares a tense border with North Korea, and thus has all the more incentive to ensure that situation doesn’t escalate into a full-fledged nuclear war.

South Korea has always adopted a balanced approach towards its aggressive brethren, promoting cooperation along with an unwavering commitment towards the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. This can be seen from the South Korean President Roh Tae-woo’s initiative to involve North Korea in multilateral economic cooperation in the 1980s to President Kim Dae-Jung’s ‘Sunshine policy’ of 1998 aimed at employing economic diplomacy in order to encourage interaction and economic assistance with North Korea. This policy is continued by the present containment of North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posture by President Moon Jae-In.  In making overtures and proposing military talks in 2017, South Korea has proved to be a neutralizing and a balancing force. A big boost was provided to inter-Korean relations in 2002 with the establishment of Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) within North Korea which became home to about “120 South Korean companies employing over 50,000 North Koreans”. The policy of constructive engagement has continued in the form of investments in power plants, security guarantees and direct aid, with the latest package of USD8 million of humanitarian aid provided by South Korea to North Korea.

But, make no mistake. Whenever the situation has demanded, South Korea has jumped on the bandwagon in supporting multilateral efforts to take stringent measures against an unruly North Korea. An example of South Korea’s ‘Stick approach’ was shutting down of the KIZ as retaliation to Pyongyang’s rocket launch in 2016. In fact, it was South Korea which suggested to the U.S, a joint missile firing drill as a response to North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test in 2017. Additionally, South Korea has time and again supported the sanctions against North Korea without hesitation, in order to mount economic and diplomatic pressure to curb its neighbour’s aggressive attitude, with the latest round of sanctions introduced as a response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. Whether this ‘Hawk-Dove’ approach has worked or not is debatable. However, given the unprecedented pace at which the North Korean nuclear crisis is escalating, it is imperative that South Korea maintains its ‘Carrots and Sticks Approach’.

One might ask where U.S and China figure in this equation. While South Korea’s role in this crisis has been heavily belittled in the form of ‘Korea passing’, the role of U.S and China has been heavily inflated, making them almost indispensable to resolving the crisis. The intention of both U.S and China in truly finding a mutually agreeable solution to this problem is debatable at best. Why?

Given the heated rhetoric between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un that has been doing the rounds, an aggressive containment of North Korea, as suggested by the U.S is probably the worst and most immature form of diplomacy seen yet. It almost makes one wonder if U.S is actually interested in working with North Korea in finding a middle ground. Most of these concerns also emanate from U.S’ alleged, long lasting desire for regime change, with the example of Libya being a case in point, setting a negative precedent. Additionally, U.S strategy towards North Korea is guided by a strict policy of ‘isolationism.’ The inflexibility on the U.S side in focusing on complete denuclearization instead of first achieving a fertile ground for enabling proper negotiations has proved to be a major impediment.

As far as China is concerned, it is unclear how far Beijing will go in containing North Korea, a key strategic ally, which acts as a buffer state between China and South Korea. Any stability in the region is likely to be accompanied by an uncomfortably close South Korean presence next to China’s vulnerable borders in the North. This would explain why China might have incentives to keep the status quo in the Korean peninsula. This fact is further reinforced when one takes into account the reports claiming China’s alleged violations of United Nations imposed sanctions on North Korea by clandestinely trading oil products with North Korea. Additionally, even if China does take on the task of engaging in the crisis, it would be to manage it and not resolve it, especially after Ri Son Gwon, head of the North Korea Delegation in the recent Olympic talks explicitly stated that the North Korea’s nuclear weapons are solely aimed at the U.S, hence further reducing incentives for China to actively intervene in the crisis.

However, South Korean strategic interests and incentives in resolving the Korean nuclear crisis are quite different since it shares a tense border with North Korea, and thus has all the more incentive to ensure that situation doesn’t escalate into a full-fledged nuclear war. To that end, Moon Jae-In has played his cards tactically; trying to balance the dialogue between both U.S and China. A case in point is the U.S deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), an anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea to defend against the potential North Korean nuclear threat. While South Korea agreed to the deployment (assuaging the U.S) it also put a halt to the deployment for the time being stating environmental concerns, thus winning Brownie points from China.

It is in light of the above mentioned facts that the recent meeting of the North and South Korean representatives, which comes after a long stall of two years, is a significant breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. It is likely to pave way for further constructive dialogue in the future, starting with an agreement between both sides to re-open the vital communication line. In a statement released from Moon Jae’s office, his press secretary Yoon Young-chan said “the restoration of the communication channels means a lot. It is assessed that (we) are headed to setting up a structure through which contacts can be made on a regular basis.”

Although these talks did not lay out any commitments on the nuclear front, it was a good start to a broader dialogue. Notwithstanding the fact that political pundits all around the world may fashion South Korean diplomacy as too ‘dovish’ or ‘docile’, the truth remains that given the incendiary circumstances, South Korea is the world’s safest and best bet to resolving the nuclear crisis in a diplomatic and peaceful manner and other major players like China and U.S need to rally behind South Korea to take the effort to fruition.

Shivani Singh is a Researcher on the Nuclear Security Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). Image credit: CC by UNC – CFC – USFK/Flickr.

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