The Peace Process of the Korean Peninsula: Analysis and Forecast

On October 22 the International Institute for Peace, the Embassy of the Republic of Korea and the Vienna School of International Studies held a discussion about the developments in the Peace Process of the Korean Peninsula at Vienna School of International Studies. The discussion was moderated by Thomas Seifert, Deputy chief editor and Head of EU and World Desk of the Wiener Zeitung. Dong Ik Shin, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Austria, held a welcome speech in which he pointed out that the three inter-Korean summits which took place within previous five months were an expression of progress which had been made in the process of denuclearization on the peninsula and in the relations between North Korea and the United States.

In his key note speech Joonhyung Kim, Professor at Handong Global University and Member of the Advisory Committee for Inter-Korean Summit, argued that in terms of inter-Korean relations, the three summits between President Moon-Jae-in and Kim Jong Un have built trust between two leaders which has been also demonstrated by President Moon’s visit to Pyongyang. Secondly, the improved relationship between North Korea and the US was a ‘game changer’, with the meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un in Singapore signifying a shift in the US policy from ‘do not trust but verify’ to a ‘trust first and then test’ policy. According to Professor Joonhyung Kim, this attempt to reset US-North Korea relations significantly differs from the previous ones, mainly because North Korea has completed its nuclear program and now possesses fully fledged nuclear weapons. This fact alone considerably improves Pyongyang’s negotiating position. Additionally, the human factor also plays a favorable role for the denuclearization process. South Korean president, unlike his predecessors, is more pragmatic and keen on realizing his long-standing vision of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. At the same time, Chairman Kim who has grown up in Switzerland – a free country – is also more inclined to bring North Korea out of isolation and make it a prosperous country. Finally, with regard to the US role, a new equation for exchange between Washington and Pyongyang is still to be found. 

The panel discussion that followed featured Angela Kane, former UN High Representative of Disarmament Affairs and Vice President at the IIP; Heinz Gärtner from the University of Vienna and the IIP; and Markus Kornprobst, Vienna School of International Studies. In 2002 when Bush administration declared the DPRK a part of the ‘axis of evil’ North Korea completely broke the already fragile Agreed Framework with the United States that concerned Pyongyang’s nuclear program, stepped out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and acquired centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment from Pakistan in order to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. After 2002, there had been no negotiations between the USA and the DPRK up until Donald Trump became US President. 

The United States’ authorities always followed the principle of Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID)towards North Korea. Donald Trump also held on to this principle as he took office. It remains questionable, however, whether Trump’s policy towards North Korea has been consistent. For example, at first Trump administration demanded that North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons. However, later, it already spoke about merely pausing Pyongyang’s nuclear program and letting international inspectors oversee and confirm the whereabouts of the dismantled weapons. Trump’s statements about Kim Jong Un ranging from threats and insults to the expression of love towards the North Korean leader have been highly confusing. On the contrary, North Korea has showcased great consistency in its demands regarding any potential denuclearization process.

The panelists also drew attention to the outcomes of the US-North Korea Summit in Singapore in June 2018. They described the content of the Summit Declaration as somewhat vague since it did not set any schedule or framework for the denuclearization process. It nevertheless led to concrete actions on the North Korean side. Shortly after the Summit, according to North Korean authorities, Punggye-ri nuclear testing site was dismantled. However, no independent verification by international experts took place, with only journalists being allowed to observe the dismantlement process. Further steps reconfirming North Korean acknowledgement of the Singapore Summit followed. For over a year there have not been any rocket launches or nuclear bomb tests and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang four times. Generally, it must be acknowledged that the Singapore Summit launched a dynamic political process in the US-North Korea relations, bringing it out of a complete stalemate. However, North Korea has made it clear that denuclearization will not happen if the US does not back up its words with actions and offer reciprocal concessions, such as withdrawal of its troops from South Korea and easing sanctions on the DPRK.

The question also remains how denuclearization is understood in this context. According to Heinz Gärtner it entails not only dismantlement of North Korean nuclear weapons but also no nuclear weapons deployments in South Korea by the US, including on land and at sea. What is important to keep in mind is that any nuclear strike by any of the parties on the Peninsula against the other would inevitably lead to the destruction of both North and South Korea. In case of denuclearization a nuclear weapon free zone would effectively emerge on the Korean Peninsula. Such an arrangement would involve a series of other measures besides dismantlement of nuclear warheads, including withdrawal of North Korean conventional troops from the border with South Korea and establishing a mechanism to verify nuclear disarmament. Additionally, a nuclear weapons free zone would not only mean that the states within it do not build or deploy nuclear weapons but also that nuclear weapons states provide them with negative security assurances. This commitment, in its turn, would collide with the US policy of extended deterrence towards South Korea which would have to be addressed in the new arrangement. 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the denuclearization process would likely lead to a certain kind of neutrality on the Korean Peninsula. When in the 1950s all foreign troops that had occupied Austria after the Second World War left and the country declared its neutrality, there were few concerns about Western troops leaving Austria since they were also stationed in the neighboring Germany and therefore would have been able to come quickly to aid to Vienna if there had been a necessity. Same applies to South Korea. US troops are stationed in the neighboring Japan, so even if US withdraws its military from South Korea, it would still be able to react quickly were Seoul under threat. A non-aggression pact would be a first step in the process of further agreements which can lead to a peace treaty and finally, neutrality on the Korean Peninsula. This process cannot be based solely on agreements between two Koreas and the United States but also has to engage China and Russia. Only a multilateral solution would be viable. Sadly, multilateralism is viewed with suspicion by President Trump.