Onus on US to take penin­sula off the boil

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

The govern­ment of the Repub­lic of Korea has of­fered to talk with the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea to ease an­i­mosi­ties along the mil­i­tary de­mar­ca­tion line and re­sume the re­unions of fam­i­lies sep­a­rated by the Korean War (1950-53). If the talks were to hap­pen they would be the first be­tween the two sides since De­cem­ber 2015.

That there hasn’t been a war on the Korean Penin­sula since the sign­ing of the Ar­mistice Agree­ment on July 27, 1953, can per­haps be con­sid­ered an ac­com­plish­ment in it­self.

How­ever, the ris­ing tur­bu­lence in the re­gion over the decades, par­tic­u­larly re­cently, as a re­sult of the progress the DPRK has made in its nu­clear/mis­sile pro­gram, has once again high­lighted that ef­forts to ne­go­ti­ate a per­ma­nent set­tle­ment — which date back to the Geneva Con­fer­ence in 1954 — have all ended in fail­ure.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem has been the divi­sion of the penin­sula, which was in­tended as a tem­po­rary mil­i­tary ex­pe­di­ent at the end of hos­til­i­ties, and the sub­se­quent de­sire of both sides of the di­vide to achieve re­uni­fi­ca­tion at the ex­pense of the other.

Nei­ther Py­ongyang nor Seoul has been able to pur­sue its own course in at­tempt­ing to achieve that goal, be­cause China, Ja­pan, Rus­sia and the United States all have a stake in the devel­op­ments on the penin­sula, as it is an area where their strate­gic and geopo­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests con­verge.

And since the US se­cu­rity com­mit­ment to the ROK rep­re­sents a trip wire that would trig­ger the in­volve­ment of all these out­side pow­ers in any mil­i­tary con­flict be­tween the two Koreas, the fear of spark­ing a full-scale war in­volv­ing these big hit­ters has acted as a brake on the am­bi­tions of Py­ongyang and Seoul to pur­sue re­uni­fi­ca­tion by force. Of course, nei­ther is will­ing to vol­un­tar­ily give up its sta­tus for the other.

Thus a del­i­cate bal­ance has been main­tained, based on the re­spec­tive sup­port of the out­side pow­ers. How­ever, the del­i­cacy of the bal­ance has ex­ac­er­bated the two Koreas’ sense of in­se­cu­rity, which has led to the DPRK ac­cel­er­at­ing its nu­clear weapons pro­gram and the ROK strength­en­ing its mil­i­tary ties with the US; two trends that have be­come self-per­pet­u­at­ing, and which have ac­cel­er­ated as a re­sult of the US’ strate­gic and mil­i­tary re­bal­anc­ing to the Asia-Pa­cific.

For all the Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s talk of an end to strate­gic pa­tience, con­sec­u­tive US ad­min­is­tra­tions have looked at a wide range of mil­i­tary op­tions over the decades, in­clud­ing nu­clear strikes, and each time con­cluded that there is none that can achieve the US’ de­sired ob­jec­tives with­out pro­vok­ing re­tal­i­a­tion and es­ca­la­tion, and this re­mains the case to­day.

The DPRK and the US are the par­ties di­rectly con­cerned in the nu­clear is­sue on the penin­sula, and they hold the key to re­solv­ing it. Bei­jing has en­cour­aged Wash­ing­ton to make ef­forts to en­gage di­rectly with Py­ongyang. How­ever, the US’ strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion with China and Rus­sia means it has been us­ing the DPRK nu­clear is­sue as a means to bol­ster its al­liances with the ROK and Ja­pan, and de­ploy more mil­i­tary as­sets in the re­gion.

Thus, de­spite the US’ re­peated dec­la­ra­tions that China shoul­ders the re­spon­si­bil­ity for peace on the penin­sula, the onus for that falls on the shoul­ders of the US. That the US is un­will­ing to give up its lever­ag­ing of the DPRK nu­clear is­sue in its strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions is ev­i­dent from its re­luc­tance to en­gage with China’s “dou­ble freeze” pro­posal — the si­mul­ta­ne­ous halt­ing of the DPRK’s nu­clear mis­sile tests and US-ROK mil­i­tary drills — and the par­al­lel ad­vance­ment of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and the re­place­ment of the ar­mistice with a long-over­due peace agree­ment.

These pro­pos­als ad­dress the most press­ing con­cerns of the dif­fer­ent par­ties and, along with nec­es­sary non-ag­gres­sion pacts and se­cu­rity guar­an­tees for both Koreas, would cre­ate the con­di­tions for an agree­ment to be reached on cross-recog­ni­tion on the penin­sula.

The ROK’s of­fer of talks, if ac­cepted, would open a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween Seoul and Py­ongyang, and restart the process of seek­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and co­op­er­a­tion through di­a­logue.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should make clear its firm op­po­si­tion to the DPRK’s vi­o­la­tions of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions, while the US and Ja­pan, in­stead of say­ing the nec­es­sary con­di­tions have not been met and the time isn’t right for talks, should give their sup­port to Seoul’s ini­tia­tive.

The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. han­nayrichards@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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