On the Situation in the Korean Peninsula: The Peace Offensive of the DPRK (Part I & II)

Part I

For almost a year the world has been observing the development of the peace offensive of Pyongyang; this offensive began after the end of the acute military and political crisis in March-April 2013, when Pyongyang showed an uncompromising resolve to protect its sovereignty by all possible means and made many threatening statements. Now Pyongyang is demonstrating a desire to improve relations with all its opponents, but alas, this desire is not reciprocated…

The contrast in the approaches of Pyongyang and Seoul to the situation in the Korean Peninsula became particularly apparent in January 2014, when North Korea intensified its peace offensive. At that time a stream of conciliatory initiatives was coming from Pyongyang, while from Seoul there sounded calls to step up military preparations.

At first the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, advanced completely realistic  ideas in his New Year’s address on establishing an inter-Korean dialog in order to open a new page in bilateral relations, abandoning mutual accusations.

These ideas were elaborated on in subsequent messages to the South from the DPRK State Defense Committee (SDC): proposals dated January 16 and an open letter dated January 24.

These contained a call to jointly abandon hostile propaganda and the conducting of large military maneuvers which threaten stability in the Korean peninsula, hold a meeting of the members of divided families, harmonize approaches to the nuclear problem in the Korean Peninsula, etc.

However, Seoul and Washington did not react to this. All of Pyongyang’s numerous peace initiatives were interpreted there as a manifestation of its cunning and as attempts to draw its opponents into a trap and camouflage the preparation of new “military provocations”.

The culmination of this approach was the remarks of the president of the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-hye, who at that time in January was on a foreign tour. While she was in India she issued an order to the ministry of defense and other military and law enforcement agencies to step up vigilance and security measures against potential provocations from North Korea in light of its new “propaganda” offensive.

Then in Bern, during a meeting with the president of Switzerland, the head of South Korea toughened her approach even further and with extreme frankness urged Switzerland and the international community to join the Republic of Korea (ROK) in increasing pressure on the DPRK and isolating it in order to force it to change its domestic and foreign policy.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs D. Russel, speaking in the U.S. Senate in March 2014, repeated almost word for word the arguments of the leader of the ROK, which in essence come down to a demand for the initial unilateral denuclearization of North Korea.

“Over the years we have seen a pattern of North Korean provocations followed by ‘charm offensives’ aimed at extracting payoffs and concessions from the West. Despite the DPRK’s recent overtures at engagement…we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not reward the DPRK merely for returning to dialogue.”

But in response, Pyongyang, despite the unfriendly and discouraging reaction, continued patiently to advance its peace initiatives, finding more new and fairly logical arguments. At a press conference in Moscow on February 4 of this year, Ambassador of the DPRK to Russia Kim Yong-jae emphasized:

“However good a book may be, it will be useless if one throws it away without even opening it, believing in advance that there is nothing there worth reading. The government of South Korea should abandon its hasty and unjustified criticism of our proposals for improving relations, which they have not even bothered to examine closely.”

However, even after this Washington and its allies preferred to ignore all of Pyongyang’s conciliatory steps.

Leading American specialists on Korea, including Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute, prove convincingly how ineffective this U.S. policy is. Hayes asserts that past sanctions against Pyongyang have mostly been counterproductive.

They have not hastened the collapse of the DPRK and have not stopped its nuclear program. The analyst notes sardonically that Washington’s ability to deceive itself about its past successes in this area is unbounded. The policy of sanctions against Pyongyang has really only further provoked the DPRK toward proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and pushed its trade into closed channels.

Hayes points out several ways the North Koreans can circumvent sanctions: gray trade schemes in many international ports; the possibilities of the fishing fleet; the potential of friendly Chinese markets, partners and intermediaries, etc.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Treasury Department and a number of other U.S. agencies are currently enthusiastic about the prospects of forming an impenetrable cordon sanitaire meant to totally isolate North Korea from the international financial and banking system, Hayes, like a number of other authoritative American experts on Korea, is convinced that such a tactic will be fruitless.

The American specialists point out that the policy of coercion is successful when it includes two components: pressure and diplomacy (the proverbial “stick and carrot”. – A.V.). “Coercive diplomacy requires coercion combined with diplomacy to succeed.  The greater the coercion, the greater the necessary diplomacy.  We have almost all coercion, and almost no diplomacy at this stage.  This imbalance must be rectified immediately.” The fact of the matter is that the North Korean regime is internally stable.

And most importantly, as representatives of this political school point out, the negotiation platform on which Pyongyang is proposing a dialog with the United States is in fact quite acceptable:

1. A termination of the state of war on the Korean Peninsula.

2. Mutual declarations of non-hostility.

3.Termination of sanctions.

4. A legally binding guarantee of non-attack by nuclear weapons states, in particular, the United States,  which can be achieved only via a treaty-based nuclear weapons-free zone in Northeast Asia

5. A multilateral framework for managing 1-4 involving the regional powers, most likely in the form of a Northeast Asian Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

6. External support for economic reconstruction of the DPRK’s collapsed economy, most critically, in energy security.

7. Nuclear equality, meaning a nuclear fuel cycle including light water reactors.

The main conclusion and appeal of this group of researchers is that it is necessary to return to a policy of cooperation.

However, Washington, although it apparently understands the abnormality of a situation in which a 1953 cease-fire is still in force on the peninsula, is in no hurry to heed the calls of Pyongyang and a number of other countries to create a complex peace system here.

One of the reasons which is holding the White House back from ending this historical anomaly has been explained by Michael Green, an eminent supporter of the current American policy.

Signing a peace treaty between the U.S. and the DPRK, he says, will lead to the end of the state of war. This will automatically mean the end of the sanctions regime against Pyongyang, since sanctions are an act of war.  And Washington does not want to lose this key policy tool. From this point of view, the current sanctions regime must not be relaxed under any circumstances.

But the conservative forces in the U.S. who are advocating increased pressure on Pyongyang understand quite well that the sanctions will only be effective if China becomes actively involved in their enforcement.

That is why involving Beijing in measures for the comprehensive isolation of the DPRK is a priority goal. It is no secret that the stern reaction of the PRC’s leadership to North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, which included the tightening of control over the Chinese-North Korean border, practically caused euphoria in the West, which was in a hurry to believe that China had finally joined in the implementation of the expansive interpretation of sanctions practices professed by the West.

All the more painful was the disappointment when it turned out that there had been no fundamental revision of the PRC’s approach to relations with the DPRK: they still consider the highest priority to be not the liquidation of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

The conclusions of the expert organization the International Crisis Group, which has representatives in both China and in South Korea, were very eloquent.

“These actions…were short-term, tactical and easily reversible, not indications of a strategic change in policy…China’s fundamental geostrategic calculation remains in favour of sustaining the regime and keeping it close. …Beijing sees denuclearisation as a long-term goal to be achieved by alleviating Pyongyang’s insecurity, for which it considers Washington principally responsible.”

What truly worries Beijing is the need for a way to restrain the DPRK from actions which could provoke an extreme reaction from Seoul and Washington and threaten to send the conflict situation on the peninsula out of control.

Yet another crumbled hope of the Washington hard-liners was the attempt to draw a parallel between the DPRK and Iran.

In their opinion, the success of the six-party talks on the Iran nuclear issue was achieved in 2013-2014 thanks to a great degree to the effectiveness of harsh economic sanctions. On this basis, hopes that the sanctions against Pyongyang can also finally work have increased.

However, realistically thinking analysts justly point out that, first of all, Beijing will never allow sanctions to be used against the DPRK to the same extent that they were used against Tehran.

Second, the agreement with Iran speaks of something different – the fact that with consistent effort, international diplomacy can bear fruit in resolving nuclear issues of a complexity similar to that in North Korea. And here we see a direct reproach to U.S. diplomacy, which with regard to Korea has taken a time out which has stretched on beyond all reasonable limits.

Let us recall that six-party talks on the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula were interrupted in 2009 and have not been resumed since then, in spite of Pyongyang’s willingness to return to them.

The reason  is that the U.S., Japan and the ROK are setting preconditions for Pyongyang which block the recommencement of the negotiation process and demonstrate the West’s unwillingness to resume meaningful dialog with the DPRK.

In pointing out the impasse of the policy of “strategic patience”, American political scientists note:

a) Sanctions and containment against the DPRK have once again failed to work.

b) The task of creating a new type of cooperation between the U.S. and the PRC has failed. At best it remains a declaration and a long-term goal.

c) Efforts to strengthen the tripartite military alliance between the U.S., Japan and the ROK as a key element in containing the DPRK have brought no results due to flare-ups in disputes between Seoul and Tokyo in the past 2-3 years.

d) In recent months a new tendency has manifested itself which troubles the White House. The powerful peace offensive of Pyongyang, despite Seoul’s stubborn attempts to ignore it, is beginning to bear fruit.

Broad strata of public opinion in South Korea are increasingly feeling discouraged with regard to the Blue House’s unconstructive line and are more and more loudly demanding more attention to the DPRK’s peace initiatives.

Conservatives in the U.S. are already worried: if the tendency toward inter-Korean reconciliation without requiring the denuclearization of Pyongyang as a prerequisite is seriously developed, a new source of tension in American-South Korean relations will arise.

And indeed, in February 2014, when the number of peace proposals from North Korea had apparently reached critical mass, Seoul, albeit perhaps without enthusiasm, nonetheless responded.

Two important events in the context of inter-Korean relations were held: high-level negotiations between representatives of the North and South (for the first time since 2008) and a meeting of members of separated families (also after a long hiatus). Both events were without doubt significant.

It is sufficient to recall that the last attempt to organize a high-level dialog in February 2012 ended in fiasco and the South canceled the meeting at the last minute under an unconvincing pretext. At that time a number of commentators had the impression that U.S., which was not interested in inter-Korean rapprochement, was interfering directly. Now these negotiations not only took place, but were quite successful. The parties agreed to continue such contacts.

The meeting of relatives from the North and South was also difficult to prepare for. In January and February the DPRK showed unprecedented flexibility on this issue.

At first North Korea tried to tie the holding of the meeting of relatives to the cancellation or at least postponement of the yearly large-scale American-South Korean maneuvers beginning in late February, which always became a difficult trial for stability on the Korean Peninsula (the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle maneuvers).

Then, when Seoul refused, Pyongyang attempted to organize the meeting before the beginning of these exercises, and in the end it agreed to hold them practically at the same time as the beginning of the maneuvers.

Thus, for the first time in the history of inter-Korean relations, members of divided families met during the period when military exercises were being held. The Northerners emphasized that this was a demonstration of good will and readiness to compromise which confirmed the seriousness of their intention to improve relations with South Korea.

These events evoked a positive reaction in the world and instilled a certain hope in the possibility of a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.


Part II


US and ROK Trigger Military Preparations

Since the end of February 2014 Washington and Seoul started to exert pressure on Pyongyang, for instance they launched a series of large-scale military exercises (Key Resolve and Foal Eagle) conducted one by one in a row.

The allies tried to paint their activities as actions of defensive nature. They even promised to limit the forces participating in the events and abstain from using the main irritants – strategic bombers and nuclear submarines.

It all turned to be otherwise.  The number of troops taking part in this year’s Ssang Yong (Double Dragon) exercise held March 27 through April 7 was unprecedented at least since 1993.

Almost 10,000 U.S. troops joined the South Korean military in the peninsula’s largest joint amphibious landing drill.  The scenario envisaged landing forces to march straight to Pyongyang and seize the North Korean capital…

The US strategic forces participated in the training event raising the concern of North Korea which started to take reciprocal measures to counter the deployment of large contingent of forces in the area to the south of the demilitarized zone. It staged the exercises of its own. The scenario envisioned repelling an attack from the Sea of Japan using MLRS and launching short and medium range missiles (over 80).

The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) has banned the  launches of North Korean ballistic missiles (North Korea refuses to comply with the resolutions imposing the bans). An UNSC session was immediately called to react to the use of Nodong missiles. The Pentagon took advantage of the occasion to deploy more Aegis-equipped ships to the region.

The United States and the allies stick to the true-and-tried pattern of actions which envisions holding large-scale exercises that could be seen by another state (North Korea in the given case) as a direct threat to its security.  When  North Korea takes action in response, the US and South Korea accuse it of staging military provocations, so they exert more pressure on Pyongyang  and expand military presence in the region.

North Koreans offer their own vision of the tactics used by the US. The United States says it is conducting a regular joint exercise of “defensive nature” in another country and targeted at seizing Pyongyang. At the same time, the other side’s regular exercises held on its own territory are labelled as provocative actions. This logic is hard to understand.

As a result, the events of 2014 are exacerbating tensions. It’s not as bad as it was in 2013, but it is clearly taking a turn for the worse. For instance, shootings that took place in the area of disputed waters in the Yellow Sea along the northern division line.

The northerners gave a warning and fired 500 shots. Some of artillery shells fell into the waters South Korea believes to be its own, so it responded firing 300 shots.  Thanks God, there were no casualties.

Experts are eager to see the joint exercises wind up in April. With guns silenced it’s easier to re-start the bilateral dialogue that started rather successfully in February.   The South Korean President held out an olive branch to the former nemesis in the form of proposals she put on the table in Dresden on March 28, 2014.

It was hardly a success.  The time to come forward with the “new” proposals on the unification of the two Koreas was wrong – the military exercises were in full swing.

Experts believe the proposals are not new really but rather reformed old ones which had already been rejected by the North: first, unilateral disarmament of North Korea and then large-scale aid from the southern neighbor.

It’s a veiled attempt to reach unification on the conditions of the South Korea aimed at devouring North Korea. No wonder,    North Koreans flatly rejected the so-called initiative.

One way or another, the hopes for re-launching the constructive dialogue between the two Koreas have not materialized. They were doomed to failure. Right after staging the two exercises mentioned above, Washington and Seoul launched new training events. It has never happened before. This time the drills were of unprecedented scale involving hundreds of aircraft.

Many observers were under the impression growing into confidence that the United States was provoking North Korea on purpose to make tensions on the peninsula rise further and thus narrow the window of opportunity for the inter-Korean dialogue. The US-South Korea alliance has chosen the policy of muscle flexing.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to deviate from usual diplomatic balanced approaches and put it straight in the statements issued on March 31 and April 10, 2014 saying that these provocative actions are turning into the main source of tension in the Korean peninsula…

It was emphasized that the aggravation of the situation always coincides with the large-scale exercises of the United States and South Korea.

For instance, the March 31 statement says,

It cannot be disregarded that periodic aggravation in this region occurs at the same time as the annual large-scale military training exercises of the United States and the Republic of Korea. We have commented several times that it is inadmissible to have excessive military activities in North-East Asia, all the more so when there are provocative displays of mock bombings using strategic bombers, exercises of landing operations to seize some “administrative centers” of foreign states and so on. We urgently appeal to all the interested parties to demonstrate maximum restraint, avoid any statements or actions, which lead to further deterioration and escalation of the situation in the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding area.” The April 10 statement stresses that,“Trends in a build-up of joint military actions by the United States and the Republic of Korea, in the Korean Peninsula, cannot but cause concern – especially in conditions, when traces of the reduction of tensions are replaced by the mutual aggravation of rhetoric and intensification of confrontation. The large-scale exercise Foal Eagle (which will be conducted up to the 18 April) has not yet been completed, but Seoul and Washington are organizing new air exercises using a record amount of aviation equipment, as is being announced. It is to be noted that during these exercises they will develop accurate firing at targets located in the territory of the expected enemy and ensure supplies to subversive groups behind enemy lines. We have pointed out many times that the build-up of military activities in North-East Asia, going beyond the framework of existing threats, not only does not contribute to the revival of the situation, but also will incur serious consequences for peace and stability in the region. We will repeat yet again: let us stop making stakes at forceful variants of settlement of the problems in the Korean Peninsula and start forming multilateral security mechanisms in NEA. All the issues in question must be resolved using political and diplomatic means only, through consultations and negotiations.”

It’s easy to see that the wording is drastically different from what it was in 2013.

Somehow it makes one come to conclusion that the situation in 2014 may develop according to two scenarios: it could be either a confrontation or a dialogue.  The prerequisites for re-starting the constructive dialogue between the South and the North launched in February remain.

If Pyongyang preserves patience, restraint and avoids provocations and challenges it has to face at present, including abstaining from further nuclear tests mentioned in its official statements, then there will be more chances to turn the tide and re-direct the events into a more positive direction. It will improve the inter-Korean relations.

Along with that, there are more factors threatening a spark of confrontation this year.  Washington displays its reluctance to see the bilateral relations improve because it will complicate the justification of US military presence in the southern part of peninsula.

As soon as positive trends emerge in the dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, the military training activities get in full swing with one event immediately followed by another. It’s not excluded that the overall deterioration of US-Russian relations against the background of the crisis in Ukraine will negatively affect the situation in the region. The prospects for détente and cooperation between the West and North Korea are at least dim for the near future.



Alexander VORONTSOV | Strategic Culture Foundation





(To be continued)

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