Pre­dict­ing Chaos: The De­bate on De­nu­cle­ariza­tion Isn’t Over

Global Asia - - IN FOCUS - By John Nils­son-wright

In Novem­ber, around 30 se­nior his­to­ri­ans, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts from Europe, South Korea and the United States gath­ered for a two-day track 1.5 meet­ing con­vened by the UK’S Royal In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs with the sup­port of South Korea’s In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Strat­egy and the Asia Re­search Fund, a Seoul-based foun­da­tion. The fo­cus was the sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula. John Nils­son-wright pro­vides an ac­count of the meet­ing, and puts it in the con­text of the sur­prise an­nounce­ment that North

Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump plan to meet in May. MORE than 20 years ago, in the tran­quil and hal­lowed sur­round­ings of the hugh trevor-roper sem­i­nar room in Ox­ford, the Cold War his­to­rian John lewis Gad­dis posed a chal­leng­ing ques­tion to a small group of aca­demics and grad­u­ate stu­dents: how well equipped are his­to­ri­ans and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions spe­cial­ists to pre­dict, or at least an­tic­i­pate, the fu­ture? his ques­tion pro­voked a lively and at times frac­tious de­bate be­tween the IR spe­cial­ists, de­fend­ing the pre­dic­tive and pol­icy-rel­e­vant na­ture of their dis­ci­pline, and the his­to­ri­ans, for the most part re­sist­ing the no­tion that his­tory could pro­vide gen­eral in­sights that could be used to dis­cern the fu­ture.

not­with­stand­ing these stark, con­trast­ing po­si­tions, Gad­dis’s stim­u­lat­ing ques­tion laid the ba­sis for an ex­cit­ing method­olog­i­cal in­sight (as well as a sem­i­nal ar­ti­cle in In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity)1 — namely, that the chal­lenge of pre­dic­tion in the realm of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics can be en­hanced by bor­row­ing from the semi-hard sciences of ge­ol­ogy, evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, and the chaos­the­ory-de­pen­dent work of prac­ti­tion­ers ei­ther in the life-sciences more broadly or fields such as me­te­o­rol­ogy. un­der­pin­ning these dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines is a recog­ni­tion of the in­ter­ac­tion of both lin­ear and cycli­cal pat­terns of change, as well as the crit­i­cal role of con­tin­gency or chance in in­flu­enc­ing par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal and fu­ture out­comes.

the im­por­tance of con­tin­gency in dis­rupt­ing our most fixed and seem­ingly solid pre­dic­tions seems es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in the af­ter­math of us Pres­i­dent Don­ald trump’s dra­matic and sur­prise March 8 an­nounce­ment that he would ac­cept an of­fer from his north Korean coun­ter­part, Kim

Jong un, to meet for talks in May this year. Kim’s sur­prise gam­bit, and trump’s equally sur­pris­ing pos­i­tive re­sponse, has, like the fa­mil­iar “ap­ple of dis­cord” in Greek mythol­ogy, thrown the strate­gic, po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula and in­ter-al­liance re­la­tions into tur­moil, un­der­cut­ting the ap­par­ent clear-cut cer­tain­ties of spe­cial­ists seek­ing to un­der­stand how to re­solve the north Korean cri­sis.

this be­comes clear if one re­flects on re­cent pol­icy de­lib­er­a­tions on Korea. In late novem­ber 2017, the uk’s Royal In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional af­fairs — oth­er­wise known as Chatham house — with the sup­port of south Korea’s In­sti­tute for na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy (Inss) and the asia Re­search Fund, a seoul-based foun­da­tion, con­vened a closed-door track 1.5 meet­ing in­volv­ing 30 euro­pean, south Korean, and us think tank an­a­lysts, aca­demics (both his­to­ri­ans and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions spe­cial­ists) and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to con­sider likely de­vel­op­ments on the Korean Penin­sula and op­tions for re­solv­ing the cur­rent cri­sis.

the two days of de­lib­er­a­tions were struc­tured around four sets of is­sues: the na­ture of north­south Korean re­la­tions; us pol­icy towards north Korea un­der the trump ad­min­is­tra­tion; the role of europe in help­ing to al­le­vi­ate the Korean cri­sis; and a fi­nal dis­cus­sion look­ing ahead to the next five years to an­tic­i­pate how the cri­sis over north Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties might end. strik­ingly, in each of these ses­sions, the dis­cus­sion ei­ther over­looked or un­der-em­pha­sized re­cent de­vel­op­ments and the po­ten­tial evo­lu­tion of the Korean sit­u­a­tion in early 2018. this should not nec­es­sar­ily be seen as a fail­ure or an an­a­lyt­i­cal short­com­ing. the think­ing of the ma­jor­ity of the par­tic­i­pants was one of cau­tious pes­simism and a prom­i­nent view was that the prob­a­bil­ity of mil­i­tary con­flict in the near fu­ture was par­tic­u­larly high — in one case, per­haps as high as 25 per­cent.

such pre­dic­tive cau­tion is per­haps the nat­u­ral de­fault po­si­tion of pol­icy spe­cial­ists, par­tic­u­larly when en­gag­ing on is­sues that are likely to have pro­found life-or-death con­se­quences. It demon­strates, how­ever, the dif­fi­culty of mod­el­ling and an­tic­i­pat­ing the be­hav­ior of in­di­vid­ual lead­ers — es­pe­cially ones with mav­er­ick tem­per­a­ments and a propen­sity for risky de­ci­sion-mak­ing such as trump and Kim. More­over, we are not out of the woods yet. skep­tics rightly point to the lack of for­mal bu­reau­cratic prepa­ra­tion for the May talks and sug­gest that with­out any im­me­di­ate and ob­vi­ous new con­ces­sions from north Korea, be­yond its ex­ist­ing agree­ment to freeze its mis­sile and nu­clear tests, the bi­lat­eral sum­mit be­tween the us and north Korea may never ma­te­ri­al­ize. More­over, even if the talks take place, there is a high risk of fail­ure that may in turn am­plify rather than lower the risk of war, should a dis­grun­tled and an­gry trump choose to sup­port mil­i­tary ac­tion in the face of an ob­du­rate Kim in­tent on keep­ing his nu­clear weapons.

pre­dic­tive Chal­lenges

What­ever the out­come of the talks, the lat­est de­vel­op­ments are a cau­tion­ary re­minder of how quickly and un­ex­pect­edly a crit­i­cal strate­gic sit­u­a­tion can change, even if the un­der­ly­ing fac­tors, whether cycli­cal or lin­ear phe­nom­ena, re­main con­stant. In the case of the Korean cri­sis, the in­grained his­tory of dis­trust and en­mity be­tween the us and north Korea, the po­ten­tially piv­otal role of south Korea in some­times ef­fect­ing dra­matic break­throughs — such as the 2000 and 2007 north-south Korean sum­mits — and the mar­ginal role for ex­tra-re­gional ac­tors, such as europe, are fa­mil­iar fea­tures of past crises. More­over, these con­stants ex­ist in a con­text where Py­ongyang has been steadily en­hanc­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of its weapons of mass de­struc­tion and against a back­drop of de­clin­ing rel­a­tive us power, ac­cel­er­ated by trump’s shift to­ward

“amer­ica First” uni­lat­er­al­ism but which ar­guably be­gan un­der the Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama pres­i­den­cies, if not be­fore. such longterm lin­ear trends co-ex­ist with reg­u­lar, cycli­cal pat­terns of in­ter-state be­hav­ior to help us un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of the north Korean prob­lem.

the pre­dic­tive chal­lenges re­main con­sid­er­able. strik­ingly, the novem­ber Chatham house dis­cus­sions were very pes­simistic. While past south Korean ad­min­is­tra­tions, as far back as the early 1970s, have ac­tively ex­plored op­tions for nor­mal­iza­tion of ties with Py­ongyang, the pre­vail­ing view of the par­tic­i­pants was that the like­li­hood of a break­through was very low. seoul, some ob­servers ar­gued, would be held back by a skep­ti­cal Wash­ing­ton and there would be lit­tle chance for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in to make any cred­i­ble over­tures to Py­ongyang. More­over, the ab­sence of a strong and durable net­work of per­sonal ties be­tween south Korean and north Korean of­fi­cials — the prod­uct, in part, of Kim’s purges of of­fi­cials close to his fa­ther’s regime, most notably his late un­cle Jang song-thaek — would com­pli­cate any ef­fort to start talks be­tween the two Koreas. equally im­por­tant was the con­strain­ing in­flu­ence of pub­lic opin­ion in south Korea. While Pres­i­dent Moon’s pro­gres­sive back­ground, the pro-en­gage­ment legacy of his po­lit­i­cal men­tors, former Pres­i­dents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and his per­sonal com­mit­ment to im­proved north-south ties — Moon’s fam­ily has its ori­gins in north Korea — are im­por­tant, the south Korean pub­lic has been gen­er­ally un­en­thu­si­as­tic about rap­proche­ment with north Korea. Its past bel­ligerency, the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of many south Kore­ans (es­pe­cially young vot­ers) with do­mes­tic eco­nomic is­sues, and skep­ti­cism sur­round­ing past over­tures (the 2000 and 2007 sum­mits, for ex­am­ple, were crit­i­cized for hav­ing been se­cured through large and covert fi­nan­cial in­duce­ments from seoul) were all seen as a pow­er­ful brake on any new talks.

Clearly, then, the Pyeongchang “peace” Olympics and the send­ing of a north Korean del­e­ga­tion and ath­letes to the games was a sur­prise de­vel­op­ment, a break­through pos­si­bly ef­fected by pri­vate, diplo­matic over­tures by the Moon ad­min­is­tra­tion to Py­ongyang as early as last De­cem­ber. the south Korean ad­min­is­tra­tion has been, it seems, more cre­ative and diplo­mat­i­cally proac­tive than the ear­lier pic­ture of a po­lit­i­cally cau­tious, de­pen­dent and semi-con­strained us ally might have sug­gested.

‘death spi­ral’ de­railed?

When it came to an­a­lyz­ing the us and its pol­icy pri­or­i­ties towards north Korea, the ex­pec­ta­tions of some of the Chatham house roundtable par­tic­i­pants make a strik­ing con­trast to ac­tual re­cent

In the words of one par­tic­i­pant, North Korea and the US were locked in a ‘death spi­ral.’ In this anal­y­sis, only a cal­cu­la­tion by Py­ongyang that it had se­cured its mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion ob­jec­tives, and a de­sire by Kim Jong Un to fo­cus on his sec­ond pri­mary goal of eco­nomic re­vi­tal­iza­tion, would be suf­fi­cient to per­suade it to com­pro­mise and con­sider en­ter­ing into talks with the US. And this was as­sumed to be at best a slim pos­si­bil­ity.

de­vel­op­ments. For the aca­demics and pol­icy spe­cial­ists, the as­sump­tions were al­most uni­formly neg­a­tive. It was felt that the mood in Wash­ing­ton was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly hawk­ish and re­cep­tive to the use of mil­i­tary force, whether sur­gi­cal strikes or a full-blown as­sault on north Korea. In the words of one par­tic­i­pant, an es­pe­cially pes­simistic (and per­haps in­ten­tion­ally provoca­tive) one, north Korea and the us were locked in a “death spi­ral.” In this anal­y­sis, only a cal­cu­la­tion by Py­ongyang that it had se­cured its mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion ob­jec­tives (through its sixth nu­clear test and its novem­ber launch of its lon­grange hwa­song 15 mis­sile), and a de­sire by Kim Jong un to fo­cus on his sec­ond pri­mary goal of eco­nomic re­vi­tal­iza­tion, would be suf­fi­cient to per­suade it to com­pro­mise and con­sider en­ter­ing into talks with the us. and this was as­sumed to be at best a slim pos­si­bil­ity. Over­all, the pre- vail­ing view in the dis­cus­sion was neg­a­tive, with most as­sum­ing that Kim would dou­ble down on his po­si­tion and some sug­gest­ing that if backed into a cor­ner by the us or if the sur­vival of his regime were threat­ened, he would be will­ing to risk a self-de­struc­tive and ul­ti­mately sui­ci­dal con­flict with the coun­try’s ad­ver­saries.

the new and un­ex­pected ap­petite for us-north Korea di­a­logue (it is surely pre­ma­ture to hail this as “de­tente”) has taken many ob­servers by sur­prise. this has been true as much for euro­peans as amer­i­cans. In our dis­cus­sions on the role of europe in fa­cil­i­tat­ing an end to the dead­lock, the Chatham house par­tic­i­pants in­cluded a num­ber of euro­peans with reg­u­lar and di­rect con­tact with north Korean of­fi­cials. From their per­spec­tive, as late as novem­ber of last year, of­fi­cials in Py­ongyang ap­peared un­ruf­fled by trump’s “fire and fury” threats and lit­tle in­clined to rush into

talks with the us. nor were there any in­di­ca­tions at this stage that north Korea had an ap­petite for di­a­logue with south Korea. Py­ongyang’s pro­pa­ganda had avoided de­mo­niz­ing Pres­i­dent Moon — a hope­ful sign (in con­trast to the ten­dency to ma­lign and in­sult his pre­de­ces­sors as “lack­eys” of the us), but the as­sump­tion was that the road to any peace set­tle­ment would have to run through Wash­ing­ton rather than seoul. In this con­text, the most ef­fec­tive role for euro­pean ac­tors would be at best to act as in­ter­me­di­aries (not me­di­a­tors) for re­lay­ing mes­sages to the us and per­haps to pro­vide more fora for wider dis­cus­sions with north Korean rep­re­sen­ta­tives who have shown an in­creased in­ter­est in re­cent months in en­gag­ing with a num­ber of euro­pean part­ners, both gov­ern­ments and non-gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions through a se­ries of meet­ings at track 1.5 and track 2 level in a num­ber of euro­pean cap­i­tals.

such dis­cus­sions will in­evitably re­main of limited ef­fec­tive­ness given the po­lit­i­cal pri­macy of Kim Jong un and the chal­lenge of iden­ti­fy­ing any suf­fi­ciently in­flu­en­tial north Korean rep­re­sen­ta­tives who can speak mean­ing­fully about its pol­icy pri­or­i­ties. With the euro­pean union’s role limited to in­ter-in­sti­tu­tional co-or­di­na­tion rather than an agenda-set­ting role, it is doubt­ful that europe and in­di­vid­ual euro­pean coun­tries can have any di­rect im­pact on pro­mot­ing peace on the Korean Penin­sula other than through sup­port­ing a uni­fied cam­paign of pres­sure via sanc­tions, ei­ther bi­lat­er­ally or through the united na­tions, and by de­liv­er­ing a con­sis­tent mes­sage to the north on the need to sus­pend and ul­ti­mately dis­man­tle its WMD pro­gram.

KEEP Cau­tious and Carry on

In look­ing to the fu­ture, the fi­nal ses­sion of the roundtable was dom­i­nated by a cau­tion­ary at­ti­tude. On the one hand, con­trib­u­tors noted the dif­fi­culty of ac­cu­rately fore­cast­ing fu­ture de­vel­op­ments — a mun­dane but also pre­scient in­sight, given the sur­prise an­nounce­ment of the trump­kim sum­mit; on the other hand, there was a con­sen­sus that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity was en­ter­ing a pe­riod of max­i­mum dan­ger where the north Korean cri­sis was con­cerned. not­with­stand­ing the height­ened ex­pec­ta­tions as­so­ci­ated with the planned meet­ings of Moon and Kim in april and then trump and Kim in May, this sense of anx­i­ety seems well jus­ti­fied.

Re­gard­less of how much trump may be in­clined con­fi­dently to view him­self as the world’s con­sum­mate deal­maker and ne­go­tia­tor, the com­plex and fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges posed by north Korea’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties are un­likely to be re­solved by a sin­gle meet­ing. even al­low­ing for trump’s ten­dency to be sym­pa­thetic to au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers — con­sider his pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes towards fig­ures such as Re­cep tayyip erdogan, Ro­drigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin — any per­sonal chem­istry that may emerge be­tween trump and Kim is un­likely to be suf­fi­cient to over­come the deep-seated fac­tors (lin­ear and cycli­cal) that have led the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to the cur­rent stand-off. Chance events and the con­tin­gent de­sire of in­di­vid­ual lead­ers to make a dif­fer­ence may not be enough to off­set the grave risks as­so­ci­ated with the north Korean cri­sis. Re­gret­tably, the col­lec­tive pes­simism of the Chatham house dis­cus­sion may end up be­ing jus­ti­fied, even al­low­ing for the fail­ure to pre­dict the de­ci­sion by trump and Kim, tem­po­rar­ily at least, to seek a new un­der­stand­ing. john Nils­son-wright is se­nior lec­turer, univer­sity of Cam­bridge, se­nior re­search fel­low for North­east asia, Chatham house, and a re­gional ed­i­tor for global asia.

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